Five years ago, when the food-truck movement was just gathering speed in Denver and some of the city's top talents (Kevin Morrison of Pinche Tacos, for example) were launching mobile kitchens as a way to market a concept before making it concrete, then-Westword-restaurant critic Laura Shunk looked toward an older tradition – the loncheras of Federal Boulevard – for street-food inspiration. She found it in the twin trucks of La Villa Real, operated by husband-and-wife team Maria Garcia and Marco Angeles. While one Villa Real truck prowled the streets, the other stayed put, serving breakfast, lunch and dinner in a lot near the corner of West Alameda Avenue and Raritan Street, where Garcia and her husband wanted to someday open their own brick-and-mortar place. “It would be nice for the winter,” she said on a frigid December day in 2010. “The truck isn't insulated against the cold, and people have nowhere to sit and eat, because they can't stand outside.”
That someday is almost here: Garcia and Angeles have built a restaurant called Villagran on the lot where their food truck has continued to dish out fat gorditas and mouthwatering tacos in the intervening years; they hope to open the doors before the end of October.
On a much warmer September afternoon, business is brisk at the truck in front of the two-story building that Garcia and Angeles have constructed over the course of four and a half years. But Garcia and her daughter, Abilene Angeles, are kind enough to step out of the truck for a few minutes to offer a peek inside the dining room of Villagran. It’s nearly ready for business, lacking only the final general inspection – scheduled for late September – before the family can begin setting up the kitchen and bar and training staff. Chairs are stacked on top of tables and the bar shelves have yet to be stocked, but the final countdown has begun for what has long been Garcia’s goal. “Every penny I got, I saved for this,” she says.
Garcia was born in Durango, Mexico, and her husband is from Michoacán. The food they serve from La Villa Real is a combination of recipes from both of their former homes, with an emphasis on Durango-style gorditas – fat little corn tortillas that sandwich grilled meats and melty cheese.
In some Denver taquerias, you’ll find gorditas made from baked or fried pockets similar to miniature pita rounds; in others, you'll get sloppy, oversized disks too floppy for handheld eating yet too chewy to stand up to cheap plastic forks. Villa Real’s gorditas are a more manageable size – you could almost slip one into your back pocket – and the contents stay neatly put between the two pudgy tortillas, each lightly crisped in fat for a texture more cushy than leather-bound. Fillings include standard street-food beef and pork parts in various preparations: chicharrón, deshebrada (shredded beef), tripa, barbacoa, adobada and azada (a regional spelling of asada). But meatless versions with rajas (pepper strips) or frijoles and queso are also available.
The tacos are diminutive two-ply beauties buried in an avalanche of meats. For the adventurous, there’s buche (diced pork stomach) in addition to the other cuts, but Garcia is proud of her tacos rancheros – a simple mixture of grilled strips of steak, translucent onion and blistering jalapeño topped with slices of avocado. A squirt of lime makes the lightly seasoned beef come alive with seared flavor, and a side of salsa – Abilene warns of the power of the wicked orange version – adds the kick of red or green chiles. These are tacos that conjure images of a dry region of Mexico with a long tradition of cattle ranching. Among the tacos, tortas, quesadillas and gorditas, there’s also something called suegras. They're similar to quesadillas, Garcia explains, but made with big corn tortillas. They’re called suegras – Spanish for “mother-in-law” – because the top tortilla clings (aided by melted cheese) like a nosy mother-in-law.
Once the restaurant opens, the tortillas will be made by hand right in front of customers, so the street-kitchen freshness evident in the current menu (right now, tortillas are made fresh daily, but not by hand) will be amplified at Villagran. Garcia says she’ll also offer huaraches and steak (arrachera) typical of restaurants in Durango, along with frijoles de la olla, or beans cooked all day in a pot – one of her favorite dishes to prepare.
And Abilene, who studied hotel and restaurant management at Colorado State University, recently returned from Puerto Vallarta, where she learned how to cook seafood in the coastal style of that city. Villagran is more than just a family project, though. “Friends, relatives and even customers helped,” says Garcia of the building's construction.
As that project neared completion, Garcia took classes with the Colorado Restaurant Association to earn ServSafe certification for both food and alcohol service. Although she and her husband worked in restaurants before they rolled out their trucks, she wants to ensure that their new business complies with modern standards for both safety and excellent customer service.
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Street food is king on these blocks of Alameda and on nearby Federal. If customers aren’t hoisting tacos, burritos and sopes from any number of trucks, trailers and carts in southwest Denver, they’re hanging out until last call in eateries, both Mexican and Vietnamese, that are only one wall removed from the bustle of the nightlife that surrounds them. Villagran will aim for a slightly more upscale atmosphere than that of the surrounding taquerias and noodle shops, where a quick beer and a bite are more the norm than a sit-down meal with cloth napkins – or even sturdy paper napkins that don’t dissolve with the first touch of grease. But Garcia says that regulars have already been clamoring to get a first taste of the new place. They expect her to stay true to what made the trucks such a success – and she plans to stay the course. The hustle and grit of serving food on the street may not be part of her business plan, but the immediacy of a friendly, familiar face and food so fresh you can taste it before it even hits your plate certainly are.