In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard -- south to north -- within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...
I'm certain that a direct correlation exists between the number of hand-written signs in a restaurant and the pure satisfaction of the food coming out of its kitchen. The management just has a few things they want you to know: The door doesn't close by itself so be sure to pull it shut; we're hiring an experienced cook in the kitchen; we have specials you may want to read about; don't even think about going in the restroom unless you're a paying customer. And so the signs accumulate, offering advice, warnings, factual information and even a touch of humor (whether intentional or not). But there's another thing the folks behind the scenes are dying to tell you, only they communicate not in poorly lettered sheets of construction paper but rather in sizzling fat, an expertly applied dash of salt, flavors built in layers of spice, and billows of steam that convey meaning and emotion from the kitchen to the guest in a wordless procession of plates. At 400 Federal Boulevard, the owners of El Taco Veloz have cobbled together a taqueria virtually held together by a profusion of posterboard and a dedication to Mexican antojitos, soups and platters screaming out with flavor beyond the need for words in any language.
Even the restaurant's name appears on a seemingly temporary banner along with the words "Gran Apertura" -- indicating that either the owners haven't replaced the sign since the grand opening several years ago or they're just operating on the principle that every day a restaurant should buzz with the commitment and excitement of that first day it swung its doors open to the public. Other signs on the bright yellow exterior advertise a job opening for a "taquero," litanies of breakfast offerings and torta fillings, and instructions for that stubborn front door. Utilizing every surface of the façade, the sign-makers have also painted the windows with a representation of a spit of marinated pork (signaling that tacos al pastor are available inside) and a notice that the tortillas are indeed "hechas a mano" -- made by hand.
The tortillas live up to that billing: thicker and more irregular than machine-pressed versions, blistered from a hot griddle, corn-imbued and tender with no trace of leathery texture that can come from old or reheated tortillas. Another hand-written sign let me know that one of the daily specials was pork tongue -- not a common offering from Denver's many and varied taquerias. Testing my theory, I went with the recommendation from the sign and was wholly validated; the tender and mild lengua -- rich with fat and hit with a quick caramelization on the grill -- proved to be some of the best and most lovingly prepared pork I've had anywhere along Federal Boulevard. Fresh diced onion and cilantro added more spirit to the already soulful tacos.
Sopes al pastor also proved worthy of the artistry put into the painted sign in the window. The cooks at El Taco Veloz mold their sopes big and layer them with refritos, meat of your choice, fresh lettuce and unadulterated wedges of avocado. Their pastor marinade is sharp and tangy, perfect for standing out against the crisp-edged boat of fried corn masa. Slightly thinner and griddled with less oil, the gorditas were just as toothsome and made a solid base for rajas con queso -- sautéed strips of chiles and onions melded together with a healthy portion of white cheese. The condiment bar's array of orange, red and green salsas plus lime wedges and escabeche (pickled jalapeño with mixed vegetables) helped dial in the heat and acidity to just the right level.
The tiny taco stand also features several versions of alambres on its menu. While the origins of the word may be argued over by travelers, linguists and gastronauts, the typical Den-Mex interpretation of the dish is somewhat like fajitas, only chopped into smaller pieces, inclusive of more meat varieties, and mounded with shredded cheese that melts on contact with the sizzling mixture. More of those steaming, grill-crisped tortillas came with my order of alambres con chorizo. I sank myself into the ritual of spooning the hot alambres into a tortilla held in my palm, gauging the mass of it until it was just right -- then adding a little too much. Alambres, when done right -- as these were -- are the comfort food of a childhood I never had, the one where my dad was a short-order cook coming home from a late shift and frying up leftovers to be swaddled in cheese and tortillas while we watched re-runs of Knight Rider.
Everything these days seems to be touched by the hands of artisans: hand-cranked ice cream, hand-poured coffee, hand-crafted beer and hand-mixed cocktails. It's become a marketing gimmick more than a sign of quality and care; even the fast-food joints are offering hand-churned shakes and hand-carved sandwiches. There's just a little too much hand-groping and fondling everything I buy these days.
El Taco Veloz returns the idea of hand-made to its origins; the signs are all lettered by the employees because that's the fastest, cheapest, most efficient way to disseminate information. The tortillas are handmade because that's the way tortillas are made. Machines don't make tortillas; people do. So it's no surprise that everything served from that kitchen satisfies, impresses and just makes your eyes close a little with the pleasure of each bite. The signs don't lie.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.