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...
If I were a city planner, I would put a taqueria on virtually every block of each major thoroughfare. Neighbors would come together, traffic would decrease, pedestrians and cyclists would set forth in waves at the merest hint of sunny skies and the beckoning aroma of sizzling pork. Everyone loves tacos and their accompanying menu items: tortas, sopes, enchiladas, burritos; a new era of civic harmony would come to fruition in the warm and comforting embrace of the corn tortilla. Harsh reality sets in, though, even in the most carefully planned visions. People use roads to get to those inconvenient things called jobs so they can make money to buy more tacos. Criminals lead cop cars on high-speed chases through neighborhoods where folks would otherwise be out and about in carefree fashion. Time, or the lack of it, bungles even the most important of quests for the simplest goal of good food within easy walking distance. And so the lanes become clogged, distances become increasingly filled with hazards and distractions, and forays to even the closest taco stand become perilous outings. A place like La Norteña, located in the northern neighborhood of Sunnyside, becomes for southern Denver residents like me only a blur in the side window, glanced at quickly and briefly yearned for before the honks and squeals of angry drivers snap my attention back to the task at hand: getting somewhere else.
Places like La Norteña are one of the main reasons I started writing A Federal Case. It's not that I necessarily think I'll discover something new and wonderful that hordes of Yelpers and a phalanx of determined and talented food writers haven't already descended upon; rather, I'm just curious -- curious about the eateries and dives that cling to existence with the merest trickle of customers, curious about the regional specials that crop up on one menu but not another, curious about the neighbors and the staff and how they all intermingle in a swirl of hospitality and food. So I was excited when I opened the menu inside the vast, airy dining room and saw enfrijoladas -- a dish similar to enchiladas but with tortillas dipped in a thin bean puree instead of a red or green chile sauce before being rolled and adorned with cheese of some sort -- listed under the Antojitos section: definitely a first in my year-plus trip up Federal. Another exotic word -- sincronizadas -- also leapt off the page, a more common offering and something that, once you've deciphered the secret, doesn't do much other than satisfy late-night munchies, being after all only a ham and cheese quesadilla, at least in most Denver restaurant incarnations. In addition to the enfrijoladas, I added a carnitas torta and some tacos dorados -- corn tortillas stuffed with potato, folded, and deep-fried to a golden crisp. When the waiter, a nice kid who shifted effortlessly between Spanish and English for his scattering of tables, delivered my torta, he also informed me that the kitchen was out of the beans to make the enfrijoladas, so I muffled my disappointment, switched to straight-up cheese enchiladas, and asked for the remaining items to-go. I ate my sandwich in the warm mid-day sun coming through the floor-to-ceiling window pane while waiting for the rest of my order and counting the numerous roosters that populated nearly every surface of the place. I lost count at around thirty: figurines, statuettes, wall plaques, prints and paintings, all celebrating the multicolored gallo, with maybe a few hens thrown in for company. That torta was one of the better versions I've had; stripped of the brazen tendency to overblown excess and wacky combinations common in many specialty shops, it offered satisfying chunks of fatty pork swaddled between fresh and yeasty halves of bolillo, with only a smear of guacamole and a handful of bright lettuce to cut through the richness. Carnitas must be cooked just right for use in a sandwich, otherwise the whole thing will disintegrate into a crumbly mess while you tear hopelessly at the meat. La Norteña's kitchen nailed the texture so that each bite of bread and pork remained intact while still providing enough toothsome pleasure to blur the line between Epicurean delight and pure voracious wolfing.
My to-go order, especially the tacos dorados, would have fared better if eaten in-house; the long trip home allowed the crisp tortilla shells to soften under a pile of damp lettuce, and the enchiladas were only passable in a fast-food sense -- tasty but lacking good texture and complexity. I'd order the tacos dorados again, given the chance, since the shells were light, flaky and greaseless, and not at all like the crunchy, hard shells familiar to all from grocery-store taco kits.
I have plenty of cheap choices within a short walk of my house, so a stress-filled drive up forty-something blocks just to revisit the menu at La Norteña isn't likely. The invisible hand that shaped the Federal Boulevard restaurant scene did its job well, though, giving my neighbors to the north enough close and intriguing options that, at least for the purposes of taco hunting, will keep them from venturing too far out into the fray. So I can only apologize as I add to the vehicular chaos and hope that I will find a friendly welcome and a good plate of food as I invade new neighborhoods.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.