By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
Where I grew up, in upstate New York, there was no Mexican food. No tacos. No burritos. Just a Taco Bell down on Ridge Road (which did not count at all) and a few square feet of shelf space at Wegman's dedicated to Latino foods: a couple bags of stale tortillas, some pasty refritos, Old El Paso taco sauce and cans of tamales with pull-tab tops like beers used to have. I lived the first ten or twelve years of my life in an utterly taco-less universe, and today I look back at that kid and simply can't understand how the little whelp survived.
Honest to God, it wasn't until my early teens that I ate my first tacos, a bunch of hard shells out of a box with a picture of a cartoon Mexican on the front (shoeless, wrapped in a serape, sleeping beneath the brim of a huge sombrero), filled with ground beef, iceberg lettuce and shredded cheddar. As I got older, I found better (a large cantina with a bullfighting theme, excellent quesadillas and terrible margaritas that opened and flourished briefly in the corner of an abandoned warehouse downtown; a tiny taquería far outside the city where the migrant workers went for posole, plates of chicharrones and leads on work), but it wasn't easy. You had to know what you wanted -- which I didn't -- and you had to know where to look. Even then, there were no guarantees.
It didn't take me long to flee my home town, and when I did, I went west. I had a lot of reasons. Finding tacos was one of them -- not high on the list of priorities, granted, but definitely in my thoughts -- and when I found them, they were at a little roadhouse in San Diego close enough to the border that I could see the security lights. I was starving by the time I made California, having run short of cash about five minutes after crossing the Pennsylvania state line, and this diner was a godsend -- cheap, quiet, brightly lit and, most important, open at 3 a.m. or whenever it was that I rolled my car into the parking lot on fumes and fervent prayer. The tacos were 25 cents apiece. I ate about a dozen. And when I was done, I was sicker than I'd ever been in my life to that point. You can ask the good people who worked the early-morning shift at the Burger King near the entrance ramp to the 805; I'm sure that whoever had to clean the bathrooms that day remembers me with vivid clarity.
2020 S. Parker Road
Denver, CO 80231
Region: Southeast Denver
Hours: 10 a.m.-7 p.m. Tuesday-Sunday
Soon there were other, less catastrophic Mexican meals. Even lovely ones. I had my first sopaipilla a few years later and proceeded to make a dinner of nothing but -- thinking the sopaipilla the greatest food ever conceived by man. I went down to Mexico on a quest for the perfect fish taco, ate burritos at Juanita's in Boulder, lived on tamales from a little drive-thru joint when I was unemployed, made the #13 breakfast burrito at Milton's in Albuquerque famous just by saying once, in print, that I could no longer conceive of life without it. I remember staring at Laura over a palisade of empty beer bottles down in Juarez, my head on the bar, waiting for a plastic basket of tacos to come out of the kitchen. I was in love with everything that night: the girl, the city, the bar we'd found well outside the American quarter with the air-conditioning that would only be turned on if you paid the bartender (one dollar American -- same as the cost of one beer -- for ten minutes of deliciously cold, metallic refrigerated air).
And I remember having my first taco from Tacos D.F. when it was just a two-wheel trailer parked in a gravel lot beside a liquor store on South Parker Road -- a taco truck you could smell from the nearest stoplight, that served things I'd never heard of, like panbazos and tacos suaderos. I ordered three asada tacos that day, and laughed when the woman working the window asked if I wanted lettuce and cheese on them. "Why would I want that?" I asked.
Because most of the white people who came there for tacos did, she said. Or something like that. So she always asked, just in case.
Estilo Mexicano -- those were the magic words. Mexican style: just spice and meat -- rough-chopped grilled steak, marinated in God knows what, with caramelized onions in the case of the asada, and naked chopped pork redolent of char for the carnitas. If you had to gussy up the tacos, there was always hot sauce, along with salsas and picos on ice. Tacos D.F. also served a good torta and often switched up the menu, offering sopes, lamb soup, barbacoa -- all manner of delicious items you could order if you knew to ask or could read enough Spanish to translate the especiales written out longhand on neon-colored construction paper.
And then one day, Tacos D.F. was gone. I was sad, but not crushed. The way I looked at it, one benefit of having a restaurant on wheels is that if you're getting bored with the view or not doing good trade at one location, you can always just hitch your trailer to the back of a pickup and move somewhere else. Knowing the transitive nature of the neighborhood where it had been parked -- right on the edge of Aurora's Little Asia, along that stretch of Parker/Leetsdale that's an immigration activist's melting-pot dream made real -- that's what I assumed had happened.