By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
So where'd you go for lunch?" I asked.
"We ended up at El Taco de México -- it's got real Mexican Mexican food. You been there yet?"
I shook my head. I've been eating like a pig since I came to town a few months ago, and despite the fact that I drink about fifteen cups of coffee a day and have the metabolism of a hummingbird on crank, I've already put on about ten pounds. Yet it seems that every time someone drops the name of a place where they just had a good meal, I've never heard of it.
714 Santa Fe Drive
Denver, CO 80204
Region: Central Denver
Hours: 7:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday-Thursday
10:30 a.m.-midnight Friday-Sunday
Tacos, soft and hard: $1.30-$1.70
Burritos: $4.50 plain, $5.50 smothered
Platas (with rice and beans): $6.95-$8.95
We were standing by the back door in the alley behind Westword, which is the smoking section and an informal employee lounge. This is where I get some of my best unsolicited restaurant tips and -- same as when I was still in the kitchens -- where I get a lot of my best work done. The expansion-grate staircase next to the dumpsters is like my second office.
"What do you mean, Mexican Mexican?" I asked.
"They got all kinds of weird shit on the menu, like tripe, menudo, tongue and cheeks. They have brains, too. Right on the menu. Brain tacos."
"Sounds yummy," I said, grinning. "I gotta check that out."
For reasons of personal safety, my first visit was a scouting mission. I showed up at El Taco's no-frills outpost on Santa Fe Drive (the original restaurant, on Sheridan Boulevard, closed years ago) about five minutes before closing time and ordered rice and a single asadasoft taco to go. My thinking went something like this: If, at the end of a busy night, this place could serve me food that didn't taste like it had been sitting around since breakfast, then it should be safe to come back the next day, early in the day, to try the brains. Freshness is a big issue when you're talking about organ meats, and in any case, the ability to dish up quality grub from the minute the door opens until a minute before it closes is, in my world, the most telling indicator of how a restaurant feels about its customers and its food. A good, fresh meal served at five minutes to ten tells me that the place actually cares about every poor shlub who comes wandering in off the street and, likewise, cares about the food being served from its line. Had I been sent on my way with dried-out asada on a stale tortilla, or rice all crusted up sitting untended for hours, I probably would have bagged El Taco right then and there. And I certainly wouldn't have gone back to try my first brain taco, because I'm not sure if being stricken with bovine encephalitis is covered under the company health plan.
But it all turned out fine. When I arrived, they were scrubbing down for the night -- a half-dozen tired Mexican ladies attacking every flat surface with soap, bleach and galley mops as if at war with invisible armies of germs and bacteria. After being barked at in lisping Spanish by the woman behind the counter, one of them trudged off to the stoves to put my dinner together; a minute later, it was packaged to go. I opened the styro the second I got back to my car. The rice was steaming, warm and fluffy, orange with gentle spice and as fresh as if it had been made special for me as soon as I'd walked through the door. The asada was hot and tender -- not at all old or scorched or tired -- and still juicy from the grill. My only complaint was with the tortillas, fresh off the oiled flat-top but mealy; they were La Favorita brand -- a surprise when everything else was homemade.
Tortillas aside, that snack was a green light for a return visit. I felt confident that I could trust El Taco not to poison me, that whatever I got would be prepared carefully and well. But still...
It wasn't the thought of the brains themselves that scared me. I've eaten brains before and enjoyed them, I suppose, as much as anyone can enjoy anything eaten primarily for the pure, sick thrill of it. Back in New York, I even cooked with brains -- every so often turning out a nice, freak-show Saturday-night special of calves'-brain hash with potatoes, onion, peppers and garlic that people loved right up until they found out what it was. But every time I'd encountered brains before, it had been in a fine-dining environment, where the assumption (however unfounded) is that the chef has been trained in the proper use of such an esoteric ingredient.
Eating brains from a takeout-counter Mexican joint was something else entirely. The fact that El Taco has been serving them for close to twenty years -- that they're listed right alongside tongue, chicken and barbacoa on the big menu hanging above the counter, as though eating brains was the most natural act in the world -- provided no comfort. Nor did the two plaques on the wall announcing El Taco's Zagat awards of excellence (for 1999 and 2001), because for all I knew, those Zagat people were a bunch of sissies who'd sampled nothing but the green-chile chicken enchiladas and a couple of tamales before putting their seal of approval on this establishment.