Farther up the block, another denizen of truly lower downtown helpfully pointed out that we were headed in the wrong direction--Larimer Square was six blocks the other way, she said.
But our inner compasses were fixed on true north: MexiDan's, at the juncture of 21st and Larimer. Owner Dan DeLaTorre and baker Miguel Rodriguez have had this corner staked out for fifteen years, first using the storefront solely as a bakery, then adding more Mexican food to the menu. The prices are incredibly low, and if some of the ingredients are on the lower end as well, they're certainly lively.
DeLaTorre himself is no stranger to heat. A member of the Aurora Fire Department, he uses his fellow firemen as guinea pigs for new recipes. "If they won't eat it, no one will," he says, laughing. But anyone would eat MexiDan's beef-and-bean burrito ($3.25), a large flour tortilla wrapped around ground beef, a few chunks of chuck, and refried beans that were a comfortable balance between squooshy and intact pintos. This foot-long log was buried beneath a quilt of cheddar and Monterey Jack and surrounded by a moat of fiery red chile studded with chopped jalapenos. More beans rode shotgun, along with a pile of plain rice.
Rice and beans also accompanied the three cheese enchiladas in combination #6 ($3). In less exacting restaurants, enchiladas often sit in a casserole dish all day until their presence is requested; here they're made to order. The tender corn tortillas were sprinkled with cheddar, rolled, dipped in red chile, baked and then doused with more of the potent red that obliterated our tastebuds for several minutes.
DeLaTorre says his biggest seller is the tamale, and with good reason. For $6.25, you get a plastic bag full of a dozen steaming corn husks bursting with soft corn-flour filling tinged with chiles (beef broth gives it a better flavor than chicken would). Combination #1 ($2.70) brought two tamales with beans and a side of green chile. MexiDan's green chile is less overwhelming than its red, which allowed the tamales to do the talking.
The menudo ($2.50) here was fine, if a little boring. Fans of this tripe stew may find less tripe (which is okay by me; once you've eaten one entrail, you've eaten them all) and more other stuff than usual: the standard hominy, along with minced onions and minuscule shreds of tomatoes and red chiles. There was a hint of garlic in the broth and much more than a hint of fat; the leftover portion grew a congealed lid in the refrigerator.
The best part of a meal at MexiDan's, though, comes at the close, when you can choose from a display case of colorful desserts. We went with the empanadas (50 cents each), slightly sweetened, doughy cases that housed our choices of pumpkin-pie filling spiced with brown sugar and cinnamon, and a somewhat fake-looking but toothsome pineapple version.
As we munched, we admired a cheerful mural painted by a local student from Brazil that depicts--with some artistic license--Coors Field looming over the street. The painting embodies DeLaTorre's dream: that the 1995 opening of the stadium will help transform his tiny, drab cafeteria into a work of art as beautiful as the Mexican pinatas he sells. "I already plan to expand into the building next door," he says. "And I'm contemplating getting a liquor license. I don't know. It will be great, though, won't it?"
Just as hopeful but considerably less trusting is Tony Marcia, the cook at the 35-year-old M&G Cafe, four blocks farther up Larimer.
"I may have to bring my son in to help," says Marcia, whose mother, Pat Taitan, owns the cafe. "But it looks like they're going to overdo it in this area. I don't know if we can hold all the places they're planning to put in."
Marcia prefers to take things as they come--a mindset that, along with the deep red-and-black diner booths, gives the cafe an old-fashioned feeling. Marcia is, and always has been, M&G's cook; he methodically prepares each dish himself. It's helpful that the food is uncomplicated, if a tad staid. During both of our visits M&G was out of avocado, which our waitress wisely explained was because of the poor quality of the fruits that week, offering substitutes for the avocado items normally included on our combination plates. In one unnamed grouping ($7.65) that included a smothered burrito and chicken taco, we substituted a bean tostada--a boring pile of mostly pureed refried beans and a smattering of shredded lettuce and diced tomatoes atop a fried corn tortilla. The smothered burrito was so smothered with shredded cheddar that the chicken taco had become soldered to it; both were standard mishmashes, with the burrito containing refried beans and small pieces of ground beef, and the taco holding moist, mildly spiced chicken and the requisite lettuce-and-tomato garnish. The taco was certainly the best of the trio.
The M&G combination plate ($7.58) offered a smothered burrito with a green enchilada; another chicken taco stood in for the avocado. The enchilada was a snoozer, with hardly any sauce. And although this burrito was filled with chicharrones (crunchy bits of pork skins), they gave it an interesting texture but not much flavor. The green chile (you get red or green with each dish) tasted like jalapenos in beef gravy.
M&G's menudo ($3.22) was bland and almost all tripe, mostly of the plain (not honeycomb, which is better) variety. Large kernels of hominy swam in the otherwise lifeless tomato broth.
Better was the huevos rancheros ($4.61), although the eggs were not sunny-side-up as requested (runny yolks are a necessity). They sat in a rather mild red chile that was on the tomato-pasty side (too few red chiles) but still agreeable. Refried beans came on the side along with wet, puffy white rice and potatoes (included with each entree) that had gone through the large disk of a food mill and then been cooked in beef fat. The chorizo-and-egg burrito ($3.80) was the standout (but then, I'm addicted to chorizo). The fat burrito was stuffed with scrambled eggs and plenty of sausage spicy with coriander and red chiles. I tried it with the red chile and found the two a good match, although I could have used more heat.
Otherwise, our trek up Larimer was anything but a walk on the mild side.