Things Are Looking Up

Tamayo takes diners on a first-class mouth-of-the-border tour.

Upscale Mexican food? Denver diners think they've been there, done that.

"I shouldn't have to pay $20 for rice and beans," we whine, even as we shell out the same amount for upscale noodles and tomatoes. "We already have plenty of Mexican restaurants here," we claim, then rush to try whatever's opened this month, only to abandon it for whatever opens the next. Granted, not every attempt at upscale Mexican has been worthy -- we were happy to say adios to Señorita's -- but others, such as the also defunct Cafe Iguana, had more going for them than Denver diners were willing to admit. Or support.

Now's the time to put our money where our mouths should be. An undeniably upscale Mexican restaurant, Tamayo carries all the key ingredients for success: a nationally recognized owner; a talented local chef; a roster of interesting, creative dishes; a kitchen that's capable of executing those dishes; a service staff that tries hard, knows its stuff and smiles a lot; and tequilas -- lots of tequilas. Not to mention the best view from a rooftop patio in town, overlooking the mountains from the edge of Larimer Square.

Up and coming: The Tamayo team includes (from left) Amauri Moctezuma, chef Sean Yontz, Marco Colantonio, Jesse Marsters and Mauricio Piccone.
Q Crutchfield
Up and coming: The Tamayo team includes (from left) Amauri Moctezuma, chef Sean Yontz, Marco Colantonio, Jesse Marsters and Mauricio Piccone.

Location Info



1400 Larimer St.
Denver, CO 80202

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Downtown Denver


Hours: 5-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday
5-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
4-10 p.m. Sunday

Sopa de elote: $6.95
Gazpacho: $8.50
Flight of tequilas: $10.50
House margarita: $6.95
Margarita Zarzamora: $8.50
Chile relleno: $9.95
Tamal al chipotle: $7.95
Ceviche: $8.50
Quesadillas surtidas: $7.95
Mole poblano: $16.50
Tampiqueña: $21.95
Pipián de puerco: $17.95
Crepas de cajeta: $6
Tamal de chocolate: $6

1400 Larimer Street

Richard Sandoval started preparing for his career as a restaurateur when he was a tyke in Acapulco, where his family owned two well-known eateries. With cooking firmly entrenched in his psyche, he moved to New York to attend the Culinary Institute of America, and not long after graduation -- and right after earning Mexico's National Toque D'Oro, or chef of the year, honor -- he opened Savann and Savann East, two contemporary French spots that flank Manhattan. But Sandoval always felt the pull of his native cuisine, and a few years later he started Maya, a contemporary Mexican restaurant. He later sold both Savanns and focused on expanding Maya, opening another restaurant in San Francisco and, this year, launching Tamayo -- named for the late, much beloved Mexican artist Rufín Tamayo -- in both Denver and West Palm Beach. The Tamayos feature the same menu as the Mayas, and Sandoval jets back and forth between them all while also working on a soon-to-be-released cookbook and an as-yet-unnamed PBS cooking show.

To keep the center holding, Marco Colantonio, the director of operations who's overseen all four Maya/Tamayo restaurants from the start, has taken up permanent residence in Denver. He watches over a room that's been transformed from its days as Cadillac Ranch, with mottled-butter walls accented by artist Tamayo's murals, and an inviting, mosaic-dominated bar. Sean Yontz mans the kitchen, a smart choice given his good sense of taste and twist displayed over a decade spent cooking at Zenith, Cafe Iguana and other Kevin Taylor projects. Released from the inevitable constraints of the longtime Taylor collaboration, Yontz seems in his element. Although Tamayo's recipes all come from Sandoval, Yontz's unmistakable precision and tight execution are very much in evidence.

Yontz also brought a valuable knowledge of Denver's diners. "Richard's recipes are all great and well conceived," he says. "But there are a few dishes, like the lamb, that I don't think Denver diners are getting. So we're looking at that dish, and I think we're going to make some changes to make it more palatable to this market. And we may change a few other things to fit in better with the way Denver eats."

But Yontz has found himself pleasantly surprised by those same diners' willingness to try dishes well outside the usual Mexican repertoire of green chile, burritos and anything covered with cheap, gloppy cheese. Not that those things are inherently bad, but there's much, much more to Mexican cooking than the Americanized items we're so fond of in this town. Tamayo gives us a taste of what's out there: manchego cheese (a salty, nutty sheep's milk cheese from La Mancha, Spain), plantains, achiote, rajas (bell-pepper strips), jicama, crema fresca (Mexico's answer to crème fraîche) and huitlacoche (pronounced "wheet-la-ko-chay"), the black corn smut that's regarded as crop-ruining fungus by most farmers in these parts but is considered a delicacy in Mexico. For anyone who values the heady, bold flavors of Périgord truffles and foie gras, corn smut is nothing short of heaven. It's also expensive and sometimes hard to find, as is the case right now. Although Yontz has Maya sending a case out from New York, Tamayo was out of it when we visited. So we didn't get to try the huitlacoche dumplings that usually come in the sopa de elote, or maize soup, a dreamy-textured, creamy concoction made from roasted corn. The kitchen did have a bottle of huitlacoche-pumped vinaigrette, though, and it had been used to add a stunning, purplish-black decorative element as well as some earthy flavor.

The gazpacho was another wonderful soup, a tangy, avocado-based take on the traditional Spanish recipe that boasted a well-melded blend of all of the flavors except for the cucumber, which brought a sweet undertone. More sweetness came from the mound of lump crabmeat shreds that adorned the top of the soup, along with tiny puddles of chile mulatto oil. Dried, the mulatto chile looks kind of like an ancho, but it's darker and has a faint sugariness, as well as an earthy quality that cut the gazpacho's richness.

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