Unlike at Casa Bonita (see review), everyone is fully clothed at Hacienda Colorado, 5059 South Wadsworth Boulevard in Lakewood -- and the food is delicious. But the two eateries do have something in common: the Black-Eyed Pea. The corporation once owned Casa Bonita, and Hacienda co-owner Tim Schmidt owns all fifteen Black-Eyed Peas in Colorado; he and Hacienda partner Jim Hayes also owned a few BEPs in Arizona. "In 1997," Hays explains, "we decided to sell everything we had in Arizona, and we wanted to do Mexican in Denver. We're both from Houston, where we were college roommates together, and we've always shared a love of Mexican. It took us about a year to find this space, and we wound up gutting the place and starting from scratch with the decor and the menu."
The Hacienda sits in what was once an On the Border, but you wouldn't know it from your surroundings. The pair did a great job redecorating in a rather upscale way -- no blankets hanging from the walls, no cheap pottery lurking about -- that's more leather and dark-wood steakhouse than down-home Mexican joint. But the food is very affordable: The prices are pretty much the same as at Casa Bonita, and while there are no all-you-can-eat "delicious deluxe dinners" at Hacienda Colorado, this place serves up food you actually want to eat, in portions that are plenty hefty.
In fact, the only complaint I had about the Hacienda was that the kitchen sometimes piles on so much food that two good-sized platters are required for some entrees -- and that can make eating at the four-top tables mighty tight, especially if you get a few large sodas. (If you can, try to get a booth -- which can be tricky, since Hacienda Colorado doesn't take reservations.) The fajitas al carbon ($8.99 for a half-pound) was one of the troublingly large entrees: A sizzling platter of quality, well-grilled beef came with another platter, this one bearing a bowl of the Hacienda's charra beans, pintos in a stew with onions, green peppers and tomatoes topped off with cheese and sided by rice, very fresh pico de gallo and a simple but tasty guacamole. The best part of the dish, though, were the tortillas, which the Hacienda makes itself and serves fresh from the griddle. There was more than enough meat in the half-pound order to stuff our fill of those torts, but a pound is also available ($17.99).
The tortillas made all the difference in the tacos ($6.99), too, a platter of two that had been stuffed -- and I do mean stuffed -- with well-seasoned ground beef in one case and spicy marinated chicken in the other. Another taco came with the Patron's Platter ($7.89), along with two cheese-packed enchiladas smothered in the Hacienda's green chile, which contained large chunks of tender pork and lots of chiles (on a second stop, I took the kitchen up on its offer to make the chile hotter and was seriously tearing up by the end). And while at first I thought I could have done without the Patron's accompanying chile con queso, since it was the usual cheap cheesy blend, it grew on me.
So did the red chile on the chiles rellenos ($7.29), three crispy shelled Anaheims that were layered rather than stuffed with cheese. Somehow, everything worked: Inside the deep-fried package, the peppers retained their shape and flavor, and the sauce on top -- a chile-powder-heavy concoction when spooned up solo -- mellowed against the rellenos. Excellent, well-salted chips, freshly fried from those homemade tortillas, and a fresh salsa full of fresh tomato bits and just the right amount of cilantro and chile bite also came with every meal.
While there were no cliff divers to entertain the kiddies (much less their mothers), the staff at the Hacienda was very accommodating, and the place does have a good kids' menu. Each item on it -- they all come with several sides -- costs $3.25; the roster includes a crispy beef taco, bean-and-cheese nachos and cheese quesadilla, although my kids confessed that their favorite was the peanut-butter-and-jelly soft taco.
Despite the plethora of adult beverages -- although I think the margaritas are a little heavy on the sour, you can choose from 75 brands of tequila -- I found that the chocolate milkshake ($3.50) was the ideal way to cool a burning tongue.
And the Hacienda is the ideal way to avoid the chain-row hell that is South Wadsworth.
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Where there's smoke, there's ire: Hell would be a mild word to describe my recent attempt to eat at the Atrium Bar and Grill, at 554 South Broadway. This is one of those places I've often driven past and thought might be an interesting stop. I finally did after someone at the bar sent me the Atrium's menu, which touts the place as offering the Best Steak Sandwich Meal in Town: sandwich, a baked potato, corn on the cob and a house salad, all for just $4.95. But only smokers apparently need apply: This spot so reeked of cigarettes that we gagged at the entrance.
Then came the really bad news: We'd be smelling like smoke for a month for naught, because the Atrium wasn't serving food that night. The place had a good excuse, since the staff was still recovering from the death of a fellow employee a few days before. Still, it would have been helpful had they posted a "kitchen closed" sign on the door so that we could have skipped the secondhand-smoke appetizer. As it is, I don't think even the Best Steak Sandwich Meal in the World could convince me to go back.
What's happenin': The meal costs a bit more than the Atrium's meal deal, but it's supposed to be the Ultimate Dining Experience. Through the month of November, chef Robert Meitzer of the Palace Arms at the Brown Palace Hotel (321 17th Street) will offer a world-class menu in conjunction with the James Beard Foundation's annual fundraiser. Sponsored by Louis XIII de Rémy Martin, the five-course meal includes foie gras, natch, as well as roasted rack of lamb and a glass of Louis XIII cognac. The cost is $175, which includes the gratuity. And no smoking, please. -- Wagner