A big, loud, flamboyant and insanely popular taco shop landed in the Golden Triangle last month. The dazzling sign of Torchy’s Tacos lights up the night like a marquee looming over that other Broadway (the one in New York City), and a line of curious taco-philes stretches from the order counter to the door — often spilling out onto the sidewalk — at nearly all times of the day, whether for breakfast, lunch or dinner.
Denverites must really love tacos, or maybe they’re just drawn like gnats to overripe fruit. Torchy’s certainly oozes a nectar-sweet blend of all the right ingredients to entice the swarm: deep-fried crunch, cheesy sauce, the promise of trashy fun and plenty of mixed drinks and beers — all amid whitewashed frivolity. The closest Torchy’s gets to acknowledging the Mexican roots of the food it serves is with a taco called the Dirty Sanchez, a junior-high locker-room joke that’s about as appetizing as, well, a junior-high locker room.
Giving a clamorous howdy-do to the transplant from Austin, Texas, Denverites are acting like they’ve been living in a vast taco wasteland. But just a couple of doors down, there’s another tortilla tale — one that’s told in a quiet whisper but is no less compelling, if folks would just stop to listen.
Quijote’s Mexican Grill opened in 2014 in a cramped space that was once a Brazilian pizzeria and soccer bar. The entrance is a little confusing because the restaurant’s facade is divided in two by another business’s entryway. There’s a Quijote’s sign — nothing more than a window decal — on the left, but you have to walk a bit farther down the sidewalk to get to the front door; neon beer signs and more window decals spelling out the house’s specialties help guide the way. Quijote’s is only open from 7 a.m. to 4 p.m. Monday to Saturday, closing up shop just as the happy-hour party is starting to rumble at Torchy’s (which offers daily discounts from 3 to 7 p.m.). An early day means that the taqueria relies on walk-up breakfast- and lunch-seekers, with takeout orders keeping the kitchen relatively busy.
With such big differences between the two joints, why compare them? Because there are enough similarities to make it intriguing that Torchy’s was such an instant hit while Quijote’s often languishes.
Both eateries offer standard counter service where customers walk up to a clerk behind a register and pick from a wall menu. At Torchy’s, this seems to take a while, in part because guests are unfamiliar with the offerings and have to read through a long list of clever names and descriptions. At Quijote’s, the customers ahead of you in line almost certainly know exactly what they want, since most of them are regulars. But if you want to skip the line at either place, both have a bar (Torchy’s has two) where you can pull up a stool and order. While the Texas taco house offers a full roster of beer, wine and spirits, Quijote’s sticks with beer (and has a surprisingly well-rounded list of craft and Mexican drafts for such a little place) and micheladas.
Torchy’s (and Austin in general) is famous for breakfast tacos and offers four house specials, including a migas taco, with fried tortilla strips mixed into scrambled eggs — a Tex-Mex morning staple. Other options include smoked brisket or beef fajitas stacked atop your tortilla, eggs and cheese — or you can pick from simple standards like egg and chorizo, egg and bacon, or egg and sausage. The price per taco (from $2.25 for the basics to $3.75 for the more elaborate) seems a little high, but they’re all big, so two make a good meal, and downing three becomes gut-busting. Still, we were disappointed by a recent breakfast of the
Torchy’s basics — three tacos, one each with chorizo, sausage and bacon — that revealed overcooked eggs, a dearth of meat, and corn tortillas that, though double-layered, fell to pieces and tasted more like corn chips than the tender and smooth-textured style typical at most Denver taquerias. Of course, you can swap out the corn for flour tortillas, but around here, we just call that a burrito (with nothing more than an extra tuck).
Although breakfast tacos haven’t been a big thing in Colorado (again, burritos do the trick here), Quijote’s offers a trio of meatless, egg-filled corn tortillas topped with chunky pico de gallo and cubes of avocado for $4.99. They’re small, but add a fresh-made juice blend (juicer-style, with fruit and vegetable combos) and you’ve got a healthy breakfast. For something more substantial, there are also breakfast plates and hefty breakfast burritos — smothered if you want (as if there’s any doubt).
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Dinner at Torchy’s is a bounty of what’s currently called fat-kid food, but it’s tough to fool a fat kid. You need more than the batter-heavy and chicken-slim Trailer Park (though diamonds of minced green chiles are a nice touch) to live up to the Southern temptation of fried chicken in a tidy format. Nor would I sell my soul for the Crossroads, which promised smoked beef brisket but delivered a chopped pile of oily nubbins so overcooked I thought they were bacon bits at first. But at $12 for two weighty tacos and a happy-hour margarita, it would have been a good deal had the fillings lived up to the descriptions.
Meanwhile, over at Quijote’s, three blackened-fish tacos rang in at $9.99 and delivered juicy strips of well-seasoned white fish (most likely tilapia). If your inner fat kid is craving sloppy fun, a cochinita burrito is the way to go, with a generous bale of marinated and shredded pork stuffed into a stretchy tortilla alongside beans, rice, avocado, sour cream and Yucatán-style pickled onions. The foil wrapper barely contains the quivering mass, which threatens to explode at the merest poke. If you order one, a plate and a fork may be required gear.
Quijote’s may not top the list of Denver’s best taquerias, but it offers a solid and centrally located selection of Colorado favorites (beyond tacos and burritos, there are also tortas, tamales, churros and horchata). Although it’s definitely quieter than Torchy’s, you’ll still find a variety of neighborhood customers — Cap Hill politicos in suits, hipster kids, construction crews — all digging into platters that fire from the kitchen at a head-spinning pace.
If a house party is more your style, head to Torchy’s. Unless you’re a glutton (for punishment, that is), stick with the constructions based on simple, slow-cooked meats (the green-chile pork and beef barbacoa both satisfy), and don’t miss the excellent guacamole. Gringo ingredients piled high may make for eye-popping food-TV fodder, but ultimately, Mexican fare is at its best when tradition leads the way and local styles — whether from Austin or Denver — are allowed to evolve naturally instead of being wedged into a forced-fun package.