Cafe Society

Happy landings: Mesa Verde Grill is the go-to spot at Denver International Airport

Take as much time as you need," said a balding TSA bureaucrat as he patted the shoulder of a woman sitting in front of the X-ray machine, a thick training manual at her side. She squinted intently at the electronic box, scrutinizing each item that passed by for dangerous weaponry and life-threatening bottles of liquid larger than three ounces. Suitcases and purses inched forward at a painfully slow pace, halting on the conveyer belt for long stretches of time, and the growing line stared desperately at the being who controlled our passage to flight and freedom. I stood three inches from the person in front of me, clutching my boots, eyes bulging slightly as the minutes ticked by, barely suppressing the urge to yell "Come ON" as lines on either side of me whizzed through the metal detectors and on their merry way.

Airport security is bad enough — but I have to pick the line manned by a TSA trainee? It was enough to make me want a cigarette, and I don't even smoke.

It may have been the promise of a contact high that first led me to Mesa Verde Grill, the restaurant/smoking lounge located in the center of Concourse A, the lonely occupant of the otherwise-dead mezzanine level. It's a hazy, glass-encased enclave filled with nicotine-deprived travelers sucking enthusiastically at the little white sticks between their lips, relishing each moment remaining before they must tuck their packs of cigarettes away and board their flights, going into forced withdrawal for a few agonizing hours.

Rather than that foggy cave, I sit on the fake patio, a cordoned-off section outside the lounge where fluorescent lights replace sunshine. There's no smoking here, but that's okay: Unlike the jones for a tobacco fix, my addiction is gastronomical. After eating my way through the grim sandwich spots, fast-food outposts and overpriced airport bars that constitute the dining options at Denver International Airport during my time of extensive business travel, happening on this Quiznos-owned Tex-Mex place was like coming up for air — even if that air was full of secondhand smoke.

I don't travel as much anymore, but when I'm hungry at the airport, Mesa Verde is still my go-to spot. And once I finally made it through security hell a few weeks ago, I was starving.

The patio was about three-quarters full that day; smiling, efficient servers were tending to a crowd of mostly solo business travelers. A group of suited men and women were debriefing an engagement over a beer, the leader giving the requisite three compliments before diving into constructive criticism.

I took a minute to silently thank myself for no longer being involved in such terrible affairs and, after perusing a list of local beers and Bloody Mary varieties, ordered a frozen margarita: sweet-and-sour mix injected with cheap Margaritaville tequila and blended over ice, served in a gaudy glass rimmed with coarse salt. It was terrible and hangover-inducing, the ultimate lowbrow drink — and guaranteed to get me totally hammered before a flight if I drank more than two. I guiltily loved every single drop, then ordered a repeat instead of a classier, coin-style version. Pre-flight imbibing may be the only time when it's completely acceptable to get smashed alone.

The edge taken off my irritation, I turned to the plastic-encased menu, a pages-long list filled with Americanized Mexican dishes and barbecue fare along with such basics as burgers, chicken sandwiches and a Cobb salad. Long ago, I made the mistake of ordering a burger: It was a disappointing, tasteless patty of ground beef, cooked medium well though I'd asked for medium rare, with a slab of cheddar congealing on the surface and the lettuce and tomato on top tasting of nothing but chemical vegetable wash. After adding lots of ketchup and mustard and focusing on the smoky bacon, I managed to take down the burger while checking e-mails and putting back a couple of pale ales, and by the time I had to catch my flight, I was feeling pretty good. And then the beers wore off, and I spent a miserable three hours seven miles above the ground wondering if some sort of large boulder had made its way into my lower intestine. There are places in DIA where you can get a burger. Mesa Verde Grill isn't one of them.

Instead, I started with an order of white-corn tortilla chips and the housemade salsa sampler, with three dips — two of them fresh and satisfying. The pico de gallo was a bright blend of onions, diced tomatoes and big leaves of cilantro; the green tomatillo was tangy, with texture added by whole seeds of the pepper. But the third salsa, described as "fire-roasted ranchero," was a hideous paste of unidentifiable vegetables, with a flavor profile that evoked liquid smoke.

On my server's recommendation, I'd also ordered the carnitas — and received a massive pile of seared and braised pork shoulder, the meat tender, succulent and oozing the subtly spicy braising liquid. The chunks of pig were coated with salty melted cheddar and drizzled with a cold white sauce, described as cilantro sour cream but more reminiscent of ranch dressing. The sauce did the trick, though, lending just enough tartness to lighten up the rest of the dish. I tore strips off the flour tortillas and used them to scoop up the savory concoction. When the tortillas were gone, I used the rest of the chips to scrape up the last remnants.

Completely stuffed and happily buzzed, I paid my check just in time to catch my flight, where I slept soundly for the duration.

The Mesa Verde Grill staff works quickly, and even if you've only got an hour before boarding, you should be able to sit down and eat. When I'm starving and running late, I stop by Mesa Verde's to-go window, where the restaurant offers a burrito bar in addition to a full menu of items that can be wrapped up for in-flight consumption.

I took advantage of that window a couple of weeks after my TSA trainee-inspired feast, and got those same juicy carnitas in the tacos — corn tortillas stuffed with meat and topped with a creamy cabbage slaw, sharp onions and a couple of leaves of cilantro. Had I not ordered the tacos to go, I would have asked for hot sauce; eating them on board the plane, I craved the Tapatío that adds a fiery, vinegary kick. Instead I made do with a cup of green chile that I'd ordered as a side — a thick, porky stew that was surprisingly piquant.

Mesa Verde Grill is hardly a destination restaurant, but as I licked the stray shreds of pork off my fingers while the flight attendants demonstrated the safety features of my Boeing 757 aircraft, I felt a little smug — especially when I glanced over at the dry deli sandwich and trail mix that constituted my seatmate's carry-on snack. And as soon as we were airborne, I rang my call button for a beer.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk