Quest for Fire

Let's see. There are two, maybe three hundred places in town where you can grab a decent bean burrito slathered with green chile and cheese. But if you want ham-hock fajitas, Don Quijote is likely the only option. You can get beef tacos anywhere in Denver, but if you're in the mood for roast pork cloaked in shimmering mole poblano, better head for José Calvo's modest little hideaway on busy Federal Boulevard. Given the recent expansion of Mexican menus in these parts to include more and better seafood, you can now find a pretty fair caldo de camarón in any of a dozen local restaurants. But if you want authentic paella Valenciana, the kind they make in sunny Spain, Don Quijote again answers the call.

In fact, this charming, friendly place has been getting the call for more than three decades. Since 1968, Calvo and his family have been serving up savory Mexican and Spanish dishes to a loyal clientele that thrives on culinary adventure. I've had the octopus in garlic sauce from Jose's kitchen, and it's splendid. His charcoal-broiled lamb is without peer. The piquant shrimp and chile awakens dormant tastebuds, especially when paired with a chilled bottle of Spanish sauvignon blanc. Cervantes himself would tuck in his napkin and get down to business.

Want a standard combination plate of, say, chile relleno, burrito and enchilada? Don Quijote has that, too ($6 at lunch, $8 dinner), and it equals any version in town. In fact, Calvo's menu is the most extensive of any Hispanic restaurant you're likely to encounter. The beef-eater in your crowd can get a big T-bone (average price just $11) any one of four ways: Mexican style (with hot green chile), Spanish style (with potatoes and herbs), with mushrooms or charcoal-broiled. Shellfish fans have a choice of eight dishes, but the lobster with garlic sauce ($22) is so outstanding, we usually look no further. Then again, the caldo de mariscos ($15) is something special -- a spicy seafood stew jammed with fish, shrimp, mussels and clams. Huevos rancheros? Sure. You bet. But don't forget about twelve other egg dishes ranging from the commonplace to the exotic.

A word on the aforementioned paella: The kitchen takes great pride in its rendition of this almost sacramental Spanish dish combining chicken, shellfish, vegetables and rice, and Señor Calvo requires two to three hours' notice via telephone. Minimum order ($70) is for four diners, and at $17.50 per plate, that's a real bargain. The huge platter comes piled high with steaming delicacies, and it's just the thing for a festive occasion with good friends. The wine list is not large, but it's appropriate to the food: Choose a crisp white from the Torres vineyard west of Barcelona (better make that two bottles), and your paella party will quickly hit full stride.

Denverites weary of standard Mexican fare will likely notice Don Quijote's contrarian details: the metal bowl on each table filled with pickled jalapeños, carrots and onions; the hearty brown lentil soup that arrives before most entrees; the surpassing Mexican-style shrimp cocktail ($7) -- a dozen perfectly boiled shrimp awash in a goblet of red broth spiced with pepper sauce and cilantro. If you're feeling even more adventurous, how about broiled calves' liver with green chile?

For 32 years now, Don Quijote regulars have been enjoying their food in this quiet, gently lit dining room decorated with bullfight posters and little placards emblazoned with bilingual aphorisms, including Haz bien y no mires a quien: Do good and don't look for approval. José Calvo certainly did right by us.

We approve.

Denver is full of great joints -- neighborhood spots that will never rate a Zagat mention but always add flavor to a city. We'll be serving up looks at some of the town's true joints on a semiregular basis; if you have suggestions for places we should visit, e-mail us at [email protected].

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Bill Gallo
Contact: Bill Gallo