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South of the Border Patrol

Taking a taco tour of Denver.

It's a beautiful day in the Denver Tech Center neighborhood when an eatery as good as El Aztecamoves in. This local favorite recently opened a fourth location, at 12201 East Arapahoe Road. Like the original El Azteca, at 3960 South Federal Boulevard in Sheridan, as well as the downtown incarnation, at 303 16th Street, this outlet has no liquor license. (For alcohol -- as well as once-a-week Cuban specialties and mariachi music, stop by the second in the El Azteca series, at 1780 South Buckley Road in Aurora). But as a visit to the recently renovated (it's no bigger, but the booths are newer) Sheridan spot proved, the green chile is so good you don't even miss the beer.

My stop was part of a taco tour for Sunset magazine, whose March issue will include a list of the West's top tacos. While El Azteca's tacos didn't make the cut (the succulent roast chicken and that mean green are the real draw there), I did come up with several for Sunset's consideration. I love the tiny tacos at El Taco de Mexico and can never figure out how they pack so much flavor into those little suckers. (Or how they keep up with their booming business: Since the original El Taco, at 25th and Sheridan, closed last year, the spot at 714 Santa Fe Drive is busier than ever). I also recommended both the tacos al carbon and the grilled-chicken version at Benny's (301 East Seventh Avenue), although I still question why anyone puts up with the lousy service at what has become a Denver institution. (Maybe the killer margaritas are the answer -- they tend to make memories fade rather quickly.) Service is never a problem at the Mexico City Lounge (2115 Larimer Street), which always delivers its deliciously greasy, fried-shell steak tacos in a matter of minutes. Also making the cut: the eleven soft-taco variations -- all tasty -- at Tacos Jalisco (4309 West 38th Avenue). This space, too, was recently remodeled: It's no longer a smallish dive lined with bad paneling, but a big, festively colored cantina filled with comfy furniture and cheerful servers who are very proud of their improved surroundings. Tacos Jalisco still doesn't have a liquor license, but the fabulous food is worth any sacrifice.

Although I'm not a huge fan of the tacos at the Blue Bonnet(457 South Broadway), thousands of people are: This longtime hot spot is adding on yet again, this time to enclose a patio and create more space for year-round dining (as well as private parties). Owner Gary Mobell says he's no longer guessing when the project will be complete; having long passed the initial date of last April, he laughs, they're now trying to "go with the flow." Keep those margaritas coming.

Also undergoing an alleged upgrade: The Riviera, a Glendale landmark at 4301 East Kentucky that's now a link in the homegrown Las Deliciaschain. Construction should be completed sometime this summer; keep your fingers crossed in hopes that the Riv retains its old roadhouse feel.

A brand-new Mexican joint, La Fabula,was supposed to open at 2637 West 26th Avenue back in December; the place is still dark most of the time, though, and according to its phone message, it's only doing private parties right now. The northwest Denver bungalow at that address has a long history; thirty years ago it was the original home of La Loma, which now packs in the crowds at 2527 West 26th. Before La Fabula, the modest building's most recent tenant was the ambitious Bali Island, an Indonesian restaurant; Bali's owners stay they're still looking for an affordable spot where they can reopen their eatery.

A few last Mex-and-match notes: Taco Express, which offers tortilla-wrapped delights 24 hours a day, is now open at 2800 East Evans Avenue, not far from the original Chipotle Mexican Grill, at 1644 East Evans. Meanwhile, there's a new Chipotle now open at 140 Steele Street, bringing the homegrown chain's total up to about 4,000 outlets. Okay, okay, just kidding -- but some days it feels like it.


Pizza his mind: There's no mistaking the unhappiness of Peter DeRobertis, owner of Abo's Pizza, at 305 South Downing Street. Back in December, Mike Miller, owner of the HandleBar Grill(same strip mall, same address), told me that Abo's had no problem with his advertising another pizza place -- Basil Doc's, a pizza joint at 2107 East Virginia Avenue that Miller had recently bought -- on the sign that dominates their shared parking lot. "I talked to him about it, and we have a pretty good relationship," Miller said then (see the December 23, 1999, Mouthing Off). "We both agree that it's silly to get all bent out of shape about things like this."

DeRobertis was out of town and unavailable for comment at the time, but he's said plenty since his return. "I can't believe Mike says I was okay with his advertising another pizza place right there outside my door," DeRobertis says. "He never asked me if I would be okay with it, 'cause I guarantee, I would have set him straight right away." In fact, DeRobertis is so bent out of shape that he's looking into whether Miller has violated the lease with his Basil Doc's advertising.

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