Gorditas don't get nearly as much attention as tacos or burritos at Denver's Mexican restaurants. Maybe that's because Taco Bell ruined gorditas before most of America got to know them as anything other than the bland flatbread wrapped around equally bland fillings. But done right, a gordita can be a real bell-ringer.
True gorditas aren't that different from tortillas, but they're thicker, so that when they're grilled, they puff up just a little and form a pocket, creating space that's then stuffed with beans, meat, cheese or grilled vegetables. The result is something like a Salvadoran pupusa or a Venezuelan arepa. In Mexico, most gorditas are made from corn masa, but wheat-flour gorditas are a specialty of northern Mexico, and that's where the owners of El Sabor De Mi Tierra hail from.
Mariela and Nicolas Montalvo opened El Sabor De Mi Tierra in 2015 as a family business serving specialties from their home state of Durango for breakfast, lunch and dinner.
At lunchtime, the dining room of this cozy spot in a Lakewood strip mall is filled with customers who clearly have discovered how good a true gordita can be, and on busy weekdays the line often stretches out the door with people waiting to get meals to go. Once they reach the counter, they don't hesitate as they order gorditas de harina (made with wheat-flour dough) or maiz (corn masa) bulging with their choice from at least fifteen possible fillings; few even glance at the menu on the wall. And silence reigns as diners tuck into single gorditas (a light meal), a stack of two (a solid lunch) or even three (you might as well head home for a nap) of the saucer-sized discs. At only $3 or $3.50 per gordita, Mi Tierra serves one of the cheapest, most filling repasts in town.
If you want to sample a gordita in its truest Durango form, order the harina version filled with chicharrón. Instead of crispy pork rinds (which would make for an awkward mouthful), these chicharrones have been simmered in mild green sauce until they're soft, with just enough chew to add texture and contrast with the refritos that are an option in all the gorditas. Before you take your first bite, swing by the salsa cart, where you'll find several styles in squeeze bottles plus diced onions and cilantro.
If you're hungry, make your second gordita a guisado rojo or verde. The filling of the guisado rojo con carne is similar to carne adovada: small bites of pork stewed in mild red chile sauce. A fistful of white cheese makes this gordita as stringy and satisfying as a good slice of New York pizza. The guisado verde con carne y papas adds green chiles and potatoes to a sauce that's slightly spicier than the red, but this green still stays well under fire-danger levels.
For novelty, you can't beat the all-purpose chile relleno, which finds its way inside a gordita at Mi Tierra much as it does a burrito at El Taco de Mexico or a crispy wonton wrapper at old-school Den-Mex joints like La Fiesta. There are other meatless options, from nopales (prickly-pear cactus) and rajas con queso (grilled chiles with cheese) to the far less common chile pasado — a dried green chile which is then rehydrated and simmered into a consistency somewhere between sauce and stew with a bitter, roasted flavor. If you're going to tackle a third gordita, chile pasado (minus the beans, just to spare your belly the added stress) is a light-enough option that you might be able to waddle out the door with some dignity intact — but don't even think about a fourth. And good news for vegetarians: Mi Tierra's beans are made without lard, and the masa for the gorditas are also made without fat of any kind.
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The restaurant is proud of its gorditas, calling them the best in town. That's a tough claim to dispute, given their variety and depth of flavor, as well as Mi Tierra's commitment to handmade ingredients. But there's more to explore on the menu, so multiple trips to this strip mall (the eatery occupies a space that was once home to the Steak Out Steakhouse) are in order. Typical taqueria meats — carne asada, barbacoa, shredded beef, carnitas, pastor, buche and lengua — can be ordered in tacos, burritos or quesadillas, and tortas come on the requisite floppy telera roll that somehow stays intact despite the load of ingredients inside. Tamales are also made in-house, and on the weekends, a $6 bowl of menudo hits the spot.
Don't go to El Sabor De Mi Tierra if you're in a hurry. The kitchen is small and staffed with family, and every gordita shell is made to order, so your meal can take a while. Sometimes a guitar-and-accordion combo is playing in the corner; bring a few dollar bills, because the musicians are pretty good and work for tips. The kitchen is at its busiest mid-morning through late afternoon and slows down during dinner, so if you don't want to wait for a table, go after 6 p.m. Then grab a booth and fill a water glass from the earthenware jug (there's one on every table) while you wait for your gordita (or three, if you dare) that just could be the best in town.
El Sabor de Mi Tierra is located at 1395 South Sheridan Boulevard in Lakewood and is open from 8 a.m. to 9 p.m. daily. Call 720-253-9658 or visit the restaurant's website for more information.