Cafe Society

Comida Cantina brings the party to the Source

Getting carded can be a good thing, a form of flattery to those closer to 31 (or 41) than 21. But when I was asked to show ID at Comida Cantina, I felt like I'd been caught trying to order an underage beer. I really wanted that pineapple habanero margarita, but no way was I going to pull out my license and risk revealing the fact that I wasn't just blowing off steam over drinks and tacos, but working, too.

See also: Behind the scenes at Comida Cantina

"I don't have it," I told the server.

"She didn't drive tonight," my husband covered.

The server looked confused, not sure whether to believe us or her internal BS meter that was picking up signals of something afoot. Policy being policy, she sent over the manager, who sized me up in about half a second and said, "Okay, you can have a margarita."

I wasn't sure whether to be relieved at his go-ahead or resentful at the speed of his conclusion. So I did what most people do when they're uncomfortable: I burst out laughing, at which point the couple at the table just inches away from us joined in, having witnessed the whole awkward exchange. Tequila or no tequila, Comida Cantina is just too much fun for hurt feelings.

And that's good, because you might not feel so chipper after being told there's an hour-and-a-half wait when you tried to beat the crowds by arriving at the indecent hour of 5:30 p.m., and even less so when you're finally shown to one of the dimly lit banquettes carved out of the Source's cold, cavernous entry. While there are many words you can use to describe the Source — a repurposed, nineteenth-century foundry with an edgy, industrial feel thanks to sixty-foot ceilings, exposed brick and a host of artisan- and food-related enterprises that have been opening there since late August — "warm," both in terms of temperature and atmosphere, isn't one of them. For happy energy, you have to sit in the enclosed section between Comida's bar and the kitchen, but thankfully no one told this to the food, which does its best to bring the party to you, even if you're seated in what feels like a vintage airport concourse.

The party starts, as parties often do, with chips, but these are not the thin tortilla chips with curled edges that you're used to. Rather, they're fashioned out of thick, whole corn tortillas, the same ones used as a base for the tacos. Some people love breaking the deep-fried discs into bite-sized pieces, but ours were oily and fractured into crumbs, which were not exactly ideal for scooping up the guacamole and salsas we'd ordered. Short on chips, we ended up having extra guac and salsa to spoon over the food that followed, though we could have asked for a free second basket (the third costs $1.50).

Comida rolled into the world in 2010 as a food truck, the vision of Rayme Rossello, a former partner at Proto's Pizza and general manager at Jax, who has a degree in pastry arts that taught her "100 percent that I never wanted to be a pastry artist," she says. When Comida made the transition to sit-down restaurant, first in Longmont in 2012 and then in Denver this summer, the menu didn't change much. As a result, the dishes still feel like the Mexican street food they were modeled after: tacos, quesadillas, tostadas, tortas and gorditas offered à la carte to mix and match as you please. This flexibility adds to Comida's festive feel, with platters of food resembling a cocktail party's heavy appetizers delivered family-style to the center of the table. Most of it you can eat with your hands, though not always neatly, and that, too, adds to the fun, with chopped button mushrooms in a dark, smoky sauce slipping off crisp tostadas and chipotle mayonnaise dripping from fish tacos.

Soft tacos, ordered from a sushi-style checklist, are the mainstay, with creative touches that blend Rossello's love for Mexico with her Southern roots. Loaded with sugars from the Stella Artois in which the meat is braised, tender pork carnitas is paired with mashed sweet potatoes and pineapple-habanero salsa in a down-home nod to tacos al pastor. Shredded sirloin also benefits from a smear of that mash — not that the beef needs any help, since it has its own sultry flavor after a long soak in Negra Modelo. Grits make an appearance, flecked with jalapeños as a bed for spicy shrimp in the camerones a la diabla; Rossello says a fried-chicken taco is even in the works. Tacos are served with one tortilla rather than two, so each bite offers more filling than starch. Or at least that's the idea; some tacos could've used another strip of steak or a thicker layer of mash, and several would have benefited from an invigorating pop of lime or cilantro.

Showing Comida Cantina's roots as a space-starved food truck where every ingredient is asked to do double duty, these and other fillings reappear as star ingredients throughout the menu. Rather than being tiresome, though, the repetition is catchy, like a pop song with a good hook — so don't shy away from a griddled carnitas taco just because you've already put down a regular one. Indeed, don't let anything get in the way of the griddled tacos, which promise even more flavor than the tacos despite their singular meat-and-cheese nature. Gouda's smoky overtones are only part of the reason; the other is that the kitchen, helmed by Martin Campos, rests folded-over corn tortillas on the griddle until the cheese oozes out and crackles in rich, chewy bits. Smoked gouda is also used in the quesadillas, giving me a reason to reconsider what I had long overlooked as Americanized kid stuff.

Some dishes, however, deserve to be overlooked. Gorditas — stuffed, griddled pockets made from masa — were all shell and no filling, making me thankful we'd kept the leftover guacamole. A bean-and-mayo-free sirloin torta had more in common with barbecued beef on a roll than the multi-layered Mexican sandwich of the same name. A side of grits was crusty; rice with refritos was mushy and under-seasoned. Cold, thick frosting on coconut cake gave me the unpleasant sensation of biting into a stick of butter, and Mexican chocolate cookies should've been billed as round biscotti; they were so dry, they begged for a dunk in something hot.

At Sunday brunch, which launched earlier this month, the kitchen is showing what it can do when it breaks out of its taco-truck format, serving the likes of chilaquiles, lemon queso-fresco pancakes and eggs Benedict. I'd welcome a similar change at dinner, with Comida Cantina venturing into bigger (and lighter) terrain, such as entree-sized salads (greens are scarce, unless you count pickled vegetables and slaw) and specials that showcase Campos's talents with fish (he, too, spent time at Jax). I don't think that would dilute the restaurant's casual, free-flowing vibe. It would just give more people a reason to join the party — whether or not they bring their ID.