I gave Rioja four years before going back (in a professional capacity) and finally finding the meal I'd always wanted to have there. Richard Sandoval opened Tamayo, his "modern Mexican" restaurant, at the corner of Larimer and 14th streets in 2001. My predecessor, Kyle Wagner, reviewed it that same year. I've been visiting, on and off, since 2002, and reviewed it myself for a Second Helping in 2006. Over the years, it's won five Best of Denver awards — mostly for its booze and its rooftop patio. But it's unlikely to win one for its food anytime soon.
I don't know that I've ever had a meal here that I would return for — or even one about which I would have anything particularly nice to say. Sure, the space is beautiful (I have always loved the almost-impressionist back-bar mosaic mural, done in shades of Guernica-lite), and the rooftop patio is deserving of all those awards. I've got nothing bad to say about the drinks, and the service has always been prompt and friendly. Even the chips and guac — served in their own artistic little vessel, like an empty courtyard fountain made small — are good.
But the rest of the food? I just don't get it. I stopped in for lunch late last week and had the queso fundido — which arrived boiling like lava, slicked with grease, and then cooled into the texture of half-dried kindergarten paste. The only thing about it that I found edible was the thin chile morita salsa served on the side. And this coming from a man who absolutely loves fried cheese.
1409 Larimer Street
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The queso was followed by the quesadilla de camarones: three big shrimp, butterflied and poorly de-veined, marinated in adobo (which was fine, if somewhat uninspired), served on a tortilla topped with cheese, mismatched greens, watercress, cilantro pesto, pineapple, some kind of melon, then more cheese and a sour dressing that tasted like a broken vinaigrette. It was awful — a mess of competing flavors and combative textures that simply seemed like a way to throw a lot of things that people think they like together onto one plate under the guiding principle that, if someone loves cheese and they love pineapple, then why wouldn't they love cheese and pineapple together?
Slathered in pesto.
And topped with more cheese.
The diners who visit Larimer Square deserve better than this. Fortunately, with all the restaurants that have joined the lineup since Tamayo came on board — including Rioja — they can now get it.