In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard - south to north - within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...
The awning over the entrance to Los Agaves reads "family Mexican restaurant," which may very well be true, depending on who your family is.
On the night that Amy and I stepped out of the frigid air and into the bright but mostly empty dining room, family meant just a scattering of solo guys at the bar hunched over plates -- coats and hats still on -- exchanging comments about the Liga MX soccer match on the TV above the bar. The lone visible employee, in the role of server, busser, and bartender, may have also stood in for Mom or big sister -- with her firm but caring command of the space and its few denizens.
On drives past Los Agaves on Denver Broncos game days, with Sports Authority Field looming directly across the street, I've seen the teeming parking lot full of orange-clad revelers sloshing with beer and green chile, but on a weeknight, the echos of the game are just a memory and the victory cheers only a muted rumble from that soccer game broadcast, atypically, at low volume. A couple of my friends even said it's their regular pre-game hangout, even if they couldn't remember the name of the place.
Such is the fate of a vast majority of Mexican restaurants on Federal Boulevard (and across the city). Popularity is more about location than the quality of food or service; the money trickles in and keeps the place in business for another day, another month. Some joints distinguish themselves with margarita specials or regional Mexican cuisine that draws recent immigrants or longtime residents homesick for the dishes of their abuelitas. But mostly, it's simple food -- combo plates bracketed with beans and rice, burritos buried in the ubiquitous "green" gravy (more often orange or beige) that distinguishes Den-Mex from more southerly analogs, quick-griddled beef or chicken swimming in red sauce or piles of seared peppers and onions.
That's the kind of night it was at Los Agaves. We weren't interested in rare or stunning dishes; hot and fast were the most desired traits. Our order of queso fundido with chorizo came quickly, still sizzling and steaming. Its three lone ingredients -- cheese, sausage, peppers -- were all we needed, along with a hot roll of corn tortillas, to vanquish the chill. There was plenty of it, too: we ran out of tortillas before we got to the bottom of the bowl, giving us the child-like pleasure of spooning molten cheese directly into our mouths, something our adult minds try to tell us will surely kill us slowly. Isn't that what comfort food is about though -- indulging in the pure joy of eating without worrying what it will do to us?
Amy's rustic plate of carnitas, with its blistered rind of fat and daunting pile of onions, may have given a child pause, but not all comfort foods are tied to childhood memories; as adults we understand that the most flavorful and satisfying meats are those braised for hours in their own fat and juices. Los Agaves knows this too and so presents a simply seasoned, toothsome and tender plate of pork, touched with a scant spoonful of green chile but little else to hide the sweet, rich flavor of the meat.
My steak and shrimp dish, which turned out to be little more than fajitas with a few shrimp thrown in, was simply hot food on a cold day. After the queso fundido, I barely even cared what else I ate. The food was good, but not important or memorable or unique. The best I can say is that I ate it all, and then I mopped the plate with scraps of tortilla.
I ordered another beer -- I didn't really want to leave. We watched as a few customers trickled in for to-go orders, as the solo guys at the bar cheered on a rare Toluca victory over perennial Mexico City powerhouse Club América, as the waitress opened beers, cleared plates, rang up orders, and offered cheer to departing diners. Elsewhere along Federal Boulevard, the scene repeated itself; food ordered and eaten beneath the glow of a TV, customers reluctant to venture out into the cold night, a kind of family thrown together by little more than circumstance. This is what it's like most of the time; food is just sustenance and eateries are refuges from the elements or the loneliness and the people you see there merely nod a simple recognition of your existence, or of theirs.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.