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Denver’s Mexican food scene stretches from a gluttony of taco trucks and humble taquerias with sensational salsa and condiment bars to rustic cantinas and modern bistros run by Mexico-born chefs recreating the dishes of their childhood. Navigate the streets of the city to discover shrimp aguachili rooted in the State of Sinaloa, rich Oaxacan mole, Distrito Federal-style corn tortillas summited with scraps of pork and pickled onions and bubbling molcajetes stewed with seafood. There’s a staggering repertoire of possibilities in Denver’s delicious Mexican food universe to make you happy for days.
From the owners of the Tavern, Soiled Dover Underground and Cowboy Lounge, this Mexican restaurant and cantina on the 16th Street Mall struts a visually stimulating color palette, textured walls muraled with whimsical Day of the Dead art, hanging star light fixtures and sunken loungey booths surrounding artistic tables, one of which is a lettered conversation piece that spells “LOVE.” And the built-for-sharing menu of modern Mexican dishes, coupled with street tacos and traditional Tex-Mex classics, exhibits a genuine love of Mexican foodstuffs, while the tequila and mezcal collection—more than 200 bottles—proves that the bar team is more than a little enamored with the agave plant. To drive the point home, there’s even a mezcal lounge on the mezzanine level, which peers over the lively downstairs bar and dining room.
This same-name sibling of the original Kachina Southwestern Grill—a staple in the Westminster suburb—anchors the chic Maven Hotel on Denver’s Dairy Block, a mixed-use development in Lower Downtown (LoDo) that’s poised to become a flourishing culinary destination. The Denver outpost, which also lays claim to a separate cocktail lounge called Poka Lola Social Club (the swanky, retro-romantic ambiance calls for your cocktail-hour finest), is atmospheric with a large neon-hued wall-length mural of a woman parading feathered earrings and sunglasses reflecting a desert sunset. The main dining room, a mix of adobo accents, marble tables and orange and turquoise banquettes that pay homage to the colors rooted in the Southwest, is the perfect foil for the food, a creative (but not overreaching) cannon of tamales, empanadas, chicken, beef and seafood dishes, excellent New Mexican posole and the restaurant’s signature Navajo tacos.
Owned by brothers Jason and Kris Wallenta (the duo also presides over White Pie, a Connecticut-style pizza restaurant), Dos Santos, residing in Uptown, brings the flavors of Mexico City to 17th Avenue’s restaurant row. The compact menu, accentuated with traditional and contemporary guacamole preparations (get the flight) and aguachili, an assemblage of lime-cured shrimp, onions, avocado and Serrano chiles, is most notable for its soft corn tacos, headliners that include the Del Mar, a heavenly layer of beer-battered shrimp, sliced cabbage, pickled onions, fried leeks and habanero aioli. The industrial-cool space, bedecked with exposed brick and reclaimed wood accents, also parades a spirited bar that serves classic cocktails, wine, craft beers and margaritas that pack a punch.
With an enviable view of the Denver skyline from its buzzing patio and a hip Highland clientele, Lola is one of the city’s most coveted spots for Mexican-inspired cuisine that’s long on ambiance and even longer on flavor. Do what everyone else does and begin with the fried chickpea and black lentil-flecked guacamole handcrafted at your table from a litany of ingredients, including Chimayo chile powder, garlic and Serrano peppers. Seriously respectable oysters—raw, grilled, fried—remind you of what you want to eat when you’re vacationing on the sea, and a plate of lobster enchiladas are as good as it gets. The food doesn't require embellishments, but you’d be remiss to forego a margarita. Lola trumpets more than 200 tequilas, which may explain why Food & Wine magazine named it one of the top five places in the country to drink it.
A long-standing landmark on Larimer Square, Tamayo, the brainbox of prominent Mexico-born chef and restaurateur Richard Sandoval, specializes in creative spins on traditional Mexican cuisine. Like the innovative food—tuna tartare guacamole, smoked brisket tacos, crab and shrimp enchiladas and corn husk-wrapped grilled striped bass— the décor is striking, the handcrafted cocktails modern and bold. Behold a legendary Colorado sunset on Tamayo's swanky rooftop lounge, a lovely oasis that’s also ideal for lingering over bottomless margaritas during Tamayo’s popular weekend brunch.
