When I moved to Denver almost a year ago, I knew next to nothing about the local restaurant scene. There were a few places along the Front Range with which I had a passing acquaintance. I knew Johnson's Corner outside of Loveland, because it's the second-best diner in the United States (numero uno, I still contend, is the State Diner in Ithaca, New York). I knew Boulder's Asian Deli, because it has excellent pho and spring rolls (I came into this world with my belly radar constantly tuned to the proximity of good Vietnamese food). And I knew Juanita's, also in Boulder, because that's where -- more than three years earlier -- I'd showed my finest feathers during the courtship ritual that finally scored me my wife.
She was living in California by then, after attending the University of Colorado and spending years in Boulder, Fort Collins and Loveland, and I was living in the passenger seat of my buddy Gracie's purple Ford Taurus. She was in Cali, temping and Rollerblading around Balboa Park, while Gracie and I were taking a wildly circuitous, three-month jaunt around the 48 contiguous states, looking for lost friends and the perfect margarita. Earlier that year, I'd stepped out for a smoke on the dock behind this little Italian place in Rochester where I was working and never went back in. No reason, really. It just felt like the right thing to do at the time.
We hit the road not long after. On the extreme western end of our swing through the States, we rumbled into Blythe, California -- a town of two gas stations, one cafe, roughly twenty old codgers and far fewer teeth. I tried to reach Laura in San Diego, but in the time it had taken us to drive to Blythe, she'd wandered into Tijuana and now refused to leave. She liked it there. So instead, Gracie and I went to Vegas. He won forty bucks on the Wheel of Fortune at Circus Circus. I was looking for a showgirl to fall in love with. It was beautiful in a Technicolor, American Gothic kind of way, and I was ready to stay forever (or until the money ran out). But then we heard through the grapevine that Laura was back in Colorado.
1043 Pearl Street,
Hours: 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday
11:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday
Chips and guac: $5.50
Black beans: $2.75/$3.50
3 tacos: $8.75
Chicken Cuervo: $6.95 quarter, $9.95 half
Fish tacos: $9.95
Shrimp asada: $11.95
We peeled out of Sin City like Bullitt coming back from a commercial break and drove through the night across the high desert, sneaking into the Rocky Mountain Empire the back way, through Green River, whipping that poor Taurus up and over Vail Pass. It was a heroic bit of endurance driving by Gracie. I helped by keeping the radio fed with good road music: Clutch, the Blasters, Less Than Jake. All across the backbone of that night, I was half in love already, and by the time the three of us -- Gracie, Laura and I -- were socked into one of Juanita's back booths behind bottles of Dos Equis and kiddie-pool-sized margaritas, the deal was done. I was in deep. Still am.
Juanita's celebrated its twentieth anniversary just a couple of weeks ago. But in my personal cosmology, it popped into existence -- fully formed, with crusty regulars, boozy hat boys and that perfect, upscale slummy resonance -- on that afternoon four years back. I've been a fan of everything it is and everything it isn't ever since.
As an East Coast service-industry brat, I wasn't yet very familiar with Mexican food as I blearily romanced Laura in that booth. Back then, kitchen wisdom said that if you wanted to make a guaranteed fortune in the restaurant game, all you had to do was open an authentic Italian bistro in the Southwest -- where they didn't know a San Marzano from a marinara -- or a real menudo-and-desebrado Mexican spot in New York, where there weren't any to speak of. At least, not in a neighborhood where the swells felt safe walking after dark. Back East, Mexican food was largely limited to Taco Bell, jalapeño poppers at T.G.I. Fridays and the occasional gloppy Cheez-Whiz sort of burritos that make the fare at Casa Bonita look like haute cuisine. So tucking into Juanita's soft, almost milky black beans -- studded with fatty pork and onions and spiced with the deep, earthy burn of cumin -- was a moving experience. Add to that spicy braised carnitas slopped into a pool of gooey, stewy, smoky-hot green chile, plus my first-ever taste of mole, with that "Whaddaya mean the sauce has chocolate in it?" feeling of new possibilities suddenly opening up. The whole meal marked a paradigm shift, offering me a new look at a cuisine that I'd written off as the worst kind of junk.
Gracie and I spent a few days in Colorado with Laura, and when we left, I took with me two obsessions: the girl and the grub. The girl would later come out to live with me in New York; soon after, we'd head for New Mexico together, chasing after the flavors of real Mexican food. Eventually, the girl would marry me (in Vegas, but not at Circus Circus), and I'd learn from neighbors, from busboys and line cooks, and from generous friends how to cook what I was tasting. I'd learn my norteño from my centrado and the difference between the easy, classic abuelita table food and fiery borderlands fare. But I always kept a soft spot for Juanita's. Every time we made the long drive from 'Burque to Boulder, we'd end up there, and every time we ended up there, I'd learned more about quote-unquote real Mexican food -- about the careful and proper balance of heat and flavor, the judicious use of raw-milk cheeses, the difference that a fat block of White Cap lard can make. But that never made me like Juanita's any less.
