When the Zeppelins unveiled the Taxi development (a community of apartment buildings and businesses) in 2001, they ushered in a slew of development along Brighton Boulevard and the surrounding area that would come to be collectively known as RiNo. Fast forward to 2016, and RiNo is perhaps the hottest neighborhood in Denver (it’s even home to Hop Alley, the number one restaurant on our 25 Best Restaurants list this year). However, there’s a downside to the boom of mixed-use apartment buildings, food halls, and trendy eateries: Gentrification has significantly increased the cost of housing in the area, forcing many of the old residents to relocate elsewhere.
Comal, which launched last week in the former Fuel Cafe space at Taxi, seeks to act as a bridge between the old and new factions of the neighborhood. So dubbed a “heritage food incubator,” Comal is a venue for female entrepreneurs from the bordering Globeville and Elyria-Swansea districts to cook and serve the El Salvadorian, Mexican, and Peruvian foods that they grew eating while honing their culinary and business skills in the process.
Comal came about as a partnership with Focus Points Family Resource Center (a north Denver-based nonprofit). The goal is to provide the participating women with the skills to open their own businesses when each of their eight-month tenures at Comal comes to a close. Tim Bender (formerly of the Chinook Tavern and Blackbird Public House) is acting as executive chef at Comal, overseeing training on ingredient sourcing, food safety, service, and more. The recipes themselves, however, come straight from the participants. In many cases, these are treasured family dishes that have been passed down through generations. “I feel like I’m probably learning more from them than they even are from me,” Bender says.
Employee and Mexico City native Silvia Hernandez says that the combo-style meals served at Comal are known as “comida corrida” in Mexico, since you receive a complete meal in one quick sitting. Lunch begins with a choice of soup of salad, both of which are simple and satisfying. From there, three scratch-made lunch options are available every day. Bender says that the kitchen rotates the choices frequently so as to best showcase the troves of recipes that the program participants bring, from braised beef with poblano chiles to crispy guajillo and chipotle-spiced chicken tacos (tacos dorados).
If they’re available, opt for the tostadas de vegetables. Crunchy fried tortilla discs are heaped with chunks of potato and corn as well as romaine lettuce, crema, crumbles of queso fresco, and pico de gallo and served with a side of corn-studded rice and creamy refried beans. The plate is inspired by Hernandez’ mother, who used to make a similar dish for her family growing up.
Those tacos dorados and tostadas—and many other menu items—hinge upon the superb corn tortillas that Aguas Calientes native Dolores Aguilar makes by hand each day. Aguilar learned how to make tortillas when her mother fell ill when she was nine years old. She recalls the process of mixing the masa paste, bringing the tortillas to the machine to be pressed, starting a fire beneath the comal (the flat cooking griddle that tortillas are cooked upon), and cooking stacks and stacks of tortillas to feed her family each morning in Mexico. Now, she provides the fresh tortillas that form the basis of most Comal dishes. “She is our tortilla machine,” jokes Hernandez.
Eventually, Comal plans to offer grab-and-go items such as pupusas and burritos and even fresh tortillas. Best of all: 60 percent of the revenue generated goes toward paying the participants, the other 40 towards covering educational and operational costs. For Hernandez, the program is already paying off: She’s preparing to unveil her own food truck by the end of November. “I’ll start with tacos and huaraches, and then maybe add full meals like the kind we serve here [at Comal],” she says.
Comal is open for lunch Monday through Thursday from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. and is located in Taxi I (3455 Ringsby Ct., Ste. 105).
—Photo by Rachel Adams