From the outside, there's not much to distinguish one Denver taqueria from many of the others around town: a low-key storefront in an out-of-the-way strip mall, a simple sign, maybe some hand-painted lettering on the windows to advertise specials. The list of tacos may not give much hint as to what to expect, either, especially when almost every shop offers the same choices. But at a few spots, lurking among pork, beef and chicken roasted, simmered or grilled in various ways, something a little different — maybe not even in the form of a taco — can be found that captures the essence of a specific town or region in Mexico. That's what I'm looking for this month, and with the help of a couple of friends better acquainted in the foodways of regional Mexico, that's what I found at a south Denver eatery called Taqueria el Trompito, a nondescript joint that looks like any other but offers a dish unique to Mexico's central plateau.
I'd been to El Trompito before, enjoying the rich, beefy cabeza tacos, so I didn't need much convincing to return. Especially not when my guide was the author of the taco-centric food blog Denver on a Spit. He has dedicated considerable time — and calorie consumption — to seeking out Denver's best carne al pastor; he and his wife have traveled extensively in Mexico; she was born and raised in Mexico City and they still visit her family there regularly. The couple suggested meeting at El Trompito's southern outpost on Hampden Avenue (the fifteen-year-old original still resides in far-north Denver) to explore a menu that features at least one dish — mixiote de borrego — that hails from the states of Hidalgo and Mexico, which mostly surrounds the Distrito Federal, where Mexico City resides in much the same way that Maryland borders Washington, D.C.
Mixiote is one of those Spanish words that sounds to English speakers like something it's not — there's nothing really "mixed" about mixiote. The word instead originates in the Nahuatl language — which dates from before the Spanish arrived — and denotes the outer layer of the maguey plant (the same plant that is roasted and fermented to make mezcal), which was peeled away and used to wrap meat and spices for slow cooking. My friends explain that several types of mixiote — pronounced "meeshyoteh" — can be found in the region around Mexico City. "We had that rabbit mixiote right outside of Teotihuacan, the big pyramids outside of Mexico City," the blog writer recalls. "I want to say it was cooked in corn husks."
"I grew up eating this at a Sunday market near our house," his wife adds. "It was rabbit mixiote, and we would always eat it with a big cup of tepache [a fermented-pineapple beverage]. I'm not sure if it is a dish from central Mexico or other parts too, but very common in markets throughout Mexico City."
Rabbit would have been an excellent protein source for pre-Columbian Mexicans, since sheep and cattle arrived after the conquest, but at El Trompito, the meat of preference for mixiote is borrego: lamb. Nor does this kitchen use the membrane of the maguey; the plant has been federally protected for decades, and parchment paper is a more common substitute. El Trompito's kitchen slathers lamb shank in an adobo sauce of red chiles and other seasonings before bundling it aluminum foil and slow-cooking the package until the lamb achieves a sublime tenderness.
A blend of herbs is common in mixiote; this version sports whole bay leaves as a visual cue as well as an aromatic hint of oregano. The fat from the lamb shank mingles with the sauce to form a crimson sheen without seeming greasy or overpowering. Bites of lamb offer a slight resistance to being pulled from the bone, but the meat yields easily to fork and tooth. The entire shank is dressed in a layer of diced nopal cactus, which lends a vegetal texture somewhere between green beans and okra. Soft rice soaks up any of the rich, complex sauce that doesn't find its way onto the accompanying corn tortilla, and some of Denver's best frijoles refritos add an earthy blend of beans and lard to the mix.
El Trompito's salsa bar offers an excellent selection; salsas aren't necessary for the mixiote, but a sprinkling of minced onion and cilantro adds a punch of brightness. I enjoyed a pineapple Chaparritas juice drink with the lamb, but El Trompito also offers a selection of house-made refrescos like tamarindo, jamaica and horchata. My culinary curiosity inevitably leads me to thoughts of what additional flavor the use of actual maguey leaves would add, but this mixiote is satisfying and soulful even with modern shortcuts. Slow-cooked lamb on the bone doused in a well-executed sauce isn't something you stumble across in just any taqueria: This is a dish worth looking for, and one I'm glad someone in Denver is taking the time to make.
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In Ethniche, Mark Antonation explores the cuisine of a different culture, region or country every month, visiting four or five eateries for an overview of how that cuisine fits into the Denver dining scene. His explorations have ranged from a deep dive into Salvadorean pupusas to a cross-section of traditional Chinese New Year specialties to a look into the state of Southern barbecue along the Front Range. For the month of August, he's taking a closer look at hard-to-find regional Mexican dishes.