When I asked a friend to meet me at North County, a taco-and-tequila joint that opened in Lowry’s Hangar 2 development this winter, I was a little embarrassed. “Can you do 5:30?” I asked, knowing how impossibly early that would seem to a guy who usually powers off hours later. But North County gets busy, even midweek, and I didn’t want to stare down a wait. Turns out, we weren’t early enough. Even at that tender hour, our names were already buried so deep on the list, you’d think the bartenders were giving away free booze.
They weren’t. But they were selling lots of it, mostly to so many groups of women that it looked like an ad hoc ladies’ night. On other visits, couples staked out the orange metal stools at the bar and families with kids in soccer jerseys piled into booths. In warmer weather, all of the above spilled onto the couches around the fire pit on the patio, which nearly doubles the seating capacity and relieves the wait somewhat. But only somewhat, because North County often runs at full tilt, loud and full of energy.
Sterling Robinson, a front- and back-of-the-house veteran who partnered with Larimer Associates to open the place, admits he was caught off guard by its success. “We created a monster,” he says with a laugh. “Joe [Vostrejs, a partner in Larimer Associates] came to me and said if we turned a profit in the first six months, he’d be stunned. We opened in December; by February, we were profitable.”
Such out-of-the-block success says a few things. First, these guys know what they’re doing. For the past few years, Robinson — a graduate of Johnson & Wales and former GM of Jimmy’s in Aspen — has been honing his skills as the proprietor of Billy’s Inn, a Larimer Associates venture in northwest Denver that looks a lot like a prototype for North County, with a similar beach-Mex menu and even more tequila.
There’s significant overlap to the menus, too, though North County — named for the region north of San Diego — has a decidedly more sophisticated flair, with a charcoal grill for fish tacos, oysters on the half shell, and fillings such as brisket and duck confit in the tacos.
Second, the timing was absolutely, undeniably right for North County. Residents of east Denver have been clamoring for independent dining options for years, and when they didn’t get them, they got in their cars and drove elsewhere. Developers and restaurateurs finally caught on, responding to a population hungry for more with Bubu and Lowry Beer Garden (both Larimer Associates partnerships) in Lowry proper, and hotspots such as the Plimoth and Chop Shop Casual Urban Eatery a short drive away.
The fact that North County dishes up easy-to-eat comfort food like nachos, tacos and guacamole didn’t hurt, either. “We’re not trying to get as chef-driven,” says Robinson. “We’re not trying to make you eat parts of animals you’ve never eaten before.”
What you will eat are things you’ve almost certainly eaten before. Fries, for example, are a mandatory start to every meal, smothered with cheese, guacamole and carne asada, like nachos made with spuds. Nachos are also on offer, and they’re just as hard to turn down; since black beans are at the base of the pile, not just sprinkled from above, the toppings don’t give out before the chips. And speaking of chips, they’re made in-house, a thick-cut yellow-corn type for the nachos and a thinner white-corn version served with chunky guacamole and a trio of salsas. Tortillas are made in-house every day, with upwards of 3,200 hand-pressed on a busy Saturday.
Pork green chile can be added to those fries. If you don’t upgrade automatically, your friendly server is likely to remind you to: “Trust me, you’re going to want the chile,” ours said one night, with a twinkle in her eye. She was right; we wanted it so much, in fact, that we would have ordered a bowl of the stuff if we hadn’t already over-ordered, drawn by the complexity of epazote (a Mexican herb), the kick of house-roasted poblanos, and the earthiness of masa used as a thickener. Mussels, one of many sea-based starters, were also very good, steamed in beer and heady with garlic.
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By the time you’re done with these hearty apps, you might want to call it quits. Or skip straight to the knockout coconut flan, thickened with strands of sweetened coconut. Or just order another round of margaritas or boozy, house-bottled sodas. Or you could order what you came to North County for — tacos — but this can actually be a bit of a gamble. Some tacos paid off every time, like the beer-battered swai swaddled with citrusy slaw in a flour tortilla. El pastor, dubbed “Da Baby” and considered the house taco, deserved its title of honor, with tender, pineapple-basted pork, charred pineapple and salsa verde. And chicken tinga, described on the menu as chipotle-rubbed roasted chicken, came out like a flavor-packed stew I’d be happy to eat plain.
Other tacos weren’t nearly as enticing as they sounded, though. Charcoal-grilled sole tacos, one of the day’s market-price offerings, were unpleasantly fishy. Brisket tacos tasted like the oil in which they’d been reheated. Short ribs, which we’d ordered because they were braised in mole, one of the greatest sauces known to man, tasted strongly of orange-grapefruit salsa, with no hint of mole. Cumin-coriander-rubbed pork tacos suffered the same sad fate, the meat overwhelmed by tropical sweetness from banana-habanero cream and banana chips. Duck confit surrendered to a sweet, limey slaw. And the fact that so many of these tacos had so little meat in them didn’t help as far as flavor balance was concerned.
On nights when we’d used more restraint in ordering appetizers, we supplemented our tacos with other options. The torta was terrific, with bread softened not with spicy ahogada, as is common in Guadalajara, but with rich, cumin-scented chicken stock, like a Mexican-inspired French dip. But the rice and beans were bland, and a burger billed as grass-fed I later learned was made of Aspen Ridge beef — which a company spokesperson confirmed is certified humane, but not, in fact, grass-fed.
As recent history shows, however, North County’s success doesn’t depend on perfect execution. With its lively ambience, good drinks and plenty of dishes that do hit the mark, the restaurant is doing enough right that it’s still a fun place to pass the night — even if that night starts in what feels like the middle of the afternoon.
94 Rampart Way
Select menu items at North County:
Carne asada fries $11
Mucho Macho nachos $11
Mussels & fries $13
Chips, salsa, guacamole $8
Pork green chile $5/6.50
Slow-roasted pork torta $11
Coconut flan $7
North County is open from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Monday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to midnight Friday, 10 a.m. to midnight Saturday and 10 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday. Learn more at northcountydenver.com.