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100 Favorite Dishes: Mar y Tierra Molcajete at Paxia

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No. 86 Mar y Tierra Molcajete at Paxia 4001 Tejon Street 720-583-6860

The molcajete, a Mesoamerican stone mortar and pestle, didn't evolve as a cooking implement. They were -- and still are -- traditionally used for grinding and pounding herbs, spices and chiles and preparing salsas and moles. But somewhere along the way, someone (probably after leaving one too close to an open fire and getting a nasty burn) realized that the stone retained heat very efficiently; from there, molcajetes began to be used as cooking and serving vessels for hot, stew-style preparations. Paxia, an upscale but fun and lively joint run by the owners of the more humble Los Carboncitos, puts the molcajete to particularly good use in its mar y tierra dish -- that's surf and turf to us Northerners.

See also: 100 Favorite Dishes of 2014

The mar portion of the dish comes in the form of tilapia and fat pink shrimp dusted with chile powder and swimming in a bubbling tomato broth enriched with garlic, onion and jalapeño. The tierra is steak -- which starts out a tender medium-rare -- and white-meat chicken. As the sauce simmers, the sauce thickens and the meats continue to cook. Its best to go for the shrimp and beef first so that they don't overcook; the fish and chicken stay moist and tender longer and absorb the flavors of the sauce as they stew.

If that's not enough, the sizzling stone and its contents are topped with generous strips of nopal (prickly pear cactus) and avocado. A stack of steaming tortillas and a side plate of beans, rice, guacamole and sour cream ensure that you won't go home hungry. Ask for the corn tortillas; they're made in house. If you doubt it, just take a look through the large window facing into the kitchen where the house tortilla maker presses and grills fresh masa with the ease and confidence of an old pro.

The molcajete is meant for sharing; it's probably even too much for two people, so at $22 it's a steal. But with two people, you can eat a leisurely meal while the sauce cooks down to a thick paste and takes on the mineral flavors of the hot stone. Instead of a dessert, just order another round of corn tortillas to scoop every last bite of that tangy, spicy sauce.

In advance of the Best of Denver 2015, we're already loading our plates with contenders for the best dishes in the city. And over the next nine months, we'll be sharing many of them with you, counting down (in no particular order) one hundred of our favorite dishes before the the Best of Denver 2015 hits the streets on March 26. In the meantime, if there's a dish you think we need to try, tell us about it in the comments section below, or shoot us an e-mail at cafe@westword.com.

Hungry for more? All the dishes in our 2014 countdown are linked below.

No. 100: Chile Relleno at La Fiesta No. 99: Gurage Kitfo at Megenagna Ethiopian Restaurant No. 98: Cochinita Pibil at Work & Class No. 97: The Greggers Tongue Sandwich at Olive & Finch No 96: Baum Cakes at Glaze by Sasa No. 95: Goat hot pot from Viet's No 94: Head cheese from Beast + Bottle No. 93: Kettle Chips from Amerigo Delicatus No. 92: Pork Belly Confit at Solera Restaurant and Wine Bar No. 91: Tacos Campechanos from La Calle Taqueria No. 90: Biscuits from Denver Biscuit Co. No. 89: Clams and Chorizo at Gozo No. 88: Aburi Sushi at Sushi Den and Izakaya Den No. 87: Kimchi and Sausage Torta at City, O' City


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