In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard -- south to north -- within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...
In the course of writing this blog, I've become an expert at spotting hole-in-the-wall eateries in strip malls while cruising in erratic traffic, much to my wife's dismay. She'd much prefer that I keep my eye on the road rather than scanning for new signs advertising pho or flautas. Even so, I might have driven right past the new location of Chili Verde if not for the advance press -- based on its popularity at the original location at 37th and Tejon -- that tipped me off to its new spot at 23rd and Federal Boulevard. The small green Chili Verde sign -- easily mistaken for that of a medical marijuana dispensary -- peeks out from behind a towering Siberian elm. The restaurant is sandwiched between an herbal supplements shop and a cluttered Mexican market in a spot previously occupied by a carniceria, or perhaps a tortilleria. Although Federal is busier than Tejon, Chili Verde will surely need to rely on reputation and word-of mouth to get Mexican-food lovers flocking back to the dining room in numbers similar to when it closed a year ago.
Chili Verde is not a typical Federal Boulevard Mexican restaurant: It's not a taqueria (the word taco only appears once on the menu); it doesn't feature the coastal cuisine of Pacific Mexico (from Sinaloa, Nayarit and Jalisco -- familiar place names for Federal veterans); and there's not a trace of Denver-style green chile in all its starch-thickened glory. But as the new niño on the block, the chic and modern restaurant with its exposed brick walls and espresso-dark bar offers traditional Pueblan cuisine -- a rarity in Denver -- in an elegant but relaxing setting, something also not too common on a street that's more inclined to the rustic, the homey or the just plain divey.
But no matter the price point, Denver diners have come to expect free chips and salsa at any Mexican restaurant. Chili Verde's version of generosity includes a salsa with flavors of roasted tomato, a toasted-chile infused oil, and a scoop of warming, rich frijoles refritos.
Chili Verde's menu features both a chocolate-brown mole Poblano and a tangier mole verde, but I'd had (and thoroughly enjoyed) both of these at the old location. I wanted to try a couple of dishes that showed off the kitchen's creativity and the French touches that punctuate Pueblan cuisine. We started with tostadas de cangrejo (crab), which turned out to be imitation crab meat. The chipotle cream sauce added smoke and heat to the sweet, pink-tinted meat heaped generously on freshly fried tostadas. There's no way a kitchen could offer so much real crab for $9, but it would have been nice if the menu had mentioned the fact. Life's way too short to settle for imitation crab when more interesting tamales and choriqueso populate the menu.
But my entrée -- crepes stuffed with bites of rib-eye steak -- exceeded my expectations. Crepes are not uncommon in Pueblan cooking; I've eaten them with cajeta (a goat milk caramel sauce) and rompope (almost like spiked eggnog), but I'd never had them in a savory Mexican dish. The tender steak came bathed in a rich and spicy red chile, while the crepes were smothered in a tangy green sauce. (For spelling police and language purists, "chile" is the more standard choice, but the kitchen at Chili Verde is more interested in perfect flavors than in quibbling over i's and e's.) As much as I love corn tortillas and the way the earthy flavor melds with savory fillings, the crepes were a lovely change of pace, offering no distraction from the pure chile flavors of the salsas -- the deep, dried-fruit sweetness of the red and grassy notes of the green, both buzzing with vigorous but not painful heat.
Amy ordered the relleno de mariscos, a dish similar to chiles en nogada: a whole poblano pepper doused in walnut cream sauce and dotted with pomegranate seeds, only stuffed with tilapia and baby shrimp and scallops instead of the more familiar ground beef, in addition to nuts and nuggets of dried fruit. The combination of seafood with the mincemeat-style filling wasn't entirely successful, but the dish is certainly unique in the litany of Mexican menu items available in Denver.
The cocktail menu featured another Pueblan specialty: the fermented pineapple beverage called tepache, in this case offering its mildly funky bite in a tangy margarita rimmed with chile powder. I don't know if tepache is used in margaritas in the bars and restaurants of Puebla or if it's generally consumed straight, but I thought it was a superior accompaniment to food than the generally sweeter mixes used in many other Mexican restaurants.
Chili Verde may be difficult to spot from a passing car, but its food and its personality stand out. The service is professional and precise; the waitstaff knows how to up-sell without being pushy, understands the pacing of a meal, and offers casual flourishes -- like filling water glasses with a cloth napkin held between the glass and the customer to prevent splashes -- that speak of experience and attention to detail. The management has also equipped its staff with the knowledge and training to help educate diners; with the exception of the crab tostadas, we were never left to guess at the contents, composition or origin of a dish. I love the no-frills, working-class joints where I can lounge in a booth on a weekend and get a big plate of food for a small price. There are many places on Federal where I can explore unfamiliar plates at my own pace, but sometimes it's nice to have a guided tour of a menu's more obscure corners.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.