Jesse Morreale takes me by the hand and leads me down a narrow passageway, past the rustic wooden tequila lockers and kaleidoscopic altar littered with white candles, and into the lantern-lit dining room of El Diablo, the new Mexican restaurant at First and Broadway that he and executive chef Sean Yontz have spent more than two years putting together, an endeavor admits Morreale, that's been anything but easy. "It was a really complicated project with lots of hurdles, and yes, it's been frustrating, but the setbacks also afforded us the time to be thoughtful about the design, overall concept, menu and operations."
El Diablo was slated to open in April of 2009. Now, almost a year and a half later, the stunning space will finally be revealed on Friday, when it opens for dinner.
"When the paper comes off the windows, I think people are expecting to see another Tambien, with all the Mexican pop culture," says Morreale, referencing the cantina he and Yontz own in Cherry Creek. "But this is a huge departure from that, and without question, the best layout, design and menu we've ever done."
The 6,000-square-foot, 320-seat space (plus a 70-seat patio), whose focal point is a large rectangular bar illuminated by bordello-red lanterns, is bedecked with a voyeuristic exhibition kitchen, intricate wrought iron accents, a hand-painted muraled wall depicting scenes from Mexican artists, including Diego Rivera and a separate late-night takeout area harboring a small Mexican market, flanked by graffitied Mexican street art portraying the devil in all of his diabolic glory, and shelved with everything from bottled Mexican coke and hot sauces to Mexican caramel. Morreale insists that there's nothing like it in Denver -- and he's right.
"The whole restaurant is one big art piece," says Morreale. "We really wanted to use it as an opportunity for local artists to contribute. The murals, the ironwork, the woodwork, the altar and the graffiti -- it was all designed by local artists."
The restaurant's name, explains Morreale, was also a no-brainer. "We know right away that it was going to be a Mexican restaurant, and more than once, Sean and I have been referred to as the devil. In fact, you might even say that we went through hell and back to get this place open." In addition, notes Morreale, El Diablo conjures up images of "fire and heat and flames and peppers -- things associated with cooking, not to mention a little bit of mischief," which will no doubt come into play, considering that the tequila list trumpets more than 200 different bottles. Tequilas, says Yontz, that are the ideal foil to his menu. "I wanted to go back to my roots with this menu -- to traditional Mexican food -- but this is not pedestrian Mexican food at all." His menu, an assemblage of sopas, ceviches, tamales, moles, enchiladas, burritos and a dozen different street tacos that zigzag from carne asada with potatoes and al pastor with pineapple to roasted pork belly with green chile pico di gallo and veal tongue with a creamy avocado sauce, caramelized onion salsa and queso fresco, is huge, and Yontz has spent the last several days taste-testing every one. "Over the past six days, I've done every single fucking recipe, just to make sure everything is absolutely perfect. The tacos are badass, I've got fifteen different housemade salsas available and I think the moles are awesome. It's game on, and I'm really excited to be back in the grind."
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He's also excited about the late-night menu, which will include, among other things, tortas and a Sonoran-style hot dog wrapped in bacon and stuffed with queso Oaxaca. "All of our cheeses are hand-crafted by Queso Campesino, a local company in Brush, Colorado," says Yontz, adding that nearly every ingredient on his menu is scratch-made, organic and local.
When El Diablo opens on Friday, it'll stay open till 4 a.m. It will reopen on Saturday, also for dinner and then on Sunday for lunch and dinner. Come Monday, the restaurant will be open for lunch, dinner and late-night for the long haul. Morreale and Yontz plan to introduce Sunday brunch later this month, and Yontz is also planning a series of upcoming monthly tequila dinners.
"I think that we're pushing boundaries, both with the design, Sean's menu and the fact that we're offering Mexican street food until 4 a.m., and I can't even tell you how effin' excited everyone is to get this place open," says Morreale.
Angels and demons are waiting.