Long before Denver became a city steeped in Mexican cuisine, there was La Loma, a hallelujah of Colorado-style green chile, gigantic margaritas, nachos and fajitas. Since its inception in the 1970s, the restaurant has occupied three different locations, including its current residence in the heart of downtown Denver. The rusticated space, decked out with exposed red brick, gold-framed southwestern art and wrought-iron accents, features an open kitchen and separate bar area that buzzes with weekday happy hour revelers sipping cerveza and snacking on the delicious mini chiles rellenos, hot, crisp-crusted and swelled with gooey cheese.
La Calle Taqueria Y Carnitas
In the cities and towns of Mexico, restaurants like La Calle can be found on just about every street corner, but in the Valverde neighborhood, there is nothing quite like this cramped taqueria filled with the nearby workforce, families and taco zealots swigging cinnamon-spiked horchata, slurping roasted goat meat soup from smoldering bowls and eating soft-corn tortillas surfaced with slow-cooked pork, raw onions, a shower of cilantro leaves, a squeeze of lime and a swipe of fresh salsa, of which there are about six, most of them aimed at testing your capsicum tolerance. Proceed with caution.
La Loteria Taqueria
After clocking hundreds of miles on wheels, this former food truck finally found a permanent home in a visually stimulating storefront in the hip Baker neighborhood. The menu isn’t as edgy as some of the patrons who take up residence at the counter, but the food is really good, which is to say that you’ll find the full culinary canon of Mexican crowd-pleasers: warm chips and properly seasoned guacamole, green chile-smothered French fries with carne asada and stretchy Mexican cheeses, beef cheek tacos and goat meat tacos, a burger heaped with roasted poblano peppers and nacho cheese sauce, a bulging California-style burrito and cheese enchiladas blanketed in a mellow green salsa. If you’ve got late-night cravings, there’s an abbreviated menu—and a convenient walk-up window—to satisfy them.
El Taco de Mexico
"For truly amazing flavors, El Taco de Mexico is a must," wrote "Bizarre Foods" host Andrew Zimmern, who visited the iconic Art District on Santa Fe taco joint during a stopover in The Mile High City. El Taco de Mexico, he went on, is "Denver's quintessential taqueria," unleashing the "best menudo and tacos in the city." Locals wholeheartedly agree with that declaration, lining up morning, noon and night for the al pastor tacos specked with onions and cilantro, the chile relleno burrito smothered with a mind-blowingly good green chile and the menudo, Mexico’s antidote for hangovers. Make no mistake: It’s a dive with a yellow Formica counter and tattered booths, but it’s also the most beloved taqueria in town. And the fiery salsa is legendary.
Chef and restaurateur Troy Guard is renowned for his bold restaurant portfolio, and Los Chingones, located in the hip and artsy River North Art District (RiNo) ‘hood, is no exception. The rollicking, bi-level taqueria, splashed with eye-catching murals and Mexican folk art, is full of artistic flair. The food deserves props, too. Start with a salsa flight and guacamole and work your way up to the octopus or Kobe beef tacos. You’ll also find an innovative cocktail roster that spotlights tequila, best imbibed on the sprawling rooftop deck overlooking the city skyline. So popular is Los Chingones that it’s branched out to multiple locales across the city, including the Denver Tech Center, Lakewood and Central Park.
Tacos, Tequila, Whiskey
One of the many attributes of a tortilla—in this case, corn—is its versatility. The humble tortilla is a blank canvas on which to tinker, and that’s exactly what chef-owner Kevin Morrison does at Tacos, Tequila, Whiskey, his trifecta of dynamic Mexican joints in City Park, Governors Park and Highland. The griddled tortillas are a perfect vehicle for the pan-roasted shrimp and scallops with avocado crema and pico de gallo, or the sweet-and-sour-braised pork belly with candied garlic and cilantro-and-cabbage slaw. But why stop there when you can get crispy beef tongue tacos, steak tacos and a terrific vegetarian number with lacy cotija cheese, avocado and roasted tomatillo salsa? There’s not a dud to be found on the taco train, a declaration that extends to the rest of the menu: queso fundido studded with chorizo, guacamole and chips, chicken chicharrones and, for dessert, churros paired with a Mexican hot chocolate sauce. Everything, of course, taste even better with a cerveza or margarita, both of which you’ll find in abundance. And, yes, there’s plenty of whiskey, too.
