5 Regional Mexican Specialties to Try in Denver | Westword

Global Cuisine

Beyond Tacos: Five Regional Mexican Specialties to Try in Denver

Dig into Oaxacan tlayudas, twenty-inch long machetes, tacos árabes stuffed with marinated crispy pork and more.
Las Tortas moved into a new location in January 2023.
Las Tortas moved into a new location in January 2023. Broc Smith
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In the U.S., many Mexican restaurants stick to the sure bets — tacos, burritos and enchiladas are always hits. In the Mile High, Den-Mex favorites like green chile-topped Mexican hamburgers and crispy rellenos made with egg roll wrappers are staples as well, but Mexican food is one of the world’s greatest and most diverse cuisines.

The regional diversity of delicious creations could go toe-to-toe with any food culture in the world. All along the Front Range, Mexican restaurants and food trucks are plentiful, but finding finding those that offer less-common dishes is a more challenging task — unless you know where to look.

Here are five regional Mexican dishes to dig into in Denver:

Torta ahogada tradicional from Las Tortas
There are many places to get tortas in Denver, but Las Tortas, which moved into a shiny new space in Glendale in January and added a second outpost in Federal Heights in addition to its Greeley location, is a standout — so much so that it landed on our list of the best sandwich shops in the city overall.

While everyone has their favorites from the menu, the most fun choice is the lesser-known Guadalajara-style torta ahogada tradicional. It comes smothered in a tomato and chile salsa and pickled onions and is stuffed with juicy carnitas and beans. If you haven’t had one before, it’s undoubtedly a knife-and-fork sandwich.

Everything from the rich meat to the crispy-turned-soggy bread and the acidic sauce, onions and squeeze of lime is perfectly balanced, and the carnitas alone fare favorably against any other in the metro area.
a large corn tortilla
Tlayudas are a Oaxacan specialty, and La Reyna does them right.
La Reyna del Sur
Tlayudas from La Reyna del Sur
There are a few places around town serving tlayudas, but none of them look like the ones from pop-up and food truck La Reyna del Sur, which closely resemble the ones you'd find on the streets of Oaxaca, where the dish was born.

Chef Ruben Hernandez, who was born in a small Oaxacan town, is committed to bringing his culture’s true flavors to Denver. "We represent (Oaxacan) tradition, culture and gastronomy, because there is no Oaxacan food here,” he says. “We import products made in Oaxaca to Denver to serve them in our kitchen.”

A tlayuda starts with a large, cracker-thin masa shell baked on a comal, then spread with pork lard or beans and topped with stringy Oaxacan cheese and some combination of toppings such as cecina (thinly sliced and semi-dried beef), chorizo, avocado, tomato and salsa. Sometimes it’s folded over so it’s easier to snack on (like at La Reyna), and sometimes it’s served like an uncut pizza.

In addition to tlayudas and the obligatory (but sneaky great) tacos, La Reyna serves other Oaxacan specialties like cemitas (a Mexican sandwich), a regional version of pozole, and machucadas (tlayuda tortilla chips in sauce). It sometimes serves Oaxacan-style tamales steamed in banana leaves at pop-ups, too.

Hernandez says that he hopes to open a physical location in the future, but for now, the truck frequently serves at Raíces Brewing Company and Novel Strand Brewing Company as well as Goosetown Station in Golden. Follow it on Instagram @lareynadenver for pop-up announcements.

click to enlarge a long tortilla filled with beef
Machetes Gourmet is a northeast Denver food trailer.
Broc Smith
Machetes from Machetes Gourmet
Is it a really long quesadilla? Is it a folded huarache? Does it really matter?

Machetes Gourmet, a food trailer usually stationed on 47th Avenue in the Montbello area, is doing its best to create true Mexico City-style machetes, measuring in at a full twenty inches in length.

A machete is a long, folded masa shell crisped up on a flat-top and filled with your choice of meat or vegetables and cheese. Machetes Gourmet offers arracherra (skirt steak), chicharrón prensado, shrimp, chicken tinga, mushroom and more. And with so much tortilla real estate, you’re encouraged to get half of it with one topping and other side with another.

Owner Jossy Flores grew up in Zacatecas, Mexico, and discovered a love for this dish in her travels within the country as a kid. When she wanted to start a food truck in Denver, she noticed no competitors were doing machetes, so she went for it.

The secret to this take on machetes is a delicious housemade masa shell that’s perfectly thin and crispy — not the thicker, cake-like ones used by some other spots in town. The trailer also offer tacos on freshly made corn tortillas, which are, unsurprisingly, some of the best in the city.

Follow it on Instagram @machetes_gourmet for up-to-date hours and locations.
click to enlarge inside of a taco filled with meat
Tacos árabes are made with thick flour tortillas.
Broc Smith
Tacos árabes from El Sampa Taqueria Bar
The fact that El Sampa, at 2321 West Evans Avenue, even has tacos árabes on its menu feels like a minor miracle for the Denver food scene — one that we were alerted to in April when Stoned Appetit podcast host Kip Wilson shared it with Westword as one of his favorite munchies in town.

When you Google “tacos árabes in the U.S.,” almost every single first-page result is about one highly rated truck stationed on Olympic in Boyle Heights in Los Angeles. By that math, there might only be a few places offering it in the country.

El Sampa’s version comes wrapped in a thick flour tortilla and is absolutely loaded with marinated crispy pork and sautéed onions coated in a sticky chipotle sauce. The history of tacos árabes goes back to the early twentieth century, when Middle Eastern immigrants arrived in Puebla, Mexico, with the concept of spit-roasted lamb shawarma. The meat quickly evolved from lamb to pork, and the yogurt sauce to chipotle sauce, but the thicker, pita-like flour tortilla stayed part of the equation.

Tacos árabes has become a niche dish on its own, but its role in modern Mexican cuisine is unmatched. Later, it would evolve into tacos al pastor in Mexico City, the king of every taco cart.

If you want to taste the OG al pastor, go to El Sampa. One taco costs about $5 and is almost a meal on its own.
click to enlarge a plate of fried pork belly
These chicharrones are a meal unto themselves.
Broc Smith
Chicharrón from Las Hijas de la Chilanga
Las Hijas, at 4460 Morrison Road, has changed names a couple of times and is mainly known for its pollo asado, which is wood-grilled in the parking lot. The chicken is good and smoky, but the real secret here is the chicharrón hidden at the bottom of the chalkboard menu. One of the first things you’ll see upon entering are the giant, glowing hunks of fried pork skin and belly under a hot lamp.

Served chopped into large, bite-sized pieces on a platter with lime, these are not the light and airy skin-only pork rinds from the snack aisle; this is the kind of stuff you can wrap in a tortilla with some salsa and call a meal.

The fat is perfectly soft and rendered, and the skin is shatteringly crisp. The fun selection of salsas are the perfect bright complement to the rich, fatty pork. Las Hijas can also be relied on for good gorditas as well as its complimentary chips paired with an addictive and pork-y bean dip.
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