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2480 Canyon Blvd.
The Draw: Traditional Mexican plates at reasonable prices in a lively setting
The Drawback: Long waits, particularly on weekends, and no reservations
Noise Level: Moderate
Don’t Miss: Pork chile verde; veggie fajitas; Casamigos mezcal margarita
If you’ve ventured out on U.S. 36 within the past two decades, you probably know Efrain’s of Boulder. Since 1998, the no-frills institution has offered a straightforward menu of margaritas, enchiladas, fajitas, and other rib-sticking Mexican fare that’s as reliable as your favorite pair of well-worn jeans.
The man behind that comforting cuisine is Efrain Gomez, who built his restaurant on a foundation of recipes passed down by his mother, Rosalia, a native of Chihuahua, Mexico. After working in Boulder restaurants since the ’70s, Gomez opened the first Efrain’s Mexican Restaurant in Lafayette in 1991. Roughly six years later, he turned that operation over to his siblings and launched a Boulder location, a spot he owns and operates separately. There, he taught generations of Boulderites what Mexican food—particularly green chile—should taste like.
This past May, Gomez moved his business from an industrial area off east Boulder’s 63rd Street to a larger, more central location with a patio. Gomez had coveted a 1,000-square-foot upgrade for several years, despite the fact that having the patronage and capital to expand is a rarity these days. Slim profit margins, labor shortages, and supply chain issues have caused other long-standing Boulder eateries, such as the Mediterranean Restaurant and Zolo Grill, to recently close their doors. So far, Efrain’s seems to be an exception: The new space, tucked inside a shopping center near the intersection of Canyon Boulevard and 28th Street and adorned with brightly painted walls and Mexican folk art, appears to be thriving. At least, that’s the impression I got when I waited 30 minutes for a table on a Saturday night.
While the scenery has changed for the better, the cost-to-portion ratio, efficient service, and un-changed menu remain reassuring constants. But reasonable prices, capable food delivery, and basic Mexican fare aren’t the only things that continue to draw the hungry hordes after 25 years: They come for a taste of nostalgia. Efrain’s is a tie to a bygone Boulder, a time when affordable and unpretentious restaurants such as Tom’s Tavern and Juanita’s Mexican Food on Pearl Street—both of which closed within the past 15 years—were the rule rather than the exception. Efrain’s isn’t the ne plus ultra of Mexican cuisine, but then again, it’s not trying to be.
What Efrain’s does well is satisfy expectations. To wit: The pork chile verde is a bowl full of promise that delivers fork-tender protein swimming, ironically, in a thick red sauce loaded with chunks of tomatoes and potent roasted green chiles. Accompanied by warm tortillas, the oil-sheened entrée is far tastier than it looks. While having a frosty beverage in hand to manage the spice is a savvy move, the peppers complement, rather than overwhelm, the pork’s sweetness. Although I had not ordered the iconic stew at the venue in years, its subtle vegetal and floral aromas were just as I remembered, which is intentional. “When customers come to Efrain’s, they know exactly what they’re getting,” says Cristian Piñon, Gomez’s nephew and the restaurant’s general manager.
This maxim is also on display with the vegetarian fajitas, which came with all the usual fixings. While this dish didn’t stray from the standard fajita template, it stood out due to its generous portioning (it was hearty, even without any meat) and the quality of its mild char. The red and green peppers, tomato, and onion were cooked to a crisp-tender state that reminded me of a well-executed wok stir-fry.
The Steak San Lorenzo, an elevated take on carne asada, arrived smothered in onions, sweet peppers, tomatoes, and mushrooms. The meat itself, prepared medium rare, as requested, was a thinner cut, akin to skirt-style steak but with the tenderness of a well-marbled rib-eye. The kitchen also struck an admirable balance of salt, mild peppery heat, and a whisper of paprikalike smokiness.
Tequila is often more of a requirement than an accoutrement when it comes to a Mexican joint’s beverage menu. Efrain’s doesn’t fall short there, either. Of the 17 boozy margaritas on offer, the smoky Casamigos mezcal iteration was more memorable than the perfectly serviceable coin-style tequila version.
In truth, that’s how I would characterize Efrain’s entire menu: Several items are memorable, but most everything is dependable, just like that go-to closet staple you hope never wears out. Thankfully, Piñon—who will take over when his uncle retires—says he plans to keep Efrain’s of Boulder in good shape for decades to come, continuing to serve what he says is the kind of comfort food he and so much of the city was raised on.
While Boulder is known for swanky hot spots such as Blackbelly, Frasca Food and Wine, and the Flagstaff House, the enclave is still home to some casual, budget-friendly mainstays, including these gems, which have all endured the city’s record-breaking real estate prices and shifting demographics.
A restaurant called Summer’s Sunken Gardens, anchored by a fountain in the dining room and serving European cuisine, opens on the Hill. Over the decades, the space evolves into a burger and pizza joint dubbed the Sink that draws both University of Colorado Boulder students and celebrities, such as the late Anthony Bourdain and former President Barack Obama.
The Dark Horse opens and brings a lineup of brews and pub grub—including the Jiffy burger, a ground beef patty topped with peanut butter, bacon, and provolone—to a roadhouse-style building off 29th Street and Baseline Road. Today, the antique-bedecked watering hole continues to draw booze-happy crowds with its cheap eats, live music, and events (tricycle racing, anyone?).
Chez Thuy introduces Boulder residents to Vietnamese food beyond just pho and noodle bowls. The red-booth-lined restaurant owned by Thuy Le offers fine-dining-worthy entrées such as five-spice-marinated lamb chops and coconut-steamed halibut.
The Rai family—which established the once-beloved, now-closed Himalayas Restaurant—debuts the Taj. The casual spot, known for its lunch and dinner buffets, satisfies students’ cravings for naan, chicken tikka masala, and aloo gobi, a hearty cauliflower and potato curry.