A bad night in Boulder at Tahona Tequila Bistro
I was thinking that they could probably hear my stomach rumbling from three tables away.
"So, what are you going to have?" Laura asked.
"Everything," I said. "One of everything. Maybe two."
"I'm serious, Jay. What are you going to have?"
"What are you going to have?"
"I don't know what I'm going to order until I know what you're going to order."
We've done this dance — this critical do-si-do, negotiating plates and courses — once or twice a week, almost every week, for years.
"Seriously, just order," I said. "Get whatever you want. I'll eat everything else."
We'd been wandering around Boulder most of the afternoon — late-late summer sun and the thin atmosphere making me increasingly frantic for cold beer and Mexican food. If I were an astronaut, NASA would have to load the cargo bay with kegs of Tecate and little tubes filled with taco paste, because otherwise, I'd go mad — space-crazy over the lack of proper grub, constantly trying to wrest the controls from the pilot and aim the shuttle for the moon, where Mexico has been building a secret lunar base for years, complete with taquerías and loncheras and places to buy sparkly piñatas. The lack of food and beer is one of the reasons I've never become an astronaut. Also, I'm in lousy shape. And you can't smoke inside a space helmet.
Our waitress brought us beer, which was a good start. Laura and I were still bickering over the menu.
"Okay, if you get the tamale and I get the albondigas and we share the tacos, then what? That's a good first course."
"Chips and salsa."
"Damn it. Okay, let's start over..."
Tahona Tequila Bistro is bigger than it looks from the outside. It's set a step up from the sidewalk on a non-mall stretch of Pearl Street, and from the street, you can only see a couple of outside tables, a scattering of high-tops and the bar. We sat at a normal table halfway back in the dim, post-industrial belly of the place, under an exposed ceiling. There was strange, posterized wall art featuring the harvest of agave cacti, and Talking Heads playing off one of the bartenders' iPods.
"Okay, so tacos, chips, salsa, albondigas, more tacos, chorizo. Are we ready?"
Open since summer 2006, Tahona was the final entry in Peter and Mara Soutiere's Colorado trifecta. They already owned Magnolia Steak and Seafood, a New American restaurant, in Lafayette, and Sushi Mara right next door. Mexican food was the logical next step. They found a hot stretch of pavement in Boulder, a spot just outside Dave Query's zone of control, and went in strong with 120 tequilas, fresh-made margaritas, weekend DJs and dancing, a board inspired by the flavors of the Yucatan peninsula with a little Colorado twist. I was excited to try that board. And starving. Did I mention that?
The waitress came, and we ordered a huge amount of food. The chips were good — thin and crisp, heat-lamp warm — and came with a tomatillo salsa heavy on the lime. The albondigas (pork meatballs, bulked out with white rice and speckled with herbs) arrived on a bed of red rice, sprinkled with melted asadero, and I ate them like a snake — unhinging my jaw and just shoveling them in without really tasting them. But I stopped when I saw the look on Laura's face as she ate the first bite of her tamale: that what-did-I-just-put-in-my-mouth face, the kind you get when you're expecting cherry pie and end up with sardines.
"What's the matter?" I asked, always the solicitous husband. "You're not eating."
She cut a third of the tamale away, forked it onto my plate. "Taste this," she said.
If the Greeks, with their rustic cuisine, their love of yogurt and lamb and fire, had at some point in their history discovered a knack for tamale-making (rather than focusing all their energies on inventing moussaka and the all-night diner), this is the tamale they would have made. Filled with spinach and chicken, packed inside a masa body that was strangely fluffy and sickly sweet, it was a terrible tamale.
"Yeah, that's not good," I said. But because it wasn't poison, I ate it anyway, hunger getting the better of common sense. Laura just ate a lot of chips instead and waited for the next course.
I'd ordered the house-made chorizo and eggs, and the eggs over were so underdone and runny that the yolks were still swimming in gelatinous clear albumen and impossible to break, because the yolk sac was cold and gooey. The chorizo was burnt on the outside, raw in the center; tasted of chile powder and, oddly, machine oil; and had an unfortunate texture like underdone meatloaf or good tartare — a forcemeat texture that spoke of overworking and undercooking both at the same time. Underdone pork smeared with raw egg: yum.
