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La Fogata Mexican Restaurant’s Mexican hamburger is a Denver-born dish. Food styling by Victoria Escalle, photo by Sarah Boyum

A Taste of Colorado-Mex

Exploring the tacos, burritos, green chile, and other delights that make the Centennial State Mexican food scene so damn delicious.

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Savor the Street Taco

When smoky or stewed meats, fresh salsas, and tender corn tortillas meet, magic happens.

Forget hard-shell tacos filled with spice-packet-seasoned ground beef. Street tacos—those diminutive packages of marinated meat or seafood, diced raw onion, fresh cilantro, and a drizzle of spicy salsa, all double-wrapped in soft corn tortillas—are so much better. Some accounts set the birth of the soft taco in the silver mines of central Mexico during the 18th century; others claim it stems from the pre-16th-century Aztec word “tlacho,” which means “half” or “in the middle.” Either way, the simple, satisfying fare traveled with immigrants through New Mexico to Colorado centuries later. Today, there are hundreds of taquerias in Colorado ready to curb your cravings.

One of the best spots in Denver is seven-month-old El Grillo Mexican Restaurant, located in a boxy former car dealership on South Federal Boulevard. Owned by the Rodriguez family—of food truck Taqueria El Grillo fame—until this past September, El Grillo is now owned by Chihuahua native Claudia Martín, and Michoacán-born Sergio Cristóbal mans the kitchen. He serves paragons of the street taco genre, each plate crafted with your choice of five fillings—from carne asada to tender braised lengua—wrapped in corn tortillas made by Tortillas México in Englewood. Cristóbal’s rotating salsa bar lineup is equally impressive: Don’t miss the garlicky tomatillo salsa, the avocado-jalapeño version spiked with sour cream, and the rust orange iteration made with fried onions, chile de árbol, and peanuts. Customize your plate to your liking and say adios to hard shells for good. 410 S. Federal Blvd., 303-922-2294

The taco plate of your dreams awaits at El Grillo Mexican Restaurant. Food styling by Victoria Escalle, photo by Sarah Boyum

Above:

1. Fried chile de árbol salsa
2. Raw chile de árbol salsa with tomato
3. Avocado-tomatillo salsa
4. Serrano-guajillo salsa
5. Tomato salsa
6. Griddled guajillo salsa

5 Must-Try Street Tacos

Alambre

7 Leguas Mexican Grille
7 Leguas’ “alambre” translates to a glorious mix of your choice of carne asada, chorizo, or al pastor griddled with ham, bacon, peppers, mushrooms, and onions under a blanket of melted Muenster. Scoop it onto warm corn tortillas. 4550 E. Colfax Ave. and 8501 E. Colfax Ave., 7leguasmexicangrille.com

Al Pastor

Garibaldi Mexican Bistro
The spit-roasted pork at this gas station taco destination is epic in its seasoning, juiciness, and crispy edges. Sweet pineapple, chopped white onion, fresh cilantro, and supple corn tortillas almost negate the need for the accompanying tomato salsa. 3298 S. Broadway, Englewood, 303-781-0812

Fried Steak

Mexico City Restaurant & Lounge
For more than 40 years, Denverites have clamored for this Ballpark institution’s deep-fried tacos filled with chopped steak, shredded lettuce, tomato, avocado, and the tasty glue that holds it all together: melted American cheese. Ask for a squeeze bottle of smoky red salsa to cut through the richness. 2115 Larimer St., 303-296-0563

Lengua

La Calle Taqueria Y Carnitas
Don’t be intimidated: La Calle’s “lengua” (beef tongue) is braised for two hours with plenty of onion, garlic, and thyme until it’s luxuriously tender. It sings on tacos paired with pickled jalapeños and fresh pico de gallo. 1565 W. Alameda Ave., lacalletaqueria.com

Campechano

Xicamiti La Taquería Bistro
With origins in Southern Mexico, campechano tacos contain a mixed meat medley—in this case, a mountain of chopped steak and chorizo rounded out with grilled onions and smoky chipotle salsa. 715 Washington Ave., Golden, 303-215-3436

Meet the Co-Owner of Raquelitas Tortillas

Richard Schneider shares a bit of the story behind his family’s business—and where to find his favorite tacos in Denver.

