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This place — this terrible, invisible, subterranean and cursed location on the fringes of Cherry Creek North — used to be Sketch, a good restaurant also owned by Morreale. Before Sketch, it was something else, and something else again before that. The address is a graveyard of good intentions and concepts that might've flourished anywhere but here. When Sketch went under (pun very much intended), Morreale told me that he'd remake the space into a Creeker's version of what, in my opinion, is his and Yontz's best restaurant: Mezcal. Lunch and dinner daily, late hours, a great, comfortable bar. I asked if he was also planning on lifting the restaurant to street level and maybe moving it two or three blocks toward the heart of Cherry Creek, and he said no, insisting that he didn't believe in cursed locations, and I wished him the best. The neighborhood needed another good Mexican joint, needed a place whose entire economy was shamelessly based on cheap tacos, seven-dollar bowls of chips and guac, and the unfettered consumption of super-artisan Mexican agave juice. But unlike Morreale, I am a guy who believes in cursed addresses, and I worried that Tambien would have to rise about fifteen feet before it could even start to get off the ground.
After a quick interior reorganization and crash redecoration, it turned out the basement location was not Tambien's biggest problem. The biggest problem was that the food sucked. Bad. I ate dinner at Tambien a few weeks after it opened in August and was horrified by burnt carne asada, lukewarm beer and green chile that tasted like chunky water. Second time around, the chile was a salt lick in salt sauce with a little salt for garnish, and the carnitas plate appeared to have been made on opening night, wrapped in plastic, left in the freezer and then rewarmed for service a few hours before I showed up. But at least the beers were cold.
Even restaurateurs as experienced as Morreale and Yontz need time to break in a new menu, a new crew, and I decided to give Tambien some, falling back for a while on Mezcal and the more traditional taquerías of Federal Boulevard. In the meantime, Yontz lost the distraction of Chama — his own restaurant in Belmar that closed over landlord/tenant issues — and had more time to focus on Tambien, working in the kitchen with longtime head cook Roberto Diaz.
250 Steele St.
Denver, CO 80206
Region: Central Denver
I finally returned one night last month and had desebrado sopes — my favorite thing on Mezcal's menu — and they were just as good as the ones at Mezcal. I chased them with the tamal al puerco, spiked variously with guajillo and chipotle, doodled with Mexican crema. Once part of my regular Chama order, the tamal here was strangely fluffy, with the texture of white birthday cake and the flavor of amateur cornbread. But the sauces were good, the pork good, the plate well put together, and I felt as though the kitchen was finally homing in on a bull's-eye that it would eventually hit.
I came back on an unseasonably warm Tuesday afternoon a few weeks ago for cold beer and tacos al pastor topped with pineapple salsa — not exactly what I ate in that Juárez bar, but fine. The green chile was even better, and I ended up scraping the bowl with my spoon — pleased to see that the kitchen had remembered to add the chile this time, had started browning the nuggets of pork rather than just letting them poach down to the consistency of well-chewed gum, had left the salt shaker on the counter.
And now, finally, the Christmas miracle. Surrounded by twinkle lights and the sweet honking of mariachi carols, I have camarones al chipotle that are like eating garlic firecrackers — a preparation perfectly balanced between eat-with-your-fingers rusticity and the chefly exactitude of haute cuisine that has been Yontz's hallmark since he gave the finger to the whole fine-dining scene a few years back. The mole rojo chicken legs dotted with white sesame seeds are delicious, the mole brick-red, hot, smooth as cocoa and chile wrapped in liquid velvet. The pozole is like water in the desert — so good I want to swim in it, float away on a life preserver of perfectly soaked hominy. Even the tamal hits the mark — it's been deflated, solidified, brought back in line with tradition while still maintaining its modernist sauces, its Nagel squiggle of squeeze-bottle style.
True, Tambien is still in a basement. But it's now also a good restaurant, a Mezcal/Chama crossbreed that rises to the bar set by both — to street level, at least, and sometimes higher. And when I finish my dinner, I do the same, tromping up the steps with a belly full of food and a head full of sur de la frontera Christmas spirit. I'm remembering that night in Juárez, the happiness, the crowd, the piñatas waving overhead. And as I reach the top, it begins to snow.