Just as a thoroughly Americanized Chinese restaurant can still pound out a mean order of sesame chicken, so can a totally Boulderized Mexican joint make a great taco.
Yeah, Juanita's is a joint. The tightly packed, straight-back black wooden booths in the lounge always seem to be sticky, no matter how often they're wiped down. The black ceiling, deep-red walls, neon cerveza signs, ever-present dusty plastic Christmas tree above the bar and gigantic Cuervo mural in the back give the place the feel of a subterranean Third World ex-pat dive. And Juanita's is loud. Even when it's quiet, it's loud, and on weekends, when the place can be packed so tight that crowds spill out onto the mall, it can be deafening. But it's always a cheerful kind of loud, with voices and laughter bouncing around the high ceilings, mixing with tunes from a great juke and the sizzle of fajita platters being walked around the two dining rooms by the hands-down happiest floor staff I've ever seen. When I dropped in for dinner last week, that song by Chumbawumba was playing over the speakers ("I drink a whiskey drink, I drink a vodka drink" et cetera ad vomitus), and the toddler at the table behind mine popped out of the booth and started dancing like only a little kid can -- bouncing up and down in the middle of the service aisle with a grin on his face as big as anything. And rather than rushing by with a snotty look on his face or asking the child's mother to please get her little munchkin the hell out of the way, the next server who happened by put down his tray of drinks and started dancing right along with the kid.
Passing seasons and rising trends be damned, the menu never seems to change (although the rice on the side has, recently going from a good, sticky, deep-orange Spanish variety to pasty white, mixed with a lame pepper brunoise). But Juanita's makes everything it serves from scratch. From the thin, spicy and cilantro-heavy salsa that comes with the chips (free chips and salsa being the best restaurant innovation of the last decade), to the flan, super-sweet Key lime pie and chocolate mousse on the dessert menu, it's all done by a kitchen crew acclimated to banging out hundreds of covers a night. That crew does equally well on camerones asada -- the shrimp grilled with butter, striped with char and rubbed down with ground chile, cumin and garlic -- and a huge sizzle platter of Tex-Mex-style fajitas: beef, chicken or shrimp over crunchy-soft sweet bells and onions with a side of guac, a side of sour, refried pintos that actually taste refrito and not out-of-a-can-o, and fresh pico de gallo.
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Every quasi-Mexican chain restaurant serves some variation of tequila-lime chicken these days, and all of them taste like nickels, Kool-Aid or industrial solvent, but never tequila or limes. That's because the chains -- in the name of workplace safety, and also limiting their liability in case some drunken line cook takes a tumble into the fry-o-lator -- would never allow a real bottle of tequila in the kitchen. So instead, their food scientists have developed injectable washes, powders and marinades that create the chemical equivalent of what a chicken might taste like if it were flamed in a Cuervo bath. I'm wondering at what point they'll take the final step and remove the chicken from the process as well, resorting to a food pill or Willy Wonka-style chewing gum that will give their happy customers the full sensory impression of consuming beans and rice, tequila chicken and a cold Corona without all the fuss and mess of having to physically eat anything. Thankfully, Juanita's is on the front lines of the fight against such engineered idiocy, cooking an actual chicken in an actual pan with the heat of an actual fire, browning it up with red chiles and garlic, then splashing on the good stuff -- Jose Cuervo and triple sec -- for a nice fireball effect that I'm sure the guys in the kitchen never get tired of. I know I never did.
Even in Albuquerque, the land of the tamal and flauta, Laura and I would dream of Juanita's beef flautas, as big around as three fingers. Tender, shredded beef is always marinating on a hot table somewhere in the kitchen, and the later you show up, the longer it's been sitting and the better it tastes. The beef is rolled up in a flour tortilla, deep-fried, then served with the ubiquitous rice and beans, sour cream and guacamole. You have to eat the flautas fast. Hot out of the fryers, charred a little at the open ends and still dripping grease, they're fantastic, but after about ten minutes they start to go soggy and have about as much charm as a bag of wet Doritos. Same goes for the fish tacos. The toasted tortillas come to the table loaded down with sliced cabbage, cilantro and big chunks of firm, juicy halibut fillet. Don't hesitate or try to be dainty; just slather them with sweet jalapeño tartar sauce and dig in while they're hot and crisp -- and be sure to finish them before they self-destruct, falling into limp, greasy pieces.
No matter how many brain tacos, chorizo burritos, tamales and bowls of menudo I pour down my gullet -- no matter how in love I am with the real Mexican food now available everywhere -- I remain faithful to Juanita's. I keep going back -- for the memories of the good times I've had, and for all the good times and good meals in the future. And no matter how much I've come to know about the local restaurant scene, I also know this: I'll be back at Juanita's on its fortieth anniversary.
Provided both of us last that long.