Richard Schneider rightly calls himself a tortilla savant—his family has been making and selling the Mexican flatbread for 60 years. His father purchased La Popular tortilla company in 1960, and Schneider and brother Raul DeLaTorre took over in 1981, renaming the business Raquelitas after DeLaTorre’s daughter, Rachelle. Now, the brand produces between 12,000 to 14,000 pounds of flour tortillas and the same amount of corn tortillas and chips each day for Colorado restaurants, hotels, and hospitals. Schneider’s top taco recs? The fried chicken taco at Tacos Tequila Whiskey; hard-shell tacos at the Taco House and Casa Bonita; and Sol Mexican Cocina’s CDMX Queso taco.

Taste the New Wave of Contemporary Tacos

Modern tacos know no bounds—just like Colorado’s appetite for them.

Tierra’s carrot taco tastes even better with a Jungle Boogie cocktail from Rosetta Hall’s bar. Food styling by Victoria Escalle, photo by Sarah Boyum

There are seemingly as many high-end tacos in Colorado as there are Patagonia puffies. Typically more ornate than a street taco and made from anything a chef can dream up (seared fresh tuna, cauliflower, and duck confit come to mind), these modern creations speak to the innovation and curiosity of Centennial State chefs as well as their deep love and respect for the flavors and techniques of Mexico’s myriad cuisines.

That’s certainly the basis for chef Joseph Lee’s cooking at Tierra, his five-month-old Mexican/New American food stall in Boulder’s Rosetta Hall. “I want to pay homage to Mexican culinary tradition and culture,” Lee says, “but put my spin on it using modern techniques.” Lee also employs of-the-moment technology: Inside Tierra’s 250-square-foot kitchen, he uses a sous vide immersion circulator to craft a carrot taco that is stunning in every way. His organic heirloom masa tortillas practically melt in your mouth with every bite (see “The Secret Behind Tierra’s High-Tech Tortillas” below). The carrots cure for 12 hours in a mix of turbinado sugar, kosher salt, Mexican oregano, and morita chiles; then they swim in a sous vide bath until they’re tender; and finally, Lee sautés the carrots for a hint of caramelization. His take on salsa negra (made with mulato, ancho, and pasilla negra chiles, black raisins, and black garlic)—plus toasted pistachios, avocado, cilantro, and lime—provides heat, extra flavor, and texture and ties the entirety together into a few spectacular bites. Did we mention it’s also vegan? Rosetta Hall, 1109 Walnut St., Boulder

5 More Must-Have Contemporary Tacos

Tijuanero

Lola Coastal Mexican
Dig into the flavors of moderno Baja cooking with this griddled beauty, in which roasted octopus, shrimp, and carne asada mingle with pinto beans, Jack and mozzarella cheeses, and avocado. Nutty, spicy macha salsa (made with toasted chiles, garlic, peanuts, cashews, and sesame) comes on the side. 1575 Boulder St., loladenver.com

Beef Barbacoa

El Jefe
This ode to Colorado layers locally raised beef—braised with chiles and avocado leaves—with basil chimichurri, pickled tomatillos, and queso fresco on a freshly made corn tortilla. 2450 W. 44th Ave., eljefedenver.com

O.M.F.G.

Dos Santos
The ultra-fresh combo of sushi-grade raw tuna, pickled onion, cabbage, avocado, and lime-cilantro aïoli, wrapped in a tender leaf of Bibb lettuce, hasn’t lost an ounce of allure since it hit Dos Santos’ menu in 2015. 1475 E. 17th Ave., dossantostacos.com

Wild Mushroom

Comida at Stanley Marketplace
Crimini and shiitake mushrooms sautéed in chipotle-wine butter. A swipe of garlicky purple mashed potatoes. Locally grown microgreens. And those fantastic corn tortillas from Englewood’s Tortillas México. An unusual taco combo? Sure. Delicious? Absolutely. Stanley Marketplace, 2501 Dallas St., Aurora, eatcomida.com

Tempura

Teocalli Cocina
The Front Range’s crown jewel of modern veggie tacos features a pile of fresh kale salad; a tempura-fried slice of ripe avocado; burnt tortilla aïoli; pico de gallo; and cilantro on a house-made heirloom corn tortilla. Hit it with a few dashes of Teocalli’s sweet-and-spicy hot sauce.103 N. Public Road, Unit C, Lafayette, teocallicocina.com

The Secret Behind Tierra’s High-Tech Tortillas

Chef Joseph Lee uses a sous vide circulator—and time—to craft his smooth, supple corn tortillas.

