A Surprise Inside
Some of the best meals I've had -- the most surprising, often the most memorable -- have come on nights when the last thing in the world I wanted to do was eat out; nights when I just wanted to sit in front of the TV in boxer shorts and a cowboy hat, watching reruns of Night Court and eating takeout tandoori or ice cream straight from the tub.
My first meal at Z Cuisine was on one of these nights; I had to be pretty much trussed and hog-tied, thrown in the trunk like a mob snitch and dragged to the French bistro that I later decided was Denver's best new restaurant. And the thought of one more young chef doing gourmet pizzas and New American comfort food had been enough to drive me into seclusion rather than to Cafe Star. I'd locked myself in my office at home, holing up with a six-pack and my computer, looking at Indian travel websites and Vegas hotel rooms and the cost of one-way tickets to Tokyo. Laura finally coaxed me out, leaving a trail of cigarettes and Reese's Peanut Butter Cups leading to the back door, then jumping me and hustling me into a waiting car. I'm grateful to her, because that dinner was one of the greatest meals I had last year -- made all the more remarkable by the near-instantaneous reversal of my spirits the moment a menu was put in front of me. Within ten minutes, I was ready to eat the paper it was printed on, the silverware on the table and the fixtures in the kitchen. It was an amazing dinner. It went on for almost four hours. And when it was done, I wanted nothing so much as to go right back in and do it all over again.
My mood swings are worse than those of any fifteen-year-old girl, and I can be a bastard when forced to do something against my will -- say, eat for a paycheck rather than for myself. And yet the restaurants I visit on these nights almost invariably turn me on like a light switch, rock me, roll me and move me in ways that amaze me. They not only thwart my sulking, but -- through food and service, the magic of a well-managed dining room and the disposition of a well-run floor -- cultivate a sense of inevitability. At some restaurants, you're going to have a good time whether you want to or not. Nothing else is allowed.
Guadalajara is one of those restaurants. From its nowhere location, from the parking lot it shares with the hotel across the way, from the road winding through a maze of big-box retailers and battery stores and strangled landscaping, it looks like exactly the kind of place you'd expect to grow wild in this contemporary biosphere -- a concept restaurant flogging yet another overworked notion of Disneyfied Mexican food to people who don't know the difference, a kitchen desperately trying to cram another few hundred chalupas down the snack-holes of another few hundred tourists. Inside, it's bright and colorful and loud. The decor is hacienda modern, with carved parrots hanging from the ceiling wearing sombreros and holding beer bottles in their claws, and folk-art murals of pueblo life -- all churches and chiles and smiling stick figures dancing, painted in primary colors with no shadows. The windows and doorways are arched. The booths are deep and huge. Almost everything that can be tiled is, except the floors that are covered with thin industrial carpeting. The interconnected warren of dining rooms and waiting rooms and service areas look like they could be cleaned with a high-pressure hose and a squeegee -- and except at the height of the rush, the entire space is so clean and highly polished, it gleams.
So of course, I wasn't expecting much from Guadalajara. I was only out because a meal -- several meals -- had gone wrong earlier in the week, putting me back on dining duty. All I wanted was a burrito and a beer. And I figured a burrito and a beer was about all a place like this -- that looked like this, in a location like this -- would be able to handle. I'd become so accustomed to the little neighborhood taquería, the storefront huddled up in a strip mall alongside carnicerías and convenience stores selling international phone cards, that my reflex judgment of any restaurant not of that model was that it must be somehow less authentically Mexican just because its owners had spent a few bucks on custom-made chairs and tilework. And parrots wearing hats.
But I was wrong. What I should have seen was that the dining rooms were filled mostly with Mexican families hunched over huge plates and bowls of beautiful-looking food, that most of the business was being conducted in Spanish, that the kitchen was busy and well-staffed, and that the smiles on the servers were real and true -- not stapled on in the back prior to the start of service. What I should have noticed was the smell: chiles and hot oil, the clean tang of charred peppers and that indescribable scent of mingled sauces and cilantro and seared meats and onions and ripe tomato that is the signature of a Mexican galley in full swing. That's something you can't fake, as actual and unalterable as pheromones.
But it wasn't until I looked over the menu that I realized there was more to Guadalajara. Yes, there was beer (if a parrot could have one, it would have been cruel if I couldn't have one, too), and there were burritos -- eleven of them, ranging from a simple refried-bean version for less than three bucks, to chorizo and picadillo, to pork simmered with tomatillos and served under a blanket of mild, smoky green chile, to shrimp in an adobo sauce the color of old bricks that bled out of the burrito when I cut into it and was so rich it could've been a red mole in another life. (Sadly, this burrito included huge chunks of button mushrooms, and I hate button mushrooms. They are the vanilla ice cream in the Baskin-Robbins of the fungal world -- the fall-back choice for those who can't, or won't, try the Triple-Chocolate Fudge Implosion or Caramel Rum Raisin or Extreme Guava.)
