The Joy of Mex?

It's like when your mother told you to clean up your room.
"Awwww, Mom, do I have to?" you'd whine. "It seems like I just did that last week."

But in fact, as she'd inform you, your room had qualified for the condemned list for several months. And you were stuck.

That's how it is when my editor says it's time to review a Mexican restaurant.

I know Mexican food is the favorite cuisine of many Denver diners. And I wouldn't mind eating more of it myself--if this town had more than a handful of places that don't consider grease a crucial part of every Mexican meal. Or even if this town had more than a handful of places willing to offer dishes (however greasy) that aren't carbon copies of what you find on every other Mexican restaurant's menu.

As it is, though, your average Mexican joint could dispense with the menu altogether and simply offer one big dish: a bowl of green-chile soup in which floats some grease (of course), a few tortillas, a tamale, a taco shell, some cheap shredded cheese, refried beans, rice and your choice of dry chicken, drier beef or greasy pork. Then the kitchen wouldn't have to waste time preparing those combination platters that initially fool diners into thinking they might get something that tastes different from everything else.

At Los Troncos, a two-year-old establishment that took the place of the Old Mexican Cafe, no fewer than 48 combinaciones are offered, along with a warning that 50 cents will be charged for any substitutions. But with every conceivable possibility covered--Taco, Tostada, Relleno! Burrito, Relleno, Enchilada!--I can't imagine what anyone would need to substitute, except maybe a Tums.

We decided to stick with the printed suggestions and tried the tostada/burrito/smothered enchilada/chile relleno combo ($5.25). But the smothering didn't stop with the enchilada: The entire plate was swimming with a runny, puce-colored green chile that left an oil slick around the edges. The grease had softened the tostada's corn tortilla into the texture of canvas; the relleno was an egg-battered wet sock filled with chile and cheese. The only saving grace was the burrito, stuffed with refried beans that had a wonderful flavor--probably because the kitchen cooked them in animal fat. Yes, grease can be good. (And let the buyer beware: These beans may come back to haunt you.)

Since the fat was already in the fire, we surrendered completely and ordered a bowl of chicharrones ($1), which are what I like most about Mexican restaurants. Where else can you get a pile of what amounts to bacon nuggets, all crispy-fried and fat-filled?

From another part of the pig, and a section of Los Troncos's menu labeled "dinners," we sampled the chuletas de puerco ($6.75), broiled pork chops in a chile-pumped, tomatoey sauce. The two thin chops came with rice and more of those good refried beans. And--surprise--so did the carne adobada ($6.50), the best dish we tried. Chunks of beef had been coated in a reduction of adobada sauce, in which the spices rubbed on the meat had seeped for an intense concentration of flavors. It was greasy, to be sure, but yummy nonetheless.

We decided to sponge up some of the oil with sopapillas ($1.90 for two). The puffs were light and hot-from-the-fryer, perfect with a few drops of honey. The flan ($2) wasn't as successful; I could tell it was overcooked even before I dug to the bottom and encountered a sheet of blackened custard.

Los Troncos--the name translates to "the tree trunks," and I felt about as limber as an old oak by the end of this meal--features one of those digital signs that you feel compelled to keep reading, even though the information repeats every three minutes and is usually no more earth-shattering than "Two-for-One Buds on Tuesdays!" It might be more useful to post this notice: "Caution: Slick spots ahead."

I certainly used caution when approaching my next stop: the 15th Avenue Grill, which Benny Armas opened this past December. Next time, though, I'll proceed full steam ahead. If Mexican food is Denver's favorite, then Armas is a true local hero; his Benny's has been a beloved institution for over a decade. (And before that, he cooked up his classic Number 7 at the late, lamented Oak Alley Inn.) Armas, who'd expanded to a bigger Seventh Avenue location two years ago, bought the Grill building from the owners of the failed Asia, which came after the failed China Cowboy, which came after the Quorum, a long-lived venture that ultimately couldn't overcome the address jinx, either.

If anyone can make this location work, it should be Armas--but even he's no guarantee. The problem is that the space is so vast, it's like eating in an enormous string of caves that beg to be filled with people having fun. During our lunch visit--the only meal offered at the Grill except on Fridays, when Armas stays open until nine--the number of occupied tables could be counted on two hands. Unfortunately, the Grill seats 225.

But the place has done "really packed lunches some days," Armas says. "I think that we'll be okay here because my food is not expensive. I have to serve to the people who work around here, and they can't afford $10 for lunch every day. That's what did those other restaurants in."

By mid-April, when the weather is warmer, Armas hopes to be open for dinner, too. "Not late," he cautions. "We won't be open late. But we'll have a mariachi band on the weekends. And I will have valet parking, which is very important in this neighborhood. And I will have seafood." He goes on to explain that an aunt in Peru, where Armas hails from, owns a successful seafood restaurant there. Armas plans to spend the next few weeks in Peru learning everything his aunt has to teach, then returning to share his newfound knowledge with Grill diners.

In the meantime, the Grill's food is pretty darn good, with a clean, quality taste. Even the combination of enchilada, tostada and burrito ($5.10), smothered, of course, with green chile, was remarkably oil-free. The smooth green chile had some body to it, as well as big pieces of pork, although the accompanying refried beans were a bit on the boring side and the rice was too dry. But the guacamole on the tostada couldn't have been better. It had been hand-mashed, not food-processed, so it retained some chunks of fresh avocado, and it was packed with garlic along with a hint of chile heat and a citrus tang.

The chile relleno plate ($5.50) was another well-executed meal. Under their crunchy wrappers, the chiles had kept some snap rather than becoming soggy or stringy; they were not only stuffed but covered with a mixture of white and yellow cheeses. More of that good green chile had been ladled over the two rellenos, and more of that good guac came on the side. This was a dish that let you enjoy every component as well as the whole.

We also enjoyed the huevos con chorizo ($4.75). Spiced meat--although not spicy enough for us--outweighed the eggs in this generous scramble, and again the green chile had been treated as a condiment instead of the main event.

If all Mexican food were as good as this, I'd eat it more often.
I might even clean my room.

Los Troncos, 730 East Sixth Avenue, 778-8533. Hours: 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday-Wednesday; 8 a.m.-9 p.m. Thursday; 8 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Sunday.

15th Avenue Grill, 233 East Colfax Avenue, 863-7004. Hours: 11 a.m.-2:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Friday.


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