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100 Favorite Dishes
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Christ, it's hot. A zillion degrees hot, and this is the thing about Colorado that they never put in the tourist brochures. It's all mountains and deep powder in the winter ads, young ski bunnies with wind-pinked cheeks. In the summer, it's sun-dappled forest glades, cool streams, the variegated shade of Aspen stands. They don't show the heat haze rising off blacktop or parking lots going soft in the sun. They don't show strip malls -- like this ugly little sprawl of low-density commercial/industrial properties on Leetsdale twisting out toward the suburbs, the street stacked up with cars, and one of those time-and-temperature billboards reading a consistent 102 degrees. You go to New Mexico, Arizona, Nevada, you expect this. You're prepared. But I'll bet there's a tourist getting off a plane right now at DIA -- coming in from Minnesota or one of those other really pale states in the upper Midwest -- who's pretty pissed off. Or he was for a few seconds, anyway. Until he caught fire.
Fish tacos three for: $7
Rolled tacos four for: $3.99
La Jolla burrito: $4.99
Sitting on the six-table patio in front of the nine-year-old Jalapeño Mexican Grill, I have to drink fast, because my Tecates keep getting warm. What Jalapeño needs on days like this are ice buckets to keep the beers cold. That's my big complaint. It's not my only one, but today it's the major one. Tin Corona buckets half-full of melting ice, Cerveza Mas Fina stenciled on the side in chipped and faded red paint -- that's all I'm asking for.
Because that's as close as you're going to come to the avenida in Juárez while sitting along Leetsdale Drive in Denver.
I've been to the real Juárez a couple of times, and I really like it there. Once you get out of the gringo quarter -- past all of the thumping theme bars (signs on all the doors: No Cholos, with a picture of a pistol with a red slash through it), the dilapidated strip joints, taco stands and neon-lit farmacias selling no-scrip Viagra and benzedrine to any shmuck with a fistful of yanquis greenbacks -- the whole city has that edgy, rundown border-town feel of which I'm so enamored. The people -- most of them, at least -- are friendly and remarkably forgiving of my awful, lispy Spanish. Beers are a buck a bottle. Marlboros are seventy-five cents a pack. And if you have an iron stomach, you can eat on the street for pennies. What's not to love?
In the States, when they advertise travel to Mexico, they always show the beaches. Cancun, mostly. Tiny American college-student types in string bikinis with no tan lines, a colorful smear of neon and fire on a dark background to represent the nightlife. If they show any actual Mexicans, they are "colorful locals" dressed in "native costume," which, for some reason, is the same "native costume" they've supposedly been wearing since the 1800s, and they always seen to be dancing.
I don't remember any gay caballeros two-stepping down the streets of Juárez in serapes and sombreros. Matter of fact, the only sombreros I ever saw were perched on the sunburned heads of drunken college boys escorting staggering young girls with no tan lines around the corner to vomit in the alleys next to the theme bars in the American quarter.
The one truth in those ads is that Mexico is hot. Even in Juárez -- as north as you can get while still technically being in Mexico -- it is goddamned hot almost every day of the year, and the people who live and do business there have had to adapt. Mexican food -- even the borderlands cuisine that's a bastardization of real peasant/norteño cooking designed for speed and portability -- is made with heat in mind. It is light, balancing hot and cool, fried and fresh, and the portions are small, so you can walk away with your meal and go eat it in the shade under a tree. Can you imagine eating a big plate of spaghetti with meat sauce in 100-degree heat? Coq au vin? Me, neither. But tacos -- now there's some 100-degree food. Salty chips with salsa cruda. Churros dipped in chocolate after the sun goes down. And cheap, watery Mexican beer, ice cold.
One time in Juárez, I'd wandered about ten blocks south of the American section, done some shopping and found a bar whose three customers, as well as the bartender, were all clustered around a big TV watching Spanish soap operas, chatting languidly during the commercial breaks. I ate some free popcorn, ordered four rolled tacos (called taquitos, in their Taco Bell-ified American incarnation) and dos cervezas, por favor. It's always better to order beers two at a time: It cuts down on the trips back to the bar and causes fewer interruptions for a bartender who's into her soaps. I told this one I'd be out on the patio ("I'll be on el patio"), and pointed. She handed me two Pacificos and a dented tin bucket, half-full of ice, Cerveza Mas Fina stenciled on the side in chipped and faded red paint. I sat on the cement patio eating my tacos and drinking cold beer while I watched the sun set and listened to the high, putt-putting whine of mopeds pulling in and out of the fried-chicken delivery place next door.
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