Service With a Frown

We thought our first meal at Señor Pepe's (reviewed this week) moved at a snail's pace -- and it did. But on a recent trip to La Junta, we really experienced life in the slow lane.

We couldn't get a decent meal for love or money -- and what we did get took forever to arrive. Never have I been so aware of how a lack of competition makes for...a lack, period. I never thought I'd say it, but somebody needs to open an Applebee's in this corner of Colorado.

Our first stop, at Casa Luz in Rocky Ford, was a loser except for the fresh, nicely grilled tortillas and salsa made from Hatch chiles. Our three meals in La Junta -- breakfast at the Copper Kitchen Cafe, dinner (marvelous Frito pie and a decent microbrew) at the Hogsbreath Saloon, breakfast at the Sunrise Cafe -- and another lunch in Rocky Ford, at Peggy's Cafe, were no better. In fact, the food was so mediocre that I was happy to walk through Señor Pepe's door again for dinner the night we returned to Denver. At least you can count on the food at Señor Pepe's being good -- once you get it, that is. Still, it beat our stop at La Junta's El Azteca, where we walked out after waiting twenty minutes for someone to notice us. El Azteca has been serving La Junta since 1950, but apparently not very well.

Fortunately, Denver has its own El Azteca (two of them, in fact -- the original, at 3960 South Federal Boulevard, and a second at 1780 South Buckley Road in Aurora) that has both good service and great Mexican food. The tortas and carne asada are particularly noteworthy, and the rotisserie chicken is one of the best versions in town. A few other local Mexican joints with service as high in quality as what comes out of their kitchens: La Loma (2527 West 26th Avenue) for great green and a very solicitous staff; El Noa Noa (722 Santa Fe Boulevard and 1920 Federal Boulevard) for delicious fajitas and a family-friendly atmosphere; La Cascada (5151 Leetsdale) for killer tacos and speedy service; and La Cueva (9742 East Colfax Avenue in Aurora) for home-cooked care and feeding.

And then there are the places with good Mexican food and frequently lousy service: Benny's (301 East Seventh Avenue); Las Delicias (939 East 19th Avenue, as well as three other locations that aren't as good from either a food or service standpoint); Tosh's Hacienda (which has two locations, but it's the one at 3090 Downing Street that's soooo slow); and El Parral (also two locations), whose outlet at 9261 East Arapahoe Road in Greenwood Village used to be quick but can't seem to handle the rushes these days. And while Mexico City Lounge (2115 Larimer Street) can be a crapshoot as far as service goes, you can still get in and out of there in under an hour.

One of my favorite Mexican spots, Tacos Jalisco, at 4309 West 38th Avenue, is expanding into the space next door and hopes to finish the job by the end of November. The improved Tacos will have double the seating and also some new decor items -- chairs, rug and tables -- that should help make the place look a lot less like a badly paneled family room left over from the Seventies. El Portal (1621 Canal Street, Littleton) recently opened a second location, at 2717 Belleview Avenue, also in Littleton, where it will ladle out more of its top-notch chicken mole. And RosaLinda's Mexican Café (2005 West 33rd Avenue) has also added a new outlet -- but it's a lot more mobile. The northwest Denver institution has taken its show on the road, with a mobile kitchen that's often parked at the corner of Speer and Federal boulevards.

Taco to go -- and make it snappy!

Dates of wine and roses: No Mexican will be offered, but the food promises to be fab at the second annual Vail Valley Wine Auction, scheduled for November 20 at the Lodge at Vail (174 Gore Creek Drive, Vail). Chefs from The Wildflower, Montauk Seafood Grill, the Uptown Grill and the Tyrolean will prepare the food, and the average Joe (who can afford the $125-per-person tab, that is) can vie with collectors in the bidding for rare wines. But remember, the proceeds benefit two charities, and your ticket buys you a multi-course wine dinner. Call 1-800-341-1494 for reservations.

Closer in both location and date is the November 9 wine-tasting dinner at Cafe Bohemia (1729 East Evans Avenue) featuring Scott High of Classic Wines. Chef/owner Jeffrey Cleary is preparing the five-course Fall Harvest dinner; call 303-777-7222. Meanwhile, Cafe Bohemia has expanded its dinner hours to include overflow crowds; it's now open on Wednesdays, too. Open for dinner again -- Tuesdays through Saturdays, as usual -- is Highland's Garden Cafe (3927 West 32nd Avenue), which had closed for a two-week staff vacation in October. On November 8, this lovely eatery offers its own wine dinner, a collaborative effort with the new Mondo Vino close by at 32nd and Lowell; call 303-458-5920 for information.

The Buckhorn Exchange Restaurant (1000 Osage) will celebrate its 106th anniversary November 10 with a Brewmaster's Dinner featuring crafted beers from New Belgium Brewing Co. of Fort Collins; call 303-534-9505.

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Kyle Wagner
Contact: Kyle Wagner