I n a perfect world, everything would come wrapped in bacon.
Wrapped in bacon or topped with bacon or with a side of bacon, because everything is better with bacon. What's better than shrimp? Shrimp wrapped in bacon. What's the only way to make vegetarian food palatable? Top it with bacon.
And food isn't the only thing improved by the addition of cured pork belly. I'm willing to bet your average car dealership would do a lot better business if, at some crucial point in the negotiations, the salesman were to pull out a big platter of piping-hot bacon.
"I don't know, Jimmy. I mean, I'm just a poor restaurant critic. I'm not sure I can afford this brand-new Mustang."
"Hmm. Yeah, Mr. Sheehan, I can see your point. It is a very expensive car. But perhaps this might change your mind..."
At my last job, my boss had a butcher's diagram of a broken-down pig tattooed on her ass. I worked on the line with another guy who had PORK inked across the knuckles of his right hand. And in my family, bacon is how we show our love for one another. Last Christmas, my brother and I cooked a six-course dinner for friends and relations. Five of the courses were pork. The sixth was dessert -- kept pork-free only because we couldn't figure how to make bacon truffles. For special occasions, my wife knows to forget the flowers, the high-end home electronics, and just buy me prosciutto. One of these years she's going to surprise me with a flat-screen plasma TV draped in pancetta. Hasn't happened yet, but I have faith.
But until then, I have a restaurant where I can go to satisfy my every porky jones, a place where the cooks have taken one of the world's great cuisines -- Mexican -- and done the only thing a kitchen could conceivably do to make it even better.
They've added bacon. To pretty much everything.
Los Carboncitos is a temple to all things piggish, where the humble swine has been elevated to a position of vaunted honor -- its loin, its chops, its belly and fat utilized in marvelous excess. Not everything on the menu is made of pork, but there's nothing on the menu that doesn't have a pork-heavy option. And in many cases, you can have two or three kinds of pork on a single plate: chopped pork covered with bacon, pork rib meat over chops. If heaven has a Mexican restaurant (and really, would it be heaven without one?), Los Carboncitos is up there angling for the concession.
The northwest Denver outpost (there's a second location at 720 Sheridan Boulevard; both are run by the León family) is a squat, whitewashed building with an "Open" sign that never seems to go out. The right side of the double dining room is plain and bright, its flow crashing up against a waitress station and a large open kitchen staffed by anywhere from one to half a dozen cooks in buttoned-up whites, depending on the day and the hour. The left is more cozy -- less bright, less noisy and with a fireplace that looks to be mostly for decoration, since chairs are set right against the grate. The walls are hung with native art, stills from black-and-white Spanish-language Westerns and TVs -- nice wall-mount flat-screens of the sort I hope to someday see strung with pancetta in my living room, but here free of pork products and usually tuned to soccer games, to telenovelas in the afternoon, and those totally freaky Mexican kids' variety shows with their dancing bumblebees and half-naked girls and fat guys named Gustavo el Gordo or whatever.
And the menu reads like a work of abstract art, hanging somewhere between fiercely traditional urban-Mexican diner food and some joking, Mexi-American fusion that's either too culturally subtle for me to completely grasp or is the first example of a new modern Mexican cuisine that hasn't jumped the border so much as ignored it entirely. A guy I knew once worked in a restaurant that served Chinese truck-stop food. But the funny thing about Chinese truck-stop food is that it's heavily influenced by Tibetan truck-stop food, which is influenced by Middle Eastern and Russian truck-stop food, which in turn is influenced by European truck-stop food -- and all of that is influenced by American truck-stop food, because American truck stops are the Apollonian ideal of quick-serve, short-order, long-haul cuisine. But the funny thing about this particular Chinese truck-stop food was that it was being served in South America, where no one really knows anything about American trucker grub but they understand Chinese food very well. So my friend delivered orders of chicken-fried pork cutlets topped with peppery black-bean sauce in place of cream gravy and ice-cream sundaes dotted with red beans and jellied tropical fruit. The menu at Los Carboncitos skews the same way -- toward an obvious and well-understood cuisine (Mexican), but with unusual and unexpected detours along the way.
