Denver diners have been waiting for the right twist on Mexican food, and Lime just might be it.
Over the last year, a number of eateries have opened that feature either upscale Latin-derived cuisines (Cuban, Peruvian) or upscale Mexican fare, with prices to match (ten bucks for tacos). Although such attempts have been made before -- Kevin Taylor's ill-fated Cafe Iguana in Cherry Creek, for example, or Señorita's Cantina, which sat in the LoDo space where Adega will debut next month -- they failed because the offerings were either too frou-frou or too casual for the fancy price. But several recent ventures have managed to pull it off because, like Tamayo ("Things Are Looking Up," August 30, 2001) and Jack-n-Grill ("Green Light," January 31), they serve exceedingly good food that not only captures the essence of Mexican cooking, but takes it a step beyond.
At the four-month-old Lime, Mexican food goes even further afield -- but it winds up in a very, very good place. Located below street level in Larimer Square's Kettle Arcade, this is one hip eatery, with whitewashed walls -- and one painted the colors of sunset -- and a very groovy, inviting bar. Curt Sims, who recently took over the Denver Buffalo Company, opened Lime in the old home of Cafe Promenade with his partner and wife, jazz singer Pam Savage. Most of the recipes are variations on what Savage has cooked at home for her family, with a little help from David LaGant, the corporate chef who oversees both Lime and the DBC. But it's head chef Bubba Wright, who spent several years in California cooking burgers, Italian food and steaks before joining the Buffalo Company, who's really in charge of squeezing as much flavor as he can out of Lime's kitchen.
1424-C Larimer Square
Hours: 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Sunday-Thursday
11 a.m.-midnight Friday-Saturday
Queso with chips: $4.95
Scorpions (appetizer): $7.95
Scorpions (entree): $10.95
Tamales (entree): $8.95
Chicken rancheros: $7.95
Huevos rancheros: $7.95
Chiles rellenos: $8.50
Chile relleno salad (lunch): $7.95
Dos enchiladas: $7.50
Chicken flautas: $4.95
Green chile (cup): $2.95
Key lime pie: $4.95
Mighty margarita: $8.50
Mini margarita: $5.50
Our dinner got off to a sassy start by way of complimentary lime shots, with quality tequila served in a hollowed-out lime. Another freebie, chips and salsa, also displayed a welcome twist: Rather than the usual dry, store-bought corn models, these chips were freshly deep-fried flour-tortilla triangles, puffy and grease-slicked, perfect for dipping into the tomato-chunky, chile-fired salsa. More of the delightful chips came with our starter order of queso, a cheddar-cheesy goo studded with enough green-chile bits to pack a punch (the dip could have used a little more temperature-type heat, however). Punchier still were the "Lime-a-beans," steamed edamame gently dusted with a salty seasoning heightened by chile pepper. But the "scorpions," which are available as either an appetizer or entree, were the real fire-breathers. Four or six medium-to-large shrimp had been set atop cream-cheese-stuffed jalapeños, then breaded and fried until each crustacean sat inside a crispy shell, its tail bent over so that it looked just like a venomous arachnid. The scorpion's bite was sharp, too, although much of it came from the red chile spooned around the plate.
Like the scorpions, tamales are available as starters or entrees. Either way, they're a house specialty, made fresh and sent out with the steamy smell of corn wafting from their husks. The contents of each package were so creamy that they suggested creamed corn, but there were also whole kernels suspended in the solid, unusually soft mass of masa. (The word masa means "dough" in Spanish; it usually refers to corn dough, however, which is made by boiling corn in lime before rinsing and grinding it. Masa harina is the factory-made, powdered version of masa, which is then mixed with water to make the dough.) A little bit of cheese added richness, and while these tamales were made with vegetable shortening rather than lard, we didn't notice any lack of flavor.
It helped, of course, that the tamales came draped in chile -- red, green or a combination of the two. The red was our favorite, a vegetarian purée of ancho and red chiles, fiery and sweet, with the earthy, roasty-toasty quality I always associate with the sun-ripened chiles of New Mexico. The green had a soupy, coagulated texture and appearance but an interesting flavor; even though shredded chicken made up the bulk of the brew, the essences of roasted green chiles and onions dominated.
Many of the main-course dishes also came with a choice of chile. The red worked well with the chicken rancheros, a flour tortilla topped with big chunks of batter-coated chicken, as well as with the huevos variation, which included our pick of over-easy eggs. Both entrees came with a side of soft black beans and Lime's signature, super-crunchy coleslaw, with its intriguing mix of pickled jalapeños and lime-spiked mayo. Those same sides, as well as a large mound of fluffy rice, arrived with an order of chiles rellenos: two nicely roasted, peeled Anaheims stuffed with white cheese and encased in a fragile crust that was half breading, half batter.
The servers seemed unusually knowledgeable about the food and were also master salespeople, able to convince even a non-drinker at our table to try the delicious Mighty Margarita. No sweet-and-sour swill here: This 21-ounce frozen bad boy contained Sauza and Grand Marnier mixed with a fresh lime concoction. (You'd be wise to observe the menu's admonishment that "one is all you need.") And because there was no phlegmatic mixer in it, the Mighty (a "Mini" is also available) worked especially well with Lime's vividly flavored and colorful fare.
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While Lime's a true bargain at dinner, especially in this part of town, lunch isn't exactly pricey. And the portions are huge: We couldn't finish the salad version of the chiles rellenos, even though there was only one chile on top of the giant mound of greens that filled a deep-fried tortilla. (Sadly, the only dressing options were a gloppy, too-thick ranch and a lime vinaigrette that was nothing more than a ramekin full of oil.) And I was no match for even dos enchiladas (just 45 cents cheaper than the tres enchiladas at dinner): One was filled with killer shredded beef, all salty and tender, and the other was a vegetarian version with caramelized onions and potatoes. Then again, maybe we couldn't clean our plates because we'd already eaten our way through the chips and salsa, a scorpion starter, a chicken flauta starter that needed more chicken (but had plenty of obviously fresh, top-notch guac), and a cup of the green chile that worked just fine as a soup.
In fact, the only thing that didn't work at Lime was the Key lime pie, which was lame. The cheesecake (a Wright specialty) was much better, and probably would have been better yet had we listened to our server -- who raved about the chocolate-fudge-brownie, wild-berry and peanut-butter-cup versions -- rather than ordering it plain.
But overall, there's nothing plain about Lime, a bright new spot on Denver's dining scene. Other Mexican restaurants should be green with envy.