The temperature had topped a hundred, with no relief in sight. Clearly, it was time to fight fire with fire--so we headed to the nearest Mexican restaurant.
Tafolino's, which sits almost on the Lakewood-Golden border, took over a plaza space formerly occupied by an Italian eatery. "When I bought the restaurant, we decided to keep the pizza ovens and served some of the Italian food along with the Mexican," says Juan Tafoya, who owns the place with his wife, Josie. "A friend of mine from Santa Fe always said I look Italian, and he had called me `Tafolino' as a joke. So we decided to call it that." When the Italian food didn't sell, the Tafoyas dropped it from the menu but kept the name. "We get people who tell us, `You're the only Italian couple we know that makes great Mexican food,'" Juan says, laughing.
Close, but no cigarro. While Tafolino's food never really rises to greatness, some of it is quite good. Most of the recipes are Juan's, who was employed by a construction company until an injury forced him to find other work, which turned out to be peddling homemade burritos on the street under the banner Denver Burritos. Loyal customers convinced him to open his own restaurant two years ago. Juan's burritos are still among the best items on the menu; we added a 75-cent side of the Tafoyas' simple, chunky guacamole to a juicy shredded-beef model ($2.25) for an ample, inexpensive lunch. Of course, we'd already filled up quite a bit on the complimentary chips and salsa, the latter a well-pureed blend choking with fiery chiles.
Just as filling but considerably less toothsome were the flautas ($5.50), a dish so named because of its resemblance to flutes. The three corn tortillas had been crammed with beef, then rolled and deep-fried--too long, unfortunately, because the beef was so dried up that it hurt your gums to chew. We softened it as best we could with more guacamole and sour cream, but the charred meat edged out any other tastes. And the cup of red chile that came with the order did nothing to heat things up; it was smooth and bland.
Tafolino's green chile, on the other hand, packs quite a punch. With its very heavy (bordering on greasy) pork flavor, the tomato-enhanced verde was just right for the chile relleno plate ($5.50). It actually was the best thing about the order, since the Anaheim chile was very mild and the cheddar cheese melted on top too low-grade to offer much zest. The sides of rice and refried beans were quite tasty: The rice was redolent with tomato sauce, and the beans were chunky enough to stop short of baby food.
On a return visit, I made it all the way through a plate of decent huevos rancheros ($4.50) before I suddenly heard a guitar gently strumming "Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star." It segued into "Feelings," and within seconds my worst fears were realized: The solitary guitar had turned into the Trio Soles de Mexico mariachis. There are several things I'd rather do than try to relax at dinner while being serenaded by a group of grinning musicians in the middle of a crowded dining room; one would be to eat an entire 32-ounce can of refried beans while locked in a closet for 48 hours. Only a seventeen-member table of drunken revelers seemed to enjoy the intrusion. One teenage boy, obviously already annoyed at being caught in public with his parents, fixed the threesome with a look that suggested his dysfunctional childhood might cause him to visit bodily harm upon the musicians. I don't speak Spanish, but I certainly understood the meaning of the short sentence muttered by one guitarist before the trio beat a hasty retreat from the surly youth: "Time to get the hell out of here."
As for me, I suddenly became very interested in my dessert. Fortunately, it commanded some attention. The flan ($1.75) was almost too large for one person and heavy on the egg whites, which gave the custard that characteristic "eggy" flavor. By the time I finished my excellent puffy sopaipilla ($1.50 for one), the mariachis had moved into the smoking room, blessedly separated by a wall from the main dining room.
There was no mariachi band at La Costa--but then, there wasn't room for one. The five-month-old restaurant occupies the former home of the Philadelphia Filly, which left behind its equestrian decor but not its culinary flair. What La Costa's kitchen lacks in innovation, though, it tries to make up in size.
As our waitress had warned, the La Costa combination ($6.75) was an almost insurmountable platter of beef-and-bean burrito, cheese enchilada, chile relleno, tamale and tostada. A taco arrived on a side plate; it was the standout in more ways than one. The crispy, homemade shell was up to the job of holding in the dripping filling of spicy ground meat, cheese, lettuce and tomatoes. The rest of the combination, however, merged into one big refried-bean-melted-cheese-corn-and-flour-tortilla thing. It was a challenge to identify the individual components. The tamale (stuffed with more spicy meat, this time shredded) was the easiest, so I worked through the rest by process of elimination. A large jalapeno might have been stuffed at one time but had been separated from both its breading and cheese stuffing; the burrito and enchilada had melded into a burchilada. The whole deal was covered with pools of red and green chile, which made for a palatal tennis match; my tastebuds kept volleying between dull and dynamite.
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The chicken mole ($5) looked incredibly tidy by comparison, even though it featured a large pile of tender chicken chunks swathed in sauce. I'm a big fan of mole and always order it when I can, but La Costa's mild mole didn't have much taste, much less a discernible trace of chocolate (actually, only some regions of Mexico use chocolate in their mole, which technically translates to "chile," not "chocolate," sauce).
By comparison, the steak ranchero ($7) fairly burst with flavor. Soft bits of beef had been slow-cooked with tomatoes, potatoes, jalapenos and onions; the dish smacked of an expert hand in the kitchen. And that same hand must have selected the superb flan, which La Costa buys from a catering company called Paella, Inc. The perfect balance of egg whites and yolks had created a sturdy custard that was still soft and creamy--more than a match for the not-too-sweet caramel sauce topping. We'd also ordered a sopaipilla, but it was hard to concentrate on anything but the flan. It was so good, we even forgave La Costa for serving warm beer.
These days, it's tough to keep anything cool.