It's not easy to find a happy hour that doesn't just make you feel full and happy -- but one that challenges your palate. Leña, the new spot on the block on South Broadway, manages just this feat. Exploring the cuisine of Central and South America through a hipster-friendly glass, Leña brings makes rarely-seen delicacies approachable. Leña's happy hour, served from 4 to 6 p.m. Monday through Friday, is satisfying and fun -- and you might even learn something.
Leña fits in well amongst its Baker peers; in fact, from the giant mirrors over the bar to the layout of the dining rooms it looks disconcertingly similar to its neighbor, Historians Ale House. But this former antiques store boasts a wood-fired oven and Chef Toby Prout in the kitchen, a veteran of such spots as Prima (R.I.P) and Izakaya Den. Starting with tacos, empanadas and other standard Latin American fare, Leña's menu ping-pongs below the Equator, with dishes inspired by Peru (potatoes with huacatay sauce), Columbia (pan de yuca) and Ecuador -- the homeland of llapingachos. These tasty fried potato cakes packed with cheese show up on the happy hour menu for $5 a plate as an appetizer.
The llapingachos set a tone for the rest of the night -- a little bit of the familiar, and a bit of the unexpected, coming in hot with a crisp, browned exterior and a smear of spicy peanut sauce. After mostly discarding the bland tomatoes perched on top, I appreciated the simple way fluffy potato met briny queso and wondered where Leña would take me next. Tacos are three bucks a piece, and for my first experience with goat meat I sampled the barbacoa de cabra, with chile rubbed local goat, squash slaw, and Anaheim crema. It was a little tougher than the taco fillings I'm used to, but so rich with flavor and smacking of polite gaminess. (Never let it be said I don't like kids.)
Yet even this was upstaged by Leña's carnitas de besote ($3), slow roasted and pulled bison short rib with salsa, queso casero and jicama. This wood-grilled bison is so tender and juicy, I could have driven myself crazy trying to guess what it was cooked in. The choice of queso casero as the house cheese is an inspired one, more interesting than Jack and less overwhelming than cotija. Empanadas come in at $2.50, a steal considering how much is packed into these suckers. The calabasitas variety packs in plenty of squash, tomato and corn into a intriguing green plantain dough. I was wowed by the Prout's choice to make chimichurri with balsamic instead of the traditional red wine vinegar, spreading tangy flavor all over the empanada's crust. Combined with a lovely Pisco Sour ($8, not on happy hour), it was like Ken Griffey Jr. says -- there's a party in my mouth, and the world is invited.
Perfect for: Baker residents (Bakerites? Bakertonians?), being the hip trend seekers they are, are always looking for a new dinner spot. Next time someone talks trash about the crowds at Punch Bowl Social, just gently lead them across the street.
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Don't miss: You'd be foolish to not sample the bison short rib carnitas, but there are so many way-south-of-the-border dishes on Leña's menu that straying from tacos is a great idea. With luck, these new experiences will also inspire a visit to one of Denver's fine Peruvian or Salvadoran restaurants.