While Guadalajara (see review, page 47) captures the authentic flavors of Mexico's southern latitudes, Santiago's has a mortal lock on quick-and-cheap Mexican street food. The local chain (it started decades ago with just one outlet and now boasts more than twenty locations scattered across the metro area, with satellites as far away as far as Sterling and Crete, Nebraska) has a talent for moving in on addresses where other restaurants failed and then, like the Borg from Star Trek, assimilating them into the Santiago's family. At this point, I doubt there's a single surface-road Denver commuter who doesn't pass by at least one Santiago's outlet daily. But in this case, I'm all for the market saturation -- because Santiago's is good. In particular, I'm a fan of the Leetsdale location that replaced one of my favorite Californi-Mex takeout joints, Jalapeño Mexican Grill, because it's the one I pass by on those rare days when I actually go to the office instead of just wandering around my living room spaced out on shellfish toxin or hiding out in some diner drinking coffee and hammering cigarettes into my face. And I brake for Santiago's, where foil-wrapped breakfast burritos sell for $1.75. On Saturdays, I go for the menudo and boiled pork carnitas and sopapillas that taste like chicharones and bacon because they're puffed up in the same oil that the cooks use for doing everything else. The chile is fantastic: It's neither green nor red, but a strange, orange-y color with a slick of oil on top; it's not bland, but not punishingly hot, either, just sweet and savory and thick and addictive as hell. And the guys in the open kitchen? They fucking rock. Non-stop, from open 'til close, with Mexican music blaring from the radio and an endless patter of galley Spanish. In the time it takes the girl with the eye patch and the neck brace at your local McDonald's to dunk your order of fries, these asesinos can bang out a to-go order for six, have it bagged, boxed and waiting at the end of the counter, and still take a minute to make fun of the guy running the register and do a few dance steps in the middle of the floor when the song on the radio switches up. It's an impressive display, and proof positive that trained Mexican line cooks are the mercenary champions of this industry.
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