South Parker Road, especially the stretch in east Denver before it crosses into Aurora, isn't exactly one of the city's focal points for Mexican eateries. If you want to find the kind of restaurant density it takes to do a proper taqueria crawl (you know what I mean: at least four restaurants, four different styles of taco), you'll need to head to Federal Boulevard or East Colfax Avenue. Parker Road throws off a more suburban vibe — almost rural at times — as sprawling apartment complexes fade into holdout farm properties with horses and derelict pickup trucks. Walled housing developments and self-storage warehouses are more common than the strip malls necessary to support a critical mass of Mexican lunch counters. And you can forget about food trucks, which thrive on the slow crawl of urban traffic rather than the high speed of commuters trying to get to just about anywhere else. A notable exception, though, is Tacos DF, which actually started as a food cart on Parker but upgraded to its current home between Jewell Avenue and Dayton Street several years ago.
The "DF" in this taqueria stands for Distrito Federal, the federally administered zone that encompasses Mexico City and the surrounding area. Mexico City's street food is some of the best and most vibrant in the world, featuring many regional dishes that have found their way to the country's capital. Iconic Chilango (what the residents of Mexico City call themselves) street eats like tortas and tacos al pastor may not have originated in the D.F., but they were perfected there over decades of competition. Tacos DF does both, and while certain factors prevent the food from rising to the level of the originals, the tortas and carne al pastor are as good here as anywhere else in Denver.
One of the mitigating factors in the quality of carne al pastor in Denver is simply health-department regulations. In Mexico, the enormous skewers of marinated pork (the evolutionary offspring of Lebanese shawarmas) are slow-roasted and the sizzling meat is sliced directly from the vertical cone of meat onto corn tortillas. The texture is significantly different than the American equivalent, because here cooks are required to re-cook the meat on a grill or in a hot pan before serving it. But carne al pastor at Tacos DF at least features a deep char to mimic the fire-roasted original, and the marinade is potent with seasoning, staining everything it touches (tortillas, napkins, fingertips, the front of my shirt) a bright marigold orange.
Doubling down on the carne al pastor with tacos.
You can stick with straight-up tacos al pastor for an unadulterated hit of seasoned pork studded with hidden jewels of pineapple (grab some cilantro, onion and salsa from the condiment bar to dress up your tacos), or you can try the tangy pork in sandwich form; the Chilango torta features both chopped carne al pastor and grilled steak.
The torta is another street-food wonder that probably didn't originate in Mexico City. Smaller sandwiches called cemitas can be found in the city of Puebla, but the bread is a little different. The bread used for a proper torta most likely evolved from French baguettes, but includes lard in the mix, making for a finer crumb and softer crust than typical French bread. The telera rolls at Tacos D.F. are big and roughly oval (so wide they're almost round) and when split in half and stuffed with beans, avocado, mayonnaise (don't even pull the "authenticity" card, Americans didn't invent mayonnaise), some sort of ivory-white processed cheese,and two kind of meat, the whole enchilada — I mean torta — becomes floppy like a hot-water bottle.
The bread, while tender, is definitely sturdy and will hold up to the heavy contents within, so keeping the foil wrapper around the sandwich like it's a Chipotle burrito isn't necessary. However, I wouldn't recommend trying to Guy Fieri one of these things (consume in as few bites as possible — for those who refuse to watch the TV show) while hurtling down Parker Road at speeds in excess of the recommended limit (not that I would know).
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SHOW ME HOW
There's something a little surly about dining in at Tacos DF; even the kids who cut in line in front of me at the counter were a little sullen. Maybe it's just that there's so much contented munching going on that socializing isn't a priority (although that doesn't explain the clerk at the counter). But a to-go order means the steam and fat from the meat have a chance to penetrate the tortillas, making for a delicious, homogenized mess. Don't wait on the torta, though; time won't do it any favors. And whatever you do, don't rest the football-sized sandwich on your lap and attempt to eat half of it while knee-steering through traffic.
Tacos DF isn't near Denver's prime taqueria zones, but business is still brisk.