Cafe Society

Mouthing Off

Oh, Mexico: Oooh, the letter-writers are at it again, this time raking me over the coals for my March 28 review of Los Troncos, a refried-beans-and-rice eatery at 730 East Sixth Avenue that I took to task for offering 48 greasy variations on a Tostada! Enchilada! Burrito! theme. The review prompted several diners to accuse me of disliking Mexican food, which could not be further from the truth--apparently it escaped their notice that in the same piece, I wrote about how I'd thoroughly enjoyed my meal at the 15th Avenue Grill, at 233 East Colfax. These readers also seemed to miss the point. Although I did say that being sent by my editor to review another Mexican restaurant was akin to being told by my mother to clean my room ("Awww, Mom, do I have to?"), I immediately explained why: When it comes to Mexican food, Denver offers little in the way of variety.

In fact, after a tour of Denver's so-called Mexican restaurants, any diner unfamiliar with true south-of-the border fare would think that Mexicans eat nothing but tostadas, enchiladas, burritos, chile rellenos and tacos, all sided by refried beans and rice. Please--that's like saying Chinese people eat nothing but moo shu pork and sesame chicken and Italians subsist on pizza and lasagne. Those foods are prevalent here because that's what the first immigrants served and the ones who followed were afraid to offer anything different. If it ain't broke, right? The joke is that some of the foods Americans associate with Mexico actually were created in this country. Burritos? Southwestern United States all the way. That blob of sour cream? It appeared because pre-chile-craze Americans needed to cool their tongues quickly.

Sadly, my favorite authentic Mexican foods are impossible to find in Denver. And it's not as though these are complicated dishes unfriendly to restaurant kitchens. Much of Mexican cooking is simple but uses ingredients that U.S. cooks ignore in favor of shredded cheese and green chile. For instance, sopa de lima, a dish originally from the Yucatan, is an easy-to-make, incredibly flavorful soup of tomatoes, limes and tortilla strips, with lots of garlic, minced chiles and cumin, all in a light chicken stock--and not a piece of pork in sight. And then there are the chiles nogados I had at a Miami street fair celebrating the end of Spanish rule in Mexico: green peppers stuffed with ground beef, bathed in a creamy walnut sauce and sprinkled with pomegranate seeds. The vendor also offered fish fillets rolled around a filling of sun-dried tomatoes, toasted almonds and cilantro, along with ceviche made from fresh yellow serranos and mackerel caught that morning. Heading north out of L.A. one time, a stop at a ramshackle eatery sporting a one-word sign--"menudo"--yielded several versions of the infamous hangover cure, including one that drew from Spanish influences and contained paprika and chorizo.

But the best Mexican meal I've ever had was prepared by a friend of my mother's, a woman originally from Mexico City. I don't remember the names of the dishes, but they included a soup of pumpkin, shrimp and milk with lemon and nutmeg that was followed by chicken cooked in a stew of prunes, vinegar, onions and garlic.

Closer to home, I always enjoy the Mexican food at La Cueva, 9742 East Colfax Avenue in Aurora; Mu–ecas, at 4500 Washington; and Boulder's Mamacitas, at 1149 13th Avenue.

--Kyle Wagner

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner