Pretty Ain't Enough

When style eats substance.

 La Sandía is an absolutely beautiful restaurant. It hits that magic balance between light and dark, design and open space, and it seems to glow. In the middle of Stapleton, where everything is new and aloof and distant -- all hard surfaces, right angles, mercilessly focus-grouped corporate logos, and clean to such an extent as to imply some sort of horribly dirty secret -- La Sandía appears like a beacon of light.

Inside, there are fantastically uncomfortable chairs and too-small tables that still manage to look good against the hard, dusky tile floors and the warm, earth-tone walls. Dining areas are separated by hanging glass, colored in a variety of rainbow shades, lit from above, beneath and behind, in some places etched with words of dubious Spanish wisdom: There's no better sauce than a good appetite. In the back, under chandeliers that look like frozen raindrops, is a twenty-top community table; in the middle, a dark-hued long bar; to the side, a great little area lined with small tables and chocolatey leather club chairs against the windows that seems like a perfect spot for a couple of lazy afternoon drinks or an evening snack -- even though I've never actually seen anyone sitting there.

It's an excellent space, inviting and beautiful. But after three dinners at La Sandía over the course of a month, I won't be going back. Great food can often, perhaps always, save a bad room. But a great room -- no matter how lovely, no matter how well-appointed -- will never make up for mediocre food. Pretty as it is, this place has no soul.

La Sandía looks lovely, but you can't eat good looks.
Mark Manger
La Sandía looks lovely, but you can't eat good looks.

Location Info


La Sandia

8340 Northfield Blvd., Unit 1690
Denver, CO 80238

Category: Bars and Clubs

Region: East Denver

La Sandia

8419 Park Meadows Center Drive
Littleton, CO 80124

Category: Restaurant > Mexican

Region: Southeast Denver Suburbs


8340 East 49th Avenue
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday

Queso fundido: $6.95
Shrimp quesadilla: $10.95
Asada tacos: $14.50
Tampiqueña: $22.95
Red snapper: $22.95

La Sandía is the latest restaurant from Richard Sandoval, inventor of "Modern Mexican Cuisine" -- a phrase I'm putting in quotes because he's notorious for siccing lawyers on anyone trying to cash in on those three words that he claims to own. Born and raised in Mexico City, Sandoval does have an authentic connection to Mexican food and, in particular, the bright, fresh, coastal style that's the foundation of his menus. His father ran a couple of very successful restaurants in Acapulco, and he grew up immersed in food before being educated at the Culinary Institute of America. He broke into the New York scene with (of all things) a brace of French restaurants (Savann and Savann Est), then went native with the opening of Maya in 1997. Mexican food, and especially fancy-pants Mexican, was a new thing for Manhattan then, and Maya got two stars from the New York Times. When Maya San Francisco opened, it got three stars from the Chronicle.

In 2001, Sandoval came to Denver and, with Tamayo -- his vision of modern, white-tablecloth Mexican cuisine that, in the beginning, truly was visionary -- became the first (and to date, only) serious celebrity chef to open a serious celebrity restaurant in this city. Today he has three restaurants in Denver (Tamayo, Zengo and La Sandía) and six more in places ranging from San Francisco to Dubai. But while he has more restaurants in Denver than he does anywhere else, Sandoval doesn't live here. He doesn't work here -- at least not every day. He just opens here.

Because Sandoval has so many restaurants to keep track of, because he is one of those multi-unit chefs who seems driven to collect addresses the way some kids collect baseball cards, he has no day-to-day control over his properties. He sets a concept, writes a menu, staffs up with trusted lieutenants, (sometimes) trains a crew and then unlocks the doors. His business is not so much about creating great restaurants as it is about creating great food-service machines that can run flawlessly in his absence. And there's nothing wrong with that -- as long as customers understand the situation going in. Richard Sandoval is not assembling your tacos. His chef de cuisine is; it's his job to translate Sandoval's vision to every plate. And Sandoval's vision for La Sandía is a casual, approachable Mexican restaurant -- less serious than Tamayo, less intellectual than Zengo, inspired by the meals he remembers having at his grandmother's table. It's designed to cater to the people coming to Stapleton, the people who want a quick snack before or after the movies, a little something for dinner after a long day of shopping, people who are looking for a kinda hip, kinda cool, pretty place to sit, eat some nachos, drink a few margaritas and feel good about themselves for not going to Chili's.

The menu is full of upscaled versions of recognizably Mexican preparations, intended to both please diners and satisfy the bottom line. The queso fundido is a blend of Oaxacan and Chihuahuan cheeses smoothed out by the inclusion of gouda -- and not just made with a trio of cheeses because Sandoval thought the three would be tasty together. The biggest problem with queso fundido at less deliberately designed Mexican restaurants is that it becomes gelatinized and inedible faster than most people can eat it. The inclusion of gouda -- a very smooth-melting cheese, second only to emmentaler as the ideal fondue cheese -- gives it a life span on the table that's probably twice as long as most queso-based appetizers. And the broiling-hot cast-iron square skillet it's served on doubles that again.

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