Native Truths

If the test of a good ethnic restaurant is the number of customers from the cuisine's alleged country of origin, then the Armadillo fails miserably.

After eating twice at the lower-lower downtown location of this homegrown mini-chain--the Armadillo operates nine eateries in Colorado and one in Cheyenne--and a week's worth of looking through its windows, I have yet to see one Mexican person eating there. Or even one Hispanic person. This Armadillo, which opened last April (a previous LoDo attempt occupied the current home of Ruth's Chris Steakhouse), was white city. And the food was no more colorful.

And that's too bad, because the Armadillo's origins are colorful. The first Armadillo opened 28 years ago in sleepy LaSalle, hardly a hotbed of big business startups. Joe and Lucy Lucio started serving burritos in their LaSalle bar, and the food was such a hit that people convinced them to expand to a full-scale kitchen and then a full-fledged restaurant. The Lucios' son, Louie, has since taken on the challenge of distributing Armadillos throughout the region and, according to Michael Reisinger, spokesman at the corporate office, the Armadillo is "poised for even more expansion."

Although the chain's recipes are based on "old family recipes from Mexico," the menu states that "while staying with the basics of good Mexican food, we've also updated ingredients and introduced new dishes as tastes have changed." (Read: We've Americanized.) In the process, though, something--flavor, perhaps?--has been lost in the translation from a small family enterprise to a biggish business. The Armadillo now makes much of its food assembly-line-style, at a commissary in LaSalle, and then ships it daily to each outlet in refrigerated trucks. The only exceptions to this process are the tortillas, the chips, the guacamole and vegetables that need to be chopped fresh. Preparing food this way, says Reisinger, "ensures consistency."

It also ensures that it's consistently boring. And frankly, I'm not fond of any dish that claims to be authentic Mexican cuisine and comes topped with a ball of sour cream.

That's what sat atop a plate of carnitas ($6.75), a healthy portion of seasoned pork that had not been "baked slowly to perfection," as the menu claimed, but was chewy rather than tender--but no amount of chewing could extract any taste from the bland meat. The accompanying rice and beans were okay, though, and the jalapeno-heavy pico de gallo was a pleasant find. The beef in the Mexican turnover ($6.25) was even chewier than the carnitas; along with onions and Monterey Jack cheese, the meat had been stuffed inside a dull pastry-dough package. Covering the turnover was a lifeless green chile, which had almost no kick. Granted, in Mexico food usually arrives at the table packing little heat, since the kitchen assumes diners will add their own from spices on the table--but I doubt that's the assumption under which the Armadillo is operating.

A blanket of the same green deadened the chiles rellenos dinner ($4.75). We'd requested the soft version, which is made from the traditional egg-white batter (otherwise, the Armadillo relies on that old Mexican standby, the won ton wrapper), but the peppers had only a hit-or-miss coating of the batter. And inside, there was so little cheese that at first I thought the kitchen had forgotten it. Perhaps the kitchen also forgot to add any other ingredients to the smashed, lonely avocado passed off as guacamole ($4.75).

The meal wasn't a total loss, though. The flan ($2.45) was exemplary--creamy smooth, rich and not too eggy. And the fried ice cream ($3.25)--a purely American invention--was not only fine, it was fun.

Unfortunately, there was nothing fun about our second visit. Although this time the green chile was fiery--so much for consistency--it couldn't save the dirt-dry chicken in the pollo classico burrito ($4.25). The shredded-beef tamales ($6.25) were unbelievably flavorless, and while the menudo ($1.75 for a bowl) was spicy, it was oddly refined; this dish really needs to be a little more earthy to work.

In fact, getting a little more earthy wouldn't hurt the Armadillo. It occupies the space formerly filled--not too successfully--by Maxfield's, and while the dining room, which features a large fountain and upscale Mexican "treasures" strewn about, certainly is snazzy, it lacks intimacy. And despite the Armadillo's down-home roots, it certainly lacks authenticity. All in all, the Armadillo reminded me of a pseudo-Mexican chain we had back East--one I haven't seen in these parts--called Chi Chi's, which some Mexican friends of mine used to make fun of because chichi means "teat" in Spanish.

Compare and contrast the Armadillo with El Tucan, a very modest venture sitting in a tiny shoebox of a building across 26th Avenue from the Safeway on Federal. This space once held a notoriously divey bar, but the Covarrubias family has cleaned it up so that El Tucan--the toucan--bears no resemblance to its predecessor. (Perhaps in a nod to the previous inhabitant, the restaurant also has no liquor license.) The patriarch, Joe Covarrubias, takes orders and generally runs the place, occasionally popping back into the kitchen to help his wife, Gloria, and son Eddie do the cooking.

The food here has the flavors that come from family cooking: This is what the Covarrubias family would eat at home. It's not stunning, complex fare, but it's honest. The emphasis is on basic, cheap meals such as tacos, enchiladas and burritos, and although the food isn't as healthy as the Armadillo's, it's much more tasty. It's often even greasy--but good greasy.

For example, the steak tacos ($3.75 for four) were so juicy that one guy in our group regretted having worn a white shirt. The meat had been chopped into cubes and lightly seasoned with chile powder, then grilled and stuffed inside small tortillas. The tacos took a long time to reach our table, but then, the kitchen wasn't exactly speedy in producing any of our food. That's one of the snags when mom and pop--and son--are trying to do it all. So while we waited, we watched the noon news--although the action in the tiny kitchen, as seen through a window right below the TV, was much more interesting. Joe and Gloria looked like they were playing Twister trying to get everything together. El Tucan probably doesn't get groups of eight very often--our party alone almost filled the place.

Finally, the Covarrubiases did manage to produce all eight of our meals. Also worth the wait was the chile relleno ($1.75), one jumbo poblano stuffed with just enough Monterey Jack. (While the Armadillo's suffered from too little cheese, it's also easy to overdo it, so that the melted cheese hardens into a rubber puck.) The pepper had been coated with egg-white batter and fried, then smothered in a bath of good green chile, filled with minced bits of jalapeno and carrying a mild kick. The enchiladas ($3.50) were smothered in El Tucan's red chile, which was so mild it was almost nonexistent, but the tender beef and cheese stuffings were tasty. More of that good beef filled the flautas ($5), little "flutes" deep-fried to a wonderful crisp. And the pork in the carnitas ($3.75) had been marinated in a sharp concoction before the meat was fried, which gave it a great tang. All the dishes came with large helpings of basic rice and beans, except for two guacamole tostadas ($3), which were salty but delicious.

Our only disappointment at El Tucan was the chicken torta ($4.50), a Mexican sandwich whose otherwise great taste was marred by dry, chewy chicken.

El Tucan's menu is rather limited, and there can be some delays. But instead of parrots purchased at Pier 1 Imports--the Armadillo's "authentic" decorations--this eatery offers an unusual collection of plastic elephants, the family's own.

I like the touches. Apparently, so do El Tucan's other customers. Not surprisingly, most of them are Hispanic and know where to go for all the comforts of home.

The Armadillo, 2401 15th Street, 477-5880. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Thursday, Sunday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday.

El Tucan, 2900 West 26th Avenue, 455-6476. Hours: 9 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Sunday.

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