By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
I hate admitting that I'm wrong.
Up to this point in my somewhat spotty career, I would have insisted that certain rules govern a restaurant's survival. A space that can only be located by satellite photography is never going to make it. A fusion menu that fuses the cuisines of two cultures that couldn't communicate if their representatives found themselves standing side by side in a men's room spells disaster in any language. So does any menu item with quotes around it.
And Tex-Mex at some franchised chain operation in the middle of ticky-tacky corporate suburban hell will always be a losing proposition for both owners and eaters.
28025 Main St.
Evergreen, CO 80439
Region: West Denver Suburbs
Thai chicken salad: $7.49
Cheeseburger taco: $6.79
Tacos (with rice): 1/$3.99, 2/$6.99
Breakfast tacos: 1/$2.99, 2/$4.99
Chipotle chicken: $9.49
These rules have served me well through seventeen highly unusual years in the restaurant industry. But after eating at Tin Star -- a five-month-old franchise operation with deep Tex-Mex roots, owned by a rookie restaurant guy who's working off a formulaic menu that's pure sizzle-platter Mexi-American with elements of Japanese and Southeast Asian fusion and occupying a strip mall in the suburban heart of the Denver Tech Center that should go down in the real estate hall of fame as one of the worst locations in the world -- I'm not so sure anymore. Everything about Tin Star violates those laws that were laid down by God and Escoffier to govern this twisted business I love so dearly, and yet the place is so good that I'm willing to admit I was wrong. Because in the midst of all its rule-breaking, convention-flouting, essential chain-restaurant wrongness, Tin Star does one thing right that makes all the difference.
When the delivery trucks pull up outside Tin Star, they're not delivering canned salsa, bags of dusty tortilla chips and mountains of pre-made tortillas from Tin Star corporate headquarters in Dallas. They're bringing tomatoes, poblanos and masa -- big flats of the stuff that are met at the door by a bunch of high-volume trained guys with strong arms and very sharp knives.
Every day, every night, everything here is made from scratch and to order whenever possible -- which is more than I can say for a lot of non-chain restaurants out there. And the kitchen is well-staffed to make sure there's never a shortage of anything. The kitchen is also open, the cooks working in full view of the dining room, with just a narrow service trench separating them from the first row of counter seating. That's a vote of confidence from an owner who knows that his guys can work fast, work clean and not throw fish at each other when the pressure gets bad.
Although Tin Star corporate bills its restaurants as "quick-casual," the label isn't entirely appropriate. In the restaurant industry, fast-casual basically means fast food with nice architecture. It means a burrito or a slab of pre-roasted, nitrate-heavy chicken, or a salad that can be assembled with its dressing and sides and whatever else like culinary steam-table Legos by counter help that doesn't have to know anything more than how to work quickly with a ladle or a portion spoon, then served up in a family-friendly space. Tin Star, on the other hand, is an actual restaurant that just happens to move very, very fast. Order at the counter, pay your tab, get a big metal star with a number on it that you plant on the table in the comfortably generic dining room. A few minutes later, a waitress arrives bearing real food on real plates that you eat with real silverware -- no sporks, nothing plastic. Simple as that.
Except that there's nothing simple about the process; it just looks that way from the front of the house, because that's the illusion franchise owner John Jourde wants to maintain. In the back, though, the cooks are making their own salad dressings, pressing the masa, frying tortilla chips, hand-cutting and blending the salsas for the free chips-and-salsa bar. They're flat-frying potatoes in demi-glace, chopping fresh-fruit pico, roasting poblanos and making their own chimichurri. While I'm not crazy about every little thing these guys do (the corn salsa, for example, is a little bland, and the rice is done in a dry Southern style, dirty with spices but nearly flavorless), I am crazy about the fact that they do it at all. Tin Star very easily could have been just another knock-off, cheap-jack, white-guy-in-a-sombrero nightmare of soggy chips and big-ass burritos, but that's not the way it went.
Jourde and his cooks made sure of that.
When Jourde decided to leave the software world for restaurants, he signed on to open the first Tin Star in Colorado, aligning with a company founded by Rich Hicks, a veteran of Brinker International and a serious pro. But Jourde made a rookie mistake at the start, saddling his venture with a tough location. Tin Star sits in the middle of a strip mall inexplicably constructed with its back alongside DTC Boulevard and its front facing the back yards of a housing development. From the street, the only clue that the restaurant exists at all is a small sign hung on a blank brick wall obscured by trees. And even once you find your way to the proper address, the entrance looks as banal and unexciting as any entrance could possibly look. Each tenant in this strip mall has an identical door, identical surface details, identical chairs lined up before identical tables set outside in identical patio spaces. Tin Star is surrounded by a Washington Mutual, a Smoothie King and a Peaberry Coffee, and if someone were to come along in the night and remove all the signs, it would be impossible to tell one business from another.