Brunch at Leña Covers a Broad Stretch of Latin America

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It’s often said you eat with your eyes as much as your stomach, and if that’s true, Leña on Broadway will have you salivating from the second you’re seated. Sneak a peak at your neighbor’s mezcal Old Fashioned presented as a botanically muddled masterpiece paired with artfully arranged, brightly colored plates paraded around the dining room and your already tough decision about what to order just got even tougher as you stomach growls in envy with each new entree that passes by. While dinner and happy hour at Leña offer an array of  small plates so that you can taste a bit of everything, brunch requires a bit more monogamy with your dish — and Coloradans aren’t known for being the most faithful brunch bunch. Yes, it truly is complicated.

The 411
Leña serves brunch on weekends from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m. Despite its status as media darling, the Broadway pan-Latin American restaurant has somehow has managed to stay under the radar of Denver’s typical foodie mafia keen on breaking down the door of any new hot spot — at least when it comes to brunch. We were able to walk right in mid-morning on a Sunday, perhaps because it was a holiday weekend, but our server reassured us that there’s usually not much of a wait as the the staff aims to turn tables quickly. Reservations are still highly recommended.

Fair warning though, even half-empty the room is incredibly loud, and one shrill cackle seemed to echo off the tin ceiling tiles above everything else. Besides the constant chatter that gave the room a bit of an electric vibe, it made it exceptionally hard to hear one another across the table. If that wasn’t enough of an auditory jolt, the background music seemed ripped from the Rock of Ages soundtrack; I caught myself losing my train of thought, instinctively humming along to “Here I Go Again on My Own” or “Don’t Stop Believing,” an odd choice for the otherwise hipster vibe (despite my undying love of horribly overplayed '80s and '90s power rock ballads).
Visually, the room — a former antiques store — is impressive and feels large, with plenty of open space to take in, with mish-mash décor of raw materials: rich carved wooden tables, tough, stretched leather benches, feed bags, logs, brick, and rope chandeliers, all offset with delicate touches like mounted vases, oversized mirrors and star lanterns that soften the edges.

The drink menu takes up an entire page and boasts even more options than the food, which should come as no surprise since Leña is owned by Jimmy Callahan, who also runs Prohibition, the Colfax Avenue cocktail haven. While the list is mostly the same as the drinks offered at dinnertime, the Boody Marys and $14 bottomless mimosas ($6 per glass) are strictly for brunch. Mix and match flavors like blood orange, passion fruit and guava to get a taste of Latin America, or stick with the tried and true OJ for a more traditional hair of the dog.
The Food
Upon recommendations from the waiter, we went with the two most popular brunch plates, the huevos Benedict, veggie style, and the camarones y semola (shrimp and grits, a crossover from the dinner menu). Still, we couldn’t resist starting with the rabanada as an appetizer. Rabanada is a Brazilian-style French toast; Leña's version of the dish consists of crispy ciabatta crusted in flaky plantain chips and cocoa power, giving it a nice texture similar to flax seed — so you can try to trick yourself into believing it’s healthy. Presented with Vermont maple syrup, a spicy chile butter, and sliced fruit for color, it’s that sweet, salty, and crunchy combination that make you wonder why Americans have insisted on sticking with the sticky, sugary version for so long.
Next came the Benedict, each element unique — from the grain to the gravy. Instead of a traditional English muffin, this Benny is served on pan de yucca. Lena manages to achieve that perfect texture so many restaurants strive for yet miss the mark — dense enough to hold up to a knife and fork while still offering enough fluffiness to stay moist and light. The veggies were roasted on a wood grill fired with white oak, giving them a solid smoky flavor, almost substantial enough to make me forget we hadn’t ordered the short rib variation. Topped with a roasted fresno Hollandaise that despite a lack of heat, was thick and lemony, it was a well prepared and well presented dish. Despite the menu’s claims of potatoes as a side, what we got as an accompaniment was gallo pinto, a Costa Rican mix of rice and black beans that’s believed to have originated from African slaves. I'm normally not a fan of beans, but I can assure you that none of it went to waste.

The shrimp and grits were also a winner, if denser than most restaurants serve. I inquired what the secret ingredient was and the waiter laughed and said butter. It was easy for me to justify the added fat — an artisan chimichurri butter topped with heirloom spinach, rather than a run-of-the-mill thickener used as an easy way to add richness. They had recommended adding a side of eggs to the dish to up the creaminess, which in hindsight would have added extra protein to offset the butter, but after two other entrees, there was no way we could possibly stuff ourselves further. Leña, if everything on the menu is this good, can you do small plates for brunch too, please?

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