There were two big pieces of news from the James Beard Foundation today: First, beloved Mile High City institution El Taco de Mexico is one of six America’s Classics Awards winners for 2020. Second, the talent lineup for the Denver stop on the Foundation’s Taste America tour—May 14 and 15—is epic. 

Local lovers of Mexican food have most likely already fallen for El Taco de Mexico’s perfect street tacos, weekend menudo, and hearty burritos smothered in some of the city’s best spicy green chile. So, the America’s Classics Award is a wonderful testament to area taste buds—and the daily work done there by a team of women led by Sasha Zanabria, daughter of founder Maria Luisa Zanabria, who opened her restaurant inside of a trailer in 1985 after moving to Colorado from California; today, El Taco de Mexico is housed in a bright yellow building at Santa Fe Drive and Seventh Avenue, where hungry crowds assemble day and night.

The team at El Taco de Mexico. Photo courtesy of the James Beard Foundation

Here’s how the Foundation describes El Taco de Mexico’s influence:

Among Denver’s thriving Mexican food culture, El Taco de Mexico is a lodestar whose appeal cuts across lines of race, class, and age. Maria Luisa Zanabria, a native of Mexico City, arrived in the city in 1985, first opening a trailer on Santa Fe Drive in Denver’s Art District. Her business grew into a small taqueria with a bright, bumblebee-yellow exterior. The serious, focused cooks (all women) keep pace with the all-day crowds, turning out tacos (carne asada, al pastor, and lengua are among the options), enchilada, gorditas, and weekend menudo. The restaurant’s crowning glory is the pork burrito, smothered in green chile humming with earthy spice. Made extra-heaping as a breakfast burrito stuffed with egg and chorizo, it brings bleary-eyed devotees back to life.

This is the first time the Beard Foundation has honored a Centennial State restaurant as an American classic, which it defines as “locally-owned restaurants that have timeless appeal and are beloved regionally for quality food that reflects the character of its community.” As such, the Foundation nailed it. Anyone who has tucked into El Taco’s smothered chile relleno burrito knows that it represents the best of Denver’s Mexican food scene. The America’s Classics Awards will be celebrated at the annual James Beard Awards Gala on May 4 at the Lyric Opera of Chicago.

Back home in Denver, about 10 days after the Awards Gala, the Taste America tour will touch down for the first time in its seven years, celebrating the Foundation’s mission of cultivating a better food world for all with two phenomenal parties. Here’s what you need to know: On May 14, it’s cocktail time at the Maven Hotel in the Dairy Block, as the Taste America Raising the Bar event shines a light on no-waste beverage programs and Denver’s bar pros. Run for the Roses owner Steven Waters and mixologist CC Chaput will pour their best drinks for you, while passed bites from James Beard Award nominee Javier Plascencia (Lola Coastal Mexican), Alberto Hernandez (Frasca Food and Wine), and Carrie Baird (of forthcoming Rose’s Classic Americana) fill you up. 

On May 15, the Taste America gala benefit dinner takes place at the Ritz-Carlton Denver. It’s planned to be a don’t-miss party. The Foundation has brought in Taste America Visiting All-Star and James Beard Award winner Ashley Christensen (Poole’s Downtown Diner and others, Raleigh, North Carolina) to collaborate and cook with 2018 James Beard Award winner for Best Chef: Southwest Alex Seidel (Mercantile Dining & Provision, Fruition) and host chef Michael Poompan (the Ritz-Carlton) on a three-course menu that will be sourced from Colorado growers and purveyors. 

Alex Seidel is the James Beard Foundation’s 2018 Best Chef: Southwest © 2018 Galdones Photography/JBF

For Seidel, participating in the Taste America gala is about more than just a party. “I’m really excited to cook with Ashley Christiansen and Michael Poompan,” he says, “but it’s really about supporting the Beard Foundation, which has given chefs incredible opportunities through its Impact Programs [Chefs Boot Camp For Policy and Change, Smart Catch, Issue Summits, and more].” For Seidel, who attended the JBF Chefs Boot Camp in 2015, learning how to use his voice as a chef to enact change has been instrumental to his growth and success. Seidel continues to use his platform, and is currently working with area chefs, Colorado’s Commissioner of Agriculture Kate Greenberg, and the Beard Foundation to draft a Colorado farm bill that would help develop more local food systems. 

But that’s not all on the May gala: Other local luminaries will be on hand to feed you at a pre-gala reception, including Frank Bonanno (Mizuna, Milk Market, and others), Caroline Glover (Annette), Dana Rodriguez (Work & Class, Super Mega Bien), Toshi and Yasu Kizaki (Sushi Den, forthcoming Temaki Den, and others), and Paul Reilly (Beast & Bottle, Coperta, and others), each serving their versions of scrumptious sustainability. A dessert reception is also on the docket, featuring sweet bites from Beard Award finalist Jeb Breakell (the Wolf’s Tailor, Bruto, Basta), Kathleen Davia (Gateaux Bakery), and Mary Nguyen (Olive & Finch). Live and silent auctions with culinary experiences and vacations as prizes will round out the evening.

If you go: Tickets for the Taste America parties taking place in Denver on May 14 and 15 are available here.

Denise Mickelsen
Denise Mickelsen
Denise Mickelsen is 5280’s former food editor. She oversaw all of 5280’s food-related coverage from October 2016 to March 2021.