In Spanish, you can say pavo or guajolote — and either way, you're talking turkey. Pavo has its roots in Latin, but guajolote originates from the Nahuatl language, which seems more appropriate, since turkeys were first eaten by native North and Central Americans. But in one part of Mexico, there's a sandwich called a guajolote that doesn't contain even a shred of turkey, and that sandwich is now being served in Denver, thanks to the new Cilantro & Perejil food truck.
Rosalba Anaya, who was born in Tulancingo, Mexico, launched Cilantro & Perejil the first week of June, serving antojitos based on recipes that she learned from her mother. The guajolote sandwich originated in Tulancingo, a mining town in the hills of Hidalgo, a state north of Mexico City with a heritage of distinct cuisine, both traditional and more recent. Pastes, for example, are an empanada-like hand pie that evolved in and around Tulancingo from Cornish pasties brought by British miners in the 1800s. (Until recently, Aurora was home to a restaurant specializing in the pastes of Hidalgo.)
As Anaya tells it, the guajolote came into existence on Christmas Day sometime in the early twentieth century, when a group of engineers were in Tulancingo to set up the town's first electrical system. They were looking for dinner, but most of the restaurants were closed for the holiday. One restaurant owner welcomed them in and created sandwiches from leftovers: baguettes, enchiladas, refried beans and tomatillo salsa. "Ahí está su guajolote de Navidad," the cook supposedly said to the engineers: "Here is your Christmas turkey."
The sandwich somehow made a name for itself and can now be found in restaurants and street stalls throughout Hidalgo. (A similar sandwich, the guajolota, arose separately in Mexico City and is stuffed with a tamal instead of an enchilada.) Anaya's version stays true to the original; she uses fresh ciabatta as the base and adds black beans, her own tomatillo salsa, two open-faced enchiladas (not the rolled-and-stuffed version that are more common), queso fresco and lettuce. To that you can add a hard-boiled egg, shredded chicken, chorizo, carne asada or pastor — but no turkey.
Anaya has been cooking her whole life but only started professionally three years ago, gaining experience in such local kitchens as Larimer Square's Ocean Prime. Her food truck menu offers tacos, flautas, chilaquiles, nachos and burritos (a nod to her Denver customers). In addition to chicken, beef and pork, burrito fillings include chile relleno, another food-within-a-food that illustrates the playful ingenuity common in Mexican cooking.
Initially Cilantro & Perejil was parked at the corner of East 49th Drive and Locust Street for weekday lunch, but the chef has found that business is better at events and festivals in the heart of the city, so she's trying to schedule two or three appearances a week to maximize sales while ensuring that the food is fresh.
Anaya makes all of her ingredients from scratch, including several salsas: guajillo, tomatillo and habanero. But she also makes salsa xoconostle, a specialty of Hidalgo that uses the fruit of the prickly pear cactus, called tuna in Spanish — a confusing word for non-Mexican ears. The salsa is part of Anaya's focus on indigenous Mexican ingredients, something she'd like to bring to a wider audience in Denver.
"My dream for a restaurant is to serve pre-Columbian or pre-Hispanic food," she explains, adding that chapulines (grasshoppers), chinicuiles (maguey worms) and other ingredients are still used in the cuisine of Hidalgo.
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"It's so nutritious and good for you," she says of indigenous Mexican food, which predates the introduction of dairy, beef, pork and wheat.
Anaya's repertoire extends far beyond her food truck's menu, though. She makes a rich and smooth mole Poblano with more than eighteen ingredients; hand-formed tlacoyos that resemble fat, blue-corn tortillas stuffed with black beans; and mixiote, another dish specific to Hidalgo: slow-roasted meat (these days usually lamb or goat) cooked in a wrapper that was traditionally made from the peel of the agave plant. In Mexico, it's now illegal to harvest the agave peel, so cooks generally use banana leaf, parchment paper or even aluminum foil. "Maybe I can find a way to make mixiote and bring some of those other ingredients from Mexico," the chef says.
Cilantro & Perejil has recently been pulling up at Renegade Brewing (925 West Ninth Avenue) and Oasis Brewing Company (3257 Lowell Boulevard) on Saturdays and Sundays, so although Anaya hasn't booked any ongoing gigs yet, those are good places to check if you're looking for Mexican food and beer on the weekend. You can also use the contact page of cilantroandperejil.com to see where Anaya might next be serving tacos, burritos and chilaquiles.
Just make sure your order includes a guajolote — turkeys everywhere will thank you.