My first stop was for breakfast. Los Carboncitos sees a heavy morning business, but it doesn't serve breakfast burritos. Instead, it offers eggs scrambled, eggs over easy, eggs with chiles, huevos rancheros and huevos con tocino (bacon), all served with tortillas, refritos and rice. There's a page of alambres con queso and alambres sin queso -- little open-faced tacos, with or without cheese -- and many seem included specifically for their (presumed) ability to cure hangovers. An order of pechuga borracha brings a big, heaping mess of chicken-breast strips that have been tossed with onions on a flat grill, covered in cheese and served alongside a half-dozen fresh, barely blistered and crisp-edged tortillas. And sure, chicken is all well and good, but what's better? The same thing, only with costillas -- ribs, slow-cooked and sliced clean -- and bacon. Prior to my first, slightly bleary morning trip to Los Carboncitos, I would have said there was no better breakfast than two cigarettes, four cups of coffee and a simple burrito desayuno spiked with a little green chile. Frankly, I'm a little shamed by how quickly I converted. But pig'll do that to me. Especially when it's a whole lot of pig.
Los Carboncitos offers tacos and burritos, but the burritos are essentially larger alambres served loosely wrapped in a big tortilla, and the tacos (which include such offal options as cabeza and lengua, for the peasant-cuisine purists in the crowd) are relegated to the back page of the menu, alongside a long list of tortas. There are ham and beef tortas, vegetable tortas and a good-but-not-great Cuban made in the fashion of Mexican Cubanos everywhere outside of south Florida: with ham, pork cutlet and sandwich pickles. Most impressive is the Super Carboncito torta, which comes with marinated pork, bacon and chorizo -- basically half a pig.
Still, without the limes and four hot salsas brought to every table, some dishes might suffer from a lack of memorable flavor. The queso fundido has the same problem as queso fundido cooked by every kitchen trying to stay even vaguely traditional: Because it's made with melted Mexican cheese, even when delivered lava-hot, within two minutes it cools into a hunk of rubber about the consistency of a cheap dog toy. A good, though corrupt, fundido corrects this by adding chèvre or goat cheese -- but Mexicans are not a people known for their soft cheeses.
Balancing such disappointments are the kitchen's namesake carboncitos: meat plus cheese plus veggies, scrambled together on the flat grill and mounded on top of fried tortillas slathered with refritos, like a giant's order of nachos. They're an ugly food, but delicious -- a pure three- or four-ingredient creation that's the sort of thing real people would actually want to eat every day. If they're not busy eating huaraches, that is, a Mexican street staple not often seen this far north, but a favorite with late-night bar-and-club crowds sur de la frontera.
The name refers to the shape of the huarache -- like the sole of a sandal, its base made of soft, stretched corn masa, worked by hand and slightly thicker than normal. It's then thrown on the flat top, smeared with refried beans and topped with anything close at hand. Los Carboncitos offers more than a dozen varieties, everything from a nice mar y tierra surf-and-turf of steak and grilled shrimp (and bacon) sprinkled with slightly sour queso fresco, to one stacked with sliced pork and pork cutlet and bacon and onion and melted cheese.
In keeping with the hours (and condition) in which huaraches are traditionally consumed, Los Carboncitos serves until 1:30 in the morning on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, catering to the roving gangs of hungry night creatures and trickle-down hipsters cruising north Denver for a snack, catching the bar-hoppers who manage to escape before last call. The line works with admirable speed at these times, banging out plates ten at a clip. The only people who work faster than the cooks here are the waitresses, and the only people who work faster than the waitresses are the eaters -- the knots of teenagers and extended families, the lawyers and construction workers and (no lie) four-piece mariachi band in full costume that I spotted last week all devouring their meals with astonishing speed.
In essence, Los Carboncitos is a truck-stop diner after the American model, but with the short-order gestalt translated into Spanish and delivered with a sly sense of humor. Everything about the place -- from the decor to the menu to the cooks on the line -- is just a little more polished, a little cleaner, a little faster, a little better, than you'd expect.
And, of course, everything -- everything -- is better with bacon.
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