Although I've done time in several major cities, I'd never before encountered the number of so-called Mexican restaurants I found in Denver. Miami certainly has more than its fair share, but at least in that city the repertoire stretches far beyond the standard beans and rice. Sure, you'll find those basic dishes that Americans clamor for--tostadas, enchiladas--but the menus are also likely to include such attractions as a piquant tomato-lime soup, a chile-tinged stewed pumpkin, a tomatillo salsa, stuffed peppers with pomegranate seeds or a cinnamon-enhanced zucchini.
Mexico is a country 2,000 miles long and nearly 2,000 miles wide at the top--which means there's a lot of culinary, as well as geographic, territory to cover. Still, every Mexican place I've tried in the Denver area proffers beans and rice.
And not much else.
"This food is popular with the customers who came to my family's place," says Eddie Garcia, by way of explaining the fare at his new restaurant up on Colorado Boulevard. And at least he has the good sense to serve good beans and rice at El Toro. No bull here: Diners get fare similar to that served at the Mexico City Lounge, the Denver institution that Garcia started in 1969 and is now run by his family's corporation. Garcia recently sold his interest in Mexico City to open El Toro with partner Lee Salazar in a sparsely populated industrial district. Says Garcia, "I want to serve the same food, but better."
And as far as beans and rice go, it doesn't get much better--or cheaper--than El Toro. The typed menu is small and simple, but most of the major categories are represented: tacos, enchiladas, burritos and tostadas, each with a choice of bean, beef or cheese fillings. And then there's red chile, green chile, menudo and a few varieties of huevos. With no single item costing more than $1.90 (a beef and bean burrito), free chips and salsa are out of the question. There's no charge, however, for Snoop Doggy Dog on the wide-screen TV. This monster sits like an icon in the corner of the booth-filled dining room adjacent to the bar, its technological opulence seeming out of place next to the paneled walls, the velvet paintings and the money-sucking game that pits your intelligence against a metal claw and a pile of crafty, elusive stuffed animals.
But if you're lucky, Anjelica, Garcia's niece, will procure one of those animals for you. The four-year-old is a pro at plucking the contents from the infuriating glass booth, and she's also a charming dining companion. Right after our chips and salsa ($1.50) arrived, she stationed herself at the empty table behind us. When we asked if she wanted to eat with us, she explained that she was "just stuffed"--as was the red teddy bear she offered as an icebreaker.
We had little trouble finishing off the chips ourselves; they were freshly fried yet ungreasy. The thin salsa was teeming with deadly chile seeds, but tomatoes cut through some of the heat.
El Toro uses tomatoes in its green chile, too, but not to excess. For the most part, the green chile seemed like an excuse to bring fat chunks of pork together with a slightly thickened sauce of mild chiles --which is exactly what green chile should be. We enjoyed it on top of an excellent plate of chorizo con huevos ($4). Although the chorizo had been purchased from a purveyor--"It's too much trouble to make it ourselves," Garcia complains--the ground-chile-flecked meat was fantastic, all mixed up in a big scramble with the eggs. Annatto-colored rice, pilaf-style, and refried beans completed the plate.
The rice and beans reappeared alongside the taco, tostada and bean burrito on the combination plate ($3.60). The tostada is one of those food items I simply don't understand, since you might as well fold it in half and eat it like the hard-shelled taco it is, and this boring version didn't help my understanding. The taco, however, was among the best I've tried: It had been deep-fried until all the stuffing inside was toasty warm and melty and infused with a delicious greasy flavor.
And it was grease that successfully held together the beef enchilada ($1.15), a corn tortilla so loosely wrapped around cheese and ground beef that the former oozed and the latter spilled out the sides. The enchilada had been draped with a smooth, mild red-chile sauce. A whole bowl of the red ($2.25) was more than enough to verify that it was a perfect blend of juicy pork and pureed tomatoes, with a hint of garlic and a thin oil slick on top--a surprisingly sophisticated combination.
Anjelica, too, proved to be quite accomplished. As we left, she reached out to shake our hands and said, "It was very nice to meet you."
No such pleasantries awaited us at El Tejado, the ambitious undertaking of Jaime Navarro, a veteran employee of several area restaurants. This five-month-old South Broadway eatery features a big dining area and a large menu that offers many atypical dishes in addition to beans and rice. Unfortunately, none of the unusual items we sampled tasted particularly good.
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But they sure looked good in print. Oyster fans, we immediately ordered twelve ($11) accompanied by fresh limes and a dull "catsup" that didn't mask the metallic tang of the bivalves. For a chaser, we chowed down on complimentary fried-yesterday, dry-today chips and a salsa sporting plenty of heat and cilantro.
Hotter still was the sopa de mariscos ($7.50), but the spicy, jalapeno-juice broth couldn't revive an unimpressive collection of seafood--one sorry crab leg, clumps of graying halibut, a few rubbery shrimp and none of the promised clams. The fried halibut ($7.50) wasn't much better: The two generous-sized fish steaks had purportedly taken a dip in a garlic marinade, but they'd been cooked until every drop of liquid--and hint of taste--disappeared. Although the dish was no knockout, the accompanying side of pico de gallo packed a wonderful punch. In addition to enough chiles to satisfy the most capsicum-crazy, it included chopped cucumbers, onions, orange segments and lime juice.
The pico was so good that it perked up even El Tejado's most standard fare. A combination order of one chile relleno, an enchilada, a tostada and a tamale ($5.50) appeared as one big mess covering--you guessed it--more beans and rice. It took us a while to identify all the different components; so much cheese and chile covered the plate that eating it was like embarking on a treasure hunt filled with booby prizes. One minute you might stab into a smooshy chile relleno (which was light on cheese inside, if not outside), the next into the wet tamale (not enough masa). The taste of red and green chiles predominated--excuse enough for us to order one or two of El Tejado's margaritas ($3.75), served straight up instead of slushy.
We ended with an order of sopapillas ($2.50). The four puffs of sweet fried dough were light, scented with cinnamon and so decadent that we had to finish them off. Even if this dish is the dessert equivalent of beans and rice, we couldn't resist.