Johnny Ballen, co-owner of the Squeaky Bean downtown, has made fine dining an entertaining prospect, with amusements like found-object decorations and a cocktail shrine to departed celebrities enhancing the dining room — all while maintaining a respect for seasonal ingredients, along with partner/farmer Josh Olsen and chef Chris MacGillivray. And now Ballen's got a new joint of his own that, while considerably more casual than the Bean, captures the same playful spirit and focus on food. Cochino Taco opens on Tuesday, August 30, bringing a Mexican cantina to a former gas station in a quiet Englewood neighborhood better known for its health-care facilities.
If the devil is in the details, then Ballen has a devilish streak a mile wide: Cochino is packed to the rafters with elements that add whimsy while providing guests with a top-caliber experience. In the entry, a massive lamp salvaged from a doctor's office stands guard, providing light to the host stand but also tipping a hat to the medical community that will be a big part of Cochino's customer base, especially once lunch rolls out in September. A reclaimed Bevador refrigerator is a quaint touch behind the bar, but it's also a working beer cooler stocked with craft beers as well as Coors Banquet in cans and Montucky Cold Snacks, a canned lager made in Montana that's just now hitting Denver.
Details bring the menu to life, too, from white-cheddar-dusted chicharrones, crunchy pig tails and an authentic escabeche on the appetizer list to the array of tacos that anchor the list, with four each of pork, veggie, beef and chicken/seafood. Cochino's opening chef, Julian Smith, sprinkles the menu with the same kind of clever touches that Ballen brings to the decor: pepitas, juniper, jicama, melon, hot-pepper jam and smoky mojo mayo bolster traditional taqueria proteins from pastor to pork belly.
For kids of all ages, a five-dollar "taco truck" totes two crunchy tacos laden with ground beef, yellow cheese and iceberg lettuce. At the bar, a glistening array of tequila, mezcal and other Mexican spirits takes up the most shelf space; to the side, a duo of slushy machines churns out a frozen paloma and a second frozen concoction that will change regularly.
Cochino Taco will open for dinners initially, with lunch and brunch to be added soon. Keep reading for a look inside.