Most corn tortillas are made by combining dried masa (dried, soaked, cooked, and ground corn) with water, shaping the resulting dough in a tortilla press, and cooking the tortillas on a hot, flat surface. But that’s not good enough for Tierra chef Joseph Lee. “It was really important to me to find organic, GMO-free corn, which isn’t easy in the United States,” Lee says. “It was a turning point for Tierra when I came across [Los Angeles–based] Masienda.” Lee buys its single-origin heirloom white olotillo masa flour and mixes it with water, avocado oil, and salt to create a vegan-friendly dough. But the true secret to Lee’s exceptionally tender tortillas is time: Lee vacuum-seals the prepared masa dough for about 30 minutes to fully hydrate it, thereby avoiding the graininess that can come from pressing and cooking the masa immediately. One bite and you’ll be thanking Lee—and Masienda—for creating an even more perfect tortilla.

All Hail Green Chile

In a bowl, inside a burrito, or smothering, well, anything, Colorado’s beloved (sometimes) green gravy/sauce/stew is as versatile as it is delicious.

Tacos Jalisco’s green chile is pure Colo-Mex comfort food. Food styling by Victoria Escalle, photo by Sarah Boyum

Like Blucifer, the Broncos, and cannabis, green chile is a hotly debated Centennial State icon. Stella Cordova, the infamously feisty owner of the Original Chubby’s at West 38th Avenue and Lipan Street, is, on the other hand, a cherished local icon credited for sparking the Mile High City’s green chile revolution in the ’60s with her incendiary, viscous, orangey-brown version. (Award-winning journalist and author Gustavo Arellano even penned a five-page ode to Cordova’s chile-drenched Mexican hamburger in his marvelous book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America.) Since then, an endless roster of Colorado restaurants—Mexican and otherwise—have followed suit with their own recipes, each varying in color, texture, and chile-based fire.

For those seeking a green chile with sneaky spice, the Carlos family has cooked the same satisfying recipe for nearly 30 years at Tacos Jalisco in Berkeley. Hot and mild roasted New Mexico chiles and lean pork loin seasoned simply with salt, pepper, and cumin are simmered for about four hours, then thickened with a little flour. The glossy, chunky gravy comes off as mild—at first—but has a tongue-tingling kick that intensifies as it coats your palate. It’s perfection smothered over the Carlos’ chimichangas, enchiladas, and burritos, and some argue it’s even better in a bowl on its own. 4309 W. 38th Ave., originaltacosjalisco.net

5 More Must-Have Green Chiles

La Fogata Mexican Restaurant

Hunks of tender pork shoulder and a gently escalating heat make this gravylike concoction a hearty meal in its own right. But its true purpose is to smother La Fogata’s grand, gut-busting Mexican hamburger (pictured at very top). 5670 E. Evans Ave. and 8090 E. Quincy Ave., la-fogatadenver.com

Tamales by La Casita

Tamales have been the main draw here for more than 40 years, but don’t overlook the quick-service eatery’s garlicky green chile, which bears the flavor and aroma of fire-roasted goodness and succulent bits of pork. 3561 Tejon St., 303-477-2899

La Loma

Grandma Savina Mendoza’s slightly sweet, mildly spicy sauce may be made with Hatch chiles instead of locally grown Pueblos, but it’s lured Denverites to the family-run institution for more than 40 years. Try it on the refried-bean-and-cheese-stuffed sopaipilla. 1801 Broadway, lalomamexican.com

El Tepehuan Mexican Restaurant

The fiery heat of this all-day cafe’s signature stew is balanced by tangy acidity and threads of shredded pork. Enjoy the tomato-flecked chile with a cerveza, as the heat tends to linger. 3495 S. Broadway, eltepdenver.com

El Tejado Mexican Restaurant

This beloved South Broadway spot offers three versions of its thick, orange-hued gravy: regular with pork, which is moderately spicy; a vegetarian version; and the caliente for those who want to really feel the burn. 2651 S. Broadway, eltejadodenver.com

Meet a Colorado Chile Grower

Pueblo chile farmer Dan Hobbs weighs in on why the Colorado crop reigns supreme and shares a recipe for green chile stew.

