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Coming Together

On your marg, get set, go: The bar at Mezcal is ready for you.
Sean O'Keefe

We'd both woken up mad, the wife and I. Rolled out of bed pissed off, brushed our teeth pissed off, then gotten dressed pissed off, each under our own cloud of bad feelings and faulty neurochemistry. Wisely, we tried to avoid each other, to keep our two clouds from bumping into each other and striking sparks of matrimonial lightning that would, no doubt, lay waste to yet another Saturday in our long history of spotty weekends.

But in truth, a fight was coming, and we were both spoiling for it. Marriage -- our marriage, anyway -- is a blood sport, a border war with territory gained and lost by inches, a constant and shifting web of treaties and domestic peace agreements made, then broken almost immediately by harassment and guerrilla incursion. I am a difficult man to be married to under the best of circumstances, and Laura has a temper like ten pounds of dynamite in a five-pound bag. And if it weren't for the fact that we love each other like crazy-go-nuts and on some deeply damaged psychological level need the constant radioactive backscatter of hurt feelings and old grudges to prove that we're both still in this marriage -- that neither of us has yet been totally subsumed by the other -- I'm sure we would've done each other in long ago. It's a Pink Panther and Kato thing, these sudden and unexpected eruptions of connubial warfare serving to keep us both sharp and on our toes. That, and in all our wandering -- both together and separately -- neither of us has ever found a more worthy, more maddening opponent.

The fight came, and it was a bad one -- far-ranging and cruel. What's more, the thing had legs. It traveled, rolling from the bedroom to the kitchen to the living room, encompassing slights and moments of poor judgment in some cases ten years old. Marriage, monogamy -- frankly, just the company of other people -- does not suit me, and in the history of our on-again/off-again relationship (which now has taken up nearly half of our lives), I have had many Waterloos. So I'm not ashamed to admit that I took the worst of the combat here. Plus, Laura is smarter than me and has a better memory, so she comes to these fights with more ammunition. By the time we climbed into the car and headed out for breakfast, I was reduced to foul-tempered sniping from the heights while she -- proudly, I think -- held me under a brutal siege, armed mostly with the fact that I'd forgotten her birthday last year.

Like I said, many Waterloos. One of these days, I'm going to have to start looking at vacation properties in Elba.

In restaurant-critic school, they never teach you how to sit down to a pleasant meal with your significant other and pretend like you're just another young couple in love, when all you really want to do is clock your significant other in the head with a ketchup bottle, steal the car and go running off to Ensenada to live on the beach with a cocktail waitress who doesn't speak a word of English. It's no easy trick, let me tell you, but it's one we've gotten good at. And thank God, Mezcal makes it easy. This place has some kind of magic in its off hours -- when it's quiet and becomes just a little neighborhood spot for huevos rancheros, morning beers and salsa draped in cool jazz or happy mariachi party music.

Friday night? That's different. The night before, I'd rolled in solo around midnight and found the place packed with kids -- backflow from the Bluebird Theater across the street and shock troops of the local hipsterati in their LoDo best, bringing the game up Colfax Avenue, slumming it in an area that's no longer yesterday's slum. The bar was full of inexpert drinkers getting stupid on shooters with names I didn't even recognize, wasting good tequila on their dates who -- let's be honest here -- would've been just as easy with a bellyful of schnapps or PBR from the can.

Mezcal's kitchen keeps going until 1 a.m., and that's important. After 10 p.m., it bangs out tacos at a dollar a pop in a kind of reverse happy hour, which was the reason I'd stopped by. And the fact that I hadn't called my darling wife to let her know where I was? Well, that was likely part of the reason for Saturday's fireworks. Inconsiderate lout that I am, I'd grabbed a two-top by the big front windows, downed a couple Pacificos, and amused myself watching perverts and drunken knots of college kids trying to look cool while they slunk through the front door of the Adult Bookmart down the block -- acting as though they'd stepped up to the well-marked entrance expecting it to be a Bible warehouse, and then were shocked, shocked, to find pornography inside.

I ordered tacos while I sat there, two al carbón, two al pastor, and was heartened to see them served traditionally, in the coastal style, with two softened white corn tortillas laid flat, generously loaded with meat, topped with stiff streamers of shredded cabbage and a little sweet-tomato salsa, with fat wedges of lime for dressing. The meat was good: marinated, tender and braised, with a little charcoal back-bite. These were Tijuana street tacos, simple and delicious, with no one in the kitchen trying to do anything sneaky to them. No multicultural funny business. More important, no cilantro.

Tacos done, beers killed, I got out of there for not much more than a ten spot, then strolled unashamedly down to the adult store to pick up something pretty for Laura. After all, I'd missed her birthday. And what wife doesn't love it when her man comes home in the wee hours, stinking of cigarettes and skank, bringing gifts from the porn store?

Many, many Waterloos. So many, it's tough to count.

