Dakota Coburn’s quiet intensity expands into full-on enthusiasm as he reminisces about vacations in Mexico and his initial forays into that country’s cuisine when he was eight — from his first taste of real mole to tacos al pastor straight off the spit of a Puerto Vallarta street vendor to a simple tableside Caesar salad in Cozumel while with his dad on a scuba trip. Even at that young age, he wanted to re-create the food he’d tried during his travels, and by ten he owned his first cookbook and was preparing meals for his family.
Coburn’s interest in food was spurred on by a friend’s mother, who gave the two boys weekly cooking lessons in her kitchen. The boys would trade off cooking for each other’s families once a week, and by the time Coburn turned thirteen, they were getting paid by other parents to cook dinners at houses around the neighborhood. His obsession soon went international: Peggy Markel, the mother of another friend, ran a cooking school in Italy, and at fifteen, Coburn went to Tuscany for two weeks. He and Markel’s son sat in on classes, made ravioli and toured farmhouses and wineries. “It was an amazing opportunity; she had a lot of connections,” he recalls. “I remember eating gnocchi from some of the best chefs in Italy.”
Although Coburn’s family had lived in Colorado when he was younger, by then they’d moved to Southern California, where he attended high school. After graduation, he lived in Santa Barbara, surfing and making an attempt at business school — but the farmers’ markets held more allure than the classroom, and the weekly market that shut down most of the main drag in downtown Santa Barbara, along with other smaller markets in the area, meant he could cook with farm-fresh ingredients almost every day. Cooking school seemed a better option than the business classes he was taking, and he had fond memories of Boulder, so he enrolled in the Culinary School of the Rockies. After six months, though, he realized he could learn more in the kitchen than the classroom. “I liked the hands-on aspect; the book side of life, I’ve never been as good at,” he explains.
An assortment of Coburn's tacos perrones.
He got his first job cooking at the now-defunct Coral Room and appreciates how the creative, pan-Asian cuisine there helped expand his skills. Next, a year at the Flagstaff House introduced him to the French brigade kitchen system. “For a young cook, it’s important to have those rules and preparation,” he notes. “The importance of prep time becomes ingrained.”
And with that newfound knowledge, he headed off to New York City. “I wanted to test myself,” he remembers. His first job there, at Aquagrill, was a real test, since the restaurant’s chef “was constantly voted the worst person in New York to work for,” he says. “But I learned a lot of technique and how to cook fish properly.” He also worked at Hearth, where the menu was better suited to Coburn’s California style: farm-to-table fare, with much of the produce coming from visits to Union Square’s Greenmarket. “It was one of the most rewarding but hardest stations I’ve ever worked,” he recalls.
To take a break from that hard work, Coburn and the same friend he’d been in Italy with as a teen were thinking about heading to Costa Rica to surf, and they decided to finalize plans in Boulder. But then something far more tempting came their way: A new restaurant called the Kitchen was opening, and it seemed like it was the right restaurant at the right time. So right that Coburn never regretted pushing aside his beach plans. “It was, bar none, the best job as a line cook I’ve ever had,” he says. “The daily menu changes and working with Hugo [Matheson] was great. It was incredible — the buzz, the talent that came out of the kitchen, that microcosm of growth.”
But while he loved his job at the Kitchen, he was yearning to return to California, and he soon moved to San Francisco, where he met the woman who’s now the mother of his four-year-old son. He worked at the then-brand-new SPQR, where he was face-to-face with gregarious guests at a chef’s counter with four stations, and he continued to learn the restaurant business at Street, an eatery on Russian Hill, where he worked in the kitchen during the day and took headwaiter shifts at night to add to his people skills. Wanting to hone his front-of-the-house talents further, he also learned bartending at the Pig & Whistle.
Raising a child with no family around proved difficult, however, so Coburn and his wife (that’s how he refers to her, though they’ve yet to officially tie the knot) moved to New Hampshire to be closer to her family. But advancing his professional career there was tough, too. “There’s no progressive food,” he says. “It’s still stuck in the ’80s and ’90s except for a few diamonds in the rough. I spent most of my time working in bars. At Tavern 27, I ran their whole bar program for a year.
“But there’s no talent in New Hampshire in the front of the house or back of the house,” he adds, attributing that lack to stagnation in the Northeast outside of a few destinations like Portsmouth, Boston and Portland. “You get anywhere other than these few food meccas, and people are afraid of change.”
An avocado and radish salad at Centro.
So he brought his family back to Colorado, working with a friend on a plan to open a restaurant in Longmont, which didn’t work out. Instead, he met Dave Query and Jamey Fader of the Big Red F restaurant group, who offered him a job at Centro Latin Kitchen almost a year ago. A return to Mexican cuisine held great appeal — and challenges. “I didn’t have any experience cooking this kind of food except for myself,” Coburn explains. “But Jamey gave me really great advice: ‘Don’t be afraid to be over the top and unapologetic about Mexican flavors.’
“You know when your heart and soul is not attached to the food,” Coburn continues. But his heart and soul are definitely attached to this food, and he’s been reading up on Mexican culture and cooking, including the influence of Mexican cuisine on American tastes outlined in Gustavo Arellano’s Taco USA. “Everyone just wants to eat tacos,” he says, with a certain amount of incredulity.
And he’s made tacos the foundation of Centro’s new menu, which was almost completely retooled this spring. Although Query and Fader had final approval, they gave Coburn freedom to follow his passion — and he found inspiration in the tacos perrones that Query had discovered while on vacation in Rosarito, just south of Tijuana. Coburn studied the style — which consists of griddled flour tortillas filled with charro beans, avocado, salsa and marinated meat — and came up with variations suited to Centro. Long obsessed with spice rubs and marinades (while in New Hampshire, he started a bottled line called Devour Marinades), he found the slow-cooked pork, beef and chicken in Mexican cooking right in his wheelhouse. He modeled his achiote pork collar after traditional cochinita pibil, down to the use of banana leaves to hold in the moisture while cooking. He’s also been testing the willingness of Boulder diners to try new foods; while an occasional octopus special remains hit-or-miss, he’s thinking of adding rabbit, lamb and goat to the lineup, noting that they’re all very sustainable meats. He’s occasionally featured those proteins in his weekly taco series (which he wanted to call “Offal Night” but didn’t because he thought no one would come).
Coburn has traveled a long way — from coast to coast and then back to Colorado — to return to the kind of cooking he fell in love with as a kid. While he’s certain that the layers of flavors he builds with his meats and frijoles charros are rare outside of small, family-run taquerias in Mexico, he also knows he’s not inventing anything unique. Instead, he’s relying on his memories and travels to flavor a time-honored traditional cuisine. He sums up the result simply: “It’s not new; it’s old.”
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Dakota Coburn puts the finishing touches on a platter of tacos.