Favorite Restaurant? Kalyn Heffernan Votes for El Toro!

Kalyn Heffernan in action at El Toro.EXPAND
Kalyn Heffernan in action at El Toro.
courtesy Kalyn Heffernan
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“What’s your favorite restaurant?” That’s one of the questions that CPT12’s new season of Street Level Community asked five influential Denver residents, including former mayoral candidate Kalyn Heffernan, who answers that question on the episode that debuts tonight, October 22.

The answer from Slavica Park, director of education and economic opportunity for Focus Points Family Resource Center, wasn’t surprising: She chose Comal Heritage Food Incubator, which she founded three years ago at 3455 Ringsby Court. “It is a place for the Denver community to gather, to get to know the neighbors,” she says. “To take part of the cross-cultural connection, to learn to expand their horizons, to sit, to break bread and become a family.”

Kate Kavanagh, CEO of Western Daughters Butcher Shoppe, chose Tavernetta, Frasca’s sibling that opened two years ago by Union Station at 1889 16th Street. Musician/artist Mo Spkx went for El Chingon, the popular Mexican joint at 4326 Tennyson Street. Activist Regan Byrd, who says she prizes “diversity and innovation,” chose D Bar Denver, the dessert (and more) spot run by Keegan Gerhard and Lisa Bailey at 494 East 19th Avenue. The fifth local celeb to spill the beans for Street Level was Heffernan, and not surprisingly, the Wheelchair Sports Camp frontwoman’s choice for her favorite restaurant is surprising...and so is her presentation.

Fried tacos at Mexico City Lounge.
Fried tacos at Mexico City Lounge.
Danielle Lirette

In the episode, it's 2078, and an aged Heffernan is regaling children with a tour of Denver past, which includes a visit to the “best place to find authentic Mexican food”: the legendary El Toro!  This joint, at 4957 Colorado Boulevard, has already survived for decades, so it definitely has a chance of making it another sixty years.

El Toro has been a favorite with Heffernan’s family since she was a kid, she says; it’s run by a member of a distinguished family that first introduced the fried taco to Denver in the ’60s, at the now-defunct Juarez on Larimer Street. When Willie Garcia moved across the street to the Mexico City Lounge, at 2115 Larimer, he took the tacos with them, and he and his wife, Esther, served them there for decades. Today, Garcia’s former son-in-law and his kids run the Mexico City.

As other family members opened their own spots, they offered their own variations. One was offered by Junie Garcia, who first served them at the long-lost Bamboo Hut, then at Phil's Place, which closed last year and is now the Embassy Tavern.

But perhaps the most classic version of the fried taco, which no less an authority than Gustavo Arellano calls a Denver original, is served at El Toro. Owner Eddie Garcia got his start in the business when he was 21, working with his father at the Juarez in the early ’60s, and an old Mexican man living upstairs taught him how to make fried steak tacos. He'd fry the meat up in chunks, cooking it until it was tender, then put a handful in a tortilla with American cheese, fold the tortilla over and lay it in a tray, then send a tray full of tacos to the cooler overnight. The next day, he’d pull the tacos out of the tray and fry them on the grill in lard, letting one side brown until the cheese melted, then flip the taco and do the same. “That’s the way,” Eddie told me a few years ago.

When Willie Garcia took over Mexico City, Eddie went there, too. He later joined the Marines and traveled to many states, where he ate many tacos. But he never found any like the ones that Willie served at the Juarez, then Mexico City, or like the tacos that Eddie serves at El Toro, which he opened two decades ago.

Putting the cheese in before the taco is fried holds everything together, the way that families across Denver have stuck to their culinary traditions for decades. “Once you see the cheese melt, you know it’s pretty much good to go,” Eddie promises.

And now Heffernan's version of the story is good to go. Tune in tonight, October 22, at 8 p.m., or catch the repeat at 7 p.m. Friday, October 25, on Colorado Public Television.

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