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 owners of Tacos y Salsas recently revamped the location at 1201 South Federal, giving it a new name, some fresh paint and a pared-down menu emphasizing gorditas and caldos -- hearty Mexican soups. The updated taqueria, now called Gorditas Doña Lidia, is more of a spinoff than a clone. Tacos y Salsas is like one of those '80s sitcoms with the cute kids and an ensemble cast that proved to be too big or popular for a single half-hour a week, so one or more of the cast soon moved on to star in their own show -- but the writing, the gags and the timing of the laugh track remained familiar and safe. Doña Lidia has her own show now, but the creators haven't strayed too far from the formula.
Despite the focus on gorditas and caldos (menudo is generally available most nights, ladled up with or without a pig foot), much of the standard Tacos y Salsas atmosphere and menu appear here. The salsa bar offers the same variety of green and red sauces -- tangy, hot and earthy, with various mixtures of chiles, lime, cilantro, and other herbs and spices -- along with whole roasted jalapeños, diced onion, slivered radish, and the trademark spills and crumbs that grace every Tacos y Salsas salsa bar. Missing are some of the combo plates and maybe some seafood dishes. And the list of marinated, grilled and slow-cooked meats available as savory stuffing for the gorditas and tacos might be somewhat abbreviated from the master menu available just down the street.
I'm intentionally hedging here, because like that sitcom spinoff with its numerous guest appearances, cast changes and crossovers with the original show, Doña Lidia's never seems to stick to the same script, or even prepare the same dish in a consistent style. Sometimes the gorditas are the fried, orange-hued shells that seem more akin to light, thin pita bread. Other times, you might be served the traditional, dense, almost leathery masa-based gordita. Sometimes the server will offer you an option, other times not. It's not a big problem, though, because both versions have their charm. The first type of gorditas seems a little Americanized and fast-foodish, but are tender and slightly soaked in fat and make for a decadent -- if not exactly healthful -- wrapper to go with the equally fatty meats nestled within. The second variety is chewy, thick and a touch crumbly, and the deep, rustic flavor of dried corn provides a homey and satisfying base for conveying tangy sauces and spices.
The salsa bar also seems a little incomplete, with gaps in the colorful array of steel pans. I'm never sure whether one of the cooks is about to restock with new and fresh choices, or if the salsa bar is just too big and so always appears spare and unattended. On a good day though, the options available are some of the best in town.
The meats are also a little hit-or-miss. The crisp, tangy pastor has always been there for me, but the carnitas have been absent every time I've tried to order them, so my backup -- and an excellent alternative -- has been the succulent desebrada (shredded beef), although running out of carnitas still could be a hanging offense in many parts of Colorado. I've also been presented with two different versions of chicharrones, one of which was a soggy, flavorless mess that seemed like fried pork rinds soaked in water, while the other was tender, slow braised skin with loads of porky flavor.
Doña Lidia's also emphasizes menudo, posole and chicken, seafood or beef soup -- caldo de res on the menu. It's not much to look at -- a cloudy broth bobbing with rough-cut wedges of carrot, potato and zucchini. Tattered sheets of pale cabbage lurk between fat-streaked chunks of beef from what can only be the lower part of the animal. But the broth and veggies are full of flavor, especially when topped with a mound of pico de gallo from the salsa bar, and the corn on the cob is sweet and juicy.
I'm not sure why Tacos y Salsas would want to open a franchise so close to another one of its locations. But then, I never understood what was so compelling about Mrs. Garrett that would warrant a whole new show. Occasionally Willis and Arnold would pay a visit, though, making it all worthwhile. Maybe it's just a matter of easy parking access for both north- and southbound traffic on Federal. Maybe the original idea was to offer something a little different. Or maybe the change-ups and surprises are an attempt to please fans of Tacos y Salsas while desperately trying to maintain a separate identity.
Whatever the explanation, if you find yourself in southbound traffic on Federal and get the urge for something familiar, the spinoff will satisfy the craving -- as long as you aren't expecting the original cast.
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For more from Federal, read the rest of our A Federal Case series.