The first time I visited El Noa Noa Mexican Restaurant, I had no expectations. It was my initiation into the ritual of strolling along Santa Fe for its First Friday art walk, which was, I found, more about being seen than seeing the art. We wanted to escape the sidewalk crowd and grab a bite and beverage, and stumbled upon this little Mexican oasis.
From the outside, El Noa Noa is a quiet presence at the lower end of the Art District on Santa Fe, near West Seventh Avenue. Its bright stucco facade is broken by small barred windows and three doors -- only one of which will get you into the restaurant. The patio is separated from the sidewalk by a brick wall with iron-covered spaces and locked, gated archways. Driving by, or even walking, you would never know an oasis hides behind the walls.
On my first visit, I didn't even notice the patio. When I walked in, I was disappointed: The entrance was dark and looked like it used to be the dining area, with abandoned booths and a cashier's counter. Directed to the bar, we walked through a hallway being used as a storage area and sat at a small, plain corner table. We only had salsa and a margarita, which were both good -- but difficult items to get wrong. After that first visit, I wasn't in a rush to return.
It wasn't until my office moved to a spot around the corner that I made it back to El Noa Noa and its patio: A good happy hour and its relaxing outdoor retreat have since put the place on my list of regular spots.
With more than 25 tables, it's almost always easy to get a seat outside with little wait, except on First Fridays, when every joint on Santa Fe is packed. A rocky fountain on the back wall provides the white noise of flowing water cascading into a pool, washing away the sound of neighboring conversations and Santa Fe traffic. I usually visit during the weekdays, so on a weekend evening I was pleasantly surprised when a live mariachi band, a regular weekend feature, strolled up to our table.
El Noa Noa opened in 1980 on Santa Fe Avenue as a takeout place with five tables (which explains the homely abandoned booths in the entry). A few years later the kitchen moved farther into the building and the dining room expanded into a few neighboring storefronts to open up the restaurant's seating area (hence the multiple unused doors on the exterior). Then the patio was added and slowly expanded over the years, becoming the place we enjoy today.
I'm impressed by the pace of El Noa Noa's growth, which shows a dedication to the business, a dedication that's reflected in the food and atmosphere. The restaurant is not a kitschy Mexican theme park, but rather welcoming and genuine; the owners took the time to get it right. The decor is colorful but not over the top, while the shady patio's nine trees and multiple umbrellas keep the stone veranda cool on hot days.
The menu is extensive, with typical Mexican fare including taco plates, fajitas, steak cuts served with enchiladas, tamales, and even a standard cheeseburger for the rare Denverite who can't stomach Mexican fare. There's nothing from the kitchen to wow diners: I usually start with a plate of nachos and stick with grilled-tilapia tacos, letting the patio itself do the work, leaving me to enjoy a Pacifico lager or a margarita, if my table-mates agree to a pitcher.
Denver's Mexican restaurants cover a wide range of styles and vibes; I've enjoyed Lola's table-side guacamole, sampled tacos at trendy Los Chingones in RiNo and fallen in love with the traditional plates at Highland's Rosa Linda's, but El Noa Noa's food and patio make it the best place to enjoy a Mexican staycation in the heart of a thriving neighborhood.
The Best Deal: Nachos and a pitcher of Margaritas for $20
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The Best Feature: Huge, shady patio with bands and a water fountain!