Tacos Jalisco serves Southern comfort, Mexican style -- and free chips
This is not the first invasion Denver has suffered. There was a sci-fi geek incursion just a couple of weeks ago, that basketball thing a couple of years ago. We've had Baptist conventions and World Series games and a thousand smaller, less publicized wrenches thrown in our collective works. And while, yes, the Democratic National Convention is big in all senses of the word — big news, big weirdness, big annoyance, big fun — and a challenge for anyone even tangentially affected by its massive gravity, like the man said: This, too, shall pass. Very soon, there will come a day when it is all a memory, bad or good, when our city will be back to itself again and likely none the worse for wear.
Until that day? You take your comfort where you can. You camp out in your living room, call in stranded to work and blame it on the Secret Service (an excuse you can only use for another day or two), do everything in your power to avoid the hassles orbiting the convention venues like electrons in unstable valences and, if you're anything like me, eat. For peace, for solace, out of boredom or smoldering rage, you eat in hopes of finding something soothing for every jangled nerve and offended sensibility — searching for comfort in the form of things killed, grilled and shoved in your food hole.
Denver does a lot of foods well. We do steaks and potatoes out of historic, autonomic reflex. We do burgers because a man can't eat porterhouse every day and live long at it. We do sushi because we happened to be the settling place for a handful of sashimi savants, and Vietnamese food because we were fortunate enough to have been a gathering place for those displaced by war and made hungry by the trip.
But Denver does Mexican food because we can't not, because it is integral to who we are in the West and what we love. If Denver has a cohesive soul anywhere inside its stone-and-iron body, the core of our collective psyche wears a sombrero. When it feels like getting out and about, it drives a chopped and custom lowrider. And when it eats, it has a flood of carnitas, tacos and chicken burritos flowing through it — a spangled and bean-smeared tapestry of mutt cuisine that ties borders in knots and passes like a coyote invisibly back and forth across them.
Colorado Mexican is not Mexican-Mexican. Colorado Mexican is regular Mexican with two shots of tequila on top and a chile pepper stuffed with cheese. It's a Tex-Mex sizzle platter of fajitas trailing steam through the dining room. As Irish cuisine is one of siege and sorrow and penury, Colorado Mexican is one almost exclusively of celebration: Saturday-night tacos and Sunday-morning menudo, breakfast burritos to greet the day and margaritas to rejoice in its close. And we are incredibly goddamn fortunate that, in many of this city's best neighborhoods, you can't walk blindfolded for fifty yards without stumbling through the front door of some taquería or other, tripping and falling face-first into a plate of carne asada. God knows I've done it often enough. Sometimes without even the blindfold as an excuse.
Last week I counted the Mexican-food enterprises as I drove toward Tacos Jalisco. Taquerías, carnicerías, panaderías, chile roasters just getting in the year's first crop, dudes in trucks with pictures of dancing tacos on the side and salsas kept in plastic half-jars that once held pickles or kimchi or god-knows-what. Counting as I rolled up West 38th Avenue, I almost got in three different accidents as I jerked the wheel unconsciously back and forth. I'd eaten at many of these places, bought bread, pastries, bags of tamarind candy. I could remember what each of them had done well (huaraches here, tacos there, a killer bowl of posole on this corner one night), how the service had been, whether the chips were fresh and free. And by the time I made it to Tacos Jalisco, I was starving. It had taken all my scant willpower not to stop and buy a couple of tacos to hold me over, but I was committed. For decades, Tacos Jalisco has held down the corner of a strip mall full of laundromats and storefronts like the final picket in a defensive line, holding firm against the remodels and condo buyouts approaching inexorably from three directions, the whole area humming with an unstoppable force/immovable object vibe. (The owners also have El Sarape on South Colorado, and had a second Tacos Jalisco in a mutt neighborhood on Leetsdale Boulevard until 2003.) The stolidity of Tacos Jalisco in the face of all that progress was thrilling, and so was the thought of a plate of camarones rancheros.
The name, of course, makes no sense at all. There's nothing ranch-like about this dish, although it does contain shrimp — big gulf shrimp, butterflied and served in a bath of carbolic acid and red dye #5, in a thin, vicious soup of liquid napalm and that stuff they dip candy apples in at the fair. It is hot as considered sin, painful like a mouthful of needles for the first few bites — the shrimp bodies prized from their tails, cut, swirled through the red-chile sauce puddled in the well of the plate and laid on a tortilla with a dollop of smooth and lardy beans, a little broken steam-table rice and a touch of almost-but-not-quite-fresh house guacamole. In their inferno sauce, the shrimp share space with a chopped medley of innocuous-looking bell peppers, a few bits of soft onion — but this is camouflage for the unwary. This stuff is hot, murderously so. But it speaks to the masochist in me, the kid who, upon discovering chile on his first night in New Mexico many years ago, immediately began ordering it on everything, heedless of warning, ignoring all good advice to the contrary. Beyond that, it is delicious.
There's a certain edge in Mexican/Texan/New Mexican cuisine where pain and pleasure sit holding hands. You can't get there if you're a pussy, order your chile on the side, stay away from the saturated reds of a serious hellfire sauce, or are unwilling to suffer some uncomfortably volcanic intestinal complaints. The only way to get there — to taste that fine intersection between the high ends of the Scoville scale and the sweet, smoky piquancy in that garden of pain — is to eat recklessly. And the camarones rancheros at Tacos Jalisco are a very good place to start.
From there you can go in many directions. The menu is long, with a full-board breakfast (burritos and chilaquiles, huevos divorciados and steak-and-egg plates that are far more ranchero than the aforementioned camarones), seafood plates, posole (which sells out fast) and menudo (which doesn't), tacos and burritos made with excellent carnitas, with carne asada, with chicken (so simple and plain, yet still handled well) and, from the other end of the animal, with beef cheek and lengua and buche. Because Jalisco is neither entirely American nor entirely Mexican nor entirely Tex-Mex, but weirdly, smushed-uppedly and wonderfully Colorado-Mexican, there's pork-shot green chile smothering half the dishes, as well as freakishly authentic Michoacán tacos al albañil with jalapeños and potatoes and a few borderless losers mixed in among the winners. On one recent afternoon, with a yen for something fried and beefy, I had a plate of flautas that left my tongue sour and slicked with grease for an hour. But at the same meal, I had an à la carte tamale that was as traditional as anything to be found sur de la frontera. No fluttery twists of decorative corn husk, no lemongrass, no mango salsa: just meat, masa, smoky, dry heat and years and years of practice.
Tacos Jalisco is rare in that it still serves free chips. It's double rare in that it braces them with a flight of four salsas — all fresh, three of them awesome. A simple salsa fresca showcases the chill excellence of the tomato's friendship with the jalapeño chile; a tomatillo has the savor and salt and heat to make a grown man blush; a liquid red tomato salsa mixes sweetness and heat in equal measure, bringing forward the tomato's fruity qualities and the chile's vegetable savor. The only one I wasn't crazy about was the smooth and creamy-green avocado salsa. The fattiness of an avocado does not take well to being puréed, which makes it taste sludgy and almost eggy — and the addition of too much cilantro and jalapeño doesn't help.
Sitting in a small, straight-backed booth in the tight, narrow confines of the left-hand dining room the other night, I watched a crowd silently staring at a bunch of men running on the silent TV — some qualifying Olympics heat. The only sounds were the black-and-white-liveried waiters behind me talking quietly in Spanish (either about the state of the fish tank at the front of the house or the state of that day's fish delivery, my Spanish failing me in what was probably a pretty critical moment) and the splattering sizzle of fajita platters heading down the opposite wing of the dining room. On the flat screen, someone won something, and all I was thinking about was how I wanted to go around to the tables of all the distracted patrons and eat their dinners. My own — a desebrado burrito that weighed as much as a brick, was fat as my forearm and stuffed with beans and chopped, roasted chiles and shredded beef — was good enough, but there was so much more to try. For example, the seafood soup — shrimp and fresh fish in a spicy broth, like a coastal Mexican cioppino — recently added to the menu, and caldo de albondigas every Tuesday and Wednesday. And the posole has been sold out every time I ask.
But this is enough for now. I've memorized most of the phrasebook Spanish written on the disposable placemats ("I would like barbecue": quisiera barbacoa...) and know what I want to eat when I'm in need of some true Southern comfort: camarones rancheros, with extra tortillas and two beers back — pure Colorado consolation every time.
And maybe one of these days I'll be able to get that bowl of posole, too.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.