Tacos the Town

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My cell phone rang around one in the morning. For most people, this would be a harbinger of bad news -- kid in jail, someone in the hospital. For me, it almost always means work: a debriefing, confession, eleventh-hour emergency like a restaurant on fire or, worse, dead cold on a Saturday night. I was awake, of course -- watching Godzilla vs. Mechagodzilla on cable and eating microwaved shrimp curry on the couch. I picked up the phone on the second ring and heard a panting voice on the other end: one of my regular informers, my spies. A trusted member of my extended kitchen network…

We talked for ten minutes, me scrambling to take down deep background on a restaurant on the verge of death, debt and dissolution. When it was done, I asked, “So, what else have you heard?”

The above, lifted from this week’s review of Tacos y Salsas on South Federal Boulevard, is a fairly apt description of how my job works these days. Middle-of-the-night phone calls, last minute tip-offs, dependable information coming to me from the strangest places, at the most inopportune of times. And it’s funny, because as much as I welcome the pained confession, the last-minute heads-up, the breaking news of this industry, almost every conversation I have with members of my secret service ends with a discussion of love. What restaurants do you love? What foods? Where are you right now and where have you just been? Love of food -- all food, any food -- has always been the one defining characteristic of the galley elite, the solid rock that any of us can turn to when all else has gone tempest-tossed and strange.

The guy who called during Godzilla loves the gorditas at Tacos y Salsas – and he isn’t the only one who’s fallen for the place. I’d heard a tale of similar infatuation. At the closing-night party for Mel’s restaurant.

The place was jumping, chock-a-block with food people, friends of the house, long-time regulars and former staff all behaving with admirably depraved weirdness in the bathrooms and alleys. Mel’s son Charlie was telling terrible stories about the habits of celebrities who’d haunted the resorts in and around Vail when he worked there, and midway through a good one about a certain fading singer-songwriter’s fiftieth or sixtieth birthday party (fat joints, naked floozies, the defiling of an innocent Jacuzzi), I noticed another food writer trying to catch my eye -- peeking around the edge of a doorway and jerking her head towards the back of the house.

I excused myself politely, stood, drained my champagne flute and patted down my pockets for cigarettes. The food writer was waiting by the back door with a lighter and we ducked out into the pissy rain, cigarettes turned under the umbrellas of our palms, jogging for the cover of a roofed parking lot ten yards away. We talked about jobs, restaurants and rumors -- trading information back and forth, negotiating embargoes, smoking with our arms crossed and watching the rain and the dusky light fade. When conversation turned to Mexican restaurants, I started in trashing a certain local big name and she shook her head.

“Tacos y Salsas,” she said. “Can I tell you? I go there two or three times a week now. It’s my new favorite restaurant in that neighborhood.” She took my arm as if to emphasize the seriousness of her point, looked me in the eye, and breathed, “No, I mean it. You’ve got to go.”

“That neighborhood” she was referring to is one of Denver’s true gems, the gastronaut wonderland of South Federal between Alameda and Mississippi where some of Denver’s best ethnic restaurants live. It is a neighborhood in constant flux, a stretch of blacktop where addresses sometimes open, wax and wane so quickly that a smart young grubnik might need some sort of flow chart or tree diagram to keep track of what, at any given moment, is a laundromat, a taqueria, a pho shop, the best place in town for jellied duck’s blood, a check-cashing operation, cell-phone store or place serving live abalone and geoduck. It is crazy, a crossroads of cultures by way of cuisines, like something out of a bad science fiction novel where, due to some sort of terrible space-time catastrophe, little bits of Saigon, Puebla, Michoacan, Guandong, Singapore and Mexico City have all been popped out of their rightful geographies and mashed up together in Denver.

I love that part of town, of course. But somehow I’d managed to miss Tacos y Salsas -- the third Tacos y Salsas, following in the footsteps of locations on East Colfax and Chambers Road -- because I was always so distracted by the new Davies Chuck Wagon, by Super Star Asian, Ha Noi Pho, Pho Van, Pho 79, the new JJ Chinese and so on.

Which is funny, because Tacos y Salsas is a tough place to miss. And if you love tacos the way I love tacos, it’s a place you’re not going to want to miss either. – Jason Sheehan

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