The word "fusion," when applied to restaurant cooking, is generally associated with overwrought combinations of French and Asian ingredients and techniques. As a culinary movement, it reached its apex years ago – although international mash-ups are still making their way onto “New American” menus as chefs search for new ways to please increasingly savvy and well-traveled (at least in the virtual world of food blogs and TV shows) diners. But fusion isn’t always a forced marriage of contrived flavor combinations; sometimes it’s a natural evolution of cultural foods that meet and meld through circumstances that have nothing to do with a chef’s whim or vision. At the unassuming Los Pastes on South Parker Road in Aurora, Cornish and Mexican traditions come together in the form of tender and tasty savory pies baked by owner Celina Reyes.
You could travel to the Mexican state of Hidalgo, northeast of Mexico City, and explore the towns of Pachuca or Real de Montes in search of the origins of the pastes – as Cornish pasties are called in Spanish – that Reyes serves for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week. Or you could just step inside the tidy little strip-mall eatery, tucked next to a Dairy Queen, and read a brief history of how the portable Cornish pie found its way to the mountainous Mexican region. A chalkboard above the cash register explains that miners from Cornwall in the United Kingdom were hired to work in mines in Hidalgo in the late nineteenth century – and those miners brought with them their taste for savory handheld pies.
The recipes evolved over the decades, with basic meat-and-potato filling getting a Mexican boost from chiles, beans and other indigenous ingredients. Los Pastes offers a wide range of stuffings, from a nearly Cornish version called the Minero, with ground beef, potato, onion and parsley, to spicier fillings like chicken tinga, mole or the Traditional, made with an earthy blend of black beans, chorizo and chipotle chiles. If you get to Los Pastes early enough, you can also find egg-stuffed breakfast pastes: an Americano with ham and cheese, or a Mexicano with tomato, onion and jalapeño, both of which often sell out well before lunchtime.
Reyes is from Tulancingo, a town 7,000 feet above sea level just east of Pachuca, where, she says, pastes are very common – even at movie theaters and other locations where quick bites are sold. “Pastes are like fast food, but not like burgers that are bad for you,” she explains. “It’s like homemade food served quickly.” The idea of opening Los Pastes here came from her husband, who loved her homemade pastes and thought they would be something new and different from the empanadas at other Mexican and Latin American restaurants in the area.
And the pastes made by Reyes do differ a little from the standard empanadas you find around town: They feature a thin but durable crust with a slight flakiness that yields to steaming fillings that sometimes burst through the confinement of the shell. A dribble of inky sauce might give away the black-bean filling of the Traditional before you ever sink in your fork, and a fork is definitely recommended: Even though these are technically hand pies, they’re hot out of the oven and could be painful to eat without utensils.
The size ($2.50 each) is just right for a two-paste lunch, especially if you order the lunch special, which comes with a bowl of soup and a drink for $9. On weekends that soup might be menudo or a light, corn-infused pozole with al dente hominy mounded in a pale chicken consommé. Unlike some pozoles, Reyes's version is not made with red chile, but she points to a blistering roasted-chile oil on the condiment station as the perfect addition to give the soup an extra kick. She uses chicken instead of the more traditional pork to make her pozole, because then she can keep the price lower for customers, she explains. And besides, the lighter broth seems a more appropriate choice on a hot summer day.
In general, the pastes themselves aren’t spicy. The Minero – Reyes’s favorite – is reminiscent of a mild English pot pie, and the Hawaiano offers the sweet combination of ham, cheese and pineapple, a seemingly Americanized mixture that can be found in traditional paste shops in Hidalgo. But in addition to chile oil, the condiment station includes green and red salsas to add heat and tanginess to the savory pies; the salsa verde that Reyes makes from scratch could stand up to that of almost any taqueria in town. If the salsas are a little spicy for you, liquados made with rice (horchata), hibiscus (Jamaica) or tamarind (tamarindo) will cool the burn, but Los Pastes also offers beer and wine.
Reyes also makes diminutive dessert pastes for a dollar each, stuffed with tempting fillings like cinnamon apple, pineapple or rice pudding with coconut. And if for some unimaginable reason the hot and gratifying pastes, whether sweet or savory, don't appeal to you, the menu includes a couple of salads and Wednesday-only burritos.
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Tradition, creativity and necessity blend seamlessly at Los Pastes, where the pastry-wrapped bites have hopped from England’s southwestern tip to Mexico’s mountainous interior – and now to Denver. At this modest cafe, fusion doesn't translate to ingredients tortured by culinary exhibitionists. It’s just the simple expression of time and terroir. Available ingredients and local tastes have shaped the flavors and fillings along the way, but one thing hasn’t changed: Like her predecessors, Celina Reyes crafts each paste by hand and delivers them with care to her customers.
Keep reading for more photos of Los Pastes by Danielle Lirette.
In Ethniche, Mark Antonation explores the cuisine of a different culture, region or country every month, visiting four or five eateries for an overview of how that cuisine fits into the Denver dining scene. His explorations have ranged from a deep dive into Salvadorean pupusas to a cross-section of traditional Chinese New Year specialties to a look into the state of Southern barbecue along the Front Range. For the month of August, he's taking a closer look at hard-to-find regional Mexican dishes. Previous dishes this month include:
Mixiote at El Tromptio