I also ordered a cripi -- a fresh-made flour tortilla, flash-fried and topped with cheese almost like an inside-out Indian cheese naan -- and tamales. Big places usually screw up tamales, steaming them in batches, keeping them so long that the masa starts to take on the bitter flavor of lingering death. But not here.
Guadalajara has had a lot of practice making tamales since it opened in this spot more than six years ago, and those tamales -- as well as the rest of the menu -- have proved so popular that the restaurant has grown into a mini-chain. This original Guadalajara is owned by Miguel Toro and Antonio Amador; Toro is part owner of the Guadalajara that made its debut in a former Burger King in Windsor last summer, and Amador owns two more Guadalajaras -- one in Parker and one in Littleton. Both Toro and Amador were cooks in Washington state (Toro in Spokane, at a place called Fiesta Something-or-Other, and Amador was a head chef in Bellingham) before they moved to Colorado and started their own joint. And to make things a little more geographically complicated, they brought with them recipes from restaurants in Southern California that took their inspiration not from the borderlands-Mexican and norteño cuisine typical of Denver, but from points much farther south, from Puebla and the coastal areas of Baja and, yes, Guadalajara, which has its own style and flavor as different from that of northern Mexico as Maine is from Alabama.
I was so impressed by Guadalajara's cooking that when I was done with that first meal -- my mood so altered that I could have sat watching the parrots for hours -- I got an order of flautas to go. They were made with tender, shredded beef picadillo and served with a special, mild onion-and-cilantro salsa keyed for subtlety and sharpness.
And I'd barely finished those flautas when I went back on Sunday afternoon. While I waited for a table, a waiter brought me a beer, weaving through a dining room crowded with families and large, loud parties and little girls in party dresses, carrying a single Corona on a tray like it was a bottle of champagne, attended by a single lime and a frosted pilsner glass. Once seated, I dug into fried tostadas, laid flat and covered with a forest of lettuce and fat slices of ripe, buttery avocado and tomatoes; camarones con tocino -- bacon-wrapped prawns braised with onions, mushrooms (again) and green peppers; and fish tacos with another custom salsa.
The next day I was back again. In addition to the Mexican standards -- the tacos and tamales and burritos and cocteles de camarón served hot or cold -- Guadalajara also offers many of the traditional pueblo dishes that have been co-opted by Denver's white-tablecloth Mexican restaurants, where they're gussied up and made palatable to yuppies with more credit than good sense. Here, though, they're presented as the simple plates they are, at simple prices. Pipian, the Mexican pumpkin seed, has lately become a buzzword ingredient, graduating on fancy menus from the descriptive paragraph that customarily runs below the entree's name ("...served in a delicious sauce accented by pipian") to second-billing in the name itself ("pollo con pipian") to center-plate status -- pipian de puerco, pipian flan, pipian con pescado. But at Guadalajara, pipian isn't a gimmick -- it's just dinner. And the chicken pipian showed that this kitchen knows how to properly employ the pumpkin seed. Tender strips of chicken came swimming in a bath of earthy, orange sauce as creamy and thick as a mole, built of complementary layers of sweetness and savory richness, the flavor so delicate it might collapse at any second if not for the balancing note of the seeds' gentle heaviness and the heft of the fresh tortilla I wrapped everything in.
The kitchen also does pollo poblano in a sauce of chocolate, apples and spice that points up the fact that chiles are a fruit and should sometimes be treated that way; a chile verde entree that makes a proper meal of the Colorado-style green most often used as a condiment; and a "Chile Colorado" that's actually beef simmered in a mild red chile that would taste like home to anyone coming from Mexico or the desert around Albuquerque. I ate sopa de albóndigas as though it was my last meal on earth, the loose pork meatballs bobbing in a mild broth full of huge chunks of carrot, potato and summer squash. And then I went for a pure indulgence better suited to a six-year-old -- the chimichanga manzana, apples and cinnamon and nutmeg wrapped in a tortilla, deep-fried, laced with Mexican caramel, served with ice cream and whipped cream, and topped with a fresh strawberry sauce.
I will always love restaurants that make a good meal unavoidable, restaurants that surprise me, that offer excellence and dedication and tradition in the least likely locations, that turn me around despite my best efforts at effete disdain, that remind me (over and over again) that great food persists regardless of time or temper. With the unexpected depths of the menu, the honesty and simplicity of the cuisine -- with the comforting service and drunken parrots, the families in the dining room and the surprising transposition of true Mexican flavors to a hotel parking lot in Aurora -- Guadalajara instructed me yet again in the power of a great meal to cure almost anything.
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