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...
The building that houses Puerto Vallarta Mexican Restaurant more closely resembles a military garrison or frontier jail that somehow made it through a few renovations than a likely location for good Mexican food. Its industrial blue trim, stone façade and barred doors and windows give it more the air of a place you want to escape from than one you willingly walk into. Willing or not, though, this was my next stop; as the name suggests, the coastal cuisine of Jalisco dominates the menu. So I could only hope the fare from the kitchen would prove more inviting than the exterior.
The interior of Puerto Vallarta, while perhaps no more inviting than the exterior, at least would make for a serviceable dive bar, with its low ceiling, threadbare booths, dark red color scheme and a few regulars catching up on soccer matches at the dimly lit bar at the back of the bunker-like space. But then, most dive bars specialize in strong, cheap drinks, not fresh oysters, ceviche or cocteles de mariscos -- seafood cocktails served in chalices featuring various combinations of shrimp, scallops, fish, and octopus swimming in baths of tangy red sauce. Beers and margaritas from mix, sure, but freshness and quality? At least the bottle of Salsa Huichol -- a regional hot sauce from Nayarit which tends to complement seafood -- was a promising sign.
The menu featured playfully named cocktails and soups -- vuelve a la vida (return to life), maleficio (witchcraft), super grúa (lifter or crane) and Viagra (a soup served in a hot pot with spiny lobster in addition to more standard aquatic life). Most were familiar from the menus of several other Pacific-coast Mexican restaurants in the area, but we opted instead for a ceviche tostada studded with generous chunks of octopus and shrimp. A couple of dashes of peppery Huichol added just the right amount of heat to the lime-tinged ceviche.
Amy and I must have both been craving variations of surf and turf; she ordered the camarones Vallarta -- bacon-wrapped shrimp smothered in an acidicly tangy sauce -- while I ended up with a steak and shrimp a la diabla combo. I'm a fan of the ultra-thin cuts of steak common in Mexican restaurants, as long as they've been properly marinated and quickly grilled. My steak was flavorful and tender despite never having had a chance at the pink side of medium. The shrimp on both our plates were fresh and nicely cooked, but the real star was the lard-heavy refried beans, a side generally relegated to a space filler on the narrow curve of an oval plate. But when properly seasoned and fried in a generous amount of pork fat, frijoles refritos come alive with the sweetness of slow cooked beans accented with meaty depth.
This stretch of Federal Boulevard is virtually bereft of restaurants compared to the blocks between Mississippi and Alameda, so competition for customers is hardly fierce. Puerto Vallarta seems more of a local watering hole than any kind of destination joint. There are taco houses and bowls of green chile for which I'd gladly suffer the inconvenience of a cross-town drive in rush-hour traffic, good ambiance or not. Puerto Vallarta doesn't stand out as a beacon for food tourists, but if you're in the neighborhood, don't mind faded, bare-bones atmosphere with your seafood, and can put up with the intimidating glares of the armed security guards who shuttle between the dining room and the sports bar next door like jail-yard turnkeys, you'll certainly find a few surprises that rise above the institutional aura of the place.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.