Eating your way through the menu of Latin American street food at Chocklo isn’t just a feast filled with empanadas, arepas, tortas and fried plantains; it’s also an opportunity to experience the travels and personal favorites of chef/owner Alfred Rojas, who just opened his restaurant on April 28 in Centennial.
The name Chocklo is new to Denver, but you may have already eaten some of Rojas’s cooking at his food truck, Freddy’s Cuisine, at Civic Center Eats, in the Denver Tech Center or on the Anschutz Medical Campus, all places that Freddy’s has set up over the past five years.
“When I was younger, one of my hobbies was traveling,” Rojas explains. “My passion was the food and the culture and the countries.”
Rojas was born in Bogotá, Colombia, and grew up in the small town of Villavicencia. Colombian cuisine has several distinct regional variations, since the country encompasses mountains and rainforests, Pacific coastline and Caribbean shores. Colombia’s eastern border is shared with Venezuela, so Rojas grew up eating the arepas and corn-flour empanadas that are common to both countries, as well as such Colombian dishes as sancocho (a soup) and bandeja paisa, a hearty pile of beans, rice, eggs, sausage, plantains and often other meats.
During his travels to Mexico, Peru, Argentina and Ecuador, Rojas became fond of the street food in each country: tacos, tortas, and French fries heaped with all manner of local ingredients (you’ll find them under the name “salchipapas” at Chocklo). “When I travel, I go to restaurants, but where I really enjoy food is on the plazas, where food trucks come down from smaller towns,” the chef explains.
His new restaurant takes its name from a South American street-food specialty, choclo, a variety of corn served on the cob or sliced off and mixed with other ingredients. Choclo has been grown in the Andes since before the arrival of Europeans, and it appears on the restaurant’s menu in a dish called Chocklo desgranado, a mélange of grilled corn, Oaxaca cheese, meat (carnitas or chorizo, for example), quail eggs and two sauces atop a tangle of shoestring fries.
While Rojas learned about street food during his Colombian upbringing and his travels, he mastered cooking in Denver, where he graduated from Johnson & Wales University. He also has a degree in business management and earned another in restaurant management from Metropolitan State University of Denver while operating his food truck. As part of his culinary education, Rojas completed an internship in Miami, where he was exposed to Caribbean cuisine from Cuba, Puerto Rico and other islands, and he incorporated some of what he learned there into his Chocklo menu, which is significantly broader than that of Freddy’s.
The roster at Chocklo is divided into arepas stuffed with various meats (carne al pastor, beef tenderloin, chicken salad or shredded beef, to name a few); empanadas in both Argentinian (with wheat-flour shells) and Colombian (made with corn) style; tortas and sandwiches from several countries, including an Argentinian choripan made with grilled sausage, cheese and chimichurri; tacos topped with chicharrones, barbacoa, chicken tinga and other familiar Mexican favorites; and típicos — larger platters and bowls that represent classic dishes from many regions. There are also side dishes like yuca fries, guacamole and morcilla sausage, and such desserts as flan, Key lime pie and passion fruit mousse. Rojas says he plans to add seasonal specialties and would also like to create a breakfast menu, since customers — many of them commuters on their way to Denver Tech Center offices — have already been asking for early-morning eats.
Both Peruvian and Colombian food have started to become more common in Denver, especially from food trucks, but Chocklo brings many disparate influences together under one roof, making it unique among the city’s eateries — at least at a price point that’s in line with the Centennial lunch crowd’s expectations. “When I first moved to Colorado, products were hard to find, but lately we’ve been getting more products from Latin America — especially in the last five to eight years,” Rojas notes. “Culturally, Denver is growing up a lot.”
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Customers are more sophisticated than ever before because of travel, cooking shows and YouTube food videos, he points out, so more people know what they’re ordering and recognize quality when they taste it. They’re also looking for alternatives to meet specific dietary needs, so Rojas makes sure his guests know that arepas and corn empanadas are always gluten-free. There’s also a gluten-free sandwich called a patacon that’s made with fried plantain patties instead of bread; he serves it with the plantain cut lengthwise to form a long, narrow sandwich rather than the small round ones he makes for the food truck.
While Chocklo has only been open for a dozen days, its food has already attracted the attention of Telemundo, and Rojas will be filming a short cooking segment for the network. He’ll also continue to operate Freddy’s; he was at the season opener of Civic Center Eats on May 1 while his wife ran the restaurant.
Lunchtime Tuesday through Sunday is prime time for hitting Chocklo, but Rojas says he plans to stay open through dinner, too, to take advantage of customers looking for takeout options on their way home from work. After all, arepas, empanadas, tortas and tacos travel well on short commutes in the southern suburbs — just as the foods traveled well on the long trip from their home countries to Centennial, where they’re adding a splash of Latin American flair.
Chocklo is located at 6830 South Yosemite Street, Centennial. A website is in the works, but for now call 720-242-6854 or visit the restaurant's Facebook page for more details. Chocklo is closed on Mondays and opens from 11 a.m. to at least 3 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday.