Eat & Drink

Muy Caliente

With awards galore and a second outpost, Kevin Morrison’s Pinche Taqueria can’t get much hotter.

Pinche Taqueria

(Tacos Borrachos)
1514 York St.
720-475-1337
pinchetacos.com

March 2013

3 Stars

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The Draw
Elevated Mexican street food bolstered by a strong list of tequilas, mezcals, sotols, whiskeys, and creative cocktails.
The Drawback
Crowds pack the bar and restaurant nightly, so waits are long and the dining room is noisy.
Don’t Miss
Queso a la plancha tacos, pork belly agrodolce tacos, queso fundido con tequila, chicken chicarrónes, Pinche limeade, churros with Mexican hot chocolate
Price $$ (Average entrée: $11–$15)

Food: 3 stars
Service: 3 stars
Ambience: 2 1/2 stars

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Taco trucks are sexy: Their edgy, spontaneous personalities make them intriguing. Their straightforward authenticity is alluring. And the mystery of their whereabouts jumps the excitement quotient.
Chef Kevin Morrison understands the magnetism of the food truck, and he knows how to turn that raw energy into a prosperous business. After launching Pinche Tacos, his highly successful taco trailer, and a brick-and-mortar taqueria in the City Park neighborhood (at press time, a second location in Highland was just opening), Morrison’s momentum is in overdrive. In fact, in the past year, he has earned myriad accolades, including a Best New Restaurants nod from Bon Appétit and a place on our annual list of Denver’s top 25 restaurants.

The success of the 48-year-old Indiana native comes as much from Morrison’s clear, focused cooking as it does from his ability to make the dining room feel as real as the atmosphere around his taco trailer. Take the name: As the story goes, Morrison was in the throes of recipe development for his original truck when he hit upon the idea for a beef cheek taco. As he described the creation—at length—to friends, one reportedly interrupted with, “Just give me that f$#%ing taco!” Pinche Tacos (Spanish slang for the expletive) stuck. But when Morrison applied for a liquor license for the York Street location, the Department of Excise and Licenses nixed the word “pinche.” The official name became Tacos Borrachos—but everyone still calls the restaurant by its unofficial name.

Morrison maintains an equally edgy, urban ambience in the dining room, which fits into its gritty surroundings. With red accent lighting; a long, black slate bar; plank flooring; bare tables; and a floor-to-ceiling chalkboard listing names and descriptions from the tequila collection, the space eschews pretension. Servers, too, are devoid of airs as they encourage diners at both individual and communal tables to join in what feels like a house party. The small space is packed nightly (and for brunch), with diners crowding the bar area and the entrance, lingering sometimes up to two hours for a table. For those waiting, the space can be awkward, but the vibe is loud and friendly with servers seamlessly weaving in and out of the crowd to help make everyone feel as comfortable as possible. Lunch is decidedly tamer.

No matter when you arrive, though, Morrison’s tightly focused “Mexican food with a twist” comes through even in the antojitos (appetizers). A version of the classic queso fundido is revved up with a splash of tequila and diced tomato and onion. The guacamole, which is made fresh throughout the day, is brilliant with just enough salt and extra diced onion.

Unlike some modern takes on Mexican street food, Morrison’s tacos don’t stray from Latin flavors, even as he adds contemporary flair. Take the lengua tacos, in which tongue from locally raised cattle is boiled for tenderness, braised, and then crisped on the griddle for caramelization. They are served on corn tortillas; scattered with avocado, diced onion, and cilantro; doused in tangy roasted tomatillo salsa; and drizzled with a creamy guajillo honey mayo that pulls the flavors—earthy, meaty, tart, and sweet—together. This attention to balance is true of every taco that crosses the counter, including the pork belly agrodolce with its perfect little cubes of sweet and sour braised pork belly, candied garlic cloves, cabbage-cilantro slaw, and a side of braising jus. The vegetarian queso a la plancha, however, may be the best taco of all, with salty, griddled Cotija cheese and smashed avocado offsetting the mouth-puckering roasted tomatillo salsa and lime.

Happy hour ushers in a twist on the taco theme with an array of affordable nibbles including chicken chicharrónes (crispy fried chicken skin dipped in a fiery salsa casera); skin-on fries (or “Pinche Papas”) sprinkled with Monterey Jack and smothered in a mildly spicy chorizo “gravy”; “Sloppy Josés” sliders made with the same chorizo filling; and smoky chipotle deviled eggs. Brunch, too, offers interesting combinations such as the green eggs and ham: a pepper-crusted cube of pork belly draped in a sauce of tomatillos, serrano chiles, and garlic and topped with fluffy scrambled eggs. Every meal at Pinche offers simple food and exacting flavors—with the same edge and value that attracts long lines to the food truck.

All of these dishes pair perfectly with Pinche’s well-edited cocktail list, with stars like the grapefruit-driven Palomas and the refreshing Pinche limeade made with house-made lime liqueur. A robust collection of nearly 50 tequilas, mezcals, and sotols (similar to tequila, only made from a different plant in another region) offers ample opportunities for interesting flights. One of the most unusual is the Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal Flight, which includes a pour of Albarradas from the Mixe region and the Mezcal Pechuga, which is uniquely distilled using fruits and—get this—chicken breasts.

Are there downsides to this quirky taqueria? Of course there are, if you look for them. Some diners won’t like the wait; others will be turned off by the noise bouncing off of the restaurant’s hard surfaces.
But for me, I’ll take the din and the crowds (though maybe not the long waits) as part of the seemingly nonstop party known, endearingly to many, as a pinche good time.