When the T-Wa Inn, the first Vietnamese restaurant in Denver, closed on Federal Boulevard last year, I felt empathy for the owners of the place, who right up to the very end provided warm hospitality and a menu equally fluent in the lively flavors of Southeast Asian ingredients and the elegance of French technique. But after thirty years, the competition on Federal Boulevard proved too much, with numerous pho joints and banh mi cafes, not to mention a slew of other full-service restaurants. Mexican eateries aren't exactly in short supply on this side of town, either, but new tenant Mariscos el Licenciado has its own brand of flashy fare — done Sinaloan style — to banish the ghosts of T-Wa with brash platings and raucous music on what had long been a drowsy corner.
The parking lot at the Mexican seafood house, which opened last November, is now often teeming with big new pickup trucks and family-sized SUVs. On a Saturday evening, the place is packed and there's a logjam at the host station, but servers decked out in white shirts, black vests and bowties (seemingly leftovers from T-Wa's uniform closet) glide through the chaos and seat everyone quickly. On the way to our table, I see a kid who couldn't have been more than ten grappling with a cluster of king crab legs while his parents sip from enormous chile-rimmed glasses filled with a brick-red concoction. Pictures on the restaurant's Facebook page (there's no website yet) show molcajetes used as serving vessels; one is overflowing with so much seafood that that it threatens to scuttle away on spider-like limbs while another features a whole fried fish plunging gill-deep into a mound of bacon-wrapped shrimp.
The atmosphere is riotous and a little frenetic: oompah and accordian from a live band blast through the brick archways between the main dining room and the bar while hawkers with DVDs and costume jewelry thread their way between tables. Once seated, we check the menu to see what those big cups of red liquid could be, and it turns out they're nothing more than micheladas, so we order one each. These are no ordinary micheladas, though: In addition to the standard Clamato, beer, lime juice and seasoning, each drink includes three boiled shrimp, a wedge of lime, a couple of chunks of cucumber, a sticky rim of chile powder and chamoy sauce, as well as a straw wrapped in chewy tamarind candy. It's an assault of tangy, salty and spicy, and a preface of what's to come from the dinner menu.
If Sinaloa is a region familiar to the average American, it's more for drug-cartel headlines than for the coastal state's cuisine. But a few dishes have crept into Mexican restaurants around town that originate in the area that is home to Mazatlan. Aguachile is one of those, cropping up at Torres Mexican Restaurant just down Federal, North County in Lowry, and Dos Santos Taqueria on East 17th Avenue. Aguachile is similar to ceviche in that it "cooks" raw seafood — generally shrimp — in lime juice, but it also usually includes a puree of cucumber, chiles and cilantro, resulting in a bright-green sauce. El Licenciado offers several versions of the dish, including red or green variations; I opt for a tostada de aguachile, which comes as a pile of nearly raw shrimp, chunks of cucumber, threads of red onion and a fat wedge of avocado on top of a toasty, crisp tortilla.
We also split a botana (appetizer) of octopus and shrimp marinated in a thin, brownish sauce that combines more lime juice with something savory and salty. This one comes with tostadas and saltine crackers, and our waitress suggests augmenting it with one of several hot sauces in the table caddie — most of which were made in Sinaloa. And because we already have two kinds of shrimp in front of us, we go for the trifecta by adding camarones Culichi, a dish named after natives of the city of Culiacan, the capital of Sinaloa.
The Culichi sauce is orange-red and creamy, with a distinct note of mayonnaise in the mix; it's not bad, although I'm not sure how closely it hews to more traditional versions. Tradition doesn't seem to be a huge part of El Licenciado's goal, though. Or if there's tradition, it's the kind that has sprung up to appeal to nighttime revelers looking for grin-inducing takes on standard coastal cuisine. Places like El Licenciado have already become fixtures in Los Angeles and Phoenix and are only just now making their way to Denver.
While land-based proteins in familiar forms — carnitas, carne asada, pollo — can also be found on the menu, most of the house specialties feature the same bold, tangy, salty and spicy combination that make the micheladas so addictive. Mariscos el Licenciado started out as a food truck serving crazy seafood cocktails piled into coconut shells and hollowed-out pineapples. The intensity of the ingredients holds up well in the stucco-and-mortar version, bringing an exuberant, if cacophonous, slice of coastal Mexico to South Federal.
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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: