El Borrego Negro was a first in Denver, offering barbacoa from a whole sheep cooked overnight in a brick-lined underground oven called an hoyo. Many of his dishes at X'Tabai are also tough to find in other Mexican restaurants around the city. And now Avila is bringing another first to Denver, this time with a full brick-and-mortar restaurant. The chef is currently in the process of taking over the former home of Butcher's Bistro (which was chef Jeff Osaka's Twelve before that), at 2233 Larimer Street, with a goal of opening La Diabla Pozoleria y Mezcaleria by mid-March.
But Avila's main inspiration comes from the pozolerias of Mexico City, where he grew up. "There's no place in Denver that specializes in the caldos [soups] of Mexico," the chef points out. "In Mexico City there's a place called Los Tolucos that makes pozole from Guerrero...and they have a carnitas station at the entrance."
And like Los Tolucos, La Diabla will serve several styles of pozole, "like the Mexican flag," Avila explains. So there will be verde and blanco pozoles, plus red pozole that he says is more typical of northern Mexico (and which is more common in Denver restaurants). He's also planning on serving tacos guisados, which generally offer several types of stewed fillings along with rice and a hard-boiled egg. The carnitas counter at the front of the restaurant (where Butcher's Bistro had a deli case with fresh sausages and meat cuts) will let customers choose from their favorite parts of the pig for tacos to grab on the go. Another pork specialty will be chamorros, slow-cooked pork hock that you can slide off the bone with a tortilla.
Avila is already purchasing whole dried corn from Masienda, a company that specializes in importing heirloom grains and beans from Mexico, for his other project, so he'll be nixtamalizing Masienda corn for his pozoles and grinding it for his tortillas. The nixtamalization process enhances the corn's nutritional value and flavor, but very few restaurants do it themselves because it's a time-consuming undertaking. Left whole, the corn (called hominy in English) is one of the main ingredients in pozole; ground, it becomes masa for making tortillas, tamales and other dishes.
The chef says the kitchen is in good shape, but he's adding more stoves to accommodate large stock pots and is renovating the bar and dining room with new paint and a mural that will depict the history of pozole and mezcal.
A few blocks away, a Chicago-based restaurant group is building a cantina-style bar and restaurant called Federales, which, judging by its website, looks to target RiNo's nightlife scene, but not necessarily its Latino community. But Avila isn't worried that La Diabla will be overshadowed; he knows that fans of good Mexican food will find him — after all, he was selling traditional tacos at Machete in Cherry Creek a decade ago. "Mexicans like good food, and once they find it, they'll drive anywhere to get it," he says, adding that customers have come all the way from Fort Collins and Longmont to eat his barbacoa at El Borrego Negro.
And surely they'll come for the pozole, too.