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...
I mentioned early on in my trek up Federal Boulevard that I'm not a restaurant critic; my goal is not to objectively judge or critique the finer points of dining at any establishment. Rather, I'm simply looking for good food -- food that I like -- while learning and sharing what I've found at each stop along the way. It's easy when every item on the menu beckons with quality ingredients, expert preparation and a proud staff that stands behind its food. Even many of the less-than-polished grottos and pit stops somewhere in the back of a poorly paved shoppette usually have one or two items worth risking a flat tire for. Sometimes I'll stick with the house special to ensure a good meal; other times I'll order the kind of food I know I'll like, even if it's buried in a list of more popular dishes. Rarely am I left in the position of choosing from the lesser of evils.
So at the end of the line, with the Adams County frontier within tamale-tossing distance, I stood in the parking lot withViva Burrito to my left and Rico Pollo to my right and some tough decisions to make about exactly what to eat.
I could have easily come up with excuses to skip both places. After all, I've already eaten at the southern outpost of Rico Pollo, while Viva Burrito's roots are actually in Arizona, making it technically outside my self-imposed rule of sticking only to local chains and independent restaurants. But I felt I owed it to myself to finish out my explorations by pushing to the very limit of the City and County of Denver, an invisible political fence that separates a roast-chicken shack from its neighboring fireworks shop.
And so I stepped into the stark white and deathly silent dining room of Viva Burrito, knowing only that I wanted breakfast, even at the dinner hour. The menu at Viva encompasses a broad range of land-locked Mexican fare, skipping the Den-Mex staple of pork-imbued green chile in favor of small sides of zippy salsa verde, which in retrospect ended up being the best thing on my cafeteria tray. Amy, with me until the bitter finale, chose a platter of rolled tacos (usually called flautas outside of Phoenix and perhaps San Diego) stuffed with shredded beef -- while I clung to the notion that if a food product is in the name of the restaurant, you should probably order it.
My machaca burrito was a little bland, but the salsa verde added an extra pop to the spiced shredded beef and egg filling. A plate of carne asada fries, however, could not be rescued by any amount of salsa, so limp and pale were the fries. Underseasoned bits of steak and condiment-style guacamole added only sadness to the plate. With some minor fixes, this could easily be excellent drunk party food -- but there was no party and I was far from drunk. I wanted to stand on the table, brandishing my breakfast grenade, and shout "Viva! Burrito," but all I could muster was a shrug.
A day later, I returned to this farthest north enclave of cheap Mexican food to give Rico Pollo another go. I wasn't very happy with the chicken options on my visit to its southern sibling, so this time -- in order to compare similar menu options from Viva next door -- I ordered chicken flautas and a smothered burrito. While waiting for my order, I distracted myself from the depressing dining room by burying my head in my iPhone. I tried to put aside thoughts that I was ordering food surrounded by an open kitchen crusted with burnt chicken juices, intermittent coughing and sniffling from customers and employees alike, and an oily film on every surface -- floor, seating, and tables. Keep reading for another taste of Federal Boulevard.
I took my order out the door (as quickly as I could) and headed for a nearby park, where the cool spring air and Colorado sunshine lightened my mood while I sampled my haul. Like Viva, Rico Pollo has a tasty house salsa that packs a punch which, when sufficiently slathered, became the primary flavor of the chicken flautas. Absent much of their own flavor, the crunchy rolled tortillas at least did not taste of fryer grease. The green chile on the burrito was surprisingly heavy with roasted chiles and heat as well as crumbles of soft pork. I thought I had ordered a chicken burrito, but I could find no evidence of chicken, just a swale of runny frijoles refritos bound by a flour tortilla.
It may be the end of the road, but this is not how I plan to end my Federal Boulevard adventure...not with a bang but a whimper. A few restaurants opened after I had already passed their locations on Federal, so next week I'll compile a round-up of what I missed. And after that, who knows? Maybe I'll head to your street or neighborhood for some cheap eats and a whole new world of menus to give Federal a run for its dinero.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.