When I was living in New York, I constantly craved Mexican food — which, aside from upscale Tex-Mex, was about as easy to find on the East Coast as a pro-choicer at a Tea Party convention. Real Mexican food isn't all that common in Denver, either; despite the abundance of "Mexican" restaurants, most serve up an Americanized — even Denverized — version of Mexican cuisine. But at least you can find it in a few spots. And on one of my trips back home, a friend picked me up at the airport and drove me straight to Los Carboncitos, a true taqueria that occupies a fiery orange building on an equally colorful stretch of West 38th Avenue.
From the second I bit into a warm corn tortilla stuffed with char-flecked pork topped with cilantro and onions, I was hooked. Los Carboncitos, which pays homage to the cuisine of Mexico City, was exactly what I hungered for. Although like so many restaurants, it mixes in American — and even Denver-specific — influences, it captures the heart, soul and flavor of everything I love about the street eats and homestyle cooking of Mexico.
So I was eagerly anticipating the opening of Paxia, the restaurant that the brothers who own Los Carboncitos — Cesar, Roberto and Ignacio Leon — announced they had in the works last year. They'd already expanded Los Carboncitos from the original location that opened in 2004 to a couple of additional locations, but this was to be a sibling rather than a twin. Paxia, whose name is Nahuatl for "peace," was going to be more upscale than the slapdash taquerias, serving finely nuanced dishes in a building they'd acquired just a few blocks from the first Los Carboncitos.
4001 Tejon Street
Hours: 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday and Saturday
Enchiladas verdes $9
Chilaquiles with eggs $8
Burrito de carne $7
Pechuga con mole $13
Lamb barbacoa $16
When Paxia's doors opened last August, they revealed a space that was light and breezy, with sunny paint complementing vibrant floral wallpaper in three sections of a well-designed, L-shaped dining room divided by geometric sculptures. There was an elegant bar to one side, and through a window in the back wall, you could see a woman making tortillas by hand. The scene was tranquil, but also fun: Flip-flops lined the wall in the hallway to the bathroom, and a comfortable patio out front was full of people.
The name seemed fitting, I thought as I sat down in the peaceful restaurant for the first time. An earnest server quickly delivered a basket of chips and a dish of salsa — a tomato, onion and cilantro-based blend spiked with a healthy shot of jalapeño, which gave it a back-palate heat — as well as the lunch menu, then brought over the heftier (and pricier) dinner menu, too. Both lists draw inspiration from many parts of Mexico. The lunch menu touts enchiladas verdes from the northeast, burritos from the border towns and chilaquiles from the center of the country; dinner expands into Oaxaca with mole and Oaxaqueño tamales, and also adds molcajetes, a ribeye done Mexico City style, and a salmon dish from the Yucatán peninsula. And unlike Los Carboncitos, which lists a full page of tacos, Paxia offers just three varieties, and then only at lunch: steak, shrimp or chicken on corn or flour tortillas, gussied up with pico de gallo and cabbage. Many of the dishes seemed a little dumbed-down and safe — a grilled chicken breast sided by garlic mashed potatoes, for example — and one appetizer sounded downright strange: an un-Mexican-sounding combination of smoked salmon, jalapeño crema, baby spinach and raspberry vinaigrette.
I finally just asked my server for a recommendation. He suggested the plate of enchiladas verdes with chicken, insisting that poultry paired best with the sauce. The verde salsa was great: peppery, garlicky, tarted up with tomatillos, augmented by a ribbon of sour cream and a smattering of white cheddar. But the chicken packed inside the corn tortillas under the sauce was overcooked, dry and as flavorless as tofu straight from the package. I soon abandoned the enchiladas altogether and mixed the verde with the side of Spanish rice, which was fluffy and redolent of onion and tomato.
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After that dull, disappointing lunch, I decided to give Paxia a try on the weekend, when the kitchen serves up lamb barbacoa. I love slow-roasted meat — and especially slow-roasted lamb that's been marinated in earthy, spicy, cinnamon-y adobo, as lamb barbacoa is in Mexico. But like the chicken in those enchiladas, the lamb hadn't been cooked well; it wasn't just crispy on the outside, it was tough all the way through, like a pot roast left in the crockpot too long without enough liquid. I forked the meat onto corn tortillas, sprinkled on plenty of crisp onions and fresh cilantro, then doused everything with both an earthy chile de arbol and the tomatillo salsa that came on the side — which moistened the meat but drowned out the adobo. I thought about using the soup — filled with carrots, rice and potatoes — that came with the entree as another meat-softening agent, but it was like a liquid salt lick.
My mother had ordered the pechuga con mole, and it was another disappointment. The menu had described the mole as a mole poblano, a version famous for the hint of chocolate that combines with the earth and mild heat of poblano chiles. Done right, this mole is nutty, sweet, earthy, savory and spicy all at once; part of the pleasure is trying to decipher each flavor note as it races across the palate. The mole at Paxia, however, was chalky, a little sweet and mostly acerbically bitter — not exactly something you wanted to linger on your palate. And it coated just a couple of medallions of chicken — which was again so dry that this meager portion was more than enough.
I returned on a warm spring afternoon, hoping the third time would be a charm. Paxia was just catching up from an unexpected rush and running slow, the hostess warned us. Sitting on the sunny patio, sweet-tart margs in hand, we didn't notice any lag in service — save for the empty, uncleared tables around us — and our meals arrived fairly quickly. I'd gone for the chilaquiles, a mess of thick, fried corn tortilla triangles, white cheddar, sour cream, diced red onions, an earthy red sauce and eggs, which I'd ordered scrambled. Although the eggs had a slight brown tinge, as though they'd stuck to the pan and started to burn, the dish worked overall, like a decadent version of over-sauced nachos. I also liked my friend's burrito, which had been stuffed with Spanish rice, savory black beans and juicy bits of grilled steak, then smothered with that great verde sauce. The burrito also came with the same salsas that had sided the barbacoa, and while the tomatillo-based sauce seemed redundant next to the verde, the smoky chile de arbol salsa added extra depth to each bite.
That patio and the simpler lunch items might be enough to entice me back to Paxia one sunny day, especially since the nearby Los Carboncitos has no outdoor seating...and no liquor license. But this staid sibling is another kind of dry.