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Small Bites

Pico de Gallo

Gutsy, that's what it is. Opening any restaurant in any location on any day takes guts, but opening a small Mexican joint (of which there are already roughly 17 million in the Denver area) in the middle of a recession that has seen restaurants large and small dying off like there was some kind of plague, and doing it just around the corner from a place like El Taco de Mexico (see review) -- that takes a lot of guts.

Pico de Gallo clearly has guts. On a good day with a tailwind, you could probably stand in the parking lot (which it shares with a rather shady-looking driving school that's half-hidden by Pico's large patio) and throw a burrito through El Taco's front window. But in terms of cuisine, these two eateries are much further apart. While the ladies on the other side of the counter at El Taco are chopping, flipping and ladling out honest-to-Jesus Mexican peasant food, Pico's culinary territory lies a couple hundred miles to the north. This is borderland grub -- slightly less threatening, but no less authentic.

In Tijuana, Juarez and all those other grimy little towns along the frontera, restaurateurs set up their menus with one eye to the locals who'll come looking for abuelita food -- menudo, tamales and chicharrones like their grandmothers used to make -- and one eye to the gringo tourists who cross the border looking for cheap refills on their Xanax and want something simple and innocuous to fill their bellies before heading off to watch the bruised teenage mestizo girls take it all off at the titty bar down the street.

But authentic Mexican borderland food is no less vital and valuable than authentic Mexican peasant chow, real Spanish tapas or classic French farmhouse cooking. They are each what they are, and Pico's version travels well. Here in Denver, the food looks and tastes just as it would on the avenida. It is spare, simple and inelegant, just like the space in which it's served.

From the short counter where you order -- standing next to cases of Jarritos Mexican soda and Coke in the bottle -- you can look into the kitchen and see the palette of spices with which the cooks are working lined up on a gleaming steel prep table next to the ancient six-top stove. There's Mexican paprika, Tabasco, granulated garlic, salt, pepper and a bottle of dark chile powder. The chopped cilantro is in the cold table, as are the limes. Pico might not be much to look at yet, what with the unfinished drywall, two-by-fours holding the walls together and enticements for tortas and tacos hand-painted onto the windows, but they make a good fish taco here, moist and mildly flavored with a very fresh salsa fresca of tomatoes and onions. The barbacoa is fantastically greasy and chewy, not terribly flavorful -- kind of like a mild, soft jerky -- and very filling, since you can get three hard tacos for $2.99. Pico dishes up menudo on Saturdays and Sundays, and any day of the week features specials involving those midget gulf shrimp like the ones you'd get in an iced cocktail from a Tijuana street vendor, as well as a camarones del diablo that had me in tears, it was so hot.

The place appears to have a drive-through, but this might be a holdover from the previous owners and not actually in use, because I sat next to the speaker for about five minutes one afternoon saying "Hello?" like an idiot, and no one answered. But still, service is quick and friendly, and while most transactions are done in Spanish, would you really trust the food coming out of a Mexican kitchen where everyone spoke English?

 
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