The fight is on.
In this corner, we have a chain restaurant that advertises fresh, high-quality Mexican food, a fun family atmosphere and low prices. What it actually delivered, though, was sub-mediocre food, prices higher than those at any authentic Mexican restaurant I've ever visited, and a waiter who told us point-blank that he was tired and would rather be home than waiting on us.
On the other side of the ring sits a small, family-run joint that serves real Mexican food prepared by Spanish-speaking people rather than folks born in Boston. The prices were right on the mark, the food not only tasted authentic, it tasted fresh--the accommodating waitstaff warned us of the fifteen-minute wait for chicken mole--and the atmosphere was truly friendly.
Where would you rather eat?
It amazed me that the first place, Chevys Mexican Restaurant, was packed, while the second, Los Volcanes in Parker, had fewer than ten occupied tables. And my amazement only increased during my dinner at Chevys, because the East Arapahoe outlet of the California-based chain served up one of the most irritating and awful meals I've ever experienced.
The irritation came courtesy of a waiter who should not be a waiter. He made it quite clear that he doesn't like people, his job or life in general. "I'm tired and I'm ready to go home" was his greeting as we sat down. Unfortunately, he stuck around. Now, everybody has bad days--but there's getting through them and then there's laying them all over somebody else. He chose the latter route. First we had to remind him to bring our margaritas ($3.95 each), and when they finally arrived, they were lousy--too heavy on the mix, they were so sweet we had to clear our throats to talk. Then we found that at least one utensil in every napkin-wrapped set was dirty. Our waiter made disgusted noises when we pointed out the problem and sighed as he brought us replacement silverware; at any moment, I expected him to accuse me of having brought the crusty old food from home as part of some clever ploy.
He was certainly suspicious over a subsequent complaint: gristle, and plenty of it, in the chicken enchilada that was part of a three-enchilada combination platter ($8.45). The triple-header was basic, boring and bland, except for the added bonus of gristle--the sort of impenetrable cartilage you run into at the joint of a chicken wing. Here, however, it had been ground up with the meat, but not ground so small my companion couldn't pull big chunks of it out of his mouth for all to see. He made a pile of the grisly stuff in the middle of his plate, and when the waiter came by to check on the status of our meal--he obviously hadn't intended to stop, because he did one of those just-leaning-toward-you-to-see-if-everything's-all-right maneuvers--we pointed to it.
The waiter looked at the lovely heap to see if it really was constructed entirely of gristle, then looked around the table for the guilty party. When no one confessed to carrying the gristle into the restaurant in his pocket, the waiter came up with an alternative explanation. "The reason that's there," he said, puffing up importantly, "is that our chicken is pulled chicken. Do you know what pulled chicken is?" Um, chicken that gets dragged into becoming an enchilada instead of volunteering? No. "Pulled chicken is cooked first," he explained. "And then the meat is pulled off the bones, and sometimes the gristle gets pulled along with it." Obviously feeling that he had done his duty, in a doubtful tone the waiter added, "I guess I can get the manager for you and you can tell him, and then maybe he'll give you the enchiladas." Don't trouble yourself, we said.
The rest of the meal was free of gristle, if not worth the money we paid. A fish bone might have added some excitement to the ceviche ($4.95). Either the red snapper had been marinated in lime juice several days earlier or, in keeping with Chevys's claim that everything is made fresh, only a drop or two of juice had been added to the fish, because this stuff was as dry as the Sonoran desert. A few limp onion bits and a lot of parsley were the only flavor enhancers. In protest, we left 99 percent of the dish intact--which, of course, escaped the notice of our waiter, who could not have cared less that we didn't finish anything. Also awful were the chiles rellenos ($8.95), two soggy-battered Anaheims that were raw--raw, I tell you--and contained about .004 ounces of not-melted cheese stuffed way up at the top. Yum. The overall effect was the equivalent of eating a shoe that had been left out in a muddy storm and finding a sock jammed up in the toe.
Have you had enough? We had after we tried the tacos ($6.95), three shells filled with food that tasted like nothing. No flavor--zip, zilch, nada. Still, I had a job to do, so we ordered one flan to split. While our waiter was off doing heaven knows what--certainly not putting our order in, because twenty minutes later he informed us that the restaurant was out of flan--a man appeared at our table to offer some fun family entertainment. "Would you like to buy a balloon animal?" he asked. No. "A balloon flower for the lady?" No. "A balloon hat?" No. "How about a balloon Chihuahua?" Hey, buddy, how about some balloon food? It's gotta be better than this chain stuff.
Real food awaited at Los Volcanes, a one-of-a-kind restaurant owned by the Navarro family of Colima, Mexico. Hector, the padre, cooked in several of Denver's Mexican establishments for twelve years before opening Volcanes nearly three years ago, and his experience was evident in the dishes that he and chef Roberto Enriquez sent out from the kitchen.
The best example of their expertise was the mole de pollo ($5.50), two chicken legs and a thigh rubbed with chili powder and smothered with mole, one of the most misunderstood sauces around. Mole is not a chocolate sauce--sometimes it doesn't even contain chocolate. Volcanes' version did, though, along with a fair share of powdered chiles, onion and garlic. The chocolate didn't add much flavor--the cook used only a pinch--but it did add richness. Combined with the chicken's own greasy juices, the mole made for heady eating.
Of course, we expected sophisticated flavors in a complex sauce like mole, but we were pleasantly surprised to find extra touches throughout the combination platter ($5.50) of an enchilada, a chile relleno, a taco and a guacamole tostada. The enchilada was packed with made-on-the-premises chorizo--ground pork coated with garlic and chili powder--and dripping with cheddar cheese. The cheese ran into the relleno, for which a small chile had been roasted, then stuffed with more cheese and deep-fried in an egg-white batter. Still more cheese and chorizo filled the excellent taco. Even the simple guacamole on the tostada was a standout: fresh and tangy with lime juice.
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The kitchen took the same care with the taquitos al carbon ($6.50), using select rib-eye marinated in a chile concoction, then broiled, tossed with grilled onions and covered with homemade, not-too-spicy salsa. For the carne adobada ($6.50), marinated pork had been cooked in a spicy tomato sauce, then smothered in Los Volcanes' pork-laden green chile.
The meal was so good that this time I was determined to get my flan ($1.75). I wasn't sorry: The custard was excellent, so rich it was like eating ice cream smothered in the sweetest caramel sauce imaginable. Like everything else at Los Volcanes, it was a real knockout.
Chevys wasn't even a contender.