What’s in a name? The sign above a restaurant’s door can often tell you all you need to know, especially if you’re the kind of eater who would rather savor a particular dish than spread your appetite across a broad, rambling menu. Some eateries are single-minded in their dedication to perfecting a specialty, making it easier for you to indulge your craving. And if the name of your culinary crush happens to feature in the name of the restaurant, it’s a good sign that the cooks inside think like you. Such is the case with Birrieria El Viejon, Hamburguesas Don Jesus and Flautas La Pila, all of which are dedicated to the nearly Zen-like mastery of their chosen obsessions.
Birrieria El Viejon
3000 South Federal Boulevard
The word “birrieria” is easy to trip over if you’re not a fluent Spanish speaker, but its meaning is clear: A birrieria is a restaurant that specializes in birria, a slow-cooked stew that has its origins in the state of Jalisco but has spread to other regions of the Pacific coast of Mexico. El Viejon is Denver’s only restaurant to specialize in birria, making it a destination for those with a weakness for goat.
This low-key restaurant on South Federal Boulevard, located in what was once an outpost of Bubba Chinos, serves birria de chivo three ways: seca, or dry, with pulled goat served in tortillas; horneado, or oven-roasted, and served as a platter with rice and beans; or en caldo, with the shredded meat submerged in a rich broth. Whichever you choose, the goat is always tender and juicy, with a mild flavor achieved through subtle seasoning and slow braising. Although the brick-red color and gentle warmth indicate the presence of chiles, none of the options will set your tongue on fire — and even the salsas served in squeeze bottles add more tanginess than fire.
If you’re butting up against the idea of eating goat, all of the options are also available in beef — make that res, since there’s no English on the menu — and the kitchen also offers beef barbacoa. If you want your protein packaged in a more familiar form, El Viejon also stuffs the birria and barbacoa into quesadillas and burritos. Cervezas, micheladas and clamatos preparados highlight the drinks roster. East-siders burning for birria, don’t feel left out: El Viejon just opened a second location at 596 Dayton Street in Aurora.
Hamburguesas Don Jesus
800 Decatur Street
Denverites are familiar with the Mexican hamburger, which, as served — and likely invented — in our city is little more than a tortilla stuffed with beans and a hamburger patty instead some other form of ground or shredded beef, pork or chicken. But a Mexican-style hamburguesa is a completely different beast. And make no mistake: All of the burgers listed on the wall menu at Hamburguesas Don Jesus are beasts, just waiting to pounce on unsuspecting victims. What makes an hamburguesa different from a standard American hamburger? The bun is a familiar sesame-studded number (unless you opt for the Torta burger, which comes on a soft bolillo roll), and the beef patty is much like its gringo cousin — seared hard and flattened to the size of a saucer — but you won’t find the toppings that you’d see at McDonald’s or Red Robin.
First, unless you stick with a simple cheeseburger, there’s almost always some sort of processed meat on top of the beef patty. The house Don Jesus burger comes with a slice of fried ham, and that’s just the beginning of the madness. The menu offers descriptions in Spanish and English, but a little Spanglish will help you decipher the options: A wini (or winie, it’s spelled both ways) is a hot dog, and on the Texana, Exotica and Torta burgers, that wini comes wrapped in bacon. Boloni, which needs no explanation, also makes an appearance on several of the sandwiches. Sour cream, avocado, jalapeño and Anaheim chiles round out the Mexican-themed toppings, with ketchup, mustard, mayo, lettuce, tomato and onions as more traditionally American options. At $11, the Torta burger is enough food for at least two people, with double ham, double cheese (white processed slices), double avocado, a bacon-wrapped hot dog and a slathering of mayo, tomato, onion and lettuce (which blend together into the kind of salad you might find at a picnic in Nebraska). The beef itself takes up the entire surface area of the oval bolillo, even if it gets lost beneath the avalanche of toppings.
If you’re looking for a novel way to feed a platoon, there’s a $60 burger called La Tribu (the tribe) that stuffs ten burgers into one bun (in a circular pattern, not piled atop one another) along with equivalent amounts of all the messy stuff mentioned above, plus pineapple. I suppose you’d slice it into wedges to serve rather than attempt to pass it around a circle of your own tribe.
Tucked into a warehouse-heavy district just south of Sports Authority Field, Don Jesus occupies a space that had been a bar but now lacks a liquor license; you can quench your thirst with Mexican Coke in glass bottles and an assortment of fruity sodas. Despite its divey history, the inside dining room is surprisingly sunny, and there’s a fenced-in patio for enjoying warm weather without views of the surrounding industry.
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Flautas La Pila
1420 South Federal Boulevard
Flautas La Pila is a bright-blue shack attached to the side of a spa on South Federal (if you enter from the back off Arkansas Avenue, parking and exiting will be a little easier). Beyond the inclusion of “flautas” in its name, the flauteria (if there is such a word) doesn’t look promising from the outside, but inside it’s bright and clean, with an open kitchen that prevents your imagination from taking over before your food arrives.
For the flautas, housemade corn tortillas are stuffed with shredded beef, chicken, potato or the now-familiar hot dog, rolled and then fried. The result is simple, toothpick-thin and a great afternoon snack sided with guacamole, sour cream and crumbled queso. A well-stocked and well-maintained salsa bar hides a few goodies beneath its stainless-steel lid — like a crock of pickled cueritos (chewy, thin-sliced pork rinds) and a couple of shredded slaws doused in vinegary dressing that you won’t often find in other spots.
La Pila may be a flautas specialist, but the kitchen also serves tacos dobladas, which I’ve yet to encounter at another Mexican restaurant in town. The cook in the kitchen when I stopped in agreed that they’re unique in Denver and explained that the style comes from Chihuahua. For the tacos, La Pila fills a flour tortilla (also made in-house) with a choice of guisados: stews of pork, chicharrones, beef, rajas (cheese and poblano chiles) or chicken. They’re much bigger than a standard street taco and also sport a healthy spoonful of refritos, making a single doblada a filling meal.
These dobladas may break the rule of the single-minded eatery, but they’re a worthwhile discovery. After all, even when you’re engrossed in a hunt for singular perfection, a little variety never hurts.