Highland Tap & Burger at 2219 West 32nd Avenue is known for, you guessed it, beer and burgers. But Juan Padro, who owns the lively bar with his wife, Katie O'Shea Padro, grew up eating his family's Puerto Rican cooking and visits the Caribbean island regularly, so it's his prerogative as the proprietor to include a few Puerto Rican surprises on the menu. Last week, after I wrote about a food truck called El Coqui D Aqui, which might have the only complete Puerto Rican menu in the metro area, Padro reached out to tell me about the food of his people.
Padro explains that the cornerstone of Puerto Rican cooking is sofrito, a thick, tangy sauce made with garlic, olive oil, vinegar, herbs, aji chiles, onion and red and green peppers. The recipes vary greatly from cook to cook, but the result is used as a base for building flavors in everything from slow-cooked stews to simple scrambled eggs. "My ice cube trays at home don't have ice; they're filled with sofrito," Padro notes.
And he's turned the Tap's executive chef, Eli Odell, on to the ingredient, too. Odell uses sofrito in his slow-cooked black beans that can be ordered as a side with rice (which also gets a dose of sofrito) and also come on a dish of wood-fired pork-tenderloin pibil. In fact, that dish has a number of other common Puerto Rican ingredients, including achiote, plantains and avocado.
Chef Eli Odell makes beans and rice with Puerto Rican sofrito.
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"I love Mexican beans, believe me, but Puerto Rican beans are so much better," Padro says. Odell points out that he uses black beans instead of Puerto Rican pink beans (habichuelas) because they're easier to source and because he wants to honor Colorado's Southwestern roots. Served atop soft, long-grain rice, the Tap's beans offer a distinct flavor profile thanks to the sofrito. A Caribbean variety of pumpkin is also used to thicken Puerto Rican beans; it's an ingredient that's hard to come by in Colorado, but Odell says the sweeter American varieties can substitute.
Plantains come in the form of tostones, which are chunks of green plantain that have been boiled, smashed and deep-fried until golden and crisp. It's a tough dish to get right, because if the plantains are too ripe, they won't get crunchy when fried, Odell points out. They're served with achiote aioli and a side of smashed avocado, and are now available on the happy-hour menu, served from 3 to 6:30 p.m. Monday through Friday.
Padro's commitment to Puerto Rico goes well beyond a couple of dishes on his restaurant's menu. "Hospitality is taken seriously there," he explains, pointing out that because of tourism, many schools in San Juan focus specifically on the hospitality industry. Padro recruits talent from the island and has helped move front-of-house staff and cooks to Denver so that they could work at Highland Tap (and Bar Dough next door). And in June, Padro is taking the staff of his soon-to-open Sloans Lake Highland Tap to Puerto Rico for an immersion in the island's cuisine — so perhaps soon we'll be seeing sancocho, asopado and other authentic dishes there, too.