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Tamayo: Million-buck makeover needs a service check.

The flavorful tampiqueña is one of the better dishes at Tamayo.
The flavorful tampiqueña is one of the better dishes at Tamayo.
Danielle Lirette

If someone at Visit Denver were to conduct a survey, I'll bet most tourists would say that they still consider Denver a steakhouse town. It isn't, as they'd surely concede after stops at the likes of Rioja, the Populist and ChoLon. But in 2001, when Tamayo flung open the doors of a modern Mexican restaurant dedicated to stylish cuisine rather than smothered burritos, Denver still fit that description. Tamayo, the second Mexican eatery in Richard Sandoval's now global empire of thirty restaurants, proved it was time for a change in this city, and quickly became a downtown hotspot.

As time went by and Manning replaced Tebow, who replaced Orton, Cutler, Plummer and Griese (remember him?), Denver kept changing. Last winter, a tired Tamayo finally did, too. Sandoval closed the restaurant for three weeks, pumping in a million dollars' worth of C-shaped booths, imported carved chairs, lighting and new art. Gone are the white tablecloths, not to mention many of the Spanish terms that confused diners and bogged down servers. More appetizers, soups, salads and entrees were added, along with tacos and traditional braises known as cazuelas; Tamayo also added a bottomless weekend brunch. According to general manager Miranda McFarlan, the change did more than freshen up the space; it brought Tamayo in line with sister restaurants like Maya in New York, which underwent a similar revamp last year. Menus at the restaurants overlap significantly, with prices almost as high in Denver as they are on the Upper East Side.

But you may not get what you pay for.

See also: A closer look at Tamayo

At one Friday lunch, when you'd expect a steady stream of ready-for-the-weekend workers, the place was empty and energy-less, as depleted as a wrinkled balloon from yesterday's party. The staff seemed listless, too, leaving dirty dishes on an adjacent table throughout our entire meal and failing to refill small water glasses. Our server left us at the table for ten minutes without menus, assuring us she'd "be right back," only to disappear for another ten minutes before bringing them.

Trying not to think about how our meter was gobbling quarters while we gobbled nothing, we focused on what promised to be a very tasty meal: a tostada sampler, the highlight of a three-month guacamole festival, with grasshoppers, citrus-chipotle salt and habanero salsa among the score of ingredients; al pastor tacos with pork marinated in flavorful adobo; and huitlacoche-wild-mushroom enchiladas under a fire-roasted poblano sauce. Bold, unique flavors all — except that's not how they came out. When, that is, they finally came out.

"We'd like to check on our guacamole," my friend said, as he flagged down our server. "Oh, that dish takes a long time to put together. I told the kitchen to bring out everything at once," she said. "I hope that's okay." But it wasn't; she should've asked first, and she knew it. She offered to keep the entrees hot under the lamps, but what we feared would happen did: By the time we'd enjoyed the tostadas — small, crisp discs topped with diced bits of strawberry, mango and kiwi on the Baja guacamole; beets, walnuts and orange on the Pacifico; and tuna tartare on the Sur (the kitchen was out of grasshoppers) — our second course had lost its luster.

Hardest hit were the caramelized plantains, a Latin American specialty that delivers as much sweetness as a packet of sugar dumped on the tongue. They're especially good for the chewy bits that appear after they hang out with butter in a hot pan. But ours had softened, and too much honey and too little chipotle butter left them as sugary as that packet. The tacos al pastor might have been better hot than at room temperature, but that wouldn't have intensified the sliced pork, which hardly whispered of achiote paste, cumin and cinnamon. Mexico City-style corn on the cob was also meek, dusted with cotija cheese and brown powder that I later learned was chiles, cumin and cloves, but the only flavor that came through was the sweetness of the corn. The best dish was the enchiladas, though the green poblano sauce was tamer than a kindergarten teacher on the first day of school.

On a subsequent visit, this time on a busy Saturday night, service also hampered the experience, but for the opposite reason. Food arrived too quickly, water glasses were filled with gymnastics-like maneuvers to reach under menus and around arms, and plates were delivered to the wrong person for all three courses. It would have been thoughtful of the maître d' to tell us about the rooftop terrace, in case we were out-of-towners who didn't know what a lovely spot it is for relaxing before or after a meal, and for the server to more thoroughly explain entrees and mention that chips and salsa were available for the asking, rather than leaving us to wonder why every table around us but ours got some.

With no heat-lamp issues this time, there was no excuse for the food's failures. Thick, brown and packed with pulled chicken, guacamole and tortilla strips, the tortilla soup looked like a cover photo but had all the punch of gravy. (I had a far better bowl, for just over half the price, at Marczyk Fine Foods the next day.) A trio of squash-blossom quesadillas, one of the new dishes on the menu, resembled empanadas, with masa standing in for flour tortillas — but mine were flat, sorry affairs, filled only with cheese and zucchini, not the promised squash blossoms. Garlic-cilantro lemon butter was supposed to melt over my mahi-mahi, but the fish left the kitchen without it, and pomegranate seeds and crema-and-truffle-oil mashed potatoes weren't enough to prop up the dry dish.

The tampiqueña carried hints of what Tamayo could do; the well-seasoned filet mignon was a pleasant change from a kitchen that seemed to have lost its salt shakers. So was the deeply flavored mole, for which chef de cuisine Arnold Rubio (who's been at Tamayo for thirteen years, the past seven in this position) takes three kinds of chiles, two types of chocolate, another twenty-some ingredients and three days to make. Ladled over a cheese enchilada, the mole is the poster child for the kind of complex, authentic Mexican cuisine for which Sandoval is known. It's almost worth risking poor service and the kinds of rowdy guests (read: bachelorette parties) attracted to Tamayo's lengthy tequila menu just to get more of that mole.

Almost. But right now, the million bucks put into Tamayo doesn't look like money well spent.

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Tamayo

1400 Larimer St.
Denver, CO 80202

720-946-1433

www.richardsandoval.com