El Olvido serves up a delicious carne en su jugo
Carne en su jugo starts with the broth.
Traditionally, it's made by slowly boiling a cow's head, though that practice is fading even in Jalisco, the original home of the dish — whose name translates literally as "meat in its juices." Today, cooks in that part of Mexico often use rump or sirloin and even bones to make the broth. But their goal is the same: They're trying to create a base that's simultaneously hearty and delicate, thin but deeply infused with beef, and richly layered with aromatics.
When they've achieved that, after hours of cooking the broth over low heat, they add pinto beans and bits of steak and bacon, each of which imparts its unique characteristics to the soup, lending smokiness, texture and rib-sticking substance. The finished product is served with accoutrements that might include everything from raw onions to radishes, red chiles and avocado, along with tortillas to sop up every drop.
Carne en su jugo is peasant food, and when done right, it's delicious.
It's done right at El Olvido, the five-month-old restaurant on South Broadway that could well be the only place in town serving the dish. El Olvido calls itself a Jaliscan eatery, and while that's a stretch — the menu lacks posole, birria and torta ahogada, the three other famous Jaliscan dishes — its carne en su jugo is the real thing. The rest of the menu is devoted not to the green-chile-smothered burritos so common at this town's Mexican restaurants (and non-existent in Mexico), but the enchiladas suizas popular in Acapulco, seafood dishes imported from the Mexican coast and Mexico City tacos.
Photos: In the kitchen at El Olvido
The recipes come from owner Jorge Pingarron's family members, who lived all over Mexico — though he split his time between Acapulco and Mexico City when he was growing up. Pingarron came to the United States more than three decades ago and worked in a variety of kitchens, including a recent stint in the back of the house at Spill. When he finally decided it was time to open his own place with his son, George, he says he wanted to build a restaurant that was Mexican but "not Mexican" — meaning not Colorado Mexican. Instead, he envisioned a spot that would draw on culinary traditions from his home country that you don't often find in Denver.
He picked up a freestanding building that was most recently the home of the hellish Hades Bar & Grill (it had been the South Broadway Grill, El Ranchito and even a Mr. Steak before that), and gave the place a quick remodel, keeping the black-and-white color scheme, granite and corrugated metal of Hades. A U-shaped bar is front and center, a few tables and booths fill out the dining area, and there's a big deck outside. Sitting in the sun and listening to salsa or classic rock or other Latin American tunes, you feel like you could almost be on a beach in San Diego, or the better part of a not-so-good resort town in Mexico. The servers are friendly, but during off-hours, they can also be slow, sometimes taking several minutes to even notice you're there — which is baffling, since the place is often empty.
In keeping with that mañana feel, Pingarron offers a run of silly beach cocktails — a house margarita that tastes like a hangover, for example, appropriate for the loose translation of El Olvido's name to "tequila-induced oblivion" — and plenty of Mexican beer, including a couple of varieties of Dos Equis on tap that are used to make micheladas.
On my first visit, I grabbed a seat at the bar, asked for a lime-and-beer michelada (El Olvido also makes the tomato-juice version) and started digging into the complimentary basket of hot, just-fried tortilla chips and dips. I wasn't thrilled by the red salsa, a watery, tomato-based sauce with just a hint of heat, but a refreshing green avocado-and-tomatillo mix worked well with the chips, as did the frijoles refritos con elote, a warm, savory-sweet, bacon-grease-infused blend of refried beans and kernels of corn.
At the time, the menu only had ten items, but one dish was enough to catch my eye: carne en su jugo. I ordered it, and a clay cassoulet dish lettered with the words El Olvido arrived soon after the chips were gone. I doctored the dish with onions, cilantro and lime, then lowered my spoon.
Even though they had a family recipe in hand, the Pingarrons went to Guadalajara to learn how to cook carne en su jugo. They don't use cow's head, but rather round steak — milanesa in Spanish — that they cut into strips to create the base of a broth to which they add bacon, a tomatillo-based sauce and a blend of spices that George says his father keeps so secret, even he doesn't know what's in it. The broth that results is silky and textured, tart and peppery, layered with the essence of beef and pork, tinged lightly with garlic and not at all bitter, despite the tomatillo. Filled with more tender beef, bacon and pinto beans cooked in bacon fat, the soup is a very satisfying meal.
Sitting at the bar that day, I polished off every drop — I had to use my spoon, since I ran out of corn tortillas, which Pingarron gets from a local guy — and then asked for jericaya, another Jaliscan speciality, for dessert. The custard is almost indistinguishable from flan, except that it's served in a custard dish instead of dumped out on a plate like a jiggling mountain.
That meal alone would be enough to keep me coming back to El Olvido. Over the past few months, though, its offerings have grown to include some of the dishes that Denverites expect to find on a Mexican menu: tacos, enchiladas and a chicken tostada. The enchiladas suizas, which have been on the roster from the start, were disappointing; the sauce tasted a little like wet earth, the gloppy sour cream added nothing more than rich regret, and the chicken inside seemed to have been boiled without seasoning. The biggest problem, though, was the side of watery black beans, which further diluted any taste on the plate.
Another one of the original menu items, the huachinango en el olvido, was much, much better; Pingarron clearly knows his way around a fish. The red snapper had been cooked perfectly (even if it was hard to wrap my mind around the soy sauce that clearly had been part of its marinade), then served skin-on with a pile of spinach sautéed with sliced cloves of garlic, a crisp cabbage salad doused with sweet mango dressing, and fluffy white rice. I also liked the Mexico City tacos, layered with peppery cubes of steak, crisp bits of bacon and stringy muenster cheese, as well as plenty of white onions and cilantro.
But still, I don't need anything more than the carne en su jugo — and maybe more jericaya, and a couple of micheladas — at El Olvido. Even if the broth doesn't start with a cow's head.
Photos: In the kitchen at El Olvido
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