The molcajete rocks at Playa Azul
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 wife has a rare combination of patience and spirit of adventure, which means I sometimes think I'm getting away with something, when in reality she's only letting me have my way as long as the destination is worth the journey. I suppose you could call it trust, at least in some circumstances. So when I insist on driving a two-door rental car for three hours down possibly the worst dirt road in Mexico just to have lunch on a secluded beach, it had better be the best lunch ever. I try to fulfill my end of the deal by doing a little research, asking around, and sometimes (or maybe most often) just going with my gut. When the reward for navigating potholes bigger than the car for the better part of a morning is a mound of the freshest ceviche imaginable, a whole grilled fish caught within a stone's throw of where it was cooked, and a couple of expertly mixed micheladas, I may attempt to take credit, but she'll just roll her eyes and ask me to pass the tortillas.
Our first meal at Playa Azul had been one of these situations.
I was just winding up some excessive celebrating after a Broncos game and she had agreed to pick me up at the stadium, which meant a long drive home down Federal Boulevard. I proposed a restaurant crawl and she agreed, since even though she'd have to put up with my slurred recount of the game's highlights, it would also mean sampling tacos at several places we'd been meaning to try. Playa Azul was the standout of the drive, primarily because of the birria de chivo -- a goat (or maybe lamb) stew with a rich, dark, slightly feral broth and chunks of meat that left a trace of fat on my lips with each bite pulled from the slow-cooked bones.
Unfortunately, Playa Azul only serves birria de chivo on weekends, and my latest visit was in the middle of a cold, wet week -- the kind of week that seems built for little other than downing bowls of steaming hot soups and stews. Yes, Playa Azul has an extensive list of seafood items similar to those at Las Islitas and Torres just down the street, but I wasn't in the mood for fish or shrimp. I wanted familiar and comforting, but nothing beckoned from the list of enchiladas, burritos, tacos and combo plates either. So we ordered a plate of enchiladas rancheros, a simple but professionally executed row of rolled tortillas stuffed with moist, flavorful chicken. A fried egg added yolky texture to the enchilada sauce.
But it wasn't really what I was after. Amid sighs and beers and more sighs, I finally saw what I was craving -- down there at the bottom corner of the last page of the menu: chile verde with pork served in a molcajete, one of those stone mortars intended for grinding spices or chiles for salsa or mole that are instead more frequently seen doubling as a guacamole bowl, which is on par with using a chainsaw to cut butter, in terms of overkill. But aside from sheer weight and indestructibility, one of the molcajete's attributes is heat retention, which means that some Mexican restaurants also use them as portable hotpots which, once heated in an oven, will keep a stew or soup bubbling hot for as long as it sits at the table, or to add sizzle to grilled meats for some table-side flare.
The chile verde at Playa Azul would be worth ordering even without the added pleasure of the piping-hot stone bowl it comes in. Rather than the gravy-like consistency of Colorado green chile, or even the slow burn and roasty flavors of the New Mexico style, Playa Azul's version is a smooth, thick soup of chiles, tomatillos and lime, with maybe a few extra seasonings -- a touch of garlic or onion -- thrown in. Neither as spicy as typical New Mexico green chile nor thickened with flour or cornstarch, the addictive quality comes from the subtle chile buzz and mouth-watering tang of the tomatillos and lime. The pork seems to have been added to the mix only after the perfect balance of heat and acidity have been achieved. Small-diced but still firm pork rises to the surface as the chile bubbles against the hot stone. Each spoonful yields an ever-thickening and evolving richness as the moisture is cooked away. The last spoonful is almost a paste of condensed green chile to be smeared onto the final scrap of tortilla and chased down with a swallow of beer.
A rustic side of frijoles charros, more like a bean soup, comes with the chile verde, but it's there almost to slow you down so you have time to appreciate the changing flavor and texture of the main dish.
I could probably pave a few blocks of Federal with the menus -- stretched end-to-end -- of all these Mexican restaurants in such a small area. And each menu offers so many variations on the themes of grilled or slow-cooked meats, vibrant seafood and complex salsas and moles that I could spend a lifetime picking my favorite version of each, or maybe just selecting one dish for every occasion in my life.
The molcajete at Playa Azul could be the dish I turn to when I ask my wife if she's up for a little adventure and she says, "Okay, but it'd better be good." Of course, picking just one dish for this kind of mood would defeat the purpose, but there's always the birria.
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