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Taco Mex makes tacos al pastor the traditional way

The al pastor tent outside of Taco Mex is just beginning to cook.
mark manger

Along the stretch of Colfax where Denver begins to give way to Aurora, a motley collection of strip malls, repurposed gas stations and shabby storefronts house an equally diverse collection of culinary experiences. Ethiopian and Japanese joints stand side by side; neighboring Peruvian and Salvadoran spots provide ample opportunity for pupusa comparison. And Mexican restaurants are everywhere, featuring everything from mariscos to menudo.

In the midst of all this sits Taco Mex, an immaculately painted red-and-white box that looks like it might once have been a fast-food outlet, though block lettering on the windows proclaims that it now sells tortas, tacos and gorditas. Taco Mex's patio along Colfax is almost always packed, and at nights and on weekends, patrons spill into the parking lot, gathering by a tent that occupies a couple of car slots right in front of the door. There they chat in Spanish with the aproned crew manning the patched-together outdoor kitchen: a flat-top grill, a steam table, a massive vat of orange grease swimming with brisket and sausage, a rotisserie and a miniature salsa bar, all crammed into the six-foot-by-six-foot space.

The spit is the star, a slowly turning metal rod that skewers a beehive-shaped mass of chile-rubbed pork, dripping with grease and topped with chunks of pineapple that leak juice all over the meat. As the rotisserie rotates over the flame, a cook will periodically reach over to carve off a slice of pork, then throw it on the grill with some of the pineapple. After a minute or two, he'll scoop the meat and fruit onto two stacked corn tortillas, top that with bits of cilantro and onion, then hand the plate of tacos to a salivating customer. These are tacos al pastor, slow-cooked the traditional, central-Mexican way — a rarity in this city because of the space and time required.

Craving these tacos, I stopped by Taco Mex a few weeks ago, dodging packs of children to reach the counter just inside the door, which fronts a tiled room outfitted with plastic tables and chairs that are bolted to the floor. More kids were darting between the furnishings, coming dangerously close to dipping grubby hands in the more substantial salsa bar on one side of the room or knocking over the Our Lady of Guadalupe candles surrounding shrines on the opposite wall. A menu board mounted above the register featured pictures of dozens of Mexican and Mexican-American dishes (but no prices); next to the cashier were two-foot-tall jars of freshly made cantaloupe, watermelon and pineapple juice, as well as a dispenser for horchata.

After taking in the chaos, I found what I was looking for: The taco choices were outlined, in English and Spanish, on a small-print, black-and-white flier in a plastic stand next to the register. Once I'd made my choices and paid up, the ponytailed cashier sent half my taco order — for tongue and birria, a spicy Jaliscan stew traditionally made with goat but here made with beef — back to the kitchen, then handed me a ticket and told me to present it to the cooks outside.

Clutching a couple of inches of printer tape — it listed pastor, cheek and longaniza, the piquant, finely ground pork sausage made with vast quantities of paprika, which gives it an angry red color — I stepped back outside and fought my way up to the tent. A cook took the receipt, nodded and started working on my order, metal spatula flashing as he flipped piles of meat on the flat-top. While I waited, I munched on a plate of radishes I'd snagged from the inside salsa bar and sucked down a cantaloupe juice that was liquefied melon on ice, sweet and refreshing and (almost) a worthy substitute for beer (Taco Mex doesn't have a liquor license). A few minutes later, just as the smoke from the chiles in the pastor marinade was starting to sting my eyes, the cook handed over a paper plate loaded with tacos. I gave each a liberal ladle of either racy red or green salsa from the outdoor bar, found a seat at a picnic table, and dug in.

I started with the cheek, so velvety with fat it practically dripped down my throat. The sausage was as fiery as it looked, juice drooling onto the warm corn tortillas, the meat carrying just a hint of char from the grill. And then the tacos al pastor: smoky, peppery nuggets of tender pork, crisped lightly on the outside, contrasting with sweet flecks of brûléed pineapple — all highlighted by the onions, cilantro and salsa piled on top, their liquid dripping down my hand. The combination created an earthy burn enlivened by a fresh bite.

Each taco was gone within three gulps. Fortunately, just as I'd tracked down every scrap, the cashier arrived with the rest of my order. I've had better birria; the Taco Mex version was uncharacteristically tough and dry, though it simmered with hot red chile. But the grilled tongue — sliced so thin that the tastebuds were barely visible — was beefy, tender and flavorful.

Martin Villegas, who took over ownership of Taco Mex six years ago (he has a second spot at 92nd and Pecos), usually sets up the pastor tent at night and on weekends; during weekdays, it's often packed away, leaving rainbow-swirled pools of grease in its stead. That's when your best bet is the breakfast burrito: a lard-infused flour tortilla wrapped around a dense mix of scrambled eggs, finely chopped crispy potatoes and a massive portion of meat (I usually go with the spicy sausage). Topped with green chile, this burrito is exceptionally peppery and porky, and just the thing to fight the physical reminder of a night of bad decisions. Other items prepared indoors are more disappointing: The horchata, for example, definitely needs more cinnamon.

I timed a return visit — this one with a group of friends — for an evening when we knew the outdoor kitchen would be smoking. While I went inside to order up a feast, my friends grabbed a picnic table and loaded it up with items from the salsa bar — more radishes, onions, pickled jalapeños. We ate some as appetizers and loaded the rest onto a few rounds of those incredible streetside tacos.

We were just wiping our fingers free of grease when a cashier delivered a stack of Styrofoam packages filled with the rest of our order. The refried beans in the burrito were heavy with lard, as was the tortilla surrounding them — but the green chile that smothered this monster was surprisingly mild, thick with pork but lacking in jalapeños. The chile relleno — a sweet, earthy roasted pepper oozing gooey white cheddar and Jack cheese — was drowning in that same dull chile. We pushed aside both dishes in favor of the gorditas, fat corn cakes that sandwiched a variety of fillings. I'd expected the chicharrón to be the best, but the puffs of deep-fried pork skin had gone soggy under the sour cream, and oddly tasted like just so much more wet cornmeal. The best version was stuffed with finely chopped longaniza, heavy with delicious orange grease and scorching with chiles, the heat mitigated by more sour cream and cheese.

Our voracious hunger finally met its match with the menudo. The broth was sticky with collagen, so thick with rust-hued chiles that it coated our plastic silverware with an oily sheen and hid the pieces of spongey tripe and stomach within. The dish was rich enough to give me a side stitch after three bites, but the flavor was addictive. The intense mix of salt, spice and fat would be just the thing to kill a hangover the Mexican way, coating your stomach, replacing lost electrolytes and making you sweat out residual alcohol.

Our night was just starting, though, so we abandoned the morning-after soup in favor of watching the sun set over colorful Colfax.

And before we left Taco Mex, I grabbed another order of tacos to go.

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Taco Mex

7840 E. Colfax Ave.
Denver, CO 80220

303-394-7555


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