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...
This week found me at the second El Taco Veloz on Federal (or I suppose it could be the first, for anyone eating their way down the boulevard from north to south) in what was a purely accidental stop. My plan was to take friends to another nearby restaurant, which happened to be closed. Taco Veloz was the nearest appealing alternative and one I knew wouldn't disappoint, so we found ourselves circling the parking lot to avoid a tow truck removing an abandoned vehicle, dodging epic potholes, and finally parking in what seemed somewhat like a parking space, considering the lack of painted stripes.
The southern Taco Veloz is just about the closest thing there is to a regular restaurant in my book; I've eaten through most of the menu board in addition to specials posted in cramped handwriting on bright orange or yellow signs taped around the cash- register counter. But this was my first visit to the northern outpost, and I was just a little nervous that it wouldn't live up to my long-winded descriptions of the amazing grilled meats and various corn masa permutations to which I'd become accustomed. That the dining room was almost full and a steady stream of customers entangled the lobby area between the cash register and the salsa bar seemed like a positive sign. More sales means faster inventory turnover, which generally means fresher ingredients. And with a parade of mouths to feed, what could be fresher than a spit of marinated pork loin cooking on a vertical rotisserie, the meat glazed and patinated like an ancient, weathered amphora. El Taco Veloz has long been known for its tacos al pastor, but this location actually stays busy enough to keep the rotisserie grill hot and spinning during prime business hours so that the pork roasts a few millimeters at a time, just enough for the cook to shear off tender slices without the meat drying from overcooking or sitting at room temperature uncooked because of a lack of business. I watched in silent admiration as an employee wielding a saber-sized serrated knife surgically removed layer after layer of pork, juices running down from the fresh cuts to further baste the layers below. It was a thing of beauty, destined to become our lunch. We ordered a variety of items based on that carne al pastor: a plump tortilla buried in a mound of lettuce and sour cream, a lightly crisped sope sided with fresh slices of avocado, and a sizzling heap of alambres Mexicanas -- a cheese-entangled mass of carne al pastor, chorizo and grilled onions and pepper served with a stack of housemade corn tortillas. To that we added an ample gordita stuffed with barbacoa and a couple of sides of frijoles refritos, which we loaded up and took back to my friends' house for a spring picnic on the patio. Keep reading for more on El Taco Veloz. A clear sign of handmade tortilla is a lack of parallel tracks running across the surfaces. While quality tortillas can be purchased that have been made by a machine that rolls, cuts and bakes the masa all in one seamless series of automated steps, hand-pressed and griddled tortillas yield a slightly more toothsome, if rustic, product. The edges are a little less even, the surface always freckled with scorch marks from the hot comal or griddle. But the result is tender, pliable and bursting with the full flavor of field corn. Between the crisped, spice-scented carne al pastor and the hand-made tortillas, El Taco Veloz rises above most of the competition that rely on shortcuts to deliver the same menu items. Add to that a rainbow array of salsas and condiments -- which on this particular occasion included a basin-sized molcajete of sweat-inducing roasted jalapeño salsa studded with chunks of avocado -- and it's hard to imagine a more satisfying mouthful of Mexican food anywhere in town. Because this location of El Taco Veloz was bustling with business, it would have made a fine location to enjoy a meal amidst company, with occasional banter thrown in by the cheery staff, but neither location has a liquor license. Perhaps a bottle or two of Colorado craft lager were just gilding the lily of a near-perfect lunch under sunny skies, but the Funkwerks Saison offered by my friends provided a pleasing balance of spice and peppery finish.
Anything north of I-70 is definitely beyond the boundaries of my neighborhood, but obviously it's someone else's. With a mix of families, Regis University students and solo hoodie-adorned dudes offering their suggestions for their favorite lunchtime bites, El Taco Veloz hits a delicate balance between business and chaos; clatter, conversation and wafts of heat and aroma merge somewhere just between the entrance and the cash register -- a more enjoyable atmosphere than empty silence. If a little clamor is your scene, hang out and relax, but if not, it's never too far in Denver to a brewery for a growler or a liquor store for some Colorado beer. Just bring some self-restraint or those tacos will never make the trip home.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.