Super Mega Bien

2.5 Stars

The Draw:
Pan-Latin small plates served via roving carts in a dynamic atmosphere
The Drawback:
Most of the entrées lack polish
Don’t Miss:
Whatever comes off the carts, hot-stone stew, large-format salad, mezcal Negroni, flan

Super Mega Bien is a great name for a restaurant—exuberant and funny, promising dinner without sous vide pretension, which is exactly what you’ll get. There’s whimsy in the seven-month-old RiNo restaurant’s decor, too, with lucha libre and Charo posters on the walls and thousands of long wooden dowels dangling overhead, like something from a woodworker’s fever dream. A woozy, wavy tilework design dominates the bar area; two cocktails in, staring at it for too long might cause you to wobble off your stool. Among a crowd of Larimer Street restaurants trying to be fun, Super Mega Bien delivers.

This is chef Dana Rodriguez’s second restaurant with partners Tony Maciag and Tabatha Knop. The trio’s first, Work & Class, across the street from Super Mega Bien’s location inside the Ramble Hotel, established not only Rodriguez’s talent for family-style Latin food but also a party energy. Where Work & Class has Southern inflections, the kitchen at Super Mega Bien draws more directly from the Yucatán, Oaxaca, and other Latin American regions to inspire the contents of the small plates that zip by diners on colorful carts.

The dim-sum-ification of non-Chinese food is nothing new. State Bird Provisions in San Francisco made a national splash with cart-to-table action in 2011. A raucous joint called Gunshow fired back two years later from Atlanta, with Southern bro-chefs escorting their limited-edition concoctions to the table to explain, say, what Green Peanut Oil Poached Red Fish with Peanut Romesco and Local Legumes is.

But those are chef-y restaurants, and dim sum offerings are usually less labored—familiar treats shuttled out of the kitchen pell-mell, the names of dumplings or sticky-rice packets barked by cart drivers. Super Mega Bien’s servers find a happy middle ground. Service is cheerful and brisk, but they’ll willingly pause a moment to explain a dish (“This is a kind of Latin poutine!”), advise on quantities to order, or check on the status of your piña colada.

It can be a bargain to eat at Super Mega Bien. There are 10 cart dishes available most nights, as well as a couple of chef’s specials; at $5 to $9 each with portions big enough for three or four people to get a bite, you can build a meal from these small plates and escape without spending much money. There are also large-format drinks, including a punch, a wine-sorbet float, and a green sangria, that work out to about $7 per person for a group of four, a remarkable deal in RiNo.

Over three meals, we tried most everything from the carts. Highlights included grilled carne asada with garlicky chimichurri sauce and eggplant fritters with avocado mousse. A ceviche featured tender octopus swimming in a tangy mix of lime and avocado. Pork chorizo came with a pool of creamy mustard on the side, and piquillo peppers were stuffed with Manchego and corn. A bowl of smoked halibut dip was ringed by flaky-crunchy tortilla chips.

Despite the Latin focus, Rodriguez sprinkles Iberian and even Chinese touches here and there. The aforementioned fish dip was a halibut riff on Spanish salt-cod brandade. Those stuffed peppers, supple and oily, also reminded me of tapas in Spain, though the corn filling escorted me back to the New World. The Latin poutine—thin fries with an herbed mayo and salty Cotija cheese—was tastier than the Quebecois curds-and-gravy standard.

Rodriguez gets a lot of details right with these plates: The eggplant fritters had perfect exterior crunch and interior succulence, and the same fryer skill was extended to vegetarian Mexican spring rolls, whose wrappers were deep brown, papery, and exactly oily enough against a filling of sweet corn, black beans, and Oaxaca cheese.

Individual cocktails are worth trying too. My friend’s piña colada revived my love of that drink—it was tall and refreshing, more fruity than coconut-creamy, with lots of ice and lots of rum. My drink, described on the menu with exemplary clarity as “Mezcal Negroni: Negroni with Mezcal,” was a righteous variation on the classic. The smoky agave liquor managed to knit the drink together and somehow make it less bitter.

A less-bitter Negroni made with mezcal. Photograph by Aaron Colussi

There’s also a menu of family-style, large-format dishes, several offered in half orders if you want more variety or are watching the bill. From slow-cooked pork shoulder to braised lamb to seafood stew, there is a loose, home-supper approach to these dishes—and their accompanying sides—which should be plunked in the middle of the table and shared by all. It’s a convivial way to eat.

But as we made our way through six of the seven large plates, the kitchen revealed itself to be less surefooted than it was with the cart-delivered small plates. The mistakes didn’t come in the sides, which were fine: Black beans with the chicken were creamy and had a lovely, elusive herbal back note, and the cabbage slaw, served with several dishes, had good crunch.

No, the stumbling took place with the star attractions. Roast pork was moist and falling-apart tender, but there was no sign of the menu’s promised crispy skin. The chicken—achiote-marinated, roasted, then grilled—was dry. Duck, prepared with a mashup of Peking technique and Latin flavors, was a total misfire, its chipotle-honey-glazed skin limp, its accompanying sauce tasting burnt, electric, and strange. This bird was nothing like the lacquered Chinese triumph.

Hot-stone stew. Photograph by Aaron Colussi

Matters improved with the hot-stone stew, a bowl of rich, aji-chile-infused seafood broth, fish, shrimp, and vegetables, the whole thing bubbling like mad after the addition of a stone cube possibly delivered from Hawaii’s Kilauea volcano. The shrimp and the fish were beautifully cooked. Also good, and sampled twice, was the Excellent Salad, a jumble of spinach, almonds, avocado, apples, queso fresco, red onion, and chipotle-orange vinaigrette. It sounded like a kitchen-sink confusion, but it was vibrant, crunchy, coherent, and dressed just right.

When a large dish of Spanish rice with roasted vegetables and goat cheese was set before us, I was glad to discover that cooking in a hot cast-iron pan had produced a layer of “socarrat,” the crunchy stuff paella fans fight over. I would have enjoyed more of it, though, and the carrots in the dish needed more char.

The carts return for dessert. The flan, with its almost sticky custard and intense burnt-caramel top, was delicious. A strawberry mousse tart with ribbons of guava purée was a bit oversweet, but its short crust crumbled nicely.

Super Mega Bien looks like a hit for Rodriguez, but the kitchen needs to sharpen its entrée work. Given her star status as a three-time James Beard Award semifinalist, I came away wanting more surprises from the carts as well. In fact, I think I’d be more excited if Super Mega Bien focused entirely on cart offerings, ratcheting up the variety and invention in those small dishes. What we ask of our best chefs, beyond immaculate consistency, is flashes of originality and palate-jolts of amazement. Surely, that’s the promise behind the Latin and Asian fusion experimentation going on in Denver. In that light, for all that it does get right, Super Mega Bien isn’t yet taking us to the culinary heights its name implies—thus far, it’s just Really Pretty Bien.