When I discovered Chowhound—back at the turn of the millennium—it was a bare-bones message board for gastronomic misfits who subscribed to the front-page manifesto of its founder, Jim Leff: “Foodies eat where they’re told,” he wrote. “Chowhounds blaze trails.” I was just starting out as a food writer, and it read like a call to arms.
Today, Leff’s scrappy sanctuary for geeks “who know where the good stuff is” has morphed into a slick CBS-run resource for, you guessed it, foodies. And I’ve become all too aware that writers regarded as gastronomic trailblazers from one perspective may be considered cultural interlopers from another. But I still believe that sniffing out the smallest hole-in-the-wall is a more critical mission than splurging at the latest hot spot. At the very least, I might taste a dish I’ve never tried. At best, I may actually learn something from a new (to me) experience—about the cuisine in question, about the part of the world it comes from, maybe even about myself and my own assumptions, good or bad.
I invite you to come with me on a web series tour of hidden gems in and around Denver. And, if you have any favorite spots off-the-beaten path, please share them with us all in the comment section below.
Welcome to the first stop on our tour: El Coco Pirata. It’s the ideal starting point because when it comes to challenging your definition of a dining destination, there’s nothing like peeking through the door of a shabby storefront with blacked-out windows to find a bright and shiny restaurant within, filled with people feasting happily on towering piles of shellfish.
Granted, the name on the sign—which translates as the Coconut Pirate—should give you an inkling as to the fun to be had at this Barnum neighborhood Mexican seafood joint, whose menu focuses on the mariscos of the Pacific northwestern state of Sinaloa. The good times start, as so many do, with a drink. It’ll be a doozy. Like its vodka-based cousin the Bloody Mary, beer-based micheladas often serve as vessels for elaborate garnishs. Here, the cerveza-and-Clamato cocktails come tricked out with various combinations of fresh shrimp, oysters, scallops, “carne seca” (beef jerky), and tamarind sticks in mugs a foot tall. Rimmed with Tajín (chile-lime salt), they’re a meal unto themselves. But if you’ve got room for another libation, make it the coco drink: a mixture of tequila with coconut water and pulp, served in a coconut shell and garnished with shrimp. (Google “coco preparado” before deciding that such goofy concoctions are a gringo adaptation.)
Meanwhile, the enormous menu is a treat to explore. You could guess at a glance that Sinaloa is known for being the shrimp capital of Mexico: camarones appear in countless traditional dishes, be they ground into “albóndigas” (meatballs), smothered in poblano cream sauce (“salsa culichi,” named for the city of Culiacán) or in the now-trendy “aguachile,” in which the crustacean is served raw with cucumbers and red onion in a bath of puréed chiles and lime juice. Other exuberant variations on the theme of marinated, chilled seafood include ceviches teeming with octopus, fin fish, abalone, and, of course, shrimp.
Speaking of trends, Sinaloan-style sushi rolls have been popping up in cities up and down the West Coast over the past couple of years. Now, thanks to El Coco Pirata, they’re in Denver, too. The charming concoctions contain everything from almonds and cilantro to breaded octopus and barbecued beef. On a recent visit, my companions and I scarfed down the Serranito with deep-fried Serrano chiles, bacon, cream cheese, and of course, shrimp, without a moment’s pearl-clutching over the supposed inauthenticity of so-called “fusion” cuisine. (After millennia of invasions and migrations, very few national cuisines aren’t, in some sense, organically evolved fusion cuisines.)
It will take many visits to make even a dent in El Coco’s offerings. For my next trip, I’m eyeing the marlin tacos and the molcajete with crab legs that seemed so popular at neighboring tables. And I’m crossing my fingers that the young couple wandering from table to table selling their homemade queso will be there again—opportunities like that don’t come around often. Except, perhaps, at quirky little gems like this one.
3325 W. Alameda Ave., 303-934-4133