101 Broadway, 303-954-0324, eldiablorestaurant.com
The Draw A festive cantina that offers authentic Mexican cuisine and one of the largest tequila lists in the city.
The Drawback The cavernous space can get too loud for conversation, especially later in the evening.
Don’t Miss Made-to-order guacamole, tamal al puerco, enchiladas con carne, puerco pibil, churros y chocolate.
Price $$ (Average price: $13)
At first glance, El Diablo appears to offer exactly what you expect from a Mexican cantina. Lengthy margarita list? Yep. Heavy plates of saucy enchiladas? Got those too. Colorful wall murals, oversize red lanterns, a festive, perfect-for-flip-flops atmosphere? It wouldn’t be neighborhood Mexican otherwise.
But like the quiet classmate who turns out to be unexpectedly brilliant, or the stone-faced colleague who surprises you with a side-splitting sense of humor, El Diablo offers much more than first impressions may suggest. And therein lies the attraction.
Chef Sean Yontz, who co-owns the restaurant with Jesse Morreale, hails from a Mexican family and grew up spending long hours in the kitchen with his mother and grandmother. At El Diablo, he takes the traditions he learned as a kid and blends them with authentic Mexican ingredients to create classic south-of-the-border cuisine. On the surface, his dishes appear simple. Dig in, however, and you’ll find they’re anything but.
Take his puerco pibil. What arrives is a platter lined with banana leaves, strewn with hefty chunks of pulled pork and a heap of black beans. Simple, right? Yes, but to get there, that pork had to be rubbed in a thick red achiote paste; marinated for hours with chiles, onions, and avocado leaves; stuffed with oranges and limes; and then slow-cooked overnight. The result is a tender, succulent meat that is satisfying without any additional sauce or seasoning.
The enchiladas con carne also reveal Yontz’s earnest concern for authenticity. Here, corn tortillas have been stuffed with braised beef cheeks, topped with pipian rojo (a smoky and luxurious red sauce made from tomatoes, chiles, and pumpkin seeds), and blanketed with melted queso enchilada, a subtle, Muenster-style cheese sourced from a Mexican dairy in Brush, Colorado. The enchilada looks like every other one you’ve ever seen—this isn’t fancy-fussy nouveau Mexican we’re talking about—but the taste is far more complex. While you wouldn’t find all of these ingredients in a single dish in Mexico, each is commonplace throughout the country.
Creating dishes that belie their inherent complexity is a hallmark of Yontz’s cuisine. His mole negro, for example, is the result of a dizzying 24-hour process that involves roasting almonds, frying plantains, charring flour tortillas, poaching figs in port wine, frying Mexican animal crackers, and then simmering, blending, and pureeing all those ingredients with a mix of fiery spices, sweet agave nectar, and Oaxacan chocolate. Yontz then lets the thick, smoky-sweet sauce sit for three days to fully integrate the flavors. Yontz began making mole when he was 18, and the sauce served at El Diablo is the result of 25 years of fiddling and refinement.
Do you need to know all this to enjoy Yontz’s duck mole? Of course not. But it will help you understand why the exotic mole is so layered and difficult to describe.
My one complaint is that the attention to detail so evident in El Diablo’s sauces, salsas, and stewed meat does not carry over to the singular cuts of meat. The skin-on duck breast served with my mole was overcooked, overly fatty, and unpleasant to eat. While you expect some fat with duck breast—that’s what makes it so succulent—the fat, combined with the overcooking, created a chew factor so high I stopped trying to negotiate with it halfway through.
The skirt steak served in the tampiqueña, a traditional dish in which grilled steak is served alongside an enchilada and grilled jalapeño, was also fatty. It’s a marbled cut, but I would have enjoyed the savory meat more had the kitchen done a bit more trimming.
I’m inclined to forgive these missteps given the generosity elsewhere at El Diablo. The tortilla chips are accompanied by three salsas that together present a dazzling range of flavor: a fresh and bright tomatillo, a smoky morita pepper, and a fiery habanero that exudes desert heat. The guacamole starter is not the wimpy bowl of green purée we’ve all grown accustomed to; it is an impressive mound of fresh, perfectly ripe avocado chunks.
The entrées are equally plentiful. The plate of tender carnitas and stewed pinto beans, as well as the platter of house-smoked baby back ribs, were so large they lasted through lunch the next day. The chicken molcajete, a soupy bowl of baked chicken and dense chayote squash and potatoes, is also hearty. Unfortunately, the night I ordered the molcajete—so named because it’s served in the large lava-mortar and pestle—the broth was far too salty. Given the care in the other sauces, my hope is that this was an unusual mistake.
El Diablo’s if-a-little-is-more, a-lot-must-be-better spirit is manifest on the tequila menu, a 300-strong list with a size and heft reminiscent of leather-bound wine bibles at high-end steak houses. Try a shot of the Chamucos Reposado, a smooth, small-batch tequila with a lingering vanilla aftertaste.
The magnitude of the tequila list pairs well with the space itself, which—in the summer when the patio is open—can easily accommodate more than 300 diners. The restaurant is anchored by a large rectangular bar located dead-center. A few dozen people can sit belt-to-counter and a few dozen more in the bar area, a situation that goes a long way toward explaining why the noise level soars as the night goes on. Later in the evening, you don’t just go to El Diablo—you’re consumed by it. If this kind of revelry isn’t your thing, or if you prefer to hear the people you’re dining with, visit on the early side.
El Diablo’s waitstaff mimics the high energy throughout the busy space, and servers seem to be forever straddling exuberance and confusion. Every time I’ve dined here, I’ve expected the service to fall apart at any minute. But it never has. Like the restaurant overall, what you expect from the servers is quite different from the pleasant surprises you actually get.
In the end, you can go to El Diablo for the quick plate of tacos and happy hour margaritas you’re used to—and you won’t be disappointed. But if you’re willing to deviate from the ordinary, you’ll be handily rewarded with some of the most thoughtful Mexican in town.