2880 Zuni Street
Open 4 to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday and 4 to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday
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What we saw:
Dana Rodriguez is poised to have a big year — which landed her on our list of 22 people to watch in 2022
. A single mother, she moved to Colorado from Mexico in 1998 and was turned down for a job at Casa Bonita because she didn't have enough experience. Now Rodriguez is a three-time James Beard semi-finalist and the co-owner of Work & Class and Super Mega Bien, and is getting ready to reopen Casa Bonita as its executive chef under new owners Trey Parker and Matt Stone.
But first, Rodriguez, known to many as "Loca," is debuting her first solo-owned venture, a Mexico City-inspired eatery called Cantina Loca. The restaurant not only shows off Rodriguez's take on Mexican street food, but is also the perfect place to sample tequila and mezcal, including some from the chef's own recently-launched brand, Doña Loca
Located at the corner of West 29th Avenue and Zuni inside the Espadin residential building, Cantina Loca was designed by Moe Elio of MoeJo Designs
. The centerpiece of the space is a large tree covered in lavender-hued flowers, a whimsical touch made by Fin Art that adds a natural element to the restaurant. That decor feature is supplemented by clay light fixtures made from mezcal cups, mural-covered walls, and a patio that will include an outdoor taco stand.
Tacos are the main draw — in particular, the beef barbacoa ($4.50) made from tender cheek meat, as it would be in Mexico City, Rodriguez says. It's served with a pool of rich consommé on top for a supremely flavorful (albeit messy) eating experience. There's also a lineup of snacks ideal for pairing with cocktails from the bar, like the tequila-based Vincent Man-Gogh ($14) with mango and chile, which is reminiscent of the Vero Mango Mexican lollipops. The menu is rounded out by three sharable larger plates and a trio of desserts, including an ultra-rich and creamy flan.
What surprised us:
While there are plenty of places to get tacos in Denver, this is the first spot where Rodriguez has really been able to share her take on Mexican cuisine, and it's impressive.
The black tempura coating on the fried cactus appetizer and fish taco — a shockingly dark presentation — shows off not just her heritage, but her creativity. The batter includes charcoal made from the burnt vegetable scraps left over from other dishes. The result is not only visually impactful, but lends a depth of flavor to what could otherwise be just another batter.
For the Nopales Fritos ($8), the cactus is cut into strips, tempura-fried and served with a chipotle dipping sauce for a meatier take on an onion ring. Pair these with an order of the Pulpo a la Loca (octopus in a bean stew, $13) for a light dinner.
The tempura fried fish taco at Cantina Loca.
The Pescado Loco ($5) taco looks like a piece of beef at first glance, thanks to the dark hue of the batter. But beneath is tender, flaky white fish perched atop a tangle of pickled veggies, like those you'd find at Mexico City taco stands, Rodriguez notes. They add a brightness and crunch that elevate this taco beyond basic fish.
If this new spot is any indication of what we can expect from Rodriguez at Casa Bonita, the future looks as bright as the cocktail selection waiting at Cantina Loca.