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...
I was a little confused when I walked into the boxy, dimly lit dining room of El Zarape Mexican Restaurant. Despite exterior signs advertising specialties typical of Chihuahua, including Juarez-style burritos, tacos de barbacoa, and a general inclination toward flour tortillas and various preparations of beef, the interior was distinctly coastal in its décor and also featured a back-lit menu board with faded photos of mariscos and pescados. Considering that Chihuahua is a land-locked state in Mexico more known for deserts and canyons than beaches and surf, I wasn't mentally prepared to consider the possibility of yet another seafood-oriented Mexican restaurant on Federal Boulevard.
And then I remembered that the building had, in the not-too-distant past, housed Mariscos Mazatlan, a sea-and-sky-hued shack dedicated to street-style dishes based on the bounty of the Pacific Ocean, which washes against the entire western boundary of Sinaloa (where the coastal city of Mazatlan is located). A quick peek at Google Maps confirmed that the address was the same but the culinary influence and exterior façade had been tweaked to better represent the Chihuahuan climate and culture.
I'm not sure if the items on that wall menu are even available, but with so many other hand-written signs offering burritos, tortas, pozole and gorditas de harina (made with wheat flour instead of the more typical corn masa), I really didn't feel the need to test my luck or the depth of the walk-in freezer.
Weekend lunch in a Mexican restaurant geared toward dishes derived from cow parts means menudo, unless the idea of eating the digestive organs of a ruminant whose days are spent mostly chewing and re-digesting plant fiber seems a little off-putting. El Zarape's version of menudo is definitely not for those of delicate constitution. Rank would not be an inappropriate adjective to describe the soup, both in aroma and flavor. But if something can be both rank and deeply delicious, this menudo would be it. There's no getting around the olfactory evidence of the barn, the cow's food and the general purpose that tripe serves while it's still inside the animal. And the tender and oddly beautiful chunks of honeycomb tripe don't exactly lend visual appeal. For modern grocery-store shoppers accustomed to pink and firm cuts of hermetically sealed muscle, the folds and petals of tripe present a pallid and intricate texture that, while pleasing in cauliflower, pasta or pastries, somehow becomes ghastly in an animal-based source of protein.
Regardless, the brick-red broth sings with the fruit and spice of chiles that never overwhelms that barnyard funk of the tripe. The enormous, brimming tureen of menudo comes with lime, cilantro and diced onion; I added them all for a jolt of acidity and some fresh crunch to serve as counterpoint to the rich and tender offal. The waitress laughed when I also ordered a smothered burrito stuffed with crispy chicharrones, and she was right. It was way too much food, too much richness, too much rankness. The chicharrones definitely leaned toward the musty, stale side of rank, so heavily soaked in not-so-fresh lard that they overwhelmed the mild, Denver-style green chile.
Amy's choice -- called the Mexico lindo on the menu -- was a platter of traditional unstuffed enchiladas, simply prepared by dipping fresh, delicate corn tortillas, one in chile verde and one in chile colorado, and rolling them with just a pinch of cheese. The chile verde was different than the green chile on my burrito -- bright and unthickened -- while the chile colorado was touched with cinnamon in addition to the roasty flavor of dried red chiles. At a neighboring table, a caballero in red ostrich-skin boots wrangled an enormous torta de pierna (stuffed with meat from some undefined region of the pig's leg). That's one I'll definitely be back for.
On the way home, we coddled a bag of mixed tamales destined for the next day's dinner, some with flecks of pork bathed in that bright chile verde and some stuffed with shredded beef sauced with chile colorado.
It was the kind of weekend just before the brutal shock of real winter when everyone was out and about. There was even enough sun to power someone's (surely DIY) solar wheelchair, with the solar panel mounted parasol-style to create a little shade for the passenger. Motorists cruised with elbows out of their rolled-down windows while bus-stop lingerers shrugged off hoodies and fleece to better soak in the last bits of warmth. Federal Boulevard and menudo are akin in nature: complex and satisfying, a little rank and off-putting to some, spicy and wondrous to others. Bitter wind and ice may drive its denizens for shelter, but places like El Zarape glow with the spirit of Federal regardless of the weather.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.