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...
My last visit to a Mexican restaurant for this series, Carnitas Michoacan, didn't go so well, but that was almost three months ago. I've hit eleven restaurants since then -- in a scant three-tenths of a mile -- covering a wide range of Asian noodle dishes, stir-fries, dumplings, exotic greens, pungent sauces, and meats of every flavor and texture.
But the lure of the simple corn tortilla, some lard-imbued refried beans, and a wallop of heat from an intense chile de arbol or jalapeño salsa will make me hit the brakes and perform some pretty questionable traffic maneuvers just to get a look at an unfamiliar sign or banner offering the promise of a fledgling Mexican restaurant. So it's a good thing I know my way to Tacos y Salsas; in fact, I could probably drive there with my eyes closed, guided only by the feel of every rut and pothole (and the faint aroma of carnitas crisping on the flat top) between my house and that welcoming neon sign.
I consider this branch of Tacos y Salsas the premier location, even if it's not the first or busiest. There are others, including at least two more on Federal, several in the Eastern bloc suburbs of Aurora and Commerce City, and others in the northern outposts of Westminster and Brighton.
If you haven't been to a Tacos y Salsas, at least skip the downtown location and take a cruise down Federal to get the full experience. Sure, the juicy shreds of deshebrada and crisp nubs of pastor taste pretty good wolfed from a Styrofoam clamshell in a few delirious moments while hunched over the kitchen sink or smuggled into a corporate cubicle for a furtive lunch, but they're even better when your ears are filled with the thump of Mexican hiphop or the staccato accordion rhythms of Norteño.
The earthy masa of the house-made tacos, tostadas, and gorditas is enhanced by the constant traffic of DVD peddlers, lucha libre ticket vendors, and families taking daughters for quinceañera dress fittings.
Maybe that's why a simple meal built from a torta, a gordita, and the plainest avocado tostada can be so satisfying and emotionally resonant. The antojitos are the foundation: a torta Cubana built on a tender telera roll that seems about to succumb to the weight of the shredded chicken, beans, guacamole and ham but somehow absorbs it all - plus the flame-bright salsa I pour on with abandon - without losing integrity; a delicately crisped gordita stuffed with a succulent, savory plug of deshebrada that's juicy almost beyond the limits of physics; a tostada that's nothing more than fresh veggies on deep-fried golden disk plus a few drizzles of pea-soup green salsa that tempers its heat with cilantro and avocado.
Layered onto that foundation are the sounds and colors of a Federal Boulevard summer evening: sunlight pushing its way through a thunder shower, the shop windows vibrating with each sudden blast; the colorful furniture carved and painted with Mexican figures, filling the dining room with company even on a slow night; a street vendor pushing bootlegged DVDs just outside the propped-open door. This is the experience you miss if you grab your food to-go, if you consider Tacos y Salsas just another fast-food taco joint, if you're not willing to become part of the rhythm of it all.
After a hectic day, or a punishingly dull day, a cold beer on a hot night with a mess of tacos slathered in a sweat-inducing array of salsas, cilantro, and onion is not so much a slice of heaven as an immersion into a world more real and alive than the hazy limbo of office life. What can be more important than sitting in a booth contemplating why the pho restaurants are crowded with hip Latino kids but the Mexican restaurants are virtually bereft of Asian customers, or why the rain-wet sidewalks smell so much like fresh raw masa, or why Buchanan's Scotch whisky has peppered the neighborhood with Spanish-language billboards?
You don't get to the bottom of these mysteries by eating tacos at home or at some trendy new "concept" where a $6 tray of salsas will only convince you you're in the wrong place. Tacos y Salsas makes it easy to figure out the answers; the name says everything. They even put an ampersand in the sign in case your junior-high Spanish is a little rusty. Don't worry; you can learn more once you get there.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.