By Jamie Swinnerton
By Mark Antonation
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By Cafe Society
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Like La Loma, La Cueva has some history behind it. Both places opened in the mid-'70s, both places quickly became destinations for Denver's Mexican food fans. Over the years, both restaurants have prospered, but unlike La Loma's owners, the Nuñez family has kept La Cueva in its original home on East Colfax, amid all the pawnshops and nail salons, along a terminally un-gentrified strip of one of Denver's main arteries.
Personally, I respect that. I like a restaurant that picks its place and stays there. And while La Cueva did expand in the '80s, it did so by buying the building next door and turning it into two dining rooms, which, these days, are almost always in use.
Unfortunately, while La Loma seems to have kept up the good work in the kitchen that earned the restaurant its loyal following in the first place, I can't say the same for La Cueva. On my most recent spin through the place (on a busy Friday afternoon), I found them doing some trade, sure, but couldn't figure out exactly why. As promised by more than thirty years of practice, the legendary green chile was blisteringly hot, but it was also thin and watery and not terribly flavorful. The tamales (which once were quite beloved among Denver's tamale cognoscenti) were terribly dry and crumbly, the pork filling touched with a kick of wicked spice but otherwise flavorless, and the overall effect being of a cheap frozen tamale bought at a gas station, microwaved at home, then left out on the kitchen counter for a few hours to cool and dry and harden into inedibility.
And the tamale wasn't the only problem. While the rice that comes on the side of virtually every dish was good, the refritos were dull and pasty and dry as eating a mouthful of cotton balls. The camarones rancheros arrived in a large and generous portion of big shrimp swimming in a tasty tomato, chile and onion ranchero sauce, but they also had an unusually powerful fishy smell that made me a little nervous. So I also ordered the house special lomo de cerdo — pork and onions — with the kitchen's homemade tortillas and guacamole, and here, finally, I got a plate that was worth eating. The pork was chewy and evenly spiced, twined with threads of sautéed onion and slices of roasted jalapeño and smelled richly of cumin and chile. Turned into a scratch burrito, it was a fine snack — not the best thing I've ever eaten on Colfax, but far from the worst.
Had the lomo de cerdo been the only thing I ate during my lunch at La Cueva, I might've been satisfied. But sadly, it wasn't, and I just can't forgive the plate of sketchy shrimp or the terrible tamales. So in the future, when I find myself craving a hit of Denver's Mexican culinary history, I think I'll just stick with La Loma.
In Second Helping, Jason Sheehan visits a restaurant that deserves extra attention.