We'll Take Desert

Because of California's recent influence, Southwestern food sometimes comes off as something from nouvelle hell. But the truth is that the cooking style of Arizona, New Mexico and Texas has evolved over centuries: It's an authentically American cuisine cultivated by Native Americans, Spaniards and Mexicans butting up against each other as they made their way across the desert.

Since Colorado was settled long after the three Southwestern states, its contribution to the cuisine has been minimal. Still, you'd think Denver's proximity to them would mean we'd have more than a handful of Southwestern eateries to choose from.

At least we can add one more to the short list: the ten-month-old Saguaro Grill and Cantina, in the unlikely location of a Ramada Inn on Colfax--which may not be so unlikely now that the hotel and the surrounding area are undergoing major renovations.

"I wanted to lease the kitchen but was told that I'd have to not only do three meals a day, but also open a lounge," says part-owner and chef Tomas Vallejo, who leases the restaurant with partner Myron Manthe. "So I'm not getting much sleep right now." But Vallejo is used to the hours, since the Florida native started working in his parents' restaurants--which at one time totaled a dozen--at the age of ten. "It was a good experience for me," he says. "I owned my first, very own restaurant when I was seventeen." This is Vallejo's seventh venture, which he started after shooting the breeze over margaritas with Manthe, who was working as a manager for an Olive Garden. "We decided to start our catering company a year and a half ago," Vallejo explains, "and the restaurant kind of grew from that."

Now they're serving margaritas of their own. First, though, the pair had to put considerable time and money into cleaning up the restaurant side of the hotel. "This part had been closed for two years," Vallejo says. "It was a big job. Plus, we had to re-landscape the patio and pool area." They filled the dining area with Southwestern art and cast it in the steel blue, dustbowl brown and sunset orange of a sand painting. Then Vallejo created a menu that focuses on American Indian influences--corn, beans and tomatoes--with a little of California's input (Monterey Jack cheese and Anaheim chiles) and a couple of Tex-Mex items such as fajitas.

The corn items stand especially tall. On our first visit, a variety of appetizers and margaritas set the tone for a semi-business get-together, and two of the three starters we chose were corn-oriented. The Albuquerque corn cakes ($6.49) were sweet and filling, topped with sour cream and two kinds of salsa--one a tomatillo-based, jalapeno-sparked verde and the other a well-melded mix of tomatoes, onions, cumin and coriander set off by balsamic vinegar, a nice nouvelle sort of touch. Avocado slices rounded out the dish, which not only tasted great, but had that colorful Southwestern appeal. So did the Santa Fe egg rolls ($6.99), which looked like little canoes made of rice-paper skins and were filled with spicy chicken, corn, soft-cooked black beans and Monterey Jack; we dipped each skiff into pools of avocado-kissed cream sauce or smoky pureed tomato salsa.

Our third munchie was a little harder to digest, visually and literally. The poblano whiskey shrimp and black-bean pancake ($6.99) featured a plate-sized flapjack that looked like it belonged at breakfast rather than dinner. The bean-studded cake was slightly sweet and would have been at home drenched in Aunt Jemima, but it was so dry that it was tough to swallow even with swigs of Saguaro's "original" margarita made with Cointreau, tequila and fresh lime juice ($4.75). There were only four medium hickory-grilled shrimp atop the vast pancake, and while the cream sauce--laced with whiskey and stung with poblano--added some moisture, it wasn't enough to help get that batter down.

The place was empty except for our table and one other, which made me wonder if having a whole meal there would be a bust. On a return trip, however, everything came out kicking. We started with a bowl of the smoked-chicken corn chowder ($3.99), an elaborately flavored concoction that Vallejo says he can't make enough of (see Mouthing Off for the recipe). It was easy to see why: I could have eaten nothing else but this soup, with its rich, hearty texture, vibrant colors and an intense sweet-corn-and-smoky-chicken taste underscored by garlic and chipotles. Our other soup, a black bean ($2.99), suffered only by comparison--there was a lot to like about this thick, velvety mixture that benefited from garlic, sizable portions of molten Monterey Jack and Vallejo's zesty tomato salsa.

In fact, many of the portions at Saguaro were Texas-sized, but none more so than the beef fajitas ($10.99), Saguaro's main nod to that state. Here the traditional pounded, marinated skirt steak was grilled with bell peppers, onions and mushrooms and served with the usual tortilla fillers of lettuce, tomatoes and sour cream. Plenty of garlic in the marinade and fast, high-heat cooking gave the meat that caramelized edge that, when it's done right, makes the flavor of fajitas so simple but satisfying; the vegetables, too, had been caramelized on the grill.  

