Pinche Taqueria is pinche good!
Fuck," I whispered. My friend's giggle urged me on. "Fuck. Fuck, fuck fuck," I said, a little louder. She kept laughing, so I kept saying the word, applying it to our surroundings. "Fucking playground!" I shouted. "Fucking swing! Fucking ball! Fucking Anthony!" By now my friend was screaming with laughter, and I joined in, yelling expletive after expletive between yelps, clutching my sides and gasping for breath.
The fun ended, quickly, when a recess aide heard the profanity and put me in time-out. But the rush of the forbidden lingered long after I was back in my elementary-school class. I didn't entirely understand my new vocabulary word, but I did understand that it was a bit naughty...and I also knew that saying it was sure to get a cheap laugh from my playmates.
The word "pinche" doesn't have the same versatility as the word "fuck," its loose English translation. You can't use "pinche" if you mean the act of having sex, for instance. You also can't use it if you want to say, "I don't give a flying fuck" or "You're a fuck," or even really "Fuck you"; there are different Spanish phrases and verbs for those sentiments. "Pinche" is much more specific, a modifier that gives something a little extra, amusing oomph — much as my playground "fuck" did for the under-ten crowd, and as "pinche" does for kitchen crews across Denver today.
When Kevin Morrison, a former exec at the Spicy Pickle, decided to get in on the food-truck game two years ago, he named his truck Pinche Tacos — which was deliciously amusing to most people who got the joke. He channeled the irreverence into the vehicle he built out, painting the truck a vibrant crimson, using a teeth-baring black-and-white donkey as his logo, and creating a line of mostly gringified tacos to sell at farmers' markets and other food-truck gatherings. His brand channeled the grit of the street as well as mischievous fun, and it drew enough fans that he was soon able to act on the next part of his plan: putting a food cart on the the 16th Street Mall.
Unfortunately, a few downtown boosters also got the pinche joke, and they banned Morrison from using the name on his cart. And when Morrison opened a brick-and-mortar establishment just off Colfax this fall, he was again prevented from using the word "pinche" on its sign. Instead, the small spot is marked simply as a spot for "tacos, tequila, whiskey."
But once inside, you'll find that Pinche Taqueria has the same cheekiness that's marked all of Morrison's mobile ventures, with the addition of whiskey, tequila and beer upping the potential for debauchery. Rather than the usual, stark mash-up of white walls and stainless steel, the open kitchen in the corner is painted black and lit from above by red lights. The frenetic energy of the sizzling grill and bubbling fryer bleeds out into the rest of the space. The dark wooden bar next to the kitchen is almost always packed, a bartender darting between the bottles, vigorously shaking a tin while answering questions about the menu. Parties keep piling into the adjacent dining room, too, sharing wooden tables or grabbing a seat at the high center counter, which glows under scarlet mosaic lanterns. Ornate wooden crosses adorn one mustard wall; a chalkboard lettered with the names of dozens of tequilas covers another. And somehow servers maneuver through the crash, dropping off platters piled high with tacos.
Entering the room can feel like showing up at a party just as it's about to hit its peak.
That's even true on a Monday, when I last dropped by Pinche Taqueria. One large table was surrounded by the entire kitchen staff as a member of the party cut into a giant, cupcake-shaped birthday cake. At another table, a group was doing tequila shots.
More photos: In the kitchen at Pinche Taqueria
We squeezed into a couple of empty seats at the counter and learned that happy hour ran all night on Mondays, which seemed like a good reason to order a round of margaritas. I'd already enjoyed many of the tequila- or mezcal-based cocktails on Pinche's list, but I'd never ordered the house margarita, a classic blend of tequila and Cointreau and plenty of mouth-puckering lime juice, sweetened with a squirt of simple syrup.
Cocktails in front of us, we studied the menu. Ordering at Pinche is done sushi-bar style: Diners mark a sheet listing the types of tacos with the quantity of each one they want, then hand the paper to a server. While we waited for our tacos, we dug into freshly fried corn chips, delivered warm and salt-specked in a paper bag; we'd also gone for the salsa sampler, as well as guacamole and queso fundido. Though our server had said that one salsa — the tart, green tomatillo blend — was mild, all three carried a bite. The xnic-pec, which is Mayan for "dog's nose" and so named because the spice gives you a wet nose, was particularly heated; the Mayan-style pico de gallo-like blend had been studded with bits of habanero peppers. The third salsa, yessina abuela, is named for a girl in the kitchen; serrano and black pepper gave the slightly sweet tomato-and-garlic blend a dry heat. We put out the fire by dipping chips into the roiling pot of queso fundido, a stringy, melted pepper Jack dotted with chunks of piquant chorizo. And finally, when all of that was gone, we turned to the guacamole, a traditional — but delicious — chunky mix of avocado, tomato and onion freshened by cilantro, tarted up by lime and slighty spiced by serrano chiles. To salute finishing off our starters, we ordered another cocktail, a silky lavender- and vanilla-tinged Desert Spoon.
And then an enormous pile of tacos arrived.
Morrison calls every taco on his menu a street taco, but they range in complexity and creativity from the classics — such as carnitas and carne asada — to interesting twists on tradition, including a surf-and-turf version that combines fried shrimp and tongue. That night, the carne asada tacos were a disappointment; the beef was tough, devoid of juice and flavor beyond a sort of abrasiveness left by the dry rub; there was no tang of iron, no charred flecks from the grill. They didn't come close to matching many of the asada tacos I've had on the streets of this city. (I've been similarly disappointed by the bland carnitas.)
But Pinche more than made up for that blunder with the rest of our order. The pork-belly agridulce was downright decadent, with fat-laced slices of belly quivering on a pair of stacked tortillas, topped with crisp cabbage and cilantro- and citrus-spiked slaw, and served with a side of the braising juices. The whole thing was at once sweet, sour and savory, every messy bite testifying to the wonderful marriage of pork and citrus. The surf and turf was just as triumphant, with crunchy, breaded and fried shrimp providing an awesome contrast to the soft, slippery cubes of beef tongue under more avocado and cilantro. And I'm a sucker for the pollo a la crema here. This time, the perfectly braised chicken was drowning in a smoky, spicy chipotle cream sauce; the delicious mess had been sprinkled with cotija cheese and finished with more sour cream.
We finished our binge-fest with my favorite taco on the menu: the rajas con crema and maiz, which takes strips of earthy poblano peppers, cooks them soft, then mixes in kernels of sweet corn, salty bits of cotija cheese and sweet-tart sour cream. The combination is balanced and surprisingly palate-cleansing.
One advantage of being crammed alongside other diners at Pinche Taqueria is that you can stop them from making grave ordering errors. Near the end of this meal, we overheard the couple next to us haggling over whether to order the churros. In my good deed for the day, I saved them from what could have been a lifetime of fried-food-related regret by leaning over and telling them to order them immediately.
Because the churros here are transcendent. They come stacked like a little log cabin of sugar- and cinnamon-coated sticks of dough, hot from the fryer, so crisp they're brittle on the outside and hot, dense but fluffy, bready and sweet inside. You dip each in a teacup of rich, creamy hot chocolate. And then you double dip. And then at the end, you drink the rest of the chocolate without shame — because there are people erroneously forgoing dessert all over the city, and you can't let it go to waste. At least, that's how I eat the churros at Pinche Taqueria.
This place is pinche good.
More photos: In the kitchen at Pinche Taqueria
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