Adelitas Cocina Y Cantina
At Adelita’s Cocina Y Cantina, a spirited Mexican restaurant in Platt Park, you’ll need to plan ahead if you want to take advantage of its super-popular Taco Tuesdays, a day-long throng of warriors that arrive in droves and brave the waits to feast on $1 tacos. But while tacos get plenty of attention on the menu, you’d also be wise to consider the mole enchiladas, carne asada and rustic posole—a crimson-stained stew brimming with pork and guajillo chiles. On the side: onions, cilantro, diced radishes, cabbage, lime wedges and soft tortillas. If you walk on the wild side, swirl in a spoonful of the compulsively addictive (and hot) habanero salsa. And while you should definitely order a mezcal margarita, it won’t dull the pain—but an horchata might. A second outpost resides in downtown Littleton.
El Chingon Mexican Bistro
It doesn’t matter that there’s usually a wait and no stools at the bar when beautiful dishes emerge from the kitchen of chef David Lopez who, along with his family, oversees this bustling Mexican restaurant that resides in a charmingly remodeled old cottage in Berkeley. This is a place where you’ll experience genuine hospitality and traditional and contemporary ingredients that are woven into magical creations on the colorful plates. Lopez is an ambidextrous chef, as practiced in vegetarian marvels as he is in fish and meat matters, which means that the rellenos filled with an organic wild mushroom medley are every bit as compelling as the seared duck breast with duck-fat mole. The bar program exceeds expectations, too, thanks to its scroll of fresh craft cocktails and small but formidable wine list.
Uno Mas Taqueria Y Cantina
The union of tacos, tortas and pupusas absorb the menu at Uno Mas Taqueria Y Cantina, a duo of festive taquerias, with outposts in Platt Park and Alamo Placita. Owner Patrick Mangold-White subscribes to a garden-to-plate/farm-to-table philosophy, unearthing seasonal produce from his own gardens, greenhouse and farmland and sourcing his chicken, pork and beef from Colorado farmers. The pork belly tacos, rubbed with coffee and ancho chiles, will dare you to order another, while the beef tongue tacos, punctuated with jalapenos and tomatoes, drizzled with Mexican crema and dotted with crumbled cotija cheese, are in step with the adventurous tastes of the neighborhood. Craft beers and a collection of more than 70 tequilas provide requisite lubrication.
Garibaldi Mexican Bistro
Garibaldi, its white walls decorated with graffitied, hand-written notes, including several that extol the virtues of the spot’s tacos, huaraches, cactus paddle rellenos, gorditas and carnitas, is the only Mexican joint in town that’s attached to a Conoco station. As well, the Englewood pitstop may be the only place in the metro area where you can eat a Yucatán-inspired queka, a quesadilla made with fresh masa that’s fried and glutted with white cheese, epazote and chicharrons, crunchy chunks of fried pigskin. The expansive menu shows reverence for quality ingredients, tradition and passion, and the food, deep in flavor, is some of the most rhapsodic in the city.
Xicamiti La Taqueria Bistro
Foodwise, the most compelling reason to make the jaunt to Golden, the town that gave us Coors Brewery (and the scent of roasted malt in the air) is Xicamiti (pronounced Chee-ka-me-tee) La Taqueria Bistro, a turquoise-hued restaurant whose shrine to mezcal—a triangular wooden display complete with Day of the Dead skulls and skeletons—is reason enough to fight for a parking place and, quite possibly, a table. This is a quirky place, and if it’s not terribly busy, it’s possible that you’ll hear a dissertation from your server about owner Walter Meza and his unwavering obsession for the cooking of Mexico. But when you taste Meza’s street tacos plumped with grilled poblano peppers and corn, onions and molten white cheese, you understand what the fuss is about. And when you take the first bite of his savory corn flan with fresh berries, it’ll become more than a fetish.
By Lori Midson