El Diablo serves regional specialties in devilishly fun surroundings

Steak Tampique�a at El Diablo. Slide Show: El Diablo photo tour
Steak Tampique�a at El Diablo. Slide Show: El Diablo photo tour
Mark Manger

I got my first glimpse of El Diablo one late-summer night last year, soon after the restaurant opened its doors. The place was packed, with groups crammed into the tables and booths that line the sides of the vast space and more people standing around the bar, which anchors the center. The room was dark, with shadows cast by candles and red-glass lanterns hanging from the ceilings; the hum of a sultry Latin American soundtrack played in the background.

I scored a bar seat and asked for a margarita, falling quickly for the delicious decadence of the spot. If the devil is in the details, El Diablo had all those just right.

Owner Jesse Morreale is a veteran of Denver's nightlife scene, and this wasn't his first Mexican restaurant. He'd created a kitschy Mexican pop-culture concept at Mezcal, then at Tambien, where he was joined by new partner Sean Yontz. And while Tambien closed last year and Morreale is no longer part of Mezcal's management, he put the lessons he learned at those spots to good use here.

Three years ago, he purchased the old First Avenue Hotel, intending to restore it to landmark glory. He tucked a stylish wine bar, Sketch, into one part of the vast first-floor space, then did a major renovation of the corner area that would become El Diablo, contracting with local artists to create murals for the walls, hunting down artifacts, and, with Yontz, putting together a menu that featured upscale versions of regional specialties, including mole, sopes, molcajetes and, above all, street tacos, which are available through a side window until 4 a.m. And together they came up with a beverage program heavy on tequila, which fit both the fare and the devilish profile of the place.

When the construction paper finally came off the big windows last summer, it revealed a space that's almost theme park-like in its attention to detail, offering a delightfully hedonistic ride with the devil, filled with adult beverages and adult possibilities.

On my first few visits, I became well acquainted with the house margaritas, a classic blend of blanco tequila, triple sec and lime juice, so refreshing that it's too bad you can't buy them by the pitcher. I tried several variations, too, including the excellent Picoso, with muddled jalapeño. But oddly, the El Diablo — a blend of mezcal and cherries — has only been available once in the two dozen or so times I've attempted to order it.

Slide Show: El Diablo photo tour

While I was an instant fan of El Diablo's margs, I was less enthusiastic about the first dishes I sampled: tacos stuffed with dry meats, guacamole that was an under-seasoned pile of mush, sauces that were sickly sweet. The attention to detail in the design and the drinks just didn't seem to extend to the food.

Last month I decided to give the kitchen another try, and showed up with friends for dinner one Friday night just as the sun was going down and this stretch of Broadway was beginning to crawl with bar-hoppers. As soon as our somewhat frantic server approached the table, we asked for chips and salsa and the cazuela de queso fundido; the starters showed up just seconds after our drinks. The basket of freshly made tortilla chips came with three kinds of salsa: mild tomatillo, racy habanero and smoky morita. While they were all fine, the queso got most of our attention — and our chips. The melted cheese, blended with mushrooms, peppery chorizo and spinach, was sharp, slightly astringent — as though goat cheese or possibly sour cream had been added to the mix — and totally addictive. It came in a flat ceramic dish ringed by lightly toasted triangles of flour tortillas that quickly became flaky and floppy, making them less than ideal for scooping up the dip; fortunately, we had those chips.

We followed up the apps with several orders of tacos. The pescado was overpoweringly fishy, despite its supposed pairing with habanero peppers; the carnitas and al pastor versions were both too dry. While the pork belly had been cooked well, it need more accoutrements — onion, cilantro or lime — to move beyond boring. The winner was the cochinita pibil: succulent pork that had been simmered in a sweet, peppery achiote sauce, then piled on two stacked corn tortillas and topped with black beans and tart pickled green beans, which balanced the sweetness of the sauce.

Polishing off the cochinita pibil tacos and pushing the others to the side, we ordered another round of margaritas, settling back into the rhythm of the restaurant while we waited for our entrees.

I'm a sucker for molcajetes, which feature a variety of meats and vegetables cooked in a stone mortar bowl, so I'd gone with the El Diablo version. It was a good choice: A bubbling tomato broth, laced with heat, covered tender, juicy chicken breasts, chunks of soft carrots and potatoes, and a cob of corn. While the dish was hearty, it was also delicate enough for a summer night. We'd also gone with the Tampiqueña, a skirt steak topped with buttery guacamole and sided with a cheese enchilada in a robust, nutty red mole sauce and rice and beans. Skirt steak can be impossibly tough, but this was cooked perfectly, and the kitchen had nailed the optimum medium-rare temperature. I just wish the prep cook had backed off a little with the marinade, which was reminiscent of soy sauce.

The standout was the mole negro. Duck breast so succulent and salty it almost tasted like confit swam in a stew of rich chocolate- and cinnamon-imbued mole, augmented by sliced caramelized plantains and earthy figs. It was immensely indulgent, as tantalizingly naughty as El Diablo itself. I wanted to lick the plate. Instead, I studied the massive list of mezcals to find a suitably smoky nightcap.

A few nights later I returned, grabbing a table on the patio as well as a Negra Modelo and more queso. This time I went with the cochinita pibil in entree form. The massive hunk of pork shoulder had been coated in that same achiote sauce, wrapped in a banana leaf and cooked slowly for 24 hours. Cooked a little too long, actually. For the entree, the pickled beans had been replaced with pickled onions, and there weren't enough of them to cut the sauce's intense sweetness. But sweetness worked for the churros that I'd ordered for dessert: The fried dough had been rolled in plenty of cinnamon and sugar, drizzled with chocolate and garnished with vanilla-infused whipped cream.

Full and happy, I paid my check quickly before the bar could lure me in for another drink. Because despite any problems I encounter with the food, El Diablo always lures me back.

The devil here really is in the details.

Slide Show: El Diablo photo tour

Chef Sean Yontz and his steak Tampiqueña at El Diablo. Slide Show: El Diablo photo tour
mark manger
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