This taco is big. Chipotle-burrito big.
But it's clearly a taco, not a burrito. The expansive tortilla constraining a heap of pinto beans, cecina (semi-dried slices of beef), nopales, avocado and crumbled queso fresco is made from corn masa, not wheat flour, and it's served folded, not rolled. The thing is so unwieldy it requires a foil wrap on one end — the way Greek gyros are often presented — and two hands to ferry it to your face.
This is the taco cecina, one of several versions of a taco placero — a street-market specialty of Puebla, Mexico — served at Antojitos La Poblanita.
Street food in the Puebla style is not easy to find in Denver. Poblanos (the people of Pueblo, not the chiles) comprise a much larger part of the population in New York City and Chicago than they do in Colorado, and typical dishes from that region, such as tacos placeros and cemitas (a very specific kind of torta), are riding a wave of popularity in those cities. But here in Denver, cemitas crop up only occasionally, and then primarily as specials from gringo chefs imitating the sandwich for a mostly white clientele. Usually the bread is wrong, the traditional ingredients subbed out for duller options, and the price doubled. While one upscale Mexican restaurant, Chile Verde, presents carefully plated chicken, beef and seafood in moles and other sauces typical of Puebla, Chile Verde doesn't do street.
For that you need to seek out Antojitos La Poblanita, owned and operated by Elizabeth Urrieta and her sister, Maria. The siblings hail from Puebla (the "Poblanita" in the restaurant's name is a giveaway), and after running a catering business for most of the past decade in Denver, they opened a restaurant several years ago.
As tricky as it is to track down comida poblana in Denver, finding "Eli" Urrieta's lonchera is even trickier. Don't bother with an online search for a website or social-media pages; you'll only find the wrong address. Yes, La Poblanita was once located at 3896 Morrison Road, but Urrieta moved from there a year ago. Locating the current address, 2970 West Barberry Place, doesn't provide much help, either; it's on a dead-end street off Federal Boulevard that leads to the back of a couple of warehouse-style buildings. But if you do manage to get that far, you'll be close enough to smell the frijoles simmering.
The more accurate, if unofficial, address is actually 830 Federal Boulevard, home of the Federal Flea Market, which is stuck behind one of the city's worst road-construction projects (you can also get there from Barberry). La Poblanita is tucked into the far corner of the flea market, past glass jewelry cases, racks of discounted sportswear and displays of cowboy boots, quinceañera dresses and luchador masks. After you walk in the door, turn right (otherwise you'll find yourself in a labyrinth with no access to the restaurant) and head past the bathrooms and into a sunny yellow dining area with an order window, photos of food on the wall and a few tables and chairs.
Urrieta moved her restaurant from the more visible spot on Morrison Road when the flea market's owner presented the opportunity and pointed out the guaranteed foot traffic from shoppers. The sisters say business is better at this new location and steadily growing, despite La Poblanita's hidden home.
Once you finally find it, peruse the photos on the wall and you'll soon find the taco cecina and its close cousin, the taco Lulu, loaded with steak, potato, avocado, Oaxacan cheese, onions and chiles. The tortillas enshrouding the fillings are handmade and cooked to order, so they're warm and pliable — and a little thicker than smaller corn tortillas.
There's also a more detailed menu at the order counter that includes prices. Don't be put off by the $9 price tag on the tacos; these aren't the dainty street tacos to which you've become accustomed. For a slightly cheaper but no less intimidating option, the taco acorasado (the "battleship" or "ironclad" taco) rings in at $6 and comes with potatoes, milanesa (like chicken-fried steak pounded super-thin) and a hard-boiled egg.
The cemita poblana is the same price as the taco cecina and equally gut-busting. The sandwich is made on a large sesame-seed roll (crustier on the outside than standard burger buns) and filled with a paper-thin milanesa, a slice of ham (nothing fancy here, just lunch meat), salsa verde, a bird's nest of shredded Oaxacan cheese and, most important, a Mexican herb called papalo.
If you've heard people describe the flavor of cilantro as soapy (those people generally refuse to eat it, too), papalo embodies the flavor they're likely describing. It's the very essence of cilantro, magnified to the point that a mere whiff conjures a trip down the cleaning-products aisle at the supermarket. But it's also the most distinctly Pueblan part of the sandwich — many restaurants in the Mexican city boast bouquets of the herb at each table for customers to snip off and add to their food — and its bold pungency is tamed somewhat by the generous helping of cheese. Give the papalo a shot before you reject it entirely (La Poblanita will substitute cilantro); it's a flavor that grows on you — and will at the very least open a window onto the cuisine of Puebla and the nostalgic yearnings driving Urrieta's customers to seek her out.
Other distinctly Pueblan dishes include memelas, thick corn tortillas topped with two kinds of salsa and crumbles of cheese; chiles en nogada, poblano chiles stuffed with picadillo and blanketed in walnut sauce; and plátanos fritos, fried plantains served here as dessert with a sauce similar to sweetened condensed milk. Chiles en nogada are a seasonal dish, often served in observance of Mexican Independence Day (September 16) because the colors mimic the Mexican flag (green poblano chiles, white salsa nogada and a sprinkling of red pomegranate seeds).
More familiar mole poblano, enchiladas verdes, gorditas, huaraches and other Mexican classics are also available, and they're all good. One thing you won't find are the two-bite tacos sold in nearly every other taqueria around town. But if you've come this far, past growling backhoes moving mounds of dirt out on Federal Boulevard, past the flea market hawkers hoping for new customers, you'll experience something unique in Denver.
Go big with La Pobanita's big-time taco.
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