Dan Hobbs is crazy about Pueblo chiles. In fact, he and his wife, Nanna Meyer (an associate professor in health sciences at the University of Colorado Colorado Springs), who own Hobbs & Meyer Farms in Avondale, grow two acres of the chiles on their organic 40-acre plot and eat about two pounds of the roasted peppers every week. “It’s just the best chile in the land,” says Hobbs, no matter what New Mexico’s Hatch chile lovers may argue.

The Pueblo chile’s origin can be traced back to Oaxacan peppers, which were brought to what is now Pueblo County by Mexican traders and settlers as early as the 1850s. Since then, cultivation by generations of Centennial State farmers and horticulturalists has led to the chile’s unique characteristics: thick, meaty flesh; a stout shape; and rich, complex flavor. “When you stack Hatch and Pueblo chiles side by side, the Pueblo flavor profile is better,” Hobbs says. “They’re a little hotter than the Hatch, yet milder than the jalapeño.”

Another contributor to the pepper’s high-quality terroir (the set of environmental and agricultural factors that influence a crop’s characteristics) are Pueblo County’s prime growing conditions. “We have these incredibly rich, silty clay loam soils, excellent water coming out of the mountains, and cool nights and hot days.” Hobbs says.

When it comes to the Pueblo versus Hatch debate, Hobbs is a champion of the Colorado-grown chile, but it all comes down to individuals’ flavor preferences. “They’re different varieties, different peppers,” Hobbs says. “So while the whole chile battle is fun and has brought attention to a regional food, there’s sort of a comparison of apples and oranges going on.”

Since the Hatch is more widely available in Denver, Hobbs hopes the battle encourages food literacy. “There’s just this incredible power customers have to guide the food system through what they buy,” he says. “The more people start clambering for the Pueblo chile, the more growers will be inclined to get it up [to Denver] and the more distributors will be inclined to offer it.”

Hobbs sells his chiles to local businesses such as Jojo’s Sriracha, Picaflor Hot Sauces, and Rising Sun Distillery and directly to locals and visitors his farm, where he and Meyer also grow heritage grains, garlic, vegetables, and more. His second endeavor, Pueblo Seed & Food Co., is one of the only retailers of the eponymous chile seeds in the Centennial State. All of which is to say that Hobbs knows chiles, and his Pueblo obsession is, of course, entirely legit.

Huerfano Chile Stew
Makes about 12 cups; serves 6

Dan Hobbs and Nanna Meyer love cooking with ingredients grown on their farm and typically add local grass-fed lamb or goat stew meat to this recipe in place of the beans. If you’d like to do the same, cut the meat into small chunks, season it well, and sear it before adding in the rest of the ingredients; simmer until tender.

1 cup dry bolita beans
1 Tbs. extra-virgin olive oil
Kosher salt and freshly ground black pepper
2 medium shallots, chopped
1½ tsp. oregano de la Sierra 
1½ tsp. ground cumin
1 tsp. pure chipotle chile powder
5 medium Yukon Gold potatoes, cut into ½-inch cubes
½ medium Calabaza Mexicana or other winter squash (such as butternut), peeled, seeded, and cut into ½-inch cubes
3 medium cloves garlic, finely chopped
5 roasted red and/or green Pueblo chiles, chopped
6 small saladette or paste tomatoes, stemmed and chopped
4 cups water
1 Tbs. lovage (optional)

Directions
Soak the beans overnight in plenty of water at room temperature; rinse them in the morning and set aside. Heat the oil in a large, heavy pot over medium-high heat. Add the shallots, seasoning with salt and pepper. Add the spices to the pot and cook, stirring often, until the shallots are translucent, about 5 minutes. Add the beans, potatoes, and squash and cook, stirring often, until the vegetables begin to soften, 6 to 8 minutes. Add the garlic, chiles, and tomatoes and cook, stirring, until the garlic is fragrant, about 1 minute. Add the water, bring to a simmer, cover the pot, and then lower the heat to maintain a simmer. Cook until the squash is soft and the beans are tender, about 1 hour. Season to taste with salt and pepper and serve.

