By Philip Poston
By Jonathan Shikes
By Noah Reynolds
By Gretchen Kurtz
By Kate Gibbson
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Patricia Calhoun
My cell phone rang around one in the morning. For most people, this would be a harbinger of bad news — kid in jail, someone in the hospital. For me, it almost always means work: a debriefing, a confession, an eleventh-hour emergency like a restaurant on fire or, worse, dead cold on a Saturday night. I was awake, of course — sitting on the couch watching Godzilla vs. Mechagodzillaon cable and eating microwaved shrimp curry. I picked up the phone on the second ring and heard a panting voice on the other end: one of my regular informers, a trusted member of my extended kitchen network.
910 S. Federal Blvd.
Denver, CO 80219
Region: Southwest Denver
6895 E. 72nd Ave.
Commerce City, CO 80022
Region: Northeast Denver Suburbs
For ten minutes, he spilled the deep-background story of a restaurant on the verge of debt, dissolution and death. It wasn't exactly Russian nuclear secrets or the disclosure of a mole inside the Circus, but it was close enough that it tickled my LeCarré bone. I took notes and then finished with my standard question: So, what else have you heard?
Tacos y Salsas. I wrote it on the top right corner of the envelope I was using — already covered with doodles of Godzilla — circled the words, then below wrote his quote: "Dude, this place is blowing up." And then I returned to Godzilla and promptly forgot the Tacos tip.
I only remember it as I'm driving along South Federal between Alameda and Mississippi, in that stretch of blacktop where some of Denver's best ethnic restaurants live. This is a neighborhood in constant flux, a crossroads of cultures by way of cuisines, where, sometimes within a few feet, you can find a laundromat, a taquería, a pho shop, the best place in town for jellied duck's blood, a check-cashing operation, a cell-phone store, a joint serving live abalone and geoduck — and now one of the best Mexican spots in town. Tacos y Salsas is a tough place to miss — as bright and shiny and carnival-colored as much of Federal is gray and grim and run down by long, rough use. Set in a corner double suite, at first glance it looks like the kind of spot where clowns would go to buy their floppy shoes and hand buzzers, all red and yellow and orange. In the afternoon, the punishing sun gleams off the big windows that make up the front face.
I walk inside and find the place full of cooks — Mexican crews occupying the tables in twos and threes, some of them still in their checked pants, some of them giving themselves away just by the shaved heads, the unique crosshatching of grill scars on their forearms, a certain graceful swagger as they move between the counter, the salsa bar and the tables. It's a restaurant recruiter's dream — so much sur de la frontera talent focused in one place — and more than that, a stamp of approval better than any wall full of awards, health-department stickers or Zagat plaques. Eat where the cooks do.
I sit at the long counter, in one of the best seats in the house, and look into the wide-open line and prep kitchen on the other side. I watch two guys wrestle with a mighty meat stick — a huge, gleaming spike stacked with what must have been fifty pounds of dripping meat, locked in place by a whole onion skewered at the top and set into a vertical rotisserie like the shawarma at a Greek diner except, you know, delicious. I watch a short, dark-haired, muscled machine of a short-order cook who's faster than just about any guy I've ever seen sling a spat, with moves like Gene Kelly on a short toot of Bolivian marching powder.
This guy just burns, keeping up with the constant flutter of paper tickets being tossed down on his expo table, audibles being called in by the waitresses as they breeze by, a permanent scowl on his face as he slaps meat down on the grill, stacks tortillas on his rail (made fresh just behind him at the back of the short hot line, balls of masa pulled from a mountain of masa, squeezed to shape in an old-fashioned hand press), pulls plates and sides and then takes a single tortilla in his hand, cups it, flips the meat up off the grill with his spatula and catches it without looking — grabbing it out of the air because plain gravity is just too slow — and gives it a second little pop in his hand to even out the distribution of the meat. I watch in awe — and order extra tacos just so I can keep watching him move.
Some of the mixed cadre working prep in the back give me the stink-eye for watching so closely, but they are far more interesting to me than the telenovelas showing on the TVs hung near the ceiling or the constant back-and-forth flow of tables on the floor. That cook's mise en place is terrifying (ground beef held in a bus tub beneath his expo table, pork pulled from the dim depths of a chugging lowboy, beef hacked off a frozen block set on a sheet tray, everything crammed together higgledy-piggledy wherever there is space) until you see him work it — running through stock so fast that inserts, storage, even covers would be a complete waste of time. Someone puts down a hunk of pork, and then it's gone — turned into a dozen tacos or stuffed gorditas or a half-dozen tortas in two minutes flat. The grease trench on his grill is a mess, the backsplash black, but his cutting board is spotless, his expo table and grill rail gleaming like new.
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