It's early on a Tuesday night, so early you can still nab a parking place on South Broadway. But inside Adelitas Cocina Y Cantina, nearly every seat at the bar is taken and there's a wait for tables. We crowd by the hostess stand and make small talk, happy to have arrived when we did -- the line behind us isn't getting any shorter -- and even happier that within minutes, we'll be drinking margaritas along with half the population of Platt Park.
Around us, people wave their arms to flag down servers, desperately trying to order another drink before happy hour expires. (It doesn't do any good to call out; between the music and all the people, the noise level is simply too high.) Not that anyone will stop drinking when the clock strikes six. This isn't Cinderella; there is no magic coach that will turn into a pumpkin at the end of happy hour. All that will happen is that the price of house margaritas and the chips you crave along with them will go up a notch. The real deal won't expire until closing time, when tacos return to their normal plated price ($8.95 to $10.95 for three), up from the Tuesday special of $1 per piece ($4 for shrimp). But even when this day's deal ends, another will start.
See also: Behind the Scenes at Adelitas
Specials like this -- not just Taco Tuesdays, but Tamale Thursdays and 2-for-1 Margarita Mondays -- give Adelitas the slick polish of a chain. It's a feeling heightened by the wipe-off, scroll-like menus, sparkly sombreros and oversized mural of La Adelita, a big-bosomed soldier in the Mexican revolutionary war. But Adelitas isn't a chain. It's owned by members of two local families, including Brian Rossi, who's been in the restaurant business a long time and has a sense for what people want.
Rossi's first introduction to restaurants came more than twenty years ago, when he took a job with his aunt, restaurateur Judy Pasquini. More recently, he spent five years as general manager at Mezcal, where he picked up a thing or two about Mexican restaurants before opening his own eighteen months ago. "I'm doing stuff that worked for me in the past," he says. What he means is this: He's cracked the code that every restaurateur in town has been trying to decipher, which is how to give a historically slow night the earning potential of a weekend. "Tuesday is our biggest night," he tells me later. "It will even top most Fridays and Saturdays."
The success of Taco Tuesdays says a few things: People like cheap drinks, and they also like cheap tacos. Dig deeper, though, and it also indicates that the appeal of Adelitas lies in the complete package -- the ambience, the deals, the energy -- and not just the food. If you don't believe that, come for lunch someday and let the food speak for itself.
Some of it is very good, like the guajillo-laced pozole, a family recipe served with a plate of chopped radishes, cabbage and cilantro-flecked onions for freshness and crunch. The mole is ruddy brown and full of flavor -- without the cocoa or unsweetened chocolate that's often lurking in the mix, but intriguing all the same. Sopapillas here are puffy, addictive triangles -- entirely unnecessary after a meal, but hard to turn down. Ditto for the sugar-dusted churros. But in the stark light of day, with no tequila to make the peace, I was struck by the greasiness of the carnitas, chunked and fried in vegetarian shortening that the kitchen melts down for this purpose. Sopes -- those fat masa pancakes topped with carnitas, cabbage and cheese -- tasted like old oil. So did the chiles rellenos, and the batter on the poblanos -- even the parts untouched by sauce -- was as soft as uncooked chicken skin. While a cheese and a chicken enchilada were both tasty, with shredded white and dark meat in the latter hinting at the onions, tomatoes and garlic it had been cooked with, the spinach-mushroom filling inside a third was glossy with oil. And although the carne asada wasn't oily, it was tough enough to tussle with a knife. Keep reading for more on Adelitas.
Even the tamales were a disappointment: thick and doughy, almost roll-like, with a narrow line of fillings. On several occasions, our pork and chicken versions -- supposedly steamed -- arrived with hard masa shells that reminded me of what happens when I reheat something in the oven and forget about it. The sauces that accompanied the tamales were too bland to provide much help. The tomatillo-based green chile tasted tinny, while the rojo lacked the oomph that dried chiles would have given it. "Usually, the American people like things mild," says chef Silvia Ayala, whose daughter Karina co-owns the restaurant. "That's why I make it like that." Silvia learned to cook from her mother in Michoacán; she met Rossi while catering at Mezcal.
The salsa that came with the chips -- $2 per basket -- was just as tame, a concoction that could have passed for unsalted crushed tomatoes, with a few flecks of green onion so I knew it hadn't come straight from a can. Salt from the shaker perked it up a little, but not enough to make us give the salsa a second thought after our plates arrived -- which happened to be before we'd received enough silverware, napkins and water for our group, even though we'd asked numerous times.
And this isn't just a lunchtime problem. At dinner, the salsas and red and green chiles were just as mild, and the guacamole cried out for salt and lime. The carnitas were still sticky with grease, while carne asada tacos tasted inexplicably like seafood.
The difference is that at night, you're probably enjoying yourself too much to notice any problems with the food. Adelitas may not craft 25-ingredient moles or blend red sauces with reconstituted chiles whose names you've never heard of, but the place is still likable -- as long as what you like is the buzz that comes from tequila, a crowd of happy people, and the thrill of getting a good deal.
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Select menu items at Adelitas Adelitas Cocina Y Cantina Chips and guacamole $7.95 Sopes $9.95 Enchiladas suizas $11.95 Carne asada $15.95 Tamales $11.95 Pozole $10.50 Tacos, Tuesday special $1 Chiles rellenos $11 Sopapillas $4.95 Churros $4.95
Adelitas is open 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Monday, 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Tuesday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Wednesday-Thursday, 11 a.m.-midnight Friday, 10 a.m.-midnight Saturday and 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Sunday. Learn more at adelitasdenver.com.