It was a sad day when restaurateur Bryan Dayton announced the closing of Acorn, the wood-fired restaurant at the Source that had wowed customers for seven years before calling it quits the first week of September. But at the time, Dayton promised a quick turnaround of the space at 3550 Brighton Boulevard for a new project, and he made good on his word: Bellota, Spanish for "acorn," opens this Friday, October 30, with a menu of Mexican cuisine overseen by executive chef Manny Barella.
Bellota's opening team marks somewhat of a reunion for Dayton, Steve Redzikowski and Bill Espiricueta, with Barella as the newest member. Dayton and Redzikowski opened their first restaurant, Oak at Fourteenth, in Boulder in 2011; Espiricueta, who now owns Smok Barbecue (next door in the Source Hotel & Market), also worked there.
"Six or seven years ago, when I was at Oak, Bryan and Steve and I talked about doing a Mexican place," recalls Espiricueta, whose father's side of the family hails from Mexico. "I grew up in Austin, and when I was really young my grandfather had a fruit and vegetable stand in Brownsville. This is something deeply rooted in my history."
And Barella's connection to Mexico is even closer: He was born and raised in Monterrey, and only moved to the U.S. when he was 24, after attending college and law school in Mexico. While in school, he worked various jobs to support himself; one of those jobs was managing a kitchen, and it was there that he realized his true calling was cooking. So he spent some time at restaurants in Toluca (which he equates to Boulder, if Mexico City is Denver) before moving to the U.S., where he began his career in fine dining, learning Italian and Asian cuisine along the way.
Barella's résumé includes two and a half years in Napa, California, after which he moved to Colorado to pursue his dream job — at Frasca Food and Wine. "I applied and they offered me a job, but not the money I wanted," he explains. "So I didn't take it. It was like breaking up with the hottest girl in town."
The chef later returned to Frasca, where he worked for a year before moving on to Uchi. That's where he was working when he got the call from Espiricueta to join the Bellota team. The two began putting together a menu almost immediately after Acorn closed. "We went through testing with his recipes and my recipes, and he won about 90 percent of the time," Espiricueta says of Barella.
But Barella says that he's learned a great deal from Espiricueta, and that the collaboration has not only cemented his outlook on cooking — "honoring the origins of the dish," he explains — but improved every aspect of the menu. As an example, he points to the shatteringly crisp coating on the chiles rellenos made with a tempura batter instead of a more standard soft batter. The rellenos are filled with an otherwise traditional blend of queso Chihuahua, the herb epazote and onion. "I was very insistent on getting fresh epazote, because I can use it in a number of different dishes," the chef adds.
For the rest of the menu, Barella draws from various regions of Mexico, as well as from his own upbringing in the northern state of Nuevo Leon. An appetizer of chips and four salsas includes a creamy salsa verde that, surprisingly, includes no avocado or dairy. The recipe comes from his childhood best friend's mom; they ate so much of the salsa that she eventually taught the boys how to make it themselves. Barella says the secret is to add a little oil while the blender is running so that the salsa emulsifies and gains a silky texture.
There are street-style dishes such as tortas, tacos and esquites, as well as larger plates like pollo en mole negro and two styles of enchiladas. Many of the appetizers and taco fillings are familiar — from queso fundido to carnitas — but there are also a few surprises. An appetizer called sikil pak is a Yucatecan specialty of seasoned pumpkin-seed purée served with flour tortilla chips, while the pastor is made with lobster mushrooms instead of pork. And epazote shows up again in a quesadilla stuffed with requesón (Mexican ricotta which Bellota makes from scratch), onion and jalapeño. Barella says this is typical state fair-style food in Mexico, but on a Denver menu it stands out as unique.
Dayton got his start in the restaurant industry as a bartender, and cocktails are still his passion. "My love of agave spirits came from my first bartending job at Juanita's in Boulder," he says, adding that the style of the drinks menu at his new restaurant is "playful but serious."
There's a classic margarita on tap (and a Paloma, too), while other original concoctions, such as the Oaxacan Marigold and the Mexico City Martini, evoke classics, but with distinct flavors of Mexico. Frozen drinks include a boozy rum-chata that drinks like a liquid version of holiday cookies.
The decision to close Acorn was based on customer needs and the difficulty of maintaining a fine-dining restaurant during the pandemic, Dayton says. "Every day we're trying to figure out what the guest wants," he notes. "People might be going out once a week instead of three times a week. But we're still aiming for what we always have — wholesome, authentic. I never want to use the word 'concept.'"
For Dayton and the rest of the Bellota team, Mexican food is comforting and familiar, even if some of the dishes and ingredients are new. And the menu is designed for easy ordering and takeout. "It's about hospitality and culture, and not our egos," Espiricueta concludes
Bellota opens at 3350 Brighton Boulevard (inside the Source) on Friday, and will be open from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Call 720-542-3721 or visit the restaurant's website for menus, ordering and details.
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