Breakfast burritos and green chile still form the base of the food pyramid in Denver's Mexican eateries, but lately a newer style of restaurant has been serving a different kind of cuisine. Elaborate and sometimes wacky seafood presentations coming from Mexico's Pacific coast are being served on many of this city's main thoroughfares, from Federal Boulevard and West Alameda Avenue in southwest Denver, to Havana Street and East Mississippi Avenue in Aurora.
One of the earliest to get in on the game was El Coco Pirata Mariscos & Sushi Restaurante, which opened in 2015 at 3325 West Alameda Avenue. Rather than peddling familiar fried fish tacos or camarones a la diabla, El Coco Pirata wows with newfangled sushi the way it's done in Sinaloa, as well as Sonora and Nayarit. Assertive sauces somewhere between Tapatio and teriyaki squiggle across fried sushi rolls stuffed with chicken, shrimp and steak (yes, all in one roll), or octopus, shrimp, avocado and cream cheese, for example. Tostadas piled high with aguachile or shrimp cocktail serve as starters alongside oysters, to be followed up by bubbling molcajetes brimming with seafood.
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While gringos may just be catching wind of this style of mariscos, Denver's Mexican population is supporting it in full force, to the point that El Coco Pirata has already remodeled its Alameda flagship and just opened up a new Commerce City spot at 5411 Quebec Street in July. There are even El Coco Pirata outposts in in the small town of Evans (a suburb of Greeley), and in Hobbs, New Mexico.
The success of El Coco Pirata, and the spread of mariscos restaurants of this variety in general, can be attributed in part to the festive cantina atmosphere and party-style food. Where else can you get a 32-ounce michelada with skewers of shrimp poking out from the turbid red liquid or oysters on the half shell and slivers of carne seca balanced on the edge of the mug, held in place by a thick rim of chile-tamarind paste? Or how about a tequila cocktail served in a hollowed out coconut and topped with more camarones in their pink shells? The food and drink are melded together into a salty, spicy, tangy barrage of flavors, making a meal a multi-sensory experience of eye-popping presentations, sizzling aromas and finger licking finishes (because there aren't enough napkins in Denver to clean up this kind of hot mess).
The owner of El Coco Pirata is branching out with more cuisine from Culiacán, the capital of Sinaloa. The upcoming Aurora eatery, La Machaca, is scheduled to open this fall at 11809 East Colfax Avenue — the former home of Lupita's — serving more terrestrial fare. The company bills La Machaca as "Mom's homemade food from Culiacán." Both eateries served samples of their offerings at Tacolandia, on August 17; go to westwordtacolandia.com for details.