Laura's Tacos Traditional, recommended by the waitress, looked all right, but the meat inside — pork again — was awful. Coated in some kind of pasty rub — adobo, maybe — it tasted of smoke and chemicals, leaving a gritty film on my tongue and hatred in my heart. How can you fuck up a taco? Mexican food is one of the purest, most idiot-proof cuisines in the world — so where, exactly, does one find an idiot capable of thwarting the best intentions of centuries' worth of peasant cooking?
Cooking school. Or, failing that, a kitchen that for some reason thinks it is better than just plain tacos. Tahona even had the temerity to call these "streetside." Word to the wise: A street taco in Mexico comes with fresh meat pulled directly off the grill — chopped pork or asada or calf's head — poked into a double corn tortilla laid over wax paper (or worse) and topped with shredded cabbage. That's it. I can't recall ever seeing pickled radish offered, or queso, or nice pinto beans with epazote, or crème fraîche. Definitely not crème fraîche.
Bad as our meal was, I went back to Tahona.
On my next visit, I sat at a high-top in the bar. My theory (well researched over the years) is that every bad dining experience can be made survivable if you just drink enough. Go for a nice añejo with a bottled beer back and, as when dealing with zombies, just start running and never look back.
I ordered antojitos: chorizo and potato tacos. Why did I go for the chorizo again? Because I am a glutton for punishment and because, sometimes, a house just deserves another chance. Such was the case here. The little tacos were filled with a mix of spicy ground chorizo, properly prepared, and diced potato; the grilled tortillas were crisp around the edges. Aside from the chips and salsa, these tacos were the first truly edible thing I'd had at Tahona, the first thing I'd want to order again. There was also an amuse bouche (so appropriate in a Mexican restaurant) that landed on my table, a small plate of carrot strips, raw onion and half a chile pepper with a pot of homemade hot sauce. I laughed, but then I ate one of the carrots and found that everything had been pickled. The onion didn't work, but the pickled carrot and chile were tasty, and the hot sauce had a good, sustained burn hanging above a complex, creamy, ketchup-and-chile flavor.
So I was feeling good, like maybe I'd just caught the house on a very (very, very, very) bad night, and the crew in the kitchen really could cook. I drained another beer, listened to the music (Talking Heads again) and waited expectantly for my entree.
I'd ordered shrimp mojo, basically shrimp (good, sweet, white Gulf shrimp) in a briny citrus and garlic bath. A peasant dish. The kind of thing you find (if you're lucky) at some tarpaper shack on the beach, made by an old man with skin like leather and one pan to his name. Spear a couple of shrimp, grill them, drop them in a tortilla, eat, die happy — it's as simple as that. But Tahona added some queso fresco, because lime and cheese taste awesome together. And the kitchen also took the tortilla and made it into a gratin with potato, cheese and (I think) artichoke leaves, undercooked it, then served it to me cold, casserole style, soaking in mojo so that the bottom was all pasty and awful.
And still I went back. The menu's description of the enchiladas as "our version of the classic" should have set off alarm bells, but I ordered them anyway. Chicken, cheese and a julienne of unidentifiable vegetables came wrapped in a tortilla, balanced above a tarn of terrible enchilada sauce. This mess tasted more like a bad fusion egg roll than an enchilada. Even worse was my plate of what was supposed to be pork carnitas glazed in a honey-ancho sauce but arrived as a giant chunk of barely roasted pork, full of fat and with no sauce, sided by black bean and rice flautas that looked like undone wontons and tasted no better than okay.
Hoping to cheer myself, I ordered dessert: a slice of tres leches cake that the waitress promised — promised — was her favorite thing on the menu.
It was one of the worst things I've put in my mouth all year. Cold, still chilled from the fridge, topped with a brown-sugar buttercream frosting that had the color and texture of foie gras terrine and tasted like a clot of cold butter, then topped again with chunks of pineapple soaked in something resembling turpentine. I ate two bites, choked down a third, dropped a fourth on the floor and finally left Tahona Tequila Bistro.
Never to return.
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