An Applebee's is an Applebee's is an Applebee's. In fact, one of the primary reasons people frequent chain restaurants is their predictability: The Applebee's doesn't fall far from the tree. Those absurd riblets you love at the outlet back home will taste just the same, look just the same and cost just the same at the restaurant's clone halfway across the country.
Homegrown chains are a very different deal. They have a lot more character, a little more charm, a lot less corporate attitude - and not nearly the consistency of the major chains. Big chains get bigger because they must keep growing in order to survive. But single restaurants become chains at the risk of losing any success they once enjoyed as solo enterprises.
No one knows this better than Felipe Duran. He and his brothers started Villa del Sol on West Alameda Avenue back in 1993, after they'd spent two decades in the United States going to school, working and cooking for themselves. "I moved here, right to Denver, in 1973 with just my brother," says Felipe, who is originally from Chihuahua, Mexico. "I was fourteen years old, and he was older than me, but we were still on our own. We did all our own cooking, making our own tortillas by hand, while I was going to high school." Within a year of moving to Denver, Felipe was also working in restaurants, and "the food and hospitality industry always had me, you know?" he adds. "It was going to be a part of my life no matter what, even if I became an accountant."
In fact, he did become an accountant - which must come in handy when adding up the pros and cons of the current Sol empire. In addition to the original spot, there's an El Señor Sol in Golden, which opened in 1997; a second Villa del Sol on West Colfax Avenue in Lakewood, which Duran opened just over a month ago after closing the year-old El Señor Sol in Black Hawk; and the Villa del Sol that his brother, José Duran, has owned at 1874 West 92nd Avenue since 1985. And then there's the El Señor Sol on East Colfax, which Felipe Duran has owned for the past year and a half with Miguel Ceballos, the managing partner.
That easternmost El Señor Sol is definitely feeling a bit under the weather these days. During repeated visits, we never managed to get a decent meal - either because of lousy cooking, or servers who seemed to be walking around with their heads in the clouds, or both. Sometimes we didn't get our food at all, which may not have been a bad thing.
For starters, the eatery was never very clean. We could forgive the haphazard decor -- with red, white and green placemat-like banners hanging from the ceiling and painted furniture in need of repainting and repair -- but not the grime. And the greeting we received every time we walked into the place wouldn't have been any less welcoming had we been wearing dead fish on our heads. Granted, it's a rough neighborhood. But that's part of the problem: To folks coming out of the new, improved Lowry complex desperate for some decent, authentic Mexican food, the large, sunny sign of El Señor Sol looks like a true beacon.
It's just so much false advertising, though, unless your idea of authentic Mexican is carne asada made with beef so overcooked it looks like the gnarled fists of a corpse in the final stages of rigor mortis, served with refried beans so runny we thought they might be a side of green chile. Then we spotted the actual green chile, which was even runnier and tasted like chile-infused water. It ran all over the chiles rellenos, which sported a runny egg batter coating two chiles that may or may not have been living organisms at one time, since their texture more closely resembled melted plastic; they were stuffed with cheese that was runny and had both the smell and the taste of car exhaust. And in this city of big-burrito-boasting billboards, it was unnerving to encounter a limp burrito bearing such a miserly portion of shredded beef -- beef so fatty that at first we thought it was pork.
After that first meal, it became a game to see if I could find anything resembling decent food at El Señor Sol. No such luck. The enchiladas tasted like they'd been wrapped days ahead and left to sit on the plate until the tortillas became so soggy they disintegrated; the tacos al carbon featured ribeye so fat-filled it couldn't have been ribeye, along with brown-edged avocado and a pico de gallo that contained nothing but tomatoes and onions. And the shrimp cocktail was nothing but old, chewy shrimp in a broth that tasted like a Bloody Mary mixed by someone who kept getting the vodka and the tomato juice confused.
Not surprisingly, then, the actual drinks were no better. My margarita was a strange orange color and had an oddly fizzy quality, as though someone were trying to bring a little sunshine into this dismal place by dropping food coloring into a glass of tequila-spiked (barely!) 7-Up. The color did not relate to anything in the natural world, and questioning our server about its origins led nowhere.
But then, we never found the front-of-the-house staff at this El Señor Sol to be anything but useless. One time we pointed out to a server that she'd forgotten a dish we'd ordered, and she said, "Okay," then proceeded to walk over to a row of dirty booths to clean them. Another time, after we pointed out to our server that we'd received the wrong dish, he looked at it intently, as though it might turn into the right dish before his very eyes, then said, "Sorry" and disappeared into the kitchen. And I do mean disappeared, because we never saw him again. A different server brought our check.
But while all of our experiences at that El Señor Sol were dreary, all of my meals at the original Villa del Sol have been sunny. The first time we tried this restaurant, we stumbled in half-starved and were greeted by dozens of cheerful, smiley sun faces painted on the backs of brightly colored chairs, as well as the cheerful smiley faces of servers who knew their jobs. The same funky banners hung overhead, and the menu looked identical to that of El Señor Sol, but the food here was light years ahead: crispy, golden-shelled chimichangas fat with well-seasoned, slightly spicy shredded beef, served with fresh guacamole and sour cream; a plate of house-made tamales -- rich, smooth-textured and studded with vegetables -- that arrived steamy and smothered in a good, gravylike green chile; and huevos rancheros that may have sported overdone eggs (we'd asked for them over-medium, and they were cooked through) but came smothered in that good green, heavy with tomato chunks and big pieces of tender pork and boasting a healthy jalapeño bite. The best part of that meal, though, was the shrimp cocktail: a bowl filled with properly cooked shrimp, plenty of fresh avocado chunks, and a broth that was part salty tomato and part grapefruity citrus -- a nice touch.
On a return to Villa del Sol, we replicated an order we'd made at El Señor Sol. This time we were rewarded with well-stuffed enchiladas and carefully battered chiles rellenos that used quality poblanos and oozed cheese that tasted like cheese. And here the tacos al carbón were perfect: good-quality ribeye, chopped and fried with tomatoes and onions, along with fresh avocado and a colorful jalapeño pico de gallo. (I'd awarded these tacos a Best of Denver award in June and was happy to see that they're still a winner.) I also stopped by Golden's El Señor Sol on two occasions; the food there was just as praiseworthy, and the atmosphere was even more festive.
Compared to the other links in the chain, the East Colfax El Señor Sol is a poor relation - a very poor relation. These eateries are as different as night and day. But if Duran doesn't want to see the sun set on his restaurant empire, he has some work ahead of him.
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