In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard - south to north - within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...
About fourteen years ago, I lived in an apartment in a huge Victorian house about two blocks from the corner of Federal and 23rd Avenue; Taqueria Mi Pueblo was there even then, occupying a shabby building with hand-painted signs and little else to draw attention to its rico menudo and tacos. I was curious about the place but never set foot through the door, maybe because I lacked the courage to explore the taco joints and noodle houses of Federal geared more toward natives of the countries where the cuisines originated than toward the average monolingual Midwesterner.
I've since learned that mustering courage is not a significant step when ordering food in restaurants. Courage is moving away from your home and starting a new business in a city where you are a minority and English is your second language. When it comes to being a guest in a restaurant, it only takes the standard amount of self-confidence to realize that nobody's going to laugh at you for your pronunciation of horchata or get your order wrong because you can't roll the rr in burrito. Once you get past garden-variety bashfulness, navigating menus becomes easier and easier, especially for us denizens of the western U.S., where places on the map, standard grocery-store foods and many of our friends, neighbors and business associates come with Spanish names.
So it doesn't really matter if you don't know the exact translation of tacos al pastor, as long as you try them in a few different places and figure out which you like best, ideally those where the pork is carved directly from a sizzling spit, seared briefly on a hot griddle (to meet local health department regulations), and slapped onto two-ply tortillas with a few gems of caramelized pineapple. And if the taquerias that get all the steps -- if not the flavors -- perfect are scattered by the mere handful somewhere between Aurora and Arvada, a decent marinated and grilled version, like the wettish but nicely charred nubbins of pork at Taqueria Mi Pueblo, will do in a pinch.
The pork carnitas at Mi Pueblo come closer to the Platonic ideal. The chunks of slow-cooked shoulder tore easily into strands without becoming mushy or oily, even if the edges weren't as crisped and deep brown as I like them. A little salsa verde from the salsa bar added just the right amount of heat, tang and moisture, although I avoided the bland, processed guacamole that sat sheepishly on my platter.
There was nothing bland or sheepish, except a touch in the aroma, of the chock-full-of-guts bowl of menudo. Curls of honeycomb tripe rose from a vivid orange broth, completely obscuring a braised pig foot (offered as an option by the cheery counter clerk) in its funky depths. I may give a little grief to those Denverites unwilling to expand their Mexican food horizons beyond Hacienda Colorado, but I would never hold it against someone for shying away from menudo. Its barnyard wafts of cow stomach are just not part of the average American's eating experience, even for those who grew up with liver and onions, deli-sliced beef tongue, or other more common cuts of offal. But if you're at all curious, the menudo here is worth a go -- especially encrusted with diced onions and cilantro with a little of the house chile oil stirred in just in case the broth's considerable heat level isn't quite enough. And if you're already a menudo veteran, you'll surely say yes to the extra trotter and a buttered bolillo roll on the side in addition to a foil pack of steamy corn tortillas.
It took me the better part of two decades to make it into Taqueria Mi Pueblo, but I'm glad I finally went. I can't say that they have the best versions of my favorite dishes, but the dining room is bustling with customers -- paint-covered contractors, hung-over recent college grads in rumpled hoodies, families taking bag upon bag to-go for a midday feast back home. They've joined the $2 breakfast burrito fray that marks this stretch of Federal; they offer a whole roast chicken special done in the style of Sinaloa; they've continuously improved their building and expanded their offerings. Mi Pueblo isn't the little corner taco shop it once was; with a little more attention to detail in the food, it has the potential to be a solid anchor in the rapidly gentrifying Jefferson Park neighborhood. Gentrification, though, doesn't need to exclude or push out the Mexican community that's already been here for decades. There's plenty of room for the trendy condos and upscale, chef-driven eateries without excluding places like Mi Pueblo that were brave enough to take a chance on a neighborhood before it was cool.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.