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Just as a thoroughly Americanized Chinese restaurant can still pound out a mean order of sesame chicken, so can a totally Boulderized Mexican joint make a great taco.
Yeah, Juanita's is a joint. The tightly packed, straight-back black wooden booths in the lounge always seem to be sticky, no matter how often they're wiped down. The black ceiling, deep-red walls, neon cerveza signs, ever-present dusty plastic Christmas tree above the bar and gigantic Cuervo mural in the back give the place the feel of a subterranean Third World ex-pat dive. And Juanita's is loud. Even when it's quiet, it's loud, and on weekends, when the place can be packed so tight that crowds spill out onto the mall, it can be deafening. But it's always a cheerful kind of loud, with voices and laughter bouncing around the high ceilings, mixing with tunes from a great juke and the sizzle of fajita platters being walked around the two dining rooms by the hands-down happiest floor staff I've ever seen. When I dropped in for dinner last week, that song by Chumbawumba was playing over the speakers ("I drink a whiskey drink, I drink a vodka drink" et cetera ad vomitus), and the toddler at the table behind mine popped out of the booth and started dancing like only a little kid can -- bouncing up and down in the middle of the service aisle with a grin on his face as big as anything. And rather than rushing by with a snotty look on his face or asking the child's mother to please get her little munchkin the hell out of the way, the next server who happened by put down his tray of drinks and started dancing right along with the kid.
1043 Pearl St.
Boulder, CO 80302
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Chips and guac: $5.50
Black beans: $2.75/$3.50
3 tacos: $8.75
Chicken Cuervo: $6.95 quarter, $9.95 half
Fish tacos: $9.95
Shrimp asada: $11.95
Passing seasons and rising trends be damned, the menu never seems to change (although the rice on the side has, recently going from a good, sticky, deep-orange Spanish variety to pasty white, mixed with a lame pepper brunoise). But Juanita's makes everything it serves from scratch. From the thin, spicy and cilantro-heavy salsa that comes with the chips (free chips and salsa being the best restaurant innovation of the last decade), to the flan, super-sweet Key lime pie and chocolate mousse on the dessert menu, it's all done by a kitchen crew acclimated to banging out hundreds of covers a night. That crew does equally well on camerones asada -- the shrimp grilled with butter, striped with char and rubbed down with ground chile, cumin and garlic -- and a huge sizzle platter of Tex-Mex-style fajitas: beef, chicken or shrimp over crunchy-soft sweet bells and onions with a side of guac, a side of sour, refried pintos that actually taste refrito and not out-of-a-can-o, and fresh pico de gallo.
Every quasi-Mexican chain restaurant serves some variation of tequila-lime chicken these days, and all of them taste like nickels, Kool-Aid or industrial solvent, but never tequila or limes. That's because the chains -- in the name of workplace safety, and also limiting their liability in case some drunken line cook takes a tumble into the fry-o-lator -- would never allow a real bottle of tequila in the kitchen. So instead, their food scientists have developed injectable washes, powders and marinades that create the chemical equivalent of what a chicken might taste like if it were flamed in a Cuervo bath. I'm wondering at what point they'll take the final step and remove the chicken from the process as well, resorting to a food pill or Willy Wonka-style chewing gum that will give their happy customers the full sensory impression of consuming beans and rice, tequila chicken and a cold Corona without all the fuss and mess of having to physically eat anything. Thankfully, Juanita's is on the front lines of the fight against such engineered idiocy, cooking an actual chicken in an actual pan with the heat of an actual fire, browning it up with red chiles and garlic, then splashing on the good stuff -- Jose Cuervo and triple sec -- for a nice fireball effect that I'm sure the guys in the kitchen never get tired of. I know I never did.
Even in Albuquerque, the land of the tamal and flauta, Laura and I would dream of Juanita's beef flautas, as big around as three fingers. Tender, shredded beef is always marinating on a hot table somewhere in the kitchen, and the later you show up, the longer it's been sitting and the better it tastes. The beef is rolled up in a flour tortilla, deep-fried, then served with the ubiquitous rice and beans, sour cream and guacamole. You have to eat the flautas fast. Hot out of the fryers, charred a little at the open ends and still dripping grease, they're fantastic, but after about ten minutes they start to go soggy and have about as much charm as a bag of wet Doritos. Same goes for the fish tacos. The toasted tortillas come to the table loaded down with sliced cabbage, cilantro and big chunks of firm, juicy halibut fillet. Don't hesitate or try to be dainty; just slather them with sweet jalapeño tartar sauce and dig in while they're hot and crisp -- and be sure to finish them before they self-destruct, falling into limp, greasy pieces.
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