Mexico, Christmas 2001. Laura and I, in a fit of wild-goose inspiration, had quit the bright, dusty and idiot-ridden confines of Albuquerque, New Mexico, for a quick run through Truth or Consequences, Las Cruces and Vado, aiming the blunt nose of yet another in a long line of used $400 beaters toward Mexico and freedom.
Okay, maybe not freedom, but at least escape, however temporary. We had a few bucks between us, a car that worked most of the time, nowhere else to be. I had it in my head that we wouldn't be coming back — that we would abandon the car to the looters in El Paso, walk across the border and just be gone into the land of burning sunsets, tacos and OTC Benzedrine. Go south, don't stop: That was the extent of my plan.
Laura, occasionally the more rational of our dyad, had actually done this before, had vanished into Mexico, only to be eventually spit back out into Los Estados against her will. She knew how tough it was to effectively disappear — even in a land meant for disappearing, which is what Mexico (or Morocco or Tangiers) represents for a generation of literate troublemakers brought up on too much Burroughs and Bukowski, too many classic Sam Peckinpah Westerns. So she was really just hoping for a day, maybe two, in a place where the beers were cheap and no creditors could find us. And, as generally happens, she would get her way.
250 Steele Street
Hours: 11 a.m.-1 a.m. daily
Tamal: $5.95Sopes: $7.95Green chile: $2Carnitas: $12.95Pozole: $8.95Mole rojo: $12.95
We dumped the car on a gravelly stretch outside the loading docks of an ugly, low-slung factory on the American side, in sight of the barbed wire, sheet metal and towers of the border. The walk to the port of entry was uneventful, the crossing a breeze. Before we were ten steps inside Mexico, there were swarms of little dragonfly girls flitting through the crowd selling Chiclets and loose cigarettes, with signs visible at the far end of the chain-link tunnel pointing the way to the pharmacies, strip clubs and bars.
Tijuana and Ensenada are Laura's sort of towns, but I love Juárez. To a younger me, it seemed like the perfect city — all grime and poverty and vice, full of action and chicken restaurants that employed beautiful girls on juiced-up scooters to deliver roasters and tortillas. Marlboros were twenty-five cents a pack on the street, beers were a buck, a scrip for almost anything a chemically precocious boy could want went for ten American dollars, and Laura could acquire everything she needed for a happy existence (hair dye, Mexican Coca-Cola, cap guns, bootleg movies, what-have-you) from the front of the store while I prowled the back.
Skirting the nightclubs and bogus donkey shows of the dumb-ass, frat-boy American quarter, we made for the center of town on foot, stopping here and there to spend our yanqui greenbacks on smokes and beer and bags of Mexican Doritos. I was almost run over by a chicken delivery girl who jumped the curb to avoid a traffic jam and laughed as she putt-putted away. We stopped in a nearly deserted bar, ate popcorn and tacos and sat close together watching telenovelas with the bartender on a fuzzy TV. And then, with night coming on, we turned some corner somewhere and found ourselves suddenly standing on the distant fringes of a huge party, hundreds of Juárez-ites overspilling the bounds of an open plaza, all dressed in their Sunday best, their children on their shoulders, singing and laughing and talking and dancing to a band. Tiny white lights dripped like dew from every tree and lamppost, and people waved piñatas on long sticks over their heads — fringed stars and saddled donkeys hung with bright foil. At the center of the square, which was decorated with shrines to the Virgin Mary and a large nativity scene, was a skinny Santa in a makeshift, rather tropically inspired costume.
I've never forgotten the experience of walking blindly into this Christmas party, being subsumed by the crowd, overwhelmed, holding tight to Laura's hand so that I didn't lose her. It was one of the best moments of my life, nearly perfect, missing only a sudden (and meteorologically improbable) fall of holiday snow. For just a minute there in Juárez, I was in love with the whole world and everything in it — a feeling that comes infrequently enough to normal people, I'd imagine, and even less often to grumpy little fucks like me.
Flash-forward to 2007: Denver, another Christmas season. Mexico is not such an easy drive these days, and the urge to vanish is less powerful. But my taste for cheap tacos, Mexican lager and strangeness is, if possible, even larger now. And as I walk down the steeply canted cement staircase into the patio-cum-trench in front of Tambien, the newest restaurant in the Jesse Morreale/Sean Yontz empire, I am reminded with whiplash quickness of that Christmas six years ago. Tambien is decorated for the season. Extensively. Already a sensory head-kick of shlock Mexican culture — all crimson wallpaper, posters of long-gone cinema starlets and masked lucha libre wrestlers, super-saturated color and beer advertisements — the space now looks like it was barfed on by that skinny Mexican Santa from Juárez, a-swirl with foil garlands, candy canes and little Christmas tchotchkes, ornaments hanging low from the ceiling, mariachi covers of Bing Crosby standards augmented by accordion solos filling the room. Everything is rich with that same kind of subtlety and seasonal restraint that moves people to stick reindeer antlers on their Virgin of Guadalupe statues or wear sweaters with light-up Christmas trees. And I love it.
