Cafe Society

A Lot to Like

The last time I was at Sabor Latino, I heard a recorded pan-flute rendition of the Titanic love theme so sappy that it silenced an entire dining room -- except for the laughter. An order of arepa fell just as flat: The white-corn pancake was so nasty, thick, heavy and funked up with some indefinably awful something that it made my entire mouth taste like I'd been sucking on a wet goat.

Actually, Laura tasted the arepa first, made a face like someone had just clocked her in the back of the head with a sock full of nickels, then said, "This is terrible. You try it."

And, like an idiot, I did. Then I tried it again, to make sure it was as bad as I thought it was (and it was). But rather than raise a stink over the dish -- rather than get all puffed-up, indignant and hissy about the ruination of ethnic cuisines, as I so often do -- I calmly spit the offending morsel into my napkin and shrugged. It was bad, sure. Really, truly foul. But the arepa's baseline badness didn't come close to overwhelming the very good vibe I get every time I sit down for dinner at Sabor Latino. I wasn't going to let it ruin our night or my appetite or the plate of Colombian bandeja paisa in front of us: massive piles of my favorite black beans, rice topped with a fried egg, fat rounds of honey-sweet fried plantain, tender shreds of beef and chicharrones that weren't chicharrones at all, but one entire pork rib chicharrón-ified into a dry, crackly, floury, greasy, porkerific wonder for which the cooks here (or the people of Colombia, who probably invented it) deserve some sort of medal.

I shouldn't like Sabor Latino as much as I do. But for some irrational reason, I'm able -- compelled, even -- to shrug off any wrong this restaurant does and go on to enjoy every meal here despite the occasional musical horror or goat-flavored pancake. Sabor Latino's feel-good ambience makes it easy. The dining room is comfortably rustic, with exposed brick walls, simple tables, battered menus and wooden chairs. Tiny alcoves are set with wine bottles and plastic grapes. The booths along the walls are cozy and deep, and the atmosphere hangs somewhere in that inviting, tender middle ground between aging white-tablecloth class and neighborhood eclecticism. I step in on a Monday night, a Wednesday afternoon, late on a Friday, and the staff always seems happy to see me. They must have the memory of fruit flies, though, because no matter how recently I've dined with them, they always ask me if this is my first time. And no matter whether I say yes or no, I'm invariably treated like a guest, not a customer. If I order too much, they'll tell me. They don't flight plates, but bring them out according to their own understanding of when I might want a new taste.

By the end of the night, there's never enough room left on the table for me to put my elbows down.

History could have something to do with why I feel so comfortable here. Colombian husband-and-wife team Raoul and Maria Mirandi opened the original Sabor Latino decades ago in a tiny space on 32nd Avenue in northwest Denver, in the kind of room that could maybe seat forty people if some of them didn't mind sitting on someone else's lap. Robert Luevano and Dan and Marie Jimenez (Robert and Marie are siblings) took it over in 1991 and moved Sabor Latino into its current storefront location several blocks away in 1998. This building once held Quinn's Pharmacy and, more recently, Luigi's Tavern, a barbershop and a secondhand store. It's still broken up into three spaces -- a bar/waiting area and two dining rooms.

From what I understand, Frank Quinn's pharmacy was a well-known and well-loved neighborhood institution, and maybe the good spirits of the place are still around. After all, if a location can be cursed by repeated restaurant failures -- the ghosts of poor concepts and empty tables living for years in the floorboards and hood ducts, long after the names of all the eatery tenants have been forgotten -- then memories of a good business should be able to charm a space just as easily, hanging over the tortillas, plantains and pots of black beans in the kitchen, warming the air with happy memories and making an unfortunate arepa seem like a very small thing in the grand scheme.

But maybe it's not the building. Maybe it's the history that Robert and Marie brought to the place. They come from a longtime north Denver restaurant family, their folks having owned and operated La Nueva Poblana for almost three decades before retiring to a farm somewhere. After growing up in the business, Robert swore he was never going to get into it himself. Of course, he did -- and he and Marie soon found that they'd inherited their parents' talents. The menu, which is about one half Mexican standards and one half greatest-hits collection of Central and South American cuisines, has come together over time -- some of it inherited from the original Sabor Latino, the rest picked up piecemeal over the years. And most of it is very, very good.

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Jason Sheehan
Contact: Jason Sheehan