Cafe Society

First look: El Chingon opens on Tennyson Street (finally!)

It's been a year since Gloria Nunez and her grandson, David Lopez, closed the original El Chingon, a tiny Mexican restaurant that resided in an Arvada strip mall. And months ago, they signed a lease to open a new El Chingon in the former My Sweet Bakery space on Tennyson Street, inking a deal on the old house with a front porch that was originally slated for a July opening. "We had to go through a lot of hurdles with the city," admits Lopez, who shares the cooking with Nunez, a native of Mexico City. "Transitioning an old house into a full-service restaurant isn't easy, but we finally managed to get open today, and even before we unlocked the doors, there were people waiting for us in the freezing cold," including he says, the first customer they served at the previous location.

See also: First Friday preview at El Chingon Mexican Bistro

In fact, says Lopez, many of the guests who braved today's frigid temps, were customers from the Arvada location, loyalists who love, as much as I do, the tacos, tostadas, burritos, sauces and salsas that had made El Chingon one of my favorite Mexican restaurants in the city.

And now it's even better -- and bigger. Whereas the old El Chingon did a brisk takeout business, the fistful of tables were few and far between, and the decor -- or lack of it -- wasn't particularly noteworthy.

But here, in these quarters, stand hand-crafted, dark-wooded tables; glossy hardwood floors; conversation-piece photographs, shot by a local photographer, depicting Mexico's heritage and an original painting of a rather regal chihuahua; an eye-catching chandelier; and a distressed wooden bar, behind which are shelves of nearly fifty tequilas, not to mention just about every other spirit imaginable, many of them distilled in Colorado.

And there's a cocktail syllabus, too, courtesy of Jesse Migchelbrink, who spent nearly six years with Dave Query's Big Red F restaurant group, mostly behind the bar at Jax, LoDo, a position he left earlier this year to work on this project. "I love Jax, I learned a lot while I was there, and I have a ton of respect for Dave Query, but I wanted to be somewhere smaller, an independent upstart; I wanted to work for the underdog," says Migchelbrink, adding that his cocktail list, which includes six tequilas-based drinks, and one -- the Otro Clava -- made with Hendrick's gin, pineapple, almond tincture, fresh lemon, Aperol and St. Germain, is designed to "support and complement the food." Are there elements of mixology weaved in? A few, but by and large, it's a craft-cocktail list that's definitely approachable and leans toward straightforward Mexican libations.

And the food that's delivered from the kitchen follows the same philosophy: simple, absent of flashy flourishes and devoted to the Mexican food that Lopez grew up eating.

There are six menus total: breakfast, brunch, lunch, happy hour, dinner and late-night, and while the breakfast and lunch boards mirror the same menu that the former El Chingon hustled, just about everything else is new, including the ceviches, served as a trio in v-shaped glasses; carne asada paired with a roasted red pepper and cactus salad; and a bone-in pork chop that's grilled and sauced with chili verde and festooned with a warm salad of jicama, arugula and roasted corn. "We had such a great following at the old location that we didn't want to completely skew what we were doing there, so breakfast and lunch are the same, and there are recipes that span sixty years that I haven't touched, but we added a lot of new things for our dinner menu, and we're concentrating on using local and organic products," he says, citing Tender Belly, Denver Bacon Company, Aspen Ridge Farms, Red Bird Farms and Little Man Ice Cream as examples of his commitment to keep it local.

Lopez also hired a local, Jamie Secrest, a former pastry chef at TAG, to oversee the dessert program at El Chingon. "I left TAG to start my own dessert business, met David at an event, where he tried my pineapple upside down cake, and he offered me a full-time job," says Secrest, who describes the vibe at El Chingon as "fucking awesome," an apt description.

And for Lopez, El Chingon also signifies community. "Our family grew up in this neighborhood, and the sign above our door, 'mi casa, su casa,' is what we want this restaurant to be. Our home is your home," says Lopez.

Here's a peek at the space, the food and the cocktails.

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Lori Midson
Contact: Lori Midson