By breakfast time, Mezcal loses most of its south-of-the-border, frat-party vibe. It's casual, uncrowded, as soft around the edges as a red-wine hangover. With the sun up (and even with the sun down on most weeknights), Mezcal reverts to the kind of neighborhood taqueria that so many gringo ripoffs want to be, but can't. This eight-month-old eatery, with its sunshine walls and burgundy-dark upholstery, its clutter of black-and-white old-Hollywood snapshots, pictures of masked Mexican wrestlers and B-movie murals, just oozes slack and comfort. Families sit washed in sunlight at the big tables near the windows while last night's excesses are nursed in the back. The bar does a brisk takeout business, and the air is bright with something snappy on the juke, playing in counterpoint to the slow tread of servers walking the worn hardwood floor.

Laura and I left our battle at the door -- not necessarily because we wanted to, but because Mezcal is the kind of place where you have to work at being miserable, and we are, at heart, very lazy people. We sat across from each other at a table covered in green, floral-print Mexican oilcloth. I fussed with the half-dozen bottles of strange chiles and pepper sauces ranked alongside the salt shaker and sugar caddy. She read the menu.

"Look," she said. "Huevos divorciados. You should get that." But she was swallowing a grin. I menaced her with a fork, but my heart wasn't in it. Both of us were trying hard not to smile.

When the rounds of michelados (Tecate and fresh-squeezed lime juice over ice) and strong, chicory-spiced coffee arrived, our moods improved. Our waiter looked like Paul Rudd, and he was carrying a rolled-up newspaper in the back pocket of his jeans. He brought us chips and two kinds of salsa: a smooth, sweet green tomatillo and a blended, bright-red tomato fresca that was barely spicy. I launched into a long, convoluted and pointless monologue about how, if they were ever to do a remake of the movie Singles based in Denver, Mezcal would be the perfect place to shoot the scene where the smart but unlucky-in-love female lead and her bookish, uncool new boyfriend come for the requisite, uncomfortable morning-after breakfast following their sleeping together for the first time. Paul Rudd, of course, could play the waiter.

"You're an idiot," Laura said when I was through.

"Then why are you smiling at me?"

She shrugged. "You look good over chips and salsa."

So I kissed her, leaning across the table and upsetting my water glass in the process. Paul Rudd was right there with napkins to take care of the mess.

At Laura's suggestion, I ordered the divorced eggs: two fried huevos, each sitting on its own tortilla on opposite ends of an oval plate, one doused in more of the sweet green tomatillo salsa, the other, el opuesto, in a smoky-hot and fiery ancho-chile ranchero, with a world of Spanish rice and heavy refritos between them. We shared a plate of amazing stuffed sopes, the tart-like, fry-bread half shells piled high with black-bean paste, cubed carbón steak, lettuce, cheese and lacy drizzles of sour cream over diced tomatoes red as lipstick, sweet as candy. We burned our fingers on the dough, hot and fresh and still greasy from the fryers, both coveting the last sope on the plate of three, deciding finally to split it. I gave her the bigger half, and then, when she wasn't looking, stole part of her chicken tamale. It was robed in thick, larded masa, surprisingly light, like the best of a new batch plucked right out of the steamer, and filled with shredded chicken and soft strips of guajillo chile that had a taste like apple skins and white pepper.

Most of the items on Mezcal's menu are plain and perfect -- the hallmarks of a cuisine that's at its best when left more or less alone. Like me and marriage, Mexican food has never taken easily to fusion, to getting fancied up and fussed with, to being rubbed up against other culinary traditions. A taco made with milk-fed veal, dressed with microgreens and topped with ancho-mango salsa is not a better taco just for its price tag, and serving it under the soft glow of peach-tinted chandeliers, on bone china artfully squiggled with squeeze-bottle infused oils, does not improve it purely by dint of its keeping better company. Good ingredients, used fresh and assembled with an eye toward traditional flavors, can show the excellence inherent in simplicity. And here, Mezcal's kitchen excels.

Not always, of course. The burritos are loosely rolled and over-balanced with too much rice, too many dry beans and not enough flavor to overcome their essential dullness. The cooks are also a bit heavy-handed with the red chile, with the sometimes gummy sour cream. But when it shines, Mezcal has that rare power to remind you, in a single bite, what it was that made you love Mexican food in the first place -- before tacos became vehicles for the misguided creativity of ego-driven chefs, back when it was okay to eat a coctel de camarones with your fingers, dunking the ubiquitous Saltines into the cold, spicy, oniony tomato broth and smearing them with fat chunks of the ripe-avocado garnish.

"Couldn't you have used a fork?" Laura asked as we walked out into the afternoon sun and the cacophony of Colfax ramping up for another Saturday night. "And you've got tomato juice on your shirt. Are you going to go home and change?"

I smiled and said no. She said I was hopeless, but she was smiling, too. It was shaping up to be a good day, after all, and as we walked back to the car, I felt her reach out for my hand, twining her fingers through mine.

She didn't even complain about the avocado grease. All things considered, I thought that was pretty sweet.

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Mezcal

3230 E. Colfax Ave.
Denver, CO 80206

303-322-5219

www.mezcalcolorado.com


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