Shrewd cooking also made the most of the fish in the grilled salmon quesadilla ($12.99), where chunks of blackened salmon retained their damp interiors against the scalding crust that was further fired by a dousing of chipotle cream sauce. The cooling element of a sour-creamy squash salsa vinaigrette was ideal for coating the leftover bits of tortilla. Like the other entrees listed under Saguaro's "house specialties," the quesadilla came with a side of garlicky black beans and a mass of spicy, creamed-corn salsa enriched with actual cream. Those two sides also came with the chiles rellenos ($7.99), two Anaheims that had been roasted, overstuffed with Monterey Jack, very lightly coated with an egg-based breading and then deep-fried. They swam in a green chile that was mild by Denver's chile-heat standards but didn't lack any flavor.

Margaritas--including a debonair "Italian" version ($5) with Cuervo and Amaretto--were all the dessert we needed, but we couldn't resist the idea of a margarita mousse pie ($3.99), which turned out to be an impressive creation that paired a light, fluffy, lime-flavored filling with a toothsome crust. We paired the pie with a few more margaritas for good measure.

As good as Saguaro's margs were, though, the ones at Las Brisas were even better. This vigorously decorated spot near the Target store at I-25 and Arapahoe has been serving Mexican, Spanish and Southwestern food for thirteen years, and the original chef, Dan Lukens, came back three months ago after an eight-year leave of absence to work at other restaurants around the state.

The name Las Brisas means "the breezes," and the bright-blue wave motif on the walls, the plant-filled dining spaces and a boulder-supported waterfall give the place a casual, airy feel. Owner Jayne Smith's mean margarita ($5.25) comes in an innocent-looking rocks glass, but don't be fooled: The brown color comes courtesy of orange Curacao; the kick is from ample shots of Cuervo Gold and Montezuma tequilas; and the flavor punch is fresh lime juice with a splash of sweet-and-sour mix.

The food at Las Brisas is a similar combination of flavor and verve, and the diversity of the menu--with tapas sitting comfortably next to chimichangas and mango-sauced mahi--makes it easy to meet your mood. On our first stop, we were feeling adventurous, so the tapas of nopalitos saltiado ($5.95), cactus sauteed with Marsala and bacon, was definitely in order. The cactus strips, which had a texture like undercooked green beans and a flavor like green peppers, merged well with the salty, garlicky wine sauce. Our other tapas, the mejiones con verde ($6.95), featured four large, fresh green-lip mussels, each swimming in a saffron cream sauce and topped with just enough pico de gallo to keep it all from being too rich.

We also ordered an appetizer that should be mandatory at Las Brisas: the tableside guacamole, which is sold at a price determined by the wildly fluctuating avocado market ($5.95 during our visit). The server wheeled over to us with a cart bearing just about anything you could want in guacamole--onions, tomatoes, garlic, jalapenos, salt, pepper, lemon juice, lime juice, cilantro--and then asked what our preferences were, adding in small amounts as she hand-mashed the avocados and letting us taste until it was exactly what we wanted.

We didn't have any say in how the relleno de mariscos ($9.95) would taste, but the roasted poblano stuffed with bay scallops, crab and shrimp smothered in a chipotle-charged bechamel-style sauce wound up being wonderful. The relleno came with a side of vegetable-packed, saffron-yellowed rice, which in turn made a bed for the crusted-salmon entree ($16.95), a tortilla-wrapped piece of salmon that was covered in a roasted-red-pepper cream sauce. Our kids were happy with tacos ($3.75) from the ninos menu and even happier when a creamy flan ($4.25) and apple-filled, caramel-coated empanada ($4.25) arrived for dessert. (The staff at Las Brisas was pretty welcoming to the many families eating there that night.)

Other items on Las Brisas's menu are more in line with the local Mexican offerings, such as the crispy rellenos ($7.95) I sampled on my second stop; the poblanos had been tightly wrapped and fried to a nice golden to liquefy the Monterey Jack, and the duo was covered with a not-too-hot green chile made with the mainstream in mind. But the filete jalapeno ($16.95) was packing heat: two tenderloin medallions had been slicked with a jalapeno cream sauce and covered with red and green peppers augmented with more jalapenos. The ceviche ($9.25) offered a wallop of chiles, too, with the large, lime-cooked, jalapeno-bit scallops lining a salad of red onions, lettuce and cilantro. It made an ideal soup-and-salad combo when paired with the calabacita verde y amarilla ($4.95), a soothing, creamy squash soup sprinkled with pine nuts.  

Saguaro went down pretty smooth for a place named after a cactus, and Las Brisas was as comfortable as a warm Gulf wind. This food is a close relative to the kind of gloppy, chile-packed Mexican that's so popular here. So why aren't there more Southwestern spots around?

Saguaro Grill and Cantina, 1150 East Colfax Avenue, 303-813-9865. Hours: 6:30 a.m.-2 p.m., 5-10 p.m. daily.

Las Brisas, 6787 South Clinton Street, Englewood, 303-792-3212. Hours: 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday; 5-10:30 p.m. Saturday.

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