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 viewed as gastronomic trailblazers from one angle may look like cultural interlopers from another. And yet the Chowhound in me still yanks the leash: I’ll always 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.
So come with me on this web series tour of hidden gems in and around Denver. And if you have any favorites off-the-beaten path, please share them with us all in the comment section below.
What should you look for in a hidden gem? The best answer is probably nothing in particular: Not only does a predetermined ideal defeat the purpose of discovery, but there are simply too many exceptions to assume any sort of rule when it comes to hard-to-find, family-run holes in the wall. Ultimately, the definition of a hidden gem may just be that you know it when you see it.
That said, Mexican-Salvadoran cafe Takero Mucho does fit the classic profile, and you definitely know it when you see it—which is only if you happen to turn onto the brief stretch of Kentucky Ave. between Colorado Avenue and Cherry Creek Drive, and then only if you happen to spy its small sign above the side entrance to Carniceria Mi Mexico, the grocery store Takero is attached to. You know it the moment you enter the snug, cheerful yellow-walled dining room and when you walk up to the order counter, with its display case filled with homemade flan, rice pudding, and frosted layer cakes. Above all, you know it from the tiny open kitchen, where one cook shapes patties from a giant bowl of masa dough while another works the flattop. In fact, I had such faith in the whole tableau that I returned even after a less-than-stellar first meal involving dried-out lengua and barbacoa. (Maybe sometimes you know a hidden gem even when you don’t see it?)
I admit my trust had something to do with the woman behind the counter, as she answered my questions patiently and asked with concern if I didn’t like my tacos. This, I later found out, was Nicky Urtiz, who runs the place for the owners of the market, which of course supplies the ingredients for the menu. Her motherly demeanor had to be a good sign, right?
Sure enough, the two pupusas I tried on my next visit made my heart melt: the corn pockets supremely tender beneath their gently crisp exterior, oozing gobs of queso. One was layered with refried beans, the other flecked with chopped loroco, a flower sometimes confused with the similarly flavored fiddlehead fern.
Pupusas have a close cousin in gorditas, the main difference being that the corn cakes are thinner, crunchier, open-ended and stuffed after they’re fried, not before. Takero Mucho nails these too: try them with chile colorado, which here means ground pork in a smoky, tangy chile sauce, and with chicharrón, described on the menu as prensado (pressed cracklings) but more like guisado (stewed pig skin), it’s silky-soft and eye-rollingly rich.
After a textbook pambazo—an enormous torta on a roll that’s been dipped in a chile sauce and pan-toasted, then stuffed with chorizo, potato, and queso fresco, and garnished with lettuce and crema—I finally had the confidence to order tacos again, this time with carnitas. Bingo: the luscious meat was a reminder that the preparation’s essentially a form of confit. And the meal was a reminder that every diamond begins in the rough.
4151 E. Kentucky Ave., 303-758-8888