Aurora is awash lately with some of the most diverse ethnic cuisine in the Denver metro area; the cultural landscape is primed with every kind experience, from fine-ish dining to the lovable dive. Havana Street in particular is dotted with mom and pop eateries from almost every nationality and culture: Ethiopian, pho, dollar-scoop Chinese, Mexican seafood, Cuban bakeries, barbecue startup trucks — this stretch of semi-urban street makes for some colorful dining. Aurora, both the old and new “developed” areas, is an untapped source of some of the best people-watching and random dining in the state, so I'll be giving you my fitty-cent tour every week, complete with all the color, flavor and commentary of my ‘hood, starting this week at a Mexican eatery you can really wrap your tentacles around.
Waking up on New Year’s day 2014 with a decently-earned hangover to discover that the formerly useless eyesore of a building across the street from my house had been magically transformed into a brightly-painted Mexican restaurant complete with mariscos and cheap happy hour tropical margaritas was the best new year’s gift I could have asked for, next to a giant bottle of Advil.
Owner Silvia DeSantiago opened Hacienda Camino Real on January 1, 2014, and wanted to make sure Havana Street had at least one stop for approachable, authentic, moderately-priced Mexican food, with emphasis on fresh everything, all the time. DeSantiago says the house fajitas, molcajetes (a traditional stone mortar and pestle, now used to present sizzling sampler plates) and parrilladas (grilled meats) are the signature dishes, but I feel like she is being too modest since the caldo de siete mares was the best Mexican seafood soup I’ve come across since leaving New Mexico.
This hacienda is a technicolor masterpiece inside and out, with glaring primary colors set to make sure that even people wearing very dark sunglasses will notice the place. Walking in the door, you get blasted with a hit of fajita-smoke smell that doesn't dissipate no matter how long you park yourself in a painted wooden booth. The eclectic mixed-bag décor is fairly predictable: fold-out paper pineapples, plastic fish and the requisite sequined wall sombrero, but the service is a step above standard with house salsa and chips straightaway and the horchata is house-made and thick with crushed almond sediment, so use a straw, stir often, and drink from the top.
You can tell a lot about a Mexican restaurant just from the free salsa and chips you get first, and the salsa here is bright, studded with chunks of tomato, onion and jalapeno, and has a good medium-warmth to it, with yellow corn chips that aren’t too thin or too thick — so no breakage or molar-cracking. The entrees took some time to arrive, which gave me the chance to skim the tempting happy hour specials from 4 to 7 p.m. every day, including $3 Sex on the Beach cocktails, bloody Marys, piña coladas and tropical margaritas, which my server confirmed are margs with added mango and strawberries for the win. Finding a true Colorado silver mine of cheap, fruity booze beverages — drinks with little umbrellas — within stumbling distance of one’s abode is reason enough to frequent an establishment, but the arrival of dinner sealed the deal.
The carnitas tacos were in good form: loads of fatty, rich, falling-apart pork loaded with chopped cilantro and onion with lime squeezes. That's the second telltale sign that a Mexican place knows what’s its business is: if the tacos don’t come correct, there’s little else that will. But the gold star truly goes to the caldo de siete mares, or “soup of the seven seas,” which is a staple of any Mexican restaurant that serves seafood. It traditionally consists of fish, shrimp, baby octopus, scallops, mussels, clams and crab, shells on (but every home cook and restaurant pro has their own recipe), in a light tomato-based broth with tidbits of celery and carrot, sided with lime wedges, cilantro and onion.
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The huge steaming bowl was served with fresh tortillas, and the seafood quality was above expectations, with the tiny two-bite sized octopi, scallops and mussels all tender, the shrimp just right and the whole crab legs (gotta respect an edible garnish) moist, salty and delicious. Getting at the crab meat was a bit tricky and messy, so I would recommend the place investing in shell crackers, crab forks and lemon wet naps, but the broth had hint of ancho pepper smokiness to it that set it above the usual, basic tomato-vegetal flavor that I'm used to.
Hacienda Camino Real in Aurora is within walking — or crawling — distance from where I live which is a big selling point, but it’s a great place to start in the morning (with breakfast burrito specials and strawberry-banana pancakes on the early menu), pop in for a taco lunch, or chill and have five or six tropical margaritas for happy hour with a side of ceviche tostadas, and the ideal place to start an edible, exploratory tour down Havana street.