Oh, I tried to sit at the computer and soldier on. Tried hard, in fact. But in the end, all those thoughts about cumin, serranos and lime got to me. So I did what any hungry critic would do: I gave up the battle to write about the food at Dos Santos, the taqueria that opened this summer in Uptown, and gave in to the temptation to eat it.
Straight from the takeout container, my chilaquiles don’t look as tasty as they did when the bartender slid the white bowl across the bar the day before. Then, they were a mountain of house-fried chips and slow-braised chicken smothered in tomato-red chile sauce. Tossed in sauce rather than baked in it, the chips were crunchy, a deviation from the dish’s norm that could’ve cost it a few points but instead turned it into nachos, one of God’s gifts to man. Draped on top were two poached eggs — surely another gift — with fluffy whites guarding runny yolks. Flecks of green cilantro, fried leeks, white cotija and raw onion added the final flourish, the colors of an edible Mexican flag vibrant against the red sauce. It was quite a sight, which the bartender noted as he warned my husband not to take more than his fair share.
Today, the chilaquiles look like everything does the morning after. If I didn’t know better, I might think someone had traded my chilaquiles for the soggy casserole that a well-intentioned friend once served me for breakfast — but looks aren’t stopping me from downing every last bite. The earthiness of the paprika-dusted corn chips is still there, the sultriness of the chiles, the richly flavored chicken that only gets this way after hours on the stove with garlic, onions, chipotles and tomatoes. Defeat is never attractive. But when it tastes this good, I’ll gladly surrender.
What is attractive, however, is Dos Santos itself. Owners Kris and Jason Wallenta worked wonders, transforming the jewel case that had been the original D Bar into a space that seems three times the size. The feel is rustic industrial, all wood, glass, concrete and iron. Walls are trimmed with horizontal planks and old gym lockers, small chalkboards casually announce the menu’s few offerings, and through the dim dinner lighting, it’s just possible to make out the painted letters of a dry-cleaning sign uncovered on a brick wall during renovation. Flickering prayer candles and crosses are littered about, some tucked between bottles at the bar, others propped on hanging shelves. The religious motif is heightened by spectacular wooden joists — also uncovered during renovation — that draw the eye upward, giving the impression of a chapel’s vaulted ceiling.
This chapel effect delighted the Wallenta brothers, who alluded to religion, albeit in a tongue-in-cheek manner, in the restaurant’s name. “My mom used to call us her two little saints,” explains Kris, who graduated from New York’s French Culinary Institute (now the International Culinary Center) and has lived for fifteen years in Cozumel, where he runs two high-end restaurants. “She’d say that sarcastically,” he clarifies with a laugh. Jason lived in Cozumel, too, but returned to Colorado, where he’d gone to college, after a few years there. While Kris is the chef, Jason focuses on hospitality, melding his innate friendliness with front-of-house skills gained at restaurants like Jax Fish House and Uncle. Dos Santos is the brothers’ first venture stateside.
Whereas D Bar was mostly kitchen, Dos Santos is mostly dining room. And what an energized room it is, full of people eating chips out of tin pails, kicking back with cocktails, soaking in the happy thump of loud music. In a matter of months, it’s become a spot for a groom a few nights before his wedding, for a little girl celebrating her birthday with Mom and Dad, for friends decked out in Broncos gear on game day — which is to say, a gathering place for nearly everyone.
Still, Dos Santos is basically a taco joint, and there are droves of those in town. So why do folks flock to this particular spot, a place that could drip with hipster attitude but somehow doesn’t, a place that dishes out a total of six tacos and a handful of appetizers? The long answer is this: Dos Santos knows what it is — a taqueria in the Uptown neighborhood — and isn’t trying to be anything else, not a crowd-pleasing hot spot that doles out free chips and salsa (it doesn’t), not an authentic Mexican joint, despite the preponderance of Spanish words on the menu. And the short answer? Damn good tacos.
