BEST GREASY TACO 2006 | El Toro | Best of Denver® | Best Restaurants, Bars, Clubs, Music and Stores in Denver | Westword
Molly Martin
Once a slew of relatives worked the Mexican joints up and down Larimer Street, turning out the same great, greasy tacos with cookie-cutter efficiency. But family members split off, others moved on, and finally the last, best repository of the secret taco formula is El Toro, a modest joint tucked into an industrial area off of Colorado Boulevard. But there's nothing modest about these tacos. Small corn tortillas are topped with chopped, grilled steak (or chicken or ground beef) and yellow cheese, then fried until everything melds together into one delicious mess. The kitchen adds big slices of avocado, then brings the tacos to the table -- where you just need to add a squirt of homemade hot sauce. So greasy, and so good.
The deep-fried taco is a rarity these days. But Viva Burrito offers them 24/7/365 -- and you don't even have to get out of your car. Order a taco plate at the window, and you get two wholly inauthentic tacos, the corn tortillas fried, wrapped like a fist around lumps of shredded beef that's tender and chewy at the center, crisp and burnt and delicious around the edges. Each taco is greasy, hot, crunchy and stringy all at the same time, cooled by the sides of rice, beans and lettuce that come with every plate.
If something as naturally good as a taco has to get all gussied up, then Troy Guard is the guy you want to do the job. He starts by tearing out the taco's guts, turning it into a wonton, opening it up and stuffing it with white rice and flash-seared ahi tuna and bright chunks of mango -- but he doesn't stop there. No, he warps his inspiration right back to Mexico and mounts four of these little bite-sized masterpieces on a long plate with bright gobs of tomatillo guacamole, then gives them the truly ridiculous name of "#1 ORIGINAL wonton tuna tacos." Sure, they're goofy. Sure, they're derivative and fusioned up the wazoo. But they might also be the best tacos you taste all year.
Big burritos have become big business, the stuff of nationwide chains and wild IPOs. Today you can get your burrito filled with pork from hand-fed pigs and guaranteed-gasless beans, topped with your choice of six exotic salsas and soy sour cream. When a simple burro becomes that complicated, though, it's time to get back to basics. And there's nothing more basic than La Casa de Manual, the second incarnation of a modest Mexican eatery that's been serving Denverites for three generations. Order your wet burrito with beans, order it with beef or order it with both; you'll get a toothsome tortilla folded around refried beans so good that you don't care if you get gas, or tender shredded cow, or both, smothered in a very thin green chile studded with pork. When we say this burrito is the best, we're not kidding: We love it so much that we're willing to forgive Manual's lack of a liquor license.
For generations, the tamal was the humblest expression of Mexican comfort food. But in recent years, with the popularity of all things Mexi-culinary exploding, tamales have been brought out of the cocinas and into the limelight, subjected to all manner of torturous revisions that have done nothing whatsoever to improve on their essential perfection. A bit of meat, a bit of sauce, a corn husk and a masa jacket -- that's all a proper tamal needs. And at Villa Cafe, the tamales -- which are handmade daily -- are just that and nothing more. The masa is soft and flavorful, the tiniest bit sweetly sour, and rolled thin so as not to overwhelm the shredded beef inside, which is braised until tender. The tamal is then topped with its perfect match -- an unusual orange chile that adds tomatoes to a Colorado-style green. This is one kitchen that doesn't feel the need to improve on what's already the best.
Although Frank Bonanno is still tinkering with many things at Milagro, the tortilla soup is already perfect -- a silky puree of fried tortillas and chicken stock, garlic, onions, a hint of tomato so light it barely changes the soup's lovely nut-brown color, and a lace of huitlacoche (Mexico's answer to truffles, which are Bonanno's answer to everything) that gives every other ingredient a solid base to stand on. All told, there are six ingredients, each of them absolutely necessary and working in pure harmony. This soup bowls us over.
It's always a pleasant surprise to find a chain restaurant doing something well -- particularly when it's a local chain like Qdoba, which has long been overshadowed by the success of Chipotle. Using its basic fixings, Qdoba recently added a tortilla soup to its takeout repertoire that's flat-out delicious -- a thick, hearty soup that's essentially a deconstructed taco soaked in a spicy broth. And once the soup has been tailored to your taste, you get to take it home and eat it while sitting on your own couch, in the privacy of your own living room.
It should come as no surprise that Sabor Latino makes the best chips and salsa in town. After all, tortilla chips are the french fries, the bar peanuts, the potato chips of the Southwestern world, and Sabor Latino is Denver's best bulk purveyor of all things Central and South American. This comfortable, quaint neighborhood restaurant does excellent arepas, it does wonderful fish ceviche, it does commendable burritos and tamales and Caribbean platters that you won't find anywhere else. But when we settle into one of the intimate booths, the first thing we look for is the great plate of fresh chips served with a thin, dark, spicy salsa that's more like tomato water and black-bean puree than a standard salsa, but also incredibly addictive.
With excellent, fresh, crispy chips and three fantastic salsas: That's how every meal at Chama begins, and it's how your meal can end, as well, if you politely ask the house to pack a little extra to go. The trio of salsas are perfect in their own right, covering the full spectrum of heat and flavor. There's a cool, green tomatillo that's thin and watery and almost sweet; a thick and blazing-hot habanero that delivers a lot of flavor before the punishing spiciness hits you; and right in the middle, a sweet-hot smoked-chipotle salsa shot with honey that says volumes about the expert control of flavors in the kitchen. And it's all free -- which just goes to show that sometimes the best things in life really are.
Molly Martin
The amuse-bouche, though overdone in some places and simply ridiculous in others, is always a sight to behold at Luca d'Italia. Here, Frank Bonanno and his crew use flavors that will no doubt repeat in the coming meal to construct a one-bite masterpiece perfect for putting guests in the proper frame of mind to appreciate the brilliant, complicated simplicity of Luca's wonderful Italian cuisine. Truffled egg salad, slips of marinated octopus -- each one is a tiny jewel-box presentation meant for calibrating the tastebuds and offering a free preview of how Luca works.

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