By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
Some of the best meals I've had -- the most surprising, often the most memorable -- have come on nights when the last thing in the world I wanted to do was eat out; nights when I just wanted to sit in front of the TV in boxer shorts and a cowboy hat, watching reruns of Night Court and eating takeout tandoori or ice cream straight from the tub.
My first meal at Z Cuisine was on one of these nights; I had to be pretty much trussed and hog-tied, thrown in the trunk like a mob snitch and dragged to the French bistro that I later decided was Denver's best new restaurant. And the thought of one more young chef doing gourmet pizzas and New American comfort food had been enough to drive me into seclusion rather than to Cafe Star. I'd locked myself in my office at home, holing up with a six-pack and my computer, looking at Indian travel websites and Vegas hotel rooms and the cost of one-way tickets to Tokyo. Laura finally coaxed me out, leaving a trail of cigarettes and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups leading to the back door, then jumping me and hustling me into a waiting car. I'm grateful to her, because that dinner was one of the greatest meals I had last year -- made all the more remarkable by the near-instantaneous reversal of my spirits the moment a menu was put in front of me. Within ten minutes, I was ready to eat the paper it was printed on, the silverware on the table and the fixtures in the kitchen. It was an amazing dinner. It went on for almost four hours. And when it was done, I wanted nothing so much as to go right back in and do it all over again.
My mood swings are worse than those of any fifteen-year-old girl, and I can be a bastard when forced to do something against my will -- say, eat for a paycheck rather than for myself. And yet the restaurants I visit on these nights almost invariably turn me on like a light switch, rock me, roll me and move me in ways that amaze me. They not only thwart my sulking, but -- through food and service, the magic of a well-managed dining room and the disposition of a well-run floor -- cultivate a sense of inevitability. At some restaurants, you're going to have a good time whether you want to or not. Nothing else is allowed.
Sopa de albondigas: $5.95
Shrimp burrito: $10.95
Pork burrito: $3.95< br>Deluxe tostada: $5.95
Chile verde: $9.95
Chile Colorado: $9.95< br>Chicken pipian: $9.45
Pollo poblano: $9.95
Fish tacos: $8.95< br>Chimichanga manzana: $3.95
Guadalajara is one of those restaurants. From its nowhere location, from the parking lot it shares with the hotel across the way, from the road winding through a maze of big-box retailers and battery stores and strangled landscaping, it looks like exactly the kind of place you'd expect to grow wild in this contemporary biosphere -- a concept restaurant flogging yet another overworked notion of Disneyfied Mexican food to people who don't know the difference, a kitchen desperately trying to cram another few hundred chalupas down the snack-holes of another few hundred tourists. Inside, it's bright and colorful and loud. The decor is hacienda modern, with carved parrots hanging from the ceiling wearing sombreros and holding beer bottles in their claws, and folk-art murals of pueblo life -- all churches and chiles and smiling stick figures dancing, painted in primary colors with no shadows. The windows and doorways are arched. The booths are deep and huge. Almost everything that can be tiled is, except the floors that are covered with thin industrial carpeting. The interconnected warren of dining rooms and waiting rooms and service areas look like they could be cleaned with a high-pressure hose and a squeegee -- and except at the height of the rush, the entire space is so clean and highly polished, it gleams.
So of course, I wasn't expecting much from Guadalajara. I was only out because a meal -- several meals -- had gone wrong earlier in the week, putting me back on dining duty. All I wanted was a burrito and a beer. And I figured a burrito and a beer was about all a place like this -- that looked like this, in a location like this -- would be able to handle. I'd become so accustomed to the little neighborhood taquería, the storefront huddled up in a strip mall alongside carnicerías and convenience stores selling international phone cards, that my reflex judgment of any restaurant not of that model was that it must be somehow less authentically Mexican just because its owners had spent a few bucks on custom-made chairs and tilework. And parrots wearing hats.
But I was wrong. What I should have seen was that the dining rooms were filled mostly with Mexican families hunched over huge plates and bowls of beautiful-looking food, that most of the business was being conducted in Spanish, that the kitchen was busy and well-staffed, and that the smiles on the servers were real and true -- not stapled on in the back prior to the start of service. What I should have noticed was the smell: chiles and hot oil, the clean tang of charred peppers and that indescribable scent of mingled sauces and cilantro and seared meats and onions and ripe tomato that is the signature of a Mexican galley in full swing. That's something you can't fake, as actual and unalterable as pheromones.