Servers talk up the two fish tacos: the O.M.F.G, with strips of raw tuna on Bibb lettuce, and the Del Mar, with beer-battered mahi mahi or shrimp. Ignore their advice, just this once. (I ignored my servers on other occasions and paid the price: The coco fuego, with tequila, spiced tea and pepper-infused agave, was indeed better than the margarita, just as the chocolate pudding with pumpkin-seed crumble and cinnamon whipped cream was far better than the flan.) Both sea-based tacos lacked flavor, with lots of cabbage and too little lime-cilantro aioli and habanero aioli, respectively. But the meat and vegetarian tacos had fillings so delicious, I wanted to eat them by the bowlful. And at brunch I nearly got my wish, enjoying chicken tinga not by the bowlful, but by the chipful, in those knockout chilaquiles.
These are not authentic Mexican tacos, but they weren’t meant to be. “I wouldn’t say they’re authentic Mexican flavors,” says Kris, who plans to check in regularly from Cozumel, leaving operations in the hands of kitchen manager Bryant Reyes, formerly of Cherry Creek Grill.
“We’re bringing a taste of Mexican flavors.” Those include steak marinated in enough garlic, herbs and spices that the meat and its marinade come through on the arrachera taco despite strong competition from salsa verde, onion and cilantro. The tinga taco balances the smokiness of the chicken with guacamole and red-pepper sauce. A vegetarian taco changes regularly; order the one with roasted cauliflower, poblanos and corn thickened with cream, if it’s available.
One night, a friend ate an under-filled “porky” and declared it “just a pork taco,” since there wasn’t enough filling to offset the corniness of the tortilla. When properly loaded, however, there’s nothing “just” about this taco. The slow-braised filling offers layers of flavor: first cumin, then bright citrus, especially orange. (Hey, Wallenta bros: Any chance you could serve this by the pound?)
Hints of Kris’s training come through in accents like fried leeks and fried cilantro. Guacamole, too, is offered more ways than plain: One version is sprinkled with pumpkin seeds, corn, tomatillos and prickly-pear cactus; another is dotted with bacon and fresh fruit, which brings out something special in avocados, as balsamic does with strawberries. At brunch, poached eggs are paired not with English muffins, but with jalapeño-cranberry cornbread, chorizo hash and poblano Hollandaise. Spectacular cinnamon-and-sugar-dusted churro rings are filled with chocolate ganache, drizzled with cajeta and topped with glazed bacon.
An order of eskites is lovely to behold, with discs of grilled corn slathered with habanero aioli and dusted with paprika and cotija, then propped kernel-side down on a wooden tray. Never mind that the corn is served on the cob, not off, making it more like elotes than esquites. It’s still a tasty work of art, and of everything I ate at Dos Santos, this was the dish that people noticed as they walked by, interrupting our conversation to inquire, “What is that? Does it taste as good as it looks?”
It does, though it tastes even better with salt, which the kitchen seems slightly averse to. Good thing I had extra lurking on the rim of my margarita; that salt came in handy one night when the plain guac needed a little pick-me-up. Other things that needed picking up: the salsa, which tasted like a can of fire-roasted tomatoes straight from the blender, and sikil pak, one of two dips in the Dos Dip appetizer (the other is smoky pimento cheese). The sikil pak resembled peanut butter but was really made from pumpkin seeds; either way, it wasn’t what we wanted on chips.
Speaking of which, the sauce-soaked chips in my leftover chilaquiles are now gone. If the Wallentas were really santos, they’d heed the words printed in Spanish and English on one of their restaurant’s prayer candles: “Most holy apostle…I find myself feeling desperate during this time of great need.” It’s probably sacrilegious, but with the weekend still a few days away, would it be too much to ask Dos Santos for chilaquiles at lunch and dinner, not just brunch?
See more photos by Danielle Lirette from Behind The Scenes at Dos Santos.
1475 East 17th Avenue
Guacamole trio $14
Chips and salsa $4
Dos dip $9
Maiz ahuevo $12
Mexican doughnuts $9
Chocolate pudding $6
Dos Santos is open 4-10 p.m. Monday, 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Tuesday-Friday, 10 a.m.-10 p.m. Saturday, 10 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday. Learn more at dossantosdenver.com.