Sneak peek: Matador opens