Second Helpings

Tula Latin Bistro

There are many voices at the restaurant-reviewing table these days, not all of them professional. And Tula, perhaps more than any other place in town, has both profited and suffered from this new blog/message board/MySpace world, where everyone believes they get a say. Right now, the three top reviews for Tula on Citysearch (where so many people turn for business addresses, phone numbers and the brain-damaged rantings of amateur critics who only know how to type IN CAPS!!!!) are not good ones. The next couple? Very good. Then bad, then very good again -- all either loving or loathing chef/owner Chris Douglas's nouvelle Latino menu, his modernist touches, his noble attempt at turning around a space that's seen some high-profile closures over the years.

To anyone reading these customer reviews, Tula might seem like a completely schizophrenic restaurant -- brilliant one night, abysmal the next. Where one person might rave about the tilapia or the tacos, another will be horrified by the service, the music, the color of the walls. The phrase "There's no accounting for taste" no longer holds. These days, people just can't stop accounting for their tastes. Myself included.

But the truth is, Tula is not schizophrenic. I've been watching (and writing about) this address for years, and compared with previous tenants -- hell, compared with Denver's restaurant industry as a whole -- Tula has been a rock of stability: an owner-operated spot with one chef in the kitchen, a cohesive concept with decor to match, and a menu that's never betrayed its Mexican roots. I haven't loved everything I've eaten here, but I've enjoyed a great deal of it: excellent tamales, corn soups with deep peasant roots, short-rib mini-tacos in crisp shells packed with smoky-sweet meat that tastes like the best bits pulled off the burnt edges of a pile of barbecue, cold cheladas (cans of Tecate, salted and served with a sangrita-marinated shrimp hung over the edge of the can) that never fail to foam over and soak my jeans. And last week, I had the best churros-and-chocolate dessert I've ever had, bar none. This is a new addition to the menu -- one that Chris's wife, Kerri, has been demanding forever -- and, as with all things at Tula, it departs slightly from tradition by replacing the traditional hot chocolate with a cool, caramelly dollop of chocolate served in a tin bowl that makes the experience like dipping hot cinnamon-sugar doughnuts into a cold tub of chocolate pudding.

After this week's beer-and-ice-cream-soup debacle (see review), I think I'll be dropping by Tula to satisfy my sweet tooth.