The last time I stepped inside the bar at 1703 Federal Boulevard, it was 2013 and the place was called Los Agaves. Over the past six years, it has changed names at least two more times, but nothing stuck. The low-slung building with a big patio out front seemed destined to live out its days as a series of divey joints, enjoying occasional surges of business from hordes of orange-clad fans spilling out of Mile High Stadium (which has changed names nearly as many times) across the street.
But the owners of the building, Fidel and Josie Robles, and their sons, Fidel Jr. and Refugio ("Cuco"), weren't ready to give up. When the last tenant went out of business last year, Fidel Jr. and Cuco put together a business plan and lease application and submitted it for approval to their parents, who didn't realize that their two sons had handed in the paperwork until they began reading. Skeptical at first, the parents eventually allowed themselves to be persuaded, and the work of renovating the restaurant space, which the brothers dubbed Cilantro, began.
Fourteen months later, the family opened the doors to Cilantro in June, and the results are proof that the old adage "Don't judge a book by its cover" can be true. Although the exterior is still modest, with a fresh coat of paint with some decorative oak barrels added along the roof line, the inside has undergone a stunning transformation, with new brickwork giving the space a vintage cantina ambience and furnishings brought up from Guadalajara, the family's home town, adding gravitas. Live-edge wooden tables, Mexican art and leather-backed chairs create a vibe that's entirely modern while still paying tribute to the family's roots.
Fidel and Josie Robles have operated several businesses in the area since they moved to Denver in 1988, and their sons have worked alongside them, washing dishes at other restaurants that their parents have operated, pouring concrete for Fidel's construction company, and helping with sales at El Centenario, Josie's jewelry store that's still open after 27 years. Cuco's wife, Daniela, is now the marketing director for Cilantro.
Before starting Cilantro, Fidel Jr. and Cuco sought advice from other friends and family members in the restaurant business, and they're taking a slow-and-steady approach to their place. They hired chef Noe Serrano to head the kitchen, and they're keeping the menu tight in these first few months to make sure that every dish is executed consistently before they add new items. Right now, the food slate comprises five appetizers, eight tacos and a burger, with a few desserts and a burrito that's only available to go. And during this season's Broncos games, they've restricted the menu even further to keep from being overwhelmed by the wave of fans coming in for food and booze. Daniela says that the restaurant and patio were packed on pre-season game days, and that business has been steadily growing for weekday lunches.
While the food menu is small, the booze roster is impressive, with dozens of bottles of tequila and mezcal above the bar and in locked cages, indicating rarities to be broken out for special occasions. There's also a good stock of local beer to wash down your meal.
The tacos are piled high, earning their price tags of $3.85 (for the Vago, a vegan combo of roasted beets, carrots and zucchini) to $5.75 (for El Fish, topped with a beer-battered slab of barrimundi). In between are versions with juicy barbacoa that's benefited from hours of slow cooking, traditional Jalisco-style carnitas, tacos al pastor with grilled pineapple, and beefy carne asada; all arrive on nixtamal corn tortillas, some made with corn from Ute Mountain Farm and others sporting a rusty hue created by the addition of chile powder. There's even El Kimi, a Korean-style taco topped with kimchi and bulgogi sauce.
Cuco notes that while most of the recipes can be traced to Mexico, the components used by the kitchen — proteins, dairy, vegetables — are sourced from local companies. He and his brother "want to bring true authentic food we experienced as kids in Mexico to the neighborhoods which we love and grew up in — Jefferson Park, West Colfax and Sloan's Lake," he explains.
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The family and chef Serrano plan to slowly add more menu items in the coming months, but for now, those tacos, along with queso fundido, nachos, wings and beer-battered calamari, are keeping new customers full and happy.
And there's one more surprise in store: quite possibly the best men's room on Federal Boulevard, which is even more impressive than the tastefully decorated dining room. And that's saying a lot.
Cilantro is located at 1703 Federal Boulevard and open daily from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. (10 p.m. Sunday and Monday). Call 720-696-7939 or visit cilantrodenver.com for more details.