My cell phone rang around one in the morning. For most people, this would be a harbinger of bad news — kid in jail, someone in the hospital. For me, it almost always means work: a debriefing, a confession, an eleventh-hour emergency like a restaurant on fire or, worse, dead cold on a Saturday night. I was awake, of course — sitting on the couch watching Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla on cable and eating microwaved shrimp curry. I picked up the phone on the second ring and heard a panting voice on the other end: one of my regular informers, a trusted member of my extended kitchen network.
For ten minutes, he spilled the deep-background story of a restaurant on the verge of debt, dissolution and death. It wasn't exactly Russian nuclear secrets or the disclosure of a mole inside the Circus, but it was close enough that it tickled my LeCarré bone. I took notes and then finished with my standard question: So, what else have you heard?
Tacos y Salsas. I wrote it on the top right corner of the envelope I was using — already covered with doodles of Godzilla — circled the words, then below wrote his quote: "Dude, this place is blowing up." And then I returned to Godzilla and promptly forgot the Tacos tip.
Tacos y Salsas
910 South Federal Boulevard
Hours: 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 8 a.m.-close. Friday-Saturday
I only remember it as I'm driving along South Federal between Alameda and Mississippi, in that stretch of blacktop where some of Denver's best ethnic restaurants live. This is a neighborhood in constant flux, a crossroads of cultures by way of cuisines, where, sometimes within a few feet, you can find a laundromat, a taquería, a pho shop, the best place in town for jellied duck's blood, a check-cashing operation, a cell-phone store, a joint serving live abalone and geoduck — and now one of the best Mexican spots in town. Tacos y Salsas is a tough place to miss — as bright and shiny and carnival-colored as much of Federal is gray and grim and run down by long, rough use. Set in a corner double suite, at first glance it looks like the kind of spot where clowns would go to buy their floppy shoes and hand buzzers, all red and yellow and orange. In the afternoon, the punishing sun gleams off the big windows that make up the front face.
I walk inside and find the place full of cooks — Mexican crews occupying the tables in twos and threes, some of them still in their checked pants, some of them giving themselves away just by the shaved heads, the unique crosshatching of grill scars on their forearms, a certain graceful swagger as they move between the counter, the salsa bar and the tables. It's a restaurant recruiter's dream — so much sur de la frontera talent focused in one place — and more than that, a stamp of approval better than any wall full of awards, health-department stickers or Zagat plaques. Eat where the cooks do.
I sit at the long counter, in one of the best seats in the house, and look into the wide-open line and prep kitchen on the other side. I watch two guys wrestle with a mighty meat stick — a huge, gleaming spike stacked with what must have been fifty pounds of dripping meat, locked in place by a whole onion skewered at the top and set into a vertical rotisserie like the shawarma at a Greek diner except, you know, delicious. I watch a short, dark-haired, muscled machine of a short-order cook who's faster than just about any guy I've ever seen sling a spat, with moves like Gene Kelly on a short toot of Bolivian marching powder.
This guy just burns, keeping up with the constant flutter of paper tickets being tossed down on his expo table, audibles being called in by the waitresses as they breeze by, a permanent scowl on his face as he slaps meat down on the grill, stacks tortillas on his rail (made fresh just behind him at the back of the short hot line, balls of masa pulled from a mountain of masa, squeezed to shape in an old-fashioned hand press), pulls plates and sides and then takes a single tortilla in his hand, cups it, flips the meat up off the grill with his spatula and catches it without looking — grabbing it out of the air because plain gravity is just too slow — and gives it a second little pop in his hand to even out the distribution of the meat. I watch in awe — and order extra tacos just so I can keep watching him move.
