Food News

Restaurateur Johnny Ballen Will Open Cochino Taco in Gary Lee's Space

Restaurateur Johnny Ballen Will Open Cochino Taco in Gary Lee's Space
Mark Antonation
Even before Johnny Ballen, former co-owner of the Squeaky Bean, opened Cochino Taco at 3495 South Downing Street in 2016, he knew he wanted to operate more than one location of the fast-casual Mexican eatery. Now that the Englewood taqueria has been going strong for the past two years, with a packed dining room, bar and patio nearly every night of the week, Ballen decided that 2019 would be the year to expand.

After looking into empty restaurant spaces in several Denver neighborhoods, Ballen found out that Gary Lee's Motor Club & Grub, vacant since last fall at 176 South Broadway, was available — and he knew it was the right fit. The reclaimed mechanic's garage (similar to the renovated gas station of the original Cochino) made sense thematically, the  spacious patio would guarantee a great spot for sipping margaritas — and there was also a personal connection.

The Cochino owner says he knew Gary Lee Bomar — the rockabilly founder of Gary Lee's who passed away in 2015 — since at least the late ’80s, when the two were both in their early twenties. So Ballen felt that somehow fate had intervened to bring the vacancy to his attention at just the right time.

click to enlarge You'll soon be able to drown in a Cochino michelada at Broadway and Cedar. - LAURA SHUNK
You'll soon be able to drown in a Cochino michelada at Broadway and Cedar.
Laura Shunk
Those who remember the celebrity shrines Ballen would set up at the Squeaky Bean (Farrah Fawcett, Prince and Roger Ebert were among those honored) won't be surprised to learn that he plans to dedicate space inside the new Cochino to Bomar's memory. The rest of the interior will get the Cochino treatment, with found objects from Ballen's collection of flea-market curios (he calls himself a "non-rehabilitated picker"), a host of porcine figurines and the bold orange-and-red color scheme that has become emblematic of the brand.

Cochino will also be taking over a full cabaret license from Gary Lee's, so Ballen says live music is a possibility. But otherwise, he says to expect the same dedication to mezcal and tequila at the bar, as well as a menu of tacos and other street eats inspired by Mexico City.

Ballen hopes to have Cochino Taco 2.0 open sometime this spring, adding a vibrant destination to a stretch of South Broadway that's already home to Illegal Pete's, Atomic Cowboy, Sobo 151, Adrift and the Skylark Lounge.
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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation