Cafe Society

La Villa Real serves traditional northern Mexican food from its lonchera

They infiltrated the city this year: a gleaming fleet of trucks, sporting vibrant color schemes and elaborate paint jobs, hawking everything from biscuits to banh mi. A hip generation was behind the wheel — restaurateurs who wanted to reach a broader audience, cash-strapped chefs who needed an inexpensive kitchen, ambitious entrepreneurs with plans for expansion. They snapped up trucks and trailers all over town as the street-food trend already popular in other parts of the country suddenly rolled into Denver.

But the loncheras were here first.

Maria Garcia and Marco Angeles met when they were both working in a Denver restaurant, a few years after Garcia moved to the United States from Durango, Mexico, 26 years ago. The two married and started a family, and soon decided that rather than work in restaurants, they'd like to own one. Restaurants don't come cheap, though, so twelve years ago, Garcia and Angeles bought a food truck. They called it La Villa Real, and used it to deliver traditional northern Mexican snacks and meals to hungry Denver diners.

Last year the couple played a very real part in giving this city's new food-truck scene its start. When Josh Wolkon and Brandon Biederman went up and down Federal Boulevard, asking street-food crews where they might find a mobile kitchen, Garcia and Angeles sold them a couple of tacos — and an old Mack that was sitting in their back yard, which became the Steuben's Food Truck ("Meals on Wheels," June 3). "I was attracted to the classic feel of a lonchera," says Wolkon. "We needed something that ran on diesel for the conversion, and this one was in Denver. That truck was exactly what we were looking for."

"It was too big," Garcia says with a shrug. "No one could drive it."

Not that Garcia and Angeles do much driving. As the new fleet of colorful gourmet street-food purveyors zipped around farmers' markets and downtown parking lots, using the trucks as marketing tools and catering vehicles as well as mobile kitchens, the two La Villa Real loncheras stuck to their traditional locations. They'd roll up in the morning with a day's stock of meats, cheeses and tortillas and stay there until night, when they'd head back to the commissary — which they happen to now share with Pinche Tacos owner Kevin Morrison — for storage and restocking. The original truck is based at Federal and Fourth Avenue, where it's been for a dozen years. The second truck, which the couple bought six years ago, continues to park at Alameda and Raritan, the same spot where its previous owner had been stationed for six years.

But the road has not always been smooth. A decade ago, Denver changed the rules that regulate mobile vending in this city, and Garcia and Angeles had to find their way through the same restrictions that the new food trucks have had to maneuver this year. Suddenly the trucks could no longer park wherever they pleased. After complaints from neighbors about noise, criminal activity and trash, the city determined that all food-hawking carts, trucks and trailers had to park on private property — and could park there for only four hours before they had to move.

The new trucks have dealt with that rule by working events, teaming up with brick-and-mortar establishments that often let them park on private property for free for a few hours, and leasing land when they need to, for parties such as the Justice League of Street Food events. But then, they have the star power — and the social networking system — to help customers find them.

The old guard doesn't have the same advertising focus. Besides, loncheras have always operated more like permanent structures, turning up in the same spots day after day. To do that after the city's rules changed, many of them found strategically located lots that straddled several properties. That way, they could move just a few feet when the four-hour time limit was up. But that also meant they might be paying rent to multiple property owners — in the case of Garcia and Angeles, three different landlords for each of their trucks. The extra expense is worth it, though, because they've amassed a loyal following at these regular locations, one that doesn't rely on Twitter or Facebook. "We've had some of our customers for twelve years," says Garcia. "And some of them come back two or three times a day."

That was evident when I stopped by La Villa Real's Alameda and Raritan location two weeks ago, on a day when the steel-colored sky hung thick with cold over a street studded with wire-fenced used-car lots, dilapidated strip malls and construction projects. Despite the chill, the gleaming white truck, stenciled with green lettering in Spanish, attracted a steady stream of people who shouted their orders through a window over the noise of a sizzling grill, then retreated to their cars to wait for lunch.

"We mostly have people who live around here and want food from Mexico but don't want to cook it at home," says Garcia. "And a burrito's only three dollars. So they can come back many times a day." Because of those regulars, they're not interested in taking their business on the road, as the new trucks do. "We've catered parties," she adds. "But it's better for us to stay here."

Running two kitchens takes a fairly large crew, and the couple's five kids regularly pitch in and help. Abilene Angeles, the only daughter, drives down regularly from Colorado State University, where she's a freshman majoring in restaurant and resort management. Someday she'd like to use that degree to help expand the family business, possibly by outfitting more vehicles. In the meantime, Garcia has expansion plans, too: She'd like to erect a brick-and-mortar restaurant on one of the lots where the family now parks a truck. "It would be nice for the winter," she says. "The truck isn't insulated against the cold, and people have nowhere to sit and eat, because they can't stand outside."

She and her husband have owned a restaurant before; they had a Mexican eatery at 66th and Wadsworth. But the rent was too high to keep it going, so they sold the place in order to focus on their trucks. If they open another permanent spot, she says, they'd want to build it themselves and maintain the ownership.

But that's a long way down the road. For now, Garcia is committed to the loncheras, which cook up many of the recipes she learned from her mother, who owned a restaurant in Mexico for close to four decades. She takes great pride in making good food, and that means using quality ingredients that are prepped daily and cooked to order. Pork and beef options are plentiful on the menu, which is the same for both trucks — and printed in Spanish. One customer loved her lunch until she found out that she was eating tongue, Garcia remembers. La Villa Real also offers tripe and buche, pork stomach that's boiled until tender and finished on the grill. The offal options are particularly popular with fellow natives of Mexico.

You can get the meat in tacos: corn tortillas piled with spicy strips of carne asada or bits of slightly sweet grilled tripe or shredded beef, drooling juice, with fiery roasted chiles and sweet grilled onions making their way into the mix, and chunks of avocado and fresh cilantro adding a fresh bite on top. Hungry workers are partial to the fat burritos, bursting with gooey beans and meat, drizzled with sour cream and salsa, the entire package wrapped tightly in foil for easy consumption.

But the specialty at La Villa Real is the gordita. To make it, Garcia and company take a couple of flat corn rounds that are slightly thicker than tortillas and use them to sandwich a filling of your choice of savory grilled meat, spicy peppers and melted white cheddar. Then they put the whole thing on the griddle until a golden-brown crust forms around the edges. You top it with one of the homemade salsas, set out with a ladle for self-service. A mild blend made with avocado adds a cool, crisp bite to the greasy meat and cheese; a scorching red version singes the tastebuds and makes you sweat, requiring a cold bottle of Coke to put out the fire.

Those gorditas — as gourmet as anything coming off of any food truck, new or old — remind Garcia of home. And no matter how good its paint job or how tricked out the mobile kitchen is, there's not another truck out there that could make anything as authentically good.

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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