Some of the mixed cadre working prep in the back give me the stink-eye for watching so closely, but they are far more interesting to me than the telenovelas showing on the TVs hung near the ceiling or the constant back-and-forth flow of tables on the floor. That cook's mise en place is terrifying (ground beef held in a bus tub beneath his expo table, pork pulled from the dim depths of a chugging lowboy, beef hacked off a frozen block set on a sheet tray, everything crammed together higgledy-piggledy wherever there is space) until you see him work it — running through stock so fast that inserts, storage, even covers would be a complete waste of time. Someone puts down a hunk of pork, and then it's gone — turned into a dozen tacos or stuffed gorditas or a half-dozen tortas in two minutes flat. The grease trench on his grill is a mess, the backsplash black, but his cutting board is spotless, his expo table and grill rail gleaming like new.
Almost every taquería, burrito joint, rattletrap mom-and-pop roadside shack and little lonchera in this town has something to recommend it: one excellent taco, a superlative green chile or chicharrones that'll kill you long before you've eaten your fill. The good ones have two or three things. But this latest location of the Tacos y Salsas micro-chain (there are two more in Aurora — the original on East Colfax and one on Chambers — but neither has a liquor license like the Federal outpost) rockets straight into that charmed circle of greatness earned only by those joints that have more to their credit than can be enumerated. I try the tortas, which quickly rate the second-best I've had in Denver — and the place that used to serve the best is now closed. The barbacoa tacos are amazing — not just good, but stab-your-best-friend-in-the-hand-with-a-fork-if-he's-reaching-for-the-last-one good. The carnitas rise to the level of great barbecue. The deshebrada is caramelized, sticky and sweetly beefy in that way that only superb taquerías seem able to manage.
The rellenos, though, are just gross — mushy, the cheese never properly melted, and wrapped in what appears to be a flat-grilled egg crepe or omelette rather than a jacket of crisp, fried batter. But the solution to the relleno is simple: Don't order one. So much else here is good, you'll never miss it. It's harder to avoid the salsa bar, which is almost always a mess —mangled limes falling into the blazing-hot red chile, cilantro wilting atop the tomatillo salsa — but so laden with sauces ranging from sweet-hot to hellish-hot and fresh and pickled vegetables that you can't help but go back. The bar is cleaned often (and rearranged by just about every waitress who strolls by), but people are rarely careful about dripping and spilling when they're not eating in their own dining room. If then.
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On Saturdays and Sundays, Tacos y Salsas does fresh menudo. And even though the place is big for a Mexican joint — occupying space enough for two restaurants, with a main dining room and then another dining room connected to the far end — there are rarely any open seats on weekend afternoons. I find one at a little table and crane my neck so that I can see over the counter and into the kitchen. The servers are friendly, smiling, taking orders in both English and Spanish, and are even tolerant of my abysmal Spanish when I try to practice it on them.
When I return for a third visit, I grab an empty seat at the counter. The clatter of big pots and pans, the boiling cauldrons of tripe, the pounds of bacon being chopped, cilantro being chopped, hunks of ribeye being chopped, chickens being slammed around the boards and masa being muscled onto the prep table, the arguments over where this goes, where that goes and the honking, staccato, accordion-heavy music coming from the radio — watching the crew in the kitchen of Tacos y Salsas during the dinner rush is now my favorite reality show. In the back, one of the ladies is pulling ropes of washed, gray-brown buche (intestines) from the prep sink and coiling them into the bottom of a bucket. I've rarely ever seen these on a menu anywhere and never seen them being prepped. There's a pyramid of orange-gold gordita shells stacked near the end of the line, and when the cook fills them with fatty asada, lettuce and a sprinkling of cheese, he moves too fast to see. The taste is iconic, delicious. I order flautas — shrimp flautas - and watch as they are made on the spot, jammed together in the fryer basket so they won't unroll, almost as thick around as my wrist and fried perfectly, then plated with an onion-and-tomato-y guacamole on top. I eat all I can and then eat more.
When I'm finally ready to leave, I can't get my car to start. Still, there are worse places to break down. As a matter of fact, I can't think of any better — a serious consideration in my life of third-hand cars, beaters of dubious provenance, machinery held together with duct tape and fervent prayer. I mean, if I have to be stuck somewhere...
I return to Tacos y Salsas for another round.