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By Lori Midson
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100 Favorite Dishes
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There's a certain edge in Mexican/Texan/New Mexican cuisine where pain and pleasure sit holding hands. You can't get there if you're a pussy, order your chile on the side, stay away from the saturated reds of a serious hellfire sauce, or are unwilling to suffer some uncomfortably volcanic intestinal complaints. The only way to get there — to taste that fine intersection between the high ends of the Scoville scale and the sweet, smoky piquancy in that garden of pain — is to eat recklessly. And the camarones rancheros at Tacos Jalisco are a very good place to start.
From there you can go in many directions. The menu is long, with a full-board breakfast (burritos and chilaquiles, huevos divorciados and steak-and-egg plates that are far more ranchero than the aforementioned camarones), seafood plates, posole (which sells out fast) and menudo (which doesn't), tacos and burritos made with excellent carnitas, with carne asada, with chicken (so simple and plain, yet still handled well) and, from the other end of the animal, with beef cheek and lengua and buche. Because Jalisco is neither entirely American nor entirely Mexican nor entirely Tex-Mex, but weirdly, smushed-uppedly and wonderfully Colorado-Mexican, there's pork-shot green chile smothering half the dishes, as well as freakishly authentic Michoacán tacos al albañil with jalapeños and potatoes and a few borderless losers mixed in among the winners. On one recent afternoon, with a yen for something fried and beefy, I had a plate of flautas that left my tongue sour and slicked with grease for an hour. But at the same meal, I had an à la carte tamale that was as traditional as anything to be found sur de la frontera. No fluttery twists of decorative corn husk, no lemongrass, no mango salsa: just meat, masa, smoky, dry heat and years and years of practice.
4309 W. 38th Ave.
Denver, CO 80212
Region: Northwest Denver
Tacos Jalisco is rare in that it still serves free chips. It's double rare in that it braces them with a flight of four salsas — all fresh, three of them awesome. A simple salsa fresca showcases the chill excellence of the tomato's friendship with the jalapeño chile; a tomatillo has the savor and salt and heat to make a grown man blush; a liquid red tomato salsa mixes sweetness and heat in equal measure, bringing forward the tomato's fruity qualities and the chile's vegetable savor. The only one I wasn't crazy about was the smooth and creamy-green avocado salsa. The fattiness of an avocado does not take well to being puréed, which makes it taste sludgy and almost eggy — and the addition of too much cilantro and jalapeño doesn't help.
Sitting in a small, straight-backed booth in the tight, narrow confines of the left-hand dining room the other night, I watched a crowd silently staring at a bunch of men running on the silent TV — some qualifying Olympics heat. The only sounds were the black-and-white-liveried waiters behind me talking quietly in Spanish (either about the state of the fish tank at the front of the house or the state of that day's fish delivery, my Spanish failing me in what was probably a pretty critical moment) and the splattering sizzle of fajita platters heading down the opposite wing of the dining room. On the flat screen, someone won something, and all I was thinking about was how I wanted to go around to the tables of all the distracted patrons and eat their dinners. My own — a desebrado burrito that weighed as much as a brick, was fat as my forearm and stuffed with beans and chopped, roasted chiles and shredded beef — was good enough, but there was so much more to try. For example, the seafood soup — shrimp and fresh fish in a spicy broth, like a coastal Mexican cioppino — recently added to the menu, and caldo de albondigas every Tuesday and Wednesday. And the posole has been sold out every time I ask.
But this is enough for now. I've memorized most of the phrasebook Spanish written on the disposable placemats ("I would like barbecue": quisiera barbacoa...) and know what I want to eat when I'm in need of some true Southern comfort: camarones rancheros, with extra tortillas and two beers back — pure Colorado consolation every time.
And maybe one of these days I'll be able to get that bowl of posole, too.
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