In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard - south to north - within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on my fifth stop.... Sitting in a booth at Café Chihuahua, I feel like a little kid. Not only are the benches large and puffy with stuffed green vinyl, but the table hits me at about mid-chest. I'm almost looking up at the menu as I flip through its expansive selection.
I say it out loud to my wife; "I feel like a little kid."
"Why, because it reminds you of the Mexican restaurants your parents used to take you to?"
See also: - Andy's Kitchen Asian Express is worth a risky left on Federal - At Granny Annie, the Southern cuisine is pretty peachy - At 4G's on Federal, the food is not the topic of conversation - A Federal Case: Eating my way up the boulevard
Well, there's that, too. The kitschy but sparse Spanish colonial décor certainly conjures memories of suburban Dallas Tex-Mex joints that served giant fluffy sopapillas and covered their floors in a thin layer of sawdust. But the architecture is flimsy compared to those villas and ranchos that my memory insists were grander and more substantial than they probably were.
The menu, however, is considerably denser and more expansive. Along with typical combination plates -- found in almost mathematically infinite variations throughout the Southwest -- are offerings of menudo (seven days a week), tacos with lengua or tripa, ceviche tostadas,and multiple takes on shrimp in sauce. But what grabbed my attention and my childlike sense of wonder was the pregnant burrito: a ground beef enchilada entirely encased in a bean burrito, then smothered in green chile.
"Sold!" said the grown man (whose feet dangled slightly above the floor) to the waitress, who then offered an option of heat levels for the green chile. I went with the extra hot, since no oversized booth is going to intimidate me into feeling less than up to the challenge.
Now, you may ask what my intentions were when I ordered that pregnant burrito, what with all those authentic Mexican offerings to tempt me beyond something as boring and Americanized as a sloppy burrito covered in molten yellow cheese. My answer is simple: I'd never had a pregnant burrito before. It was a curious collision of ingredients, yet was simple enough in its constituent parts that it would be a good litmus test for the quality the kitchen is capable of.
And besides, in my explorations of the restaurants that stretch for miles down the Federal Boulevard corridor, my mission is not to seek out authenticity. I may set a goal to figure out exactly what people mean when they call something "authentic," but primarily I'm just looking for good food. And if nobody in Mexico has ever thought to stuff an enchilada inside a burrito before, maybe it's their loss.
Getting back to that massive burrito in all its gravid glory, every aspect of it exceeded my expectations. The extra-hot green chile was fresh and full of the distinct flavors of each of its vegetable components, without being too gloppy or pasty from the misuse of flour or cornstarch. The contents merged to form a savory pudding of well-seasoned beef, beans, corn tortilla and maybe a little red chile sauce. It was a mess for sure, but a tasty and satisfying mess prepared from quality ingredients.
My wife's carnitas de puerco plate was no less satisfying. The shredded pork glistened with its own fat and was tender enough to cut with a fork, yet firm enough to distinguish itself from the damp, mushy mess common in the world of slow-cooked pork. So often, carnitas are little more than lumps of stewed pork or flavorless dry shreds, but this shoulder was clearly given just the right amount of heat, time and fat to yield sublime results.
Between the burritos, stolen bites of carnitas and a sizzling cast iron skillet of queso fundido studded with chorizo, I could barely conceive of the concept of more food. But there at the checkout counter was a glass case filled with fruit-filled empanadas. These were destined to become a late-night snack, with the pineapple and pumpkin versions the stars.
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I can't blame anyone for wanting to seek out a replica of that perfect meal they had while on vacation in Puerto Vallarta, or for wanting to repeat the experience of that first taqueria taco -- in a part of town that they had been told was "sketchy" -- that forever changed their concept of what Mexican food could be. But sometimes the word "authentic" can be a shibboleth, a wink to fellow restaurant hoppers or world travelers who have discovered the holy grail of a specific ethnic cuisine. Sometimes they're right, but sometimes you just have to go with your gut.