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We never found a decent taco place in Philadelphia. In Buffalo, it was burritos or nothing, and half the burritos in the city came dosed with Frank's RedHot. So when we came west, we were looking for spots exactly like El Coyotito -- community restaurants wallpapered in ads for Enramex and El Toro Loco international phone cards, with cars in the parking lot sporting pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe and dining rooms filled with neighbors and families, giggling knots of high school girls in heavy eye shadow picking at rice and refritos, construction workers still in paint-spattered work boots and knee pads shoveling down bowls of menudo, and cowboys who take their hats off to eat and feed quarters into the jukebox in the back, punching up sad songs full of accordions and regret.
Sure, we had to give up chicken croquettes, great meatloaf and real chicken wings. But in trade we got El Coyotito and places like it, packed in sometimes three and four to a block. Now, it's spots like El Coyotito that make me think I can never go home again.
4978 Leetsdale Drive
Denver, CO 80246
Region: Southeast Denver
Shrimp soup: $10.99
Shrimp cocktail: $10.99
Octopus cocktail: $11.99
Our food arrives in less than ten minutes, probably more like five. The chicken tacos are excellent, even a little jazzy, with chile-marinated and shredded meat spiked with chunks of green chile, doused in thin sour cream and laid on top of a single, fresh corn tortilla. The burrito is massive, the desebrado almost sweet and tender -- not refried after braising, the way I like it, but very good nonetheless. The beef smells of thin gravy and chiles, glommed together by the refried beans inside the tortilla, and the entire plate is slathered in chunky Colorado verde with onions and sauce-poached tomatoes that spills over onto the plain rice, plus more refried beans topped with white queso fresco.
I enter into another ill-considered Spanish-as-a-distant-second-language negotiation with the waitress over what I'd like with my soup, our conversation consisting mainly of her slowly and carefully explaining my options and me nodding like a bobblehead and just saying "Sí, sí" over and over again. Finally, she gives up and simply brings me tortillas and limes and little bowls of diced onion, chopped jalapeño and shredded cilantro. The soup itself is thin and mild -- fish stock and tomato, unthickened, like an under-complicated cioppino -- with the odd chunk of carrot, celery or potato drifting through the depths. It's peasant mirepoix, the soup base for every cuisine on earth. And the bowl is packed with shrimp. I count a dozen or more big ones, butterflied with the tails left on and set to swim through a fragrant broth in which they are both the prime and base ingredient.
Shrimp soup and fish soup and soup with shrimp and octopus; big shrimp in the shell laid over sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, needing only a little salt to achieve three-ingredient perfection. Plates of pulpo (octopus) and cocktails of the same in a spicy brine powerfully spiked with chiles. Seafood is the specialty at El Coyotito, but there are also tacos made from lips (tacos de labio -- first time I've ever seen that), rich menudo as complex as the shrimp soup is simple, killer fried pork chops over rice, and every kind of Mexican comfort food under the sun.
Returning for an early dinner a few days later, I sit alone in the small, empty dining room, watching soundless soap operas on the TVs hung from the ceiling and marveling at the way El Coyotito's space has been repurposed. I don't know what existed previously at this address in the run-down strip mall that El Coyotito calls home -- it's been here as long as I've been in Denver, and I've never encountered an El Coyotito #1 or #2 -- but at some point this space must have been a deli, because all the orders from the kitchen are expo'd across the top of an old glass-front cold case still laid with fake plastic greenery. This view is blocked from the dining room by a hastily constructed partition painted with a sunny Mexican beach scene, but if you get a table against the far wall -- between the giant, polished bowling trophy and the gleaming juke -- you can still watch the waitresses waiting on pickups like housewives shopping for a pound of lean pastrami.
Dinner is so good that I return for takeout. As I wait, sitting beside the counter with accordion music filling the air, I try to figure out the words for ordering the Mexican doughnuts, the sweet buns, the fat slices of larded bread smeared thickly with butter and dusted with table sugar, or even just the chunks of piloncillo (brown sugar) in the bakery cases near the register. I think about how lucky I am to have found a place where I could have this problem.
I'm trying to be a better person, I really am. I'm trying to find joy in the little things. So when the waitress returns with my tortas de carnitas (the best I've ever had: a delicious and addictive marriage of fried pork bits, lettuce, raw onion and smooth, fatty avocado on heavy, chewy, grilled bread), I grab a couple of Mexican Cokes out of the cooler, gesture and grunt at the bakery case until I make myself somewhat understood, then pay for everything. I get change back from a twenty and count myself fortunate to know a spot where I can go for twenty bucks' worth of happy, a spot offering small pleasures for those who are far from home.
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