The Mexican carvings known as alebrijes, despite their folk-art appearance, are a fairly modern creation, the work of artist Pedro Linares, who dreamed about fantastical creatures and then turned his dreams into vibrant sculptures. The dining room at Zocalito, which opens tonight (Friday, December 28) at 998 18th Street downtown, is filled with brightly painted alebrijes — and they're an apt analogy for chef/owner Michael Beary's modern Mexican menu.
Like Linares, Beary builds on a long history of Mexican culture but uses his vision to sculpt something new. The chef explains that his culinary background is based in European technique, but his in-depth exploration of indigenous Mexican ingredients, especially those found in Oaxaca, adds rustic, traditional flavors to a menu that reads as equal parts cantina and American grill.
Beary launched Zocalito in Aspen fifteen years ago, after searching out rare Oaxacan chiles that were in danger of vanishing from the farms of the southern Mexican state. He nurtured relationships with farmers, set up his own import company and now brings in several different kinds of chiles, including red, black and yellow chilhuacles, taviches, chilcostles and pasillas de Oaxaca, many of which can't be found at any other Mexican restaurants in Colorado. He also utilizes hoja santa (an anise-flavored leaf), achiote and gusanitos de maguey (agave worms) to add the distinct character of regional Oaxacan cuisine.
The different chiles lend smoky, earthy and fruity flavors, most evident in the pasilla de Oaxaca relleno, a smoked chile stuffed with cheese and black beans and swathed in yellow chilhuacle mole.
Moles show up in a number of other dishes, including the skirt steak in mole negro topped with molten Oaxacan cheese, and the banana-leaf-wrapped chicken with chilhuacle mole. Beary notes that his mole recipes diverge from those of Oaxacan grandmothers in that he typically uses only one variety of chile for each sauce, and he employs modern techniques to make the recipes more restaurant-friendly (so he's not spending hours each day toasting each ingredient separately and grinding them together in a stone molcajete).
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In addition to more traditional Mexican dishes, you'll also find entrees like kurobuta pork tenderloin, grilled prawns and Colorado red trout, which rely on chiles, tomatillos, nopales and avocados for Mexican influence but would otherwise be at home in a steakhouse or upscale eatery. Those who prefer bar seating will be pleased with a wide selection of Latin American cocktails — including margaritas, caiparinhas and mojitos — that go well with Beary's dry-rubbed wings made with house chile blends: Escondido, Oaxacan, Peruvian and smoky pasilla.
Beary also notes that since Zocalito just opened, he's working on delivering a consistent product from the kitchen but will soon be adding more time- and labor-intensive items (like housemade tortillas) once the restaurant has had time to acclimate to its new location.
Zocalito is now open Monday through Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m., with Sundays closed. Visit the restaurant's website or call 720-923-5965 for more information.