By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
By Lori Midson
By Jonathan Shikes
By Amber Taufen
By Cafe Society
By Juliet Wittman
By Jonathan Shikes
There are no license plates on the walls here, no stuffed alligators. The decor is homey and restrained — neither Disneyfied, like so many of the larger Mexican operations in town, nor so understated as to be anonymous. There's a fireplace in the cantina up front (cold in the summer's heat), exposed brick and portraits in the dining rooms, arched doorways, stained glass. And everywhere, that smell of cooking onions and mesquite smoke from the grills in the back.
My fajitas are excellent. Smeared with homemade guacamole, laid with a thick bed of onions, a little sour cream and big, white Gulf shrimp split down the middle, they taste both raw and finished at the same time — a nice mix between the peasant and the classical, the mutt and the local. The shrimp are perfectly charred and taste strongly of smoke. The flour tortillas are warm and soft and fresh. Because I am forever too hungry for my own good, too needy, too wanting, I have a side of tacos to go with my fajitas — roasted chicken, picked apart, shredded and laid inside a crisp flour tortilla shell with shredded lettuce, cheese and tomatoes. They remind me of the fried tacos at Viva Burrito (which I love), of the bar tacos served just south of the border where Tex-Mex was born, outside the American quarters in Juarez or Tijuana. Borders within borders, ignorant of law or politics — just flavors being carried back and forth, from la frontera to Denver, all the way to Rochester, warped by time, spanning more than just miles and years.
At La Loma's bar on another night, I waste half an hour over the free chips and salsa, chasing the jalapeño sting and savory garlic tease of the surprisingly complicated salsa with icy beers before flagging down a waitress and ordering sarapes (mini chimichangas, roughly the shape and texture of Totino's pizza rolls, only delicious), a plate of tiny rellenos (served egg-roll style — strips of green chile and lashings of jack cheese wrapped in something like a wonton skin, then fried, and greasy/fabulous dipped in the house's weirdly gelatinous green chile) and a spread of Mexico City-style pork tacos. These I don't like at all. The ground pork is overcooked, the thick slices of avocado rapidly browning. The rice is dry, and the refritos on the side taste old and mushy and metallic. I eat just enough to make it look like I've tried, then push the plate away. Grumpy, I think how I can find better tacos at a hundred different places around town, a dining room with far fewer mullets. This time, I leave disappointed.
2527 W. 26th Ave.
Denver, CO 80211
Region: Northwest Denver
Only to return, chasing my memory fix with the same old junkie rhythms I used to know so well, craving the strange head-kick of psychological time travel. More chips, more salsa. The taco salad on the menu is tempting, but I pass. I also skip over the tacos (even the good chicken ones) and the apps and even the Mexican steak, because just putting some sautéed onions and peppers on top of a cheap New York strip does not make it Mexican in my book. Instead, I go straight back to the fajitas. I don't know why, but the memories they trigger have begun to make me sad. Feeling my age, maybe. Wondering how it could possibly have been twenty years since I sat across from that girl whose name I can't recall, since I swore off margaritas forever.
The bartender asks if I want a margarita. La Loma has them in two flavors, agave and strawberry. It serves them two ways — frozen or on the rocks — and in three sizes. A large is 46 ounces, almost a third of a gallon, and costs nearly fifteen bucks. I say no, but thanks. I'll stick with beer. "I had a bad experience once with margaritas," I tell her.
And because the bar is slow, she grins, leans against one of the coolers. "Oh, everyone has had one of those," she says. "You sure?"
"Yeah," I tell her. "I am. I've learned my lesson."
I lift my Corona, drink away the neck of it, and wait for my fajitas to arrive.