I’m aware of the sacrilege. I can see the horrified stares that Napoletani would rain upon me for so thoroughly disrespecting their culinary tradition. But I’m also aware that such freewheeling is part of our DNA. After all, isn’t it the American way to experiment and appropriate, borrowing a little of this and a little of that until we end up with something new? And Mas Kaos, with its menu of guacamole and garlic bread, pozole and pesto, tacos and tiramisu, does feel new.
Does it matter that the conceit itself isn’t groundbreaking? Taco Bell and Pizza Hut Express have been offering similar one-stop eating for years, as have niche restaurants like Seoul Korean BBQ & Sushi and Cowbobas, the Vietnamese boba-dispensing cowboy steakhouse. Does it matter that both sides of this culinary equation, tacos and pizza, are already on offer separately at owner Patrick Mangold-White’s Uno Mas Taqueria y Cantina and Kaos Pizzeria on South Pearl Street, or that the food at this new spot in the Berkeley neighborhood is more Americanized than authentic? Not at all. What matters is that when you eat tacos followed by pizza, or pizza followed by tacos, in a converted warehouse that exudes industrial chic, you feel a rush of giddy liberation, as if you’re getting away with something that your mom — not to mention your cultural mores — told you not to do. Or maybe that’s the tequila talking.
In any event, if you really cared about those mores, you wouldn’t be here. You’d be someplace that fries its own tortilla chips and makes its own chocolate cake. You’d be someplace where lengua tacos are the norm, not the dare, where pizzas come out with more chew and less cracker-crispness. Instead, you settle in at Mas Kaos with an order of guacamole riddled with onions, serranos and lime and think about what really counts, like whether the noise level is high enough to mask your friend’s kid’s meltdown (it is) and whether your server will come back in time for another Paloma before happy hour ends (maybe, maybe not).
At some point — you decide when, given the laid-back nature of the place — it’s time for decisions that hardly feel like decisions at all, since all of your choices involve some form of comfort food. If you’re really hungry, order tacos followed by pizza, making sure to specify that you want the tacos first. (If you don’t, they might arrive at the same time as the pizza, which will cool before you get to it.) But if you’ve started the night with guacamole for the table or chips and a trio of salsas, or both, just stick with the tacos, which are where the kitchen plays favorites — even though the head chef will tell you that both sides are held equally dear.
The tacos are pretty little things, dotted with a rainbow of pink pickled onions, yellow pineapple, green cilantro, white cotija. Backing up their style with substance, they offer contrasts in smoke, earthiness, sweetness and acid in every amply filled bite. Carne asada, with skirt steak redolent of garlic and lime, is splendid. So is anything involving the smoker out front: chicken, stained orange from guajillo salsa and marinated in beer; carnitas with pulled pork shoulder that’s regrettably drippy, not crispy, but is wisely versed in both citrus and smoke; and barbacoa, topped with roasted-tomatillo salsa that tangos with the meat’s boldness like chimichurri over Argentine steak. The exception: large slices of pork belly, which dry to toughness in the smoker. Note that tacos are often plated together and placed in the center of the table; this can make it tough to figure out which is which, since many look similar under their salsas and such, and servers have a way of disappearing without explanation.
If this were Uno Mas or another taqueria, you’d order more tacos if you were still hungry, or maybe some flan. But this is Mas Kaos, so you’ve probably ordered a dish from the Italian side — perhaps against your better judgment. When you get right down to it, does spaghetti Bolognese or macaroni and cheese (even a very good one, with Fontina, white cheddar and smoked chicken) sound good after tacos and their requisite tequila? But there you are anyway, reaching for a slice of pizza for the same reason that George Leigh Mallory wanted to climb Everest: because it’s there.
As at the original Kaos, pizzas start with authentic Neapolitan ingredients like San Marzano tomatoes and finely milled Caputo 00 flour. They finish in a wood-fired oven imported from Italy, which roars at 850 degrees and brings dough to char in a matter of minutes. But what happens in between is as freewheeling as the restaurant’s Ital-Mex concept, with everything from jalapeños to broccoli to cream cheese as possible toppings.
On authentic Neapolitan pies, there should be little standing in the way of the doughy pureness of the crust, the sweetness of the tomatoes, the milkiness of the mozzarella. But these are not Naples-style pizzas, despite the kitchen’s claims to the contrary, not with toppings like these, not with such shatter-crisp crusts. So you approach them as you do the tacos: paying as little mind to the crust as you do the corn tortilla. You welcome the strange, the creative. You order the smokestack with poblanos, goat cheese and bacon, the chicken pesto with vinegary roasted tomatoes, the Hawaiian speckled with pineapple and pulled pork. With so much going on, you’re less likely to notice occasional flaws: mounds of goat cheese too big to swallow, skimpy pork, a dried-out crust.
Yet somehow it all works. Mas Kaos is simply its own beast, a place for serious fun, not serious foodies. The only rules of engagement here are that that there are no rules.
Mas KaosSee our slide show of Mas Kaos.
4526 Tennyson Street
Chips & salsa $3.50
Chicken pesto pizza $14-18
Hawaiian pizza $11-14
Smokestack pizza $11-14
Mac + cheese, plus chicken $15
Mas Kaos is open 11:30 a.m.-9 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11:30 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday through Saturday, and 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. Find out more at facebook.com/maskaosdenver.