Texan ambitions seem to be as big as everything else down there.
In the last year, two groups of former Texans have opened Mexican-oriented eateries within six blocks of each other in LoDo, and both are as ambitious as they come. Although the restaurants feature different styles that may appeal to different clienteles, each apparently thinks its concept is the best thing to happen to Denver dining since the introduction of pre-shredded cheese.
"I looked around downtown and saw that the quality of Mexican food is not really good," says Faron Hansen, one of the owners of the three-month-old Señorita's Cantina. "In Texas, people who want Mexican food want nicer places to go than they do here, and they want to spend more money on better-quality food. I knew I wanted to do something on my own at some point, and this seemed like the perfect space and the perfect type of cuisine for the area."
The space was the attractive, expansive one in the old Streetcar Stables building across from Union Station that previously held Sostanza, an upscale Italian restaurant that failed to find its niche. And the cuisine was sophisticated Mexican, a joint effort of Hansen and his partners, general manager Billy Mansfield and chef David Welch, all originally from Houston and former employees of the Pappas corporation. That's the outfit that recently opened Pappadeaux's near the Denver Tech Center; Hansen also worked at Brook's Steak House for nine months before setting his sights farther north in LoDo.
After the trio settled on a home for Señorita's, they decided to keep the booth and table setup, changing the color scheme only slightly (what had been Tuscan gold is now south-of-the-border sunny) and adding the kind of decor items -- colorful paintings and plenty of bright, faux flowers -- that would fit right into a prosperous Mexican home. A very prosperous home, because Señorita's prices are twice what you might pay for dishes with the same names at Mexican restaurants a mile away in northwest Denver. But those prices aren't out of line for Señorita's LoDo location, and they're also fair considering the quality of the ingredients. For the fajitas, for example, Welch uses inside skirt steak, which he cuts and hand-pounds himself. In the mesquite-grilled version ($13.95), the result was tender meat with just the right amount of char to bring out the mesquite flavor but still leave the beef strips easy to chew. The fajitas came with the usual fresh tortillas, as well as a generous pile of unusually onion-heavy pico de gallo and fresh, chunky guacamole.
The seafood enchiladas ($13.95), our server's favorite, were as rich and gooey as we'd hoped, and even though the shrimp, scallops and crab were visually indistinguishable, they brought a deep fishiness to the cream-thick sauce. While quail ($13.95 for two, or you can add one to any order for $6.95) might seem an odd choice for a town that likes its meat big and hearty, the birds were lovely, all ancho-glazed crispy skin outside and succulent meat inside. And our first Señorita's meal ended with a slice of heaven: pastel con tres leches ($4.95), an ultimate comfort-food cross between milk-sopped bread pudding and curdy flan.
But not every dish was worthy of an olé. For starters, the roasted corn and poblano soup ($4.95) was all broth and no flavor, even though the corn should have offered some sweetness; the ceviche ($7.95) was downright dull, with too much too-soft fish and not enough lime, onion, salt or anything else, for that matter, to wake things up. On one visit, the chiles rellenos ($10.45), which we'd ordered stuffed with cheese (the other choices are beef or pork), came out looking like dead armadillos -- over which someone had respectfully placed a blanket of thick batter -- and tasted oddly bitter. On another, they seemed to have been sitting beneath the heat lamps too long while our other entrees were prepared, because they arrived as soggy as a wet Nerf ball -- and tasted just as bad as they had before.
Nearly all of the dishes come with Señorita's signature side of frijoles a la charra -- smoky, housemade pinto beans swimming in a rich gravy -- and greenish rice (cilantro and spinach give the rice its color, if not much flavor). The rice matched the green salt (you can also get red or ordinary white) that rimmed the glasses of our house margaritas ($4.50). The too-sour concoctions were as disappointing as Señorita's godawful service; Hansen says they've been working on both.
And they'd better be, because a few blocks away on Blake Street, Rio Grande Mexican Restaurant has both killer margs and surprisingly efficient, gracious service -- even if the dishes those servers deliver rarely rise above boring. The first Rio Grande was started in 1986 by three guys from Texas: Pat McGaughran and brothers Steven and Andre Mouton, who'd traveled extensively in Mexico to come up with the menu. Today McGaughran is the sole owner of all four Rio Grandes -- the original in Fort Collins, spots in Greeley and Boulder and the LoDo location, which occupies the vast, airy space that once housed the Fire House Bar & Grill.
Despite this Rio Grande's size, it's packed almost every night of the week. Hopeful singles line up along the bar ready to buy one of these tongue-loosening margarita mixes that are limited to three per customer, no exceptions. The margs come frozen, strawberry-flavored or on the rocks (each $4.50), and the regular on-the-rocks is my pick, hands-down. It's wonderful, it's wicked, and it's almost enough to drown out the incredibly annoying PA-system approach to seating, which just begs for someone on his third marg to add the name of Mike Hunt to the list. On weekends, when a host is trying to track down a party in the standing-room-only bar about every three minutes, it feels like you're on Concourse B at DIA.
Despite the noise level, the drinks alone explain the crowd at the bar. The wait for a table in the dining room is less explicable, since the roster of simple, semi-Tex-Mex dishes seems to be designed for the least adventuresome (or perhaps most drunk) palate. Still, a few of them worked well. The complimentary salsa was unexpectedly fiery and came with fresh, warm chips. Our ensalada ($6.25) included a good guacamole, the hand-mashed avocados sparked with garlic and lime and served atop a bed of shredded lettuce, tomatoes and standard-issue cheddar cheese. The chile con queso ($5.95), with plenty of fresh onion and jalapeno bite, was one of the town's better takes on the ubiquitous cheese dip. And the Rio Grande's green chile ($4.50) was another welcome variation on a common offering (so long as you weren't expecting a hotter brew); this green was a mild, pale, chicken-stock-based soup.
But our entrees were substandard. An order of chiles rellenos ($9.50) brought two skinny poblanos stuffed with cream cheese augmented by Monterey jack, which gave them a very cheap quality; they'd been swathed in a batter that had the texture of wet sawdust. The Yucatan shrimp ($13.50) were supposed to have been marinated in something before they were flame-broiled, but they tasted like plain flame-broiled shrimp; the black beans that came with all the entrees tasted like plain black beans, which has never been a good thing. The flautas de pollo ($8.95) had been deep-fried until they were so chewy and stiff they resembled actual flutes. Also laughably overcooked was the chicken in the tacos de pechuga ($10.50) and the steak in the tacos al carbon ($10.50): We looked like dogs gnawing on bones as we attempted to chew our way through the tacos, and our attempts only got more hilarious after another round of margs.
In the cold, gray light of dawn, though, I couldn't imagine eating at Rio Grande again. Señorita's, on the other hand, is worth a return visit. In a neighborhood filled with steakhouses and seafood and upscale Italian and baby-boomer bar food and, in the case of Rio Grande, mediocre Mexican, at least Señorita's is trying to do something different. Then again, Rio Grande does one thing splendidly -- and I'll no doubt be back there for another marg. Or three.
Still, we'll just have to see if this part of town is big enough for the both of them.
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