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Since coming west almost a decade ago, I have developed a deep and meaningful relationship with Mexican food — a love affair with few disappointments, one of the most stable of my otherwise rather unstable life. I'm not saying I love tacos more than my wife, my parents, that first carbonated swallow of beer sizzling against the back of my throat at the end of a long day — but sometimes it's a near thing. If forced to choose between never having carnitas again or never having proper American barbecue, I'd have to give it a lot of thought.
I once drove two-thirds of the way across the country for the promise of some really good fish tacos and a couple of champion margaritas. Laura and I fell in love across platters of tacos and flautas and chile and cans of piss-thin sur de la frontera lagers. I once nearly died over (among other things) a bottle of Chihuahua beer in the parking lot behind a honky-tonk pool hall in San Francisco, and I've sworn to Laura that when, finally, our lives succumb to the terrible gravities of our pasts and implode, I will run off with her to Mexico, cross the border at Juarez near sunset, pick up some cheap smokes, prescription pills, Mexican Doritos and cases of beer, then head south until the urge to run leaves us. It was written into our vows when we got married, I think, a fundamental precept of our future planning.
When I was still living back east, Mexican food was an event, a challenge. Finding it was difficult, sometimes a mini-vacation in itself. The first posole I ever had was eaten hunched over a picnic table with a bunch of migrant peach-pickers (I hated it, by the way), and my ex and I used to celebrate with quesadillas and cold beers in the only restaurant in Rochester that was more Mex than Tex. One of the reasons Laura and I decided to stay in Albuquerque when we landed there (one of the reasons that wasn't penury, exhaustion, or the fact that my car died within sight of a man selling green chiles and piñon and jerky out of the back of a truck in a McDonald's parking lot) was because that city is a center for desebrado and menudo and tacos made out of cow face. If ever I have a tender thought about that grim, awful place (where I was once punched in the face for reading in public), it is for the restaurants there, the food they serve, the crews who do the work.
But here in Denver, I found another Shangri-La of buche and asada, of chile and churros and burritos. Here is a city where I can get breakfast burritos (delivered to the office, if necessary), tacos on almost every corner, decent (though never fantastic) green chile, the combined cuisines of Puebla and Michoacán and Chihuahua and the D.F., all without being assaulted for flaunting my literacy, without having to dodge the come-ons of the pubescent hookers working the stroll outside my three, four or five favorite places. I think I could eat Mexican food at a different place every day for a year here and never run short of new addresses to visit. I've done that before for a week, two. And what gets me every time — like seeing the mountains glowing, snowcapped, in the distance on my way into work makes me feel so very goddamn fortunate to have landed in this town — is that nearly every place I go not only has something to recommend it, but to love, to dream about, to return for again and again and again.
At D'Corazon, early on a Thursday evening, it's the chile con queso.
There's nothing particularly special about chile con queso — unless, of course, you find yourself with a mean craving for molten cheese and chopped chiles and good chips and a brace of cold Tecates with lime. That's how I was feeling on Thursday, and that was why I went to D'Corazon. I wanted beer and cheese and beer and chips and beer and the peace that comes from being an early-arriving one-top in a restaurant just beginning to fill for the early dinner rush. In that circumstance, under those conditions, it wasn't just a great bowl of chile con queso, but a fantastic one. And like an inveterate gambler on a sudden and unexpected hot streak, I just couldn't walk away from the table. I'd dip a chip in some queso, tell myself that it was my last one, read my book a little, drink my beer, and then catch my hand — purely of its own volition — going in for another. And then another. To wash it down, I needed another beer. To keep myself occupied waiting for the beer, I started a new chapter. To get through the chapter, I ate some more chips. And at that point, it was time for another beer...