This place — this terrible, invisible, subterranean and cursed location on the fringes of Cherry Creek North — used to be Sketch, a good restaurant also owned by Morreale. Before Sketch, it was something else, and something else again before that. The address is a graveyard of good intentions and concepts that might've flourished anywhere but here. When Sketch went under (pun very much intended), Morreale told me that he'd remake the space into a Creeker's version of what, in my opinion, is his and Yontz's best restaurant: Mezcal. Lunch and dinner daily, late hours, a great, comfortable bar. I asked if he was also planning on lifting the restaurant to street level and maybe moving it two or three blocks toward the heart of Cherry Creek, and he said no, insisting that he didn't believe in cursed locations, and I wished him the best. The neighborhood needed another good Mexican joint, needed a place whose entire economy was shamelessly based on cheap tacos, seven-dollar bowls of chips and guac, and the unfettered consumption of super-artisan Mexican agave juice. But unlike Morreale, I am a guy who believes in cursed addresses, and I worried that Tambien would have to rise about fifteen feet before it could even start to get off the ground.
After a quick interior reorganization and crash redecoration, it turned out the basement location was not Tambien's biggest problem. The biggest problem was that the food sucked. Bad. I ate dinner at Tambien a few weeks after it opened in August and was horrified by burnt carne asada, lukewarm beer and green chile that tasted like chunky water. Second time around, the chile was a salt lick in salt sauce with a little salt for garnish, and the carnitas plate appeared to have been made on opening night, wrapped in plastic, left in the freezer and then rewarmed for service a few hours before I showed up. But at least the beers were cold.
Even restaurateurs as experienced as Morreale and Yontz need time to break in a new menu, a new crew, and I decided to give Tambien some, falling back for a while on Mezcal and the more traditional taquerías of Federal Boulevard. In the meantime, Yontz lost the distraction of Chama — his own restaurant in Belmar that closed over landlord/tenant issues — and had more time to focus on Tambien, working in the kitchen with longtime head cook Roberto Diaz.
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I finally returned one night last month and had desebrado sopes — my favorite thing on Mezcal's menu — and they were just as good as the ones at Mezcal. I chased them with the tamal al puerco, spiked variously with guajillo and chipotle, doodled with Mexican crema. Once part of my regular Chama order, the tamal here was strangely fluffy, with the texture of white birthday cake and the flavor of amateur cornbread. But the sauces were good, the pork good, the plate well put together, and I felt as though the kitchen was finally homing in on a bull's-eye that it would eventually hit.
I came back on an unseasonably warm Tuesday afternoon a few weeks ago for cold beer and tacos al pastor topped with pineapple salsa — not exactly what I ate in that Juárez bar, but fine. The green chile was even better, and I ended up scraping the bowl with my spoon — pleased to see that the kitchen had remembered to add the chile this time, had started browning the nuggets of pork rather than just letting them poach down to the consistency of well-chewed gum, had left the salt shaker on the counter.
And now, finally, the Christmas miracle. Surrounded by twinkle lights and the sweet honking of mariachi carols, I have camarones al chipotle that are like eating garlic firecrackers — a preparation perfectly balanced between eat-with-your-fingers rusticity and the chefly exactitude of haute cuisine that has been Yontz's hallmark since he gave the finger to the whole fine-dining scene a few years back. The mole rojo chicken legs dotted with white sesame seeds are delicious, the mole brick-red, hot, smooth as cocoa and chile wrapped in liquid velvet. The pozole is like water in the desert — so good I want to swim in it, float away on a life preserver of perfectly soaked hominy. Even the tamal hits the mark — it's been deflated, solidified, brought back in line with tradition while still maintaining its modernist sauces, its Nagel squiggle of squeeze-bottle style.
True, Tambien is still in a basement. But it's now also a good restaurant, a Mezcal/Chama crossbreed that rises to the bar set by both — to street level, at least, and sometimes higher. And when I finish my dinner, I do the same, tromping up the steps with a belly full of food and a head full of sur de la frontera Christmas spirit. I'm remembering that night in Juárez, the happiness, the crowd, the piñatas waving overhead. And as I reach the top, it begins to snow.