Here's everything I ate at Red Tango in one sitting last week, an enthusiastic order so large that the dishes could not fit on the table at one time, forcing the kitchen to stagger courses, the floor manager to wonder aloud if six or seven more people would be joining the table, and the very friendly waiter to give joking assurances that he had plenty of to-go boxes in back, just in case:
A bowl of ceviche, the chunks of orange roughy and tiny rock shrimp acid-cooked in a broth of lime juice and raw chiles, tasting alternately hot and sweet and sour and astringent but always so fresh that it made my tongue jump.
Fresh chips, still hot from the oil, which came with a smoky-hot chipotle salsa but also served as the perfect transport vehicle for the ceviche when I wasn't just picking through the bowl with my fingers like some kind of savage.
Fried plantains, thick-cut and buttery, crisp at the edges and gooey in the middle. Plantains are hard to do even moderately well, and these were the best fried plantains I've had in Denver. Since I eat fried plantains everywhere I can, that's really saying something.
Arepas con something-or-other. Arepas (corn pancakes, more or less, both sweet and starchy at the same time) are the comfort food of South and Central America, as recognizable in Peru and Chile and El Salvador and elsewhere as cheeseburgers are here and rice is in Asia. The stack of perfectly grilled arepas came topped with (and I think were also made with) strong, dry goat cheese, a chipotle rémoulade and a rough salsa of onions and tomatoes. I eat a lot of arepas when I'm out roaming -- often after having been forced to sit through a meal of nouvelle Kazakhstani cuisine or five courses of a chef's tasting menu that all tasted like ground-up back issues of Architectural Digest in pretension sauce -- and these were so good that I wanted to stick my hands inside and wear them around town like edible mittens. Unfortunately, by the time I came up with this brilliant idea, I'd already devoured the entire stack.
Empanadas, two kinds. The first was chunks of marinated beef inside a crisp pastry shell, the second a sort of South American cheese stick -- and who doesn't love cheese sticks?
A simple potato-and-bacon soup that was actually a potato-and-bacon purée thinned with cream and therefore accounted for three of the four levels of the Irish food pyramid (the fourth being whiskey). Since Red Tango serves only beer and wine, I was drinking bottles of Pacífico, but I don't think anyone is going to revoke my Skinny Micks of America membership card for that. And while it might seem weird to find such a Hibernian-style soup on the menu at a South American restaurant, it makes perfect sense. Like the Chinese and Italians, the Irish emigrated to and washed up on just about every foreign shore imaginable -- including the east coast of South America -- and everywhere they went, they took their potatoes and bacon with them.
Also: goat-cheese-stuffed poblano rellenos; a giant, crisp torta covered with fresh and verdant avocado salsa and Mexican crema; and a fat cheese enchilada in a delicious cocoa mole so heavy on the bittersweet chocolate and ground nuts that it would've made a passable dessert.
Potato cakes (mashed potatoes shaped into a patty and flat-fried like the arepas) filled with rough-cut chunks of perfect, rare tenderloin and white onions. So simple, so consoling, so overwhelmingly generous in portion and so smart in its restraint that, inasmuch as food can express emotion, this plate was a happy smile and a firm handshake from the kitchen -- comfort and plainness and honest goodness doing all the work that complexity and flash technique so often fail to do in more ambitious entrees. It was the kind of food I want when I'm feeling bad, the kind I could imagine throwing together for an old friend who arrived at my door unexpectedly in the middle of the night with the law on his trail.
Four homemade white ravioli filled with crushed black beans and topped with a white béchamel, salty shredded parmesan and raw white onions, with each ravioli bearing a large, butterflied tiger prawn tasting of grill char and ancho chile. The combination was so unusual that after one bite, I thought I hated it. I continued to think I hated it until I'd finished half the plate and realized I couldn't stop picking at it. For the sake of science, I ate the other half and decided that, in fact, what I really wanted was another plate.
I asked about dessert instead. There was flan. I'd decided a couple of weeks ago that, even though I've been eating flan for most of my life, I don't actually like it. Red Tango's flan did nothing to change my opinion, but that wasn't the kitchen's fault. As flan, it was perfectly serviceable: sweet, gooey, caramel-y and with a texture like a poached sponge. I'm not going to eat flan anymore.
And this was just one meal. I would have eaten more -- I'd only gone through two-thirds of chef Ulises Santiago's winter menu -- but by the time the last course was cleared, I was having trouble breathing and was worried I might explode. Instead, I went home and slept for twelve hours.
The next morning, I called Jose Acevedo, who started Red Tango with Santiago five years ago, to find out where these guys had come from. As it turned out, their story is the oldest in the business: two immigrants become waiters, bartenders, whatever, and end up opening their own restaurant, to modest success. Acevedo was originally from Chile, came to the States in the early '70s and found his way into the restaurant business in Denver, working at La Loma and places like it before going to Sabor Latino, an excellent Central/South American restaurant that was well ahead of the current American fad for the cuisines of the Southern latitudes, where he worked the front of the house for years. That's where Acevedo met Santiago, who was on the books as a waiter and a bartender because he'd realized there was more money to be made in Denver by delivering some other chef's food than by making it himself.
"He was always saying to me, 'Hey, why don't we open a restaurant? When are we going to open a restaurant?'" Acevedo said of his early friendship with Santiago. "And I told him, 'I can't open a restaurant. I don't want anything to do with kitchens, you know?' And then he says, 'You don't worry about the kitchen. I can cook.' But how do I know he can cook? I said, 'You make drinks. We taught you how to make margaritas. Why do you think you can cook?'"
What Santiago hadn't told anyone was that he'd cooked for years before coming to the Mile High City. He'd been a chef in Mexico. Then, in California, he'd cooked around some and run an Indian restaurant (of all things) in a hotel for five years. He might only have been pouring margs at Sabor Latino, but his background (setting aside the curries and tandoori) was perfect for the kind of restaurant that Acevedo had in mind. And Acevedo's background was perfect for the kind of cooking that Santiago wanted to do: serious Latino cuisine, heavily inflected with the flavors and techniques of Central and South America. Together they decided to take a chance.
They found a spot in a small strip mall in Wheat Ridge, divided it into four spare dining rooms, put some abstract art on the warm, muted walls, set up a bar with three stools and came up with a short menu. Everything at Red Tango -- the atmosphere, the service, the food -- is flavored by the pasts that brought the two partners together. And the food tells their whole story.
Acevedo watches the front of the house, standing post behind the short bar, overseeing service and talking soccer and food with his regulars. In the back, Santiago and his crew cook up seasonal menus, changing the lineup several times a year, in the meantime adding and subtracting apps and entrees in accordance with their mood, what produce they're able to get and what Red Tango's regulars feel like eating. Red Tango is currently serving Santiago's winter board, a hearty combination of Mexican, Salvadoran, Peruvian and Argentine flavors combined to fit the partners' uncomplicated vision of south-of-the-border comfort food. In a couple of months, that will roll over into a very Chilean summer menu. Come autumn, there'll be another menu. Then another.
For five years, that's been the drill: lunches and dinners; regular, globe-trotting menu changes; black-bean ravioli and goat-cheese rellenos. Red Tango has been on a slow build, winning customers by word of mouth, keeping them with friendly, casual service and excellent food that never tries to be anything other than what it is.
"We can't complain," Acevedo told me. "We build our own menu. We've been paying the bills. We've been paying the taxes. We've been very lucky, thank God. The restaurant business is the hardest business, you know? So much to do, so much competition. But things are always improving."
Get the Dining Newsletter
The week's top local food news and events, plus interviews with chefs and restaurant owners, dining tips, and a peek at our print review.