Is Colorado-Mex Our State’s Local Cuisine?

Dig into the wacky, wonderful world of Centennial State Mexican fare.

El Taco De Mexico’s smothered chile relleno burrito gives Colo-Mex cooking a good name. Food styling by Victoria Escalle, photo by Sarah Boyum

Google “Tex-Mex” or “New Mexican food,” and you’ll find hundreds of articles, complete with histories and recipes. “Colo-Mex”? Not so much. Yet there’s no question that the cuisine exists, no matter what people call it. And that’s really no surprise in a state whose 1876 founding postdated centuries of Spanish exploration and was followed by Hispano settlement—and whose population today is 21.7 percent Hispanic/Latino (Denver’s is 30.3 percent).

Consider the evidence. If distinctive style is a hallmark of a regional cuisine, then these pages boast of Colo-Mex’s qualifications, from our ruddy green chile to our wonton-wrapped crispy rellenos. If signature dishes are a factor, then—just as Tex-Mex cooks have fajitas and queso and New Mexicans stacked enchiladas and sopaipillas—we can point to our Mexican hamburgers and Pueblo sloppers. (The former is a smothered bean burrito stuffed with a beef patty, and the latter is a veritable stew of a cheeseburger immersed in chile.) Over the years, Westword has documented these and even more localized curiosities—claiming, for instance, fried tacos with American cheese and the burritolike Toro Pot (filled with hash browns and ground beef) as our own.

Why, then, have Colorado’s Mexican food traditions failed to achieve wider recognition? It could be that we fall short with respect to a third criterion: distinguishing homegrown ingredients (think of New Mexico’s Hatch chiles and Texas’ beef). Or it could be that the Centennial State has failed to promote our local foods as well as other states have—after all, we’ve long grown fine chiles and raised superb beef, too.

But change is coming. Recently, Colorado chefs have begun advocating for a truly local cuisine centered on the state’s established natural and agricultural resources. In that light, the future of Colo-Mex can be seen in dishes such as Work & Class’ mezcal lamb chorizo; Tocabe’s bison-topped nachos; and tempura-fried nopales at Grand Junction’s Taco Party—dishes that are grounded in a sense of place while pointing toward something new. Not that there’s any need to improve on old favorites like the green-chile-smothered, chile-relleno-stuffed burrito at Denver institution El Taco De Mexico. No need to Google it—just give it a try. 714 Santa Fe Drive, eltacodemexicodenver.com —Ruth Tobias

3 Colo-Mex Classics We Adore

Chile Rellenos

El Cazo Cocina y Cantina; Patzcuaro’s
Not to be confused with the fluffy, egg-battered, soft chile relleno which likely originated in Puebla, Mexico (try it at El Cazo in Jefferson Park), the crispy Colorado iteration—a chile-smothered, deep-fried, wonton-wrapped Anaheim pepper stuffed with melty cheese—at 42-year-old Patzcuaro’s in Highland is our favorite style. 2901 W. 25th Ave., elcazodenver.com; 2616 W. 32nd Ave., patzcuaros.com

Tamales

La Popular
Takeout-only La Popular has been serving some of the city’s most luscious, savory pork tamales, with red or spicy green chile, since 1946. (Go on Monday, Wednesday, or Friday to score a bag of freshly fried chicharrones, too.) 2033 Lawrence St., lapopulartamales.com

Burrito

Efrain’s of Boulder Mexican Restaurant
The eponymous northern-Chihuahua-style burrito at this family-run mainstay is a hefty specimen, stuffed with Efrain’s choice (not yours) of fillings—which could be pulled chicken, “desebrada” (shredded, marinated beef), both, or something else entirely—enshrined in a tomb of fiery green chile and melted cheese. 1630 N. 63rd St., Boulder, efrainsrestaurant.com 

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