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One of the great things about living in Colorado is that no man, woman or child ever has to go to bed worrying about where to find good Mexican food. Nuclear terrorism, alien abduction, how the Broncos are going to fare in the playoffs -- sure, those are real concerns. But none of us need fear that we'll wake up one morning and have nowhere to go for a good breakfast burrito or a decent plate of carne adobada.
This is not the case in Seattle or Fargo or Little Rock or Camden. In those cities, foodies must curse and gnash their teeth at their misfortune to live in a place where the nearest real taco is hundreds, sometimes thousands, of miles away. Women swoon at the mere mention of a stuffed Baja-style fish burrito. Strong men weep openly when they discover a jar of bottled chile verde on the shelf at the local Piggly Wiggly. Across the country, there are entire towns with nothing closer to a Mexican restaurant than the local Taco Bell, where pimply-faced teenagers in paper hats fill mealy tortilla shells with machine-extruded beef by-products -- and the people are thankful.
Sounds crazy, but it's true. I've been there. I've seen these poor bastards line up for the stuff and then come back looking for more. I can't conceive of a life lived without green chile and good flan, but these sad souls don't even know what they're missing. Back East, when you want to find Mexican food in a region where it's as rare as decent Italian is here, the first thing you do when you walk into a place is look for bullfighting posters -- the more the better. Then you look at the customers: Are Mexican families eating there? Finally, you listen to the employees. If they're speaking Spanish, you're in luck. English, you're in trouble. Laotian, Hindi or Greek? Run, don't walk, for the door.
3090 Downing St.
Denver, CO 80205-4416
Region: Downtown Denver
Tacos al carbón: $9.99
Two tamales: $2.50
Shrimp cocktail: $7.75
Seafood-stuffed sopaipilla: $9.99
Chicken mole: $9.49
Chips and salsa: $1.50
Strawberry lemonade: $3.79
In Denver, identifying the good spots is trickier, because every Mexican restaurant (and most of the American restaurants, French restaurants, pizza places and spaghetti shacks) is staffed by those immigrants and children of immigrants without whom the entire industry would collapse. Nor are the customers a dependable indicator, because Denverites have been steeped since birth in the tradition of eating great Mexican food, so seeing a gaggle of investment bankers and soccer moms sunk to their wrists in pico de gallo is no reason to dismiss a place out of hand. Still, odds are you won't go wrong here: Like pizza joints in the Bronx, cheesesteak places in Philly or barbecue pits in the Carolinas, better-than-average Mexican restaurants abound in Denver. In some neighborhoods, you can't chuck a tamal without hitting one.
But if the one you hit is Tosh's Hacienda, from one tamal-eating, chile-sucking, midnight burrito fanatic to another, take my advice: Skip it. Were Tosh's located anywhere in the country outside of the American Southwest (of which Denver, specifically 64th Avenue, is the absolute northern border), it would be celebrated with parades, immortalized in song and packed to the rafters every night. But here, where we're blessed with great Mexican restaurants, Tosh's just doesn't cut it.
This was not always the case. There was a time when Tosh's was it -- the be-all and end-all of Mexican joints in Denver. Trouble is, that time was decades ago.
Founded in the '40s by the Mackintosh family, La Hacienda -- the name of the original operation -- began as a simple back-porch tamal concession. Yes, a Scottish family making their nickels rolling tamales sounds a lot like a cat working as an astrophysicist, but there's quite a back-story here. The Mackintosh clan were early immigrants to Old Mexico, where they put down roots as ranchers. And they did well, if legend is to be believed, right up until the Mexican Revolution, when Grandpappy Mackintosh was shot down by Zapatistas trying to drive the foreign devils and hacendados out of their ancestral whatever.
It worked, at least as far as the Mackintoshes were concerned. Salvador, one of the Mackintosh sons, fled north across the border into Texas and eventually landed in Denver, where he got a job boning ham for Armour Meats. The meatpacking job ended when Salvador got into a scrap with his boss. He entered into a tamal venture with the Gonzales family -- locals with a name more suited to Mexican food -- but bailed out less than a year later after another dust-up. Finally, he and his family -- wife Esther and seven children -- got into the restaurant business on their own. Already two generations removed from the haggis and shortbread of his forebears, Salvador started La Hacienda, a takeout tamal enterprise that operated out of the Mackintosh home. From takeout in the kitchen to sit-down service in the front room, the business kept growing, and when the demand for Mackintosh tamales became overwhelming, the family hastily constructed a building on the front lawn of their home on Downing Street. This served as La Hacienda's base of operations until 1956, when Salvador sold it and moved operations down the street to an old church.