Beyond Burritos: Cuisine in Denver's Higher-End Mexican Restaurants

Ever since returning from a nine-day trip to Oaxaca, Mexico, last fall, I’ve been contemplating local Mexican restaurants with a different attitude. I used to become annoyed when a restaurateur announced the opening of an “upscale” Mexican eatery; the notion seemed to convey a sense that American chefs and restaurant owners somehow knew how to “improve” Mexican food. So I generally steered clear, heading instead for my favorite taquerias, cantinas and seafood shacks. But in so doing, I overlooked a growing body of evidence that good service, modern decor and high-quality ingredients at Denver’s Mexican restaurants are not necessarily an indication that the food on their menus has been Americanized. Perhaps ten or fifteen years ago, a standard ground-beef burrito dressed up with sour-cream squiggles would have been passed off to downtown tourists willing to drop extra cash, but today regional Mexican cuisine — neither dumbed down nor over-chef’d — can be found at a growing number of places around town. And, yes, some of it is even “upscale.”

A reader recently wrote that “Denver only has Tex Mex.” That comment is patently false, but it got me thinking about what people expect when they look at a menu in any Mexican restaurant. Tex-Mex is a distinct style that evolved to match the climate, culture and migration of people into the region that is now Texas. Spanish and Mexican influences shaped eating habits in the area long before big chain restaurants began pushing frozen margaritas and combo platters swimming in molten yellow cheese.

Like Texas, Colorado is home to many Mexican immigrants as well as people whose families have been here since before the state’s borders were drawn. Colorado-style Mexican cooking is distinct from Tex-Mex, but it’s no less traditional or time-honored. To claim that these styles are inherently inferior simply because they have evolved north of an arbitrary geopolitical border is to dismiss the work of the families who have been cooking this way for generations. That said, green chile, fried tacos and crunchy chiles rellenos bundled up in wonton wrappers, delicious as they can be, are examples of a very narrow band of Mexican cuisine in Denver. It’s like diner fare: quick, cheap and satisfying in a homey way, without fuss, fancy plating or meticulously sourced ingredients. But it’s not food that anyone in Mexico would recognize as authentic.

Of course, as a country, Mexico is vast and varied; ingredients and dishes change from town to town and from family to family, making notions of “authenticity” difficult to pin down. So if we crave a specific dish from a town or city we visited on a trip to Mexico (or even a trip to another state), we need to keep an open mind as we search out variations in Denver restaurants.

Using that trip to Oaxaca as a starting point, I began a search for tlayudas, one of the southern Mexican city’s iconic dishes. A tlayuda (sometimes spelled clayuda) is a large corn tortilla baked on a clay or steel comal (a flat or slightly concave circular griddle) and topped with black beans, cheese and an assortment of meats and vegetables. Most of the tlayudas in Oaxaca are enormous, similar in diameter to a Neapolitan pizza, and served either open-faced or folded in half. The tlayuda, like that Neapolitan pie, benefits from pockmarks of char from its time on the blistering-hot comal. Its other distinguishing feature is fresh ingredients; Oaxaca is one of Mexico’s agricultural treasures, where traditional farming methods and crops have yet to be overtaken by modern industrial practices. Restaurants stock their kitchens from several local markets, where cheese, chorizo and other ingredients are made locally and arrive daily.
Palenque Mezcaleria, the secret mezcal bar attached to the back of Adelitas Cocina y Cantina at East Louisiana Avenue and Broadway, recently became my go-to bar for tlayudas. If I were overly concerned with notions of authenticity, I might have dismissed Palenque’s version after the first bite — after all, it wasn’t much like the smoky, crackly monstrosity I’d encountered at a late-night street kitchen well off the main zocalo in Oaxaca. Instead, these are smaller and have a glossy appearance, as if fried. The tortilla, made from blue corn, is airy and flaky, almost pastry-like. But chef/co-owner Silvia Alaya isn’t diverging significantly from tradition; she’s simply presenting a tlayuda — and a delicious one, at that — that’s more in keeping with Palenque’s menu of bar bites that bring out the best in the mezcal, the real star here. They’re smaller and lighter, perhaps, but there’s no shortage of good flavor.

In the Ballpark neighborhood, the newly opened Latigo offers a tlayuda that more closely resembles those I fell for in Oaxaca. Chef/owner Ignacio Leon (who also runs Paxia and Los Carboncitos with his brothers) hails from Mexico City, but his menu ranges from Veracruz to Oaxaca, as well as other culinary centers of his home country. Latigo’s tlayuda starts with a Frisbee-sized tortilla, paper-thin and baked to a crisp, with a distinct golden-brown patina, if lacking the telltale char. The protein here is tender, grilled arrachera (marinated skirt steak), backed by refried black beans, purple cabbage, cherry-tomato halves and a scoop of guacamole. A spiral of crema attempts to elevate the tlayuda above street-food simplicity, but the flavors keep the dish grounded. The only thing missing is the smell of smoke from the wood-fired comals still common in Oaxaca, even in its finer restaurants.
Oaxaca isn’t the only region that’s gaining traction in Denver’s Mexican restaurants. At El Chingon, executive chef David Lopez — also a Mexico City native — celebrates the traditions of his home city but ranges into other territory, too. Mexico City is the heart of the country’s “alta cocina” (or “high cuisine”) movement, and touches of that can be seen on El Chingon’s menu. At lunch you can stop in for tacos, but at dinnertime the menu switches over to something less typical. Two seasonal soups exemplify Lopez’s dedication to traditional flavors, fresh ingredients and modern flair. A crab bisque comes divided into two serving vessels: a shallow bowl holding a generous portion of lump crab meat, and a small pitcher of creamy, adobe-hued soup. The bisque is poured over the crab, creating an oceany, steamy cloud of aroma that rises from the bowl. The bisque itself is fiery with chiles, but the flavor of the crab is not lost. In contrast, a chilled puréed-pea soup is bright and refreshing, with delicate hints of herbs beneath the bold, garden-fresh taste of peas. Soups like this are common in cafes throughout Mexico and generally feature the best of what’s in season locally. In Taxco, a small silver-mining town south of Mexico City, I ate a soup bobbing with delicate squash blossoms and tinged blue-gray with huitlacoche (a corn fungus known for its distinct mushroomy flavor), and in Oaxaca I helped make a soup of whole squash plants (leaves, stems and all), sweet corn and green beans, a symbiotic trio grown together to maximize the harvest of each ingredient. Street food and antojitos from tacos to tamales to burritos have their place in the Mexican culinary canon, especially here in Denver, where long stretches of the city’s streets are dotted with inexpensive and tempting vendors. But Mexico’s culinary treasures are too numerous for us to become entrenched in one notion of what “authentic” Mexican food should be. 
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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation