By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
Of Earth and Spirit is how I describe my style of cooking. The foods chosen are pure and of the Earth; they are intended to be food for the spirit as well as sustenance. They have been prepared for generations by the distinctive combination of Native, Mexican and Spanish flavors that embody traditional New Mexican cuisine. IfLike Water for Chocolate left you wanting more, I believe you will find it here.
I must have missed the scene in Like Water for Chocolate where Tita lovingly takes a fistful of frozen Costco taquitos, caresses them sensuously, dampens them with her tears, then drops them into the hot fat of the family Fryolator. It's certainly possible; Christ knows I slept through most of the movie.
But I can't miss those lines -- erratic capitalization and ugly grammar included -- written in smudgy cursive script inside the saffron-colored menu at Julia Blackbird's New Mexican Cafe. And while I'm standing there reading them, out of the corner of my eye I see one of the cooks in the big, center-island show kitchen pull frozen taquitos out of a bag and unceremoniously dump them into the fryer basket. That's love right there, I think. That's the pure, unbridled passion of cooking straight from the heart, no doubt. Just seeing it makes me smile, because it's not often that you get such a fast return on your belief in the essential bullshit of the restaurant industry. Talk to me about tradition, about love and Earth and the sustenance of the spirit, then serve bagged, frozen antojitos hecho en Costco. The irony is precious.
3434 W. 32nd Ave.
Denver, CO 80211
Region: Northwest Denver
Plato de taquitos: $6
Chips and salsa: $1.50
Piņon chicken: $9 Hito: $9
Navajo stew: $8
When the waitress comes to seat me, she must think I'm a little slow because of the size and plain joy of my stupid grin.
"Just one for lunch?" she asks, a little hesitantly.
"Absolutely," I say, giving her the full wattage of my happy heart and justified cynicism.
The four-year-old Julia Blackbird's recently moved down the block from its cramped original home on 32nd Avenue, and in these more spacious surroundings, it does an admirable job -- of being a theme restaurant. That's exactly what this place is, no better or worse on the sliding scale of food-service operations than any faux-'50s chrome-plate diner or Midwest simulacrum Japanese hibachi restaurant. Only here it's howling-coyote New Mexican. Julia Blackbird's works off that same retread Miami Vice earth-tone yellow and orange color palette that the tourist restaurants in New Mexico use; has the same sort of blocky, bright, Picasso-esque nuevo-traditional art on the walls, rigidly following those acceptable native themes of quasi-cubist portraiture and depictions of chile-picking and corn-growing. There are tacked-on, adobe-style architectural flourishes to the design of the interior and incredibly uncomfortable straight-backed rough-wood chairs, obviously handmade, probably by authentic native craftsmen who believe in the authenticity of discomfort, and deliberately mismatched with equally unpleasant modern furnishings. The space looks and feels exactly like the New Mexico seen by tourists -- not the poverty-stricken, Third World reality of the place, but the charmingly brown-skinned, crystal-wearing, "It's a Small World After All" Disney version, full of art and piñon trees and Indian turquoise Kokopelli jewelry for sale in the gift shop.
Like Santa Fe, in other words. Or most of Taos. Which is what I figure owner Julia Siegfried-Garrison was going for, and the Nebraska native hit it right on the nose. Hers is a New Mexico for rich white yuppies, where the closest you get to anything authentically Mexican (of the New or old variety) is the guys in the kitchen touching your food. Perfect for Denver, double-perfect for the Highland neighborhood.
And not only is the space an authentic replica of, say, the Atomic Cafe or the Zia Diner in Santa Fe, or anything in Old Town 'Burque, but so is the food. As you eat your way through the plazas or downtowns of these tourist burgs, you come to learn that the food is, at best, a watered-down version of the true abuelita cuisine of the Land of Enchantment, made pretty in an attempt to turn a chicken breast, squash flowers, a little corn smut and some hominy into a plate worth $14.95 to any out-of-town yokel with a fat wallet and a sunburn. Real abuelita cuisine (the stuff that real New Mexicans really eat) is itself a cultural translation, a mix of Amerind and borderlands Mex which, in turn, is only another version of the pueblo cooking that's been around forever. So by the time this food makes it to Denver, it's already a copy of a copy, at least four times removed from any actual cultural history, and it tastes that way -- not exactly loveless (because with the amount of precision that goes into Julia Blackbird's imitation, I know there's some honest, if misguided, passion there), but certainly superficial. All wispy Eros, no nasty lust.
Like Water for Chocolate -- the title itself being a particularly poetic Spanish euphemism for "horny" -- is all about sex and death, longing, and food as a method for getting to do the hibbity-dibbity with your sister's husband. Heavy on the innuendo, this is not lightweight stuff -- and using it on the menu was Julia's idea, not mine. But the kitchen doesn't deliver. Arriving at the table are endless examples of love thwarted, of passions hampered, of lust undone. The tri-color chips come straight from a bag. The chile con quesois described as "an intimate blend of cheeses and chile," but I can get just as much love out of the nacho pump at 7-Eleven. And the salsa is a sweet-hot purée of tomatoes, lacking both the swift fire and slow burn of a great salsa and even the texture of a mediocre one. It tastes like it was made with a half-dozen ripe tommies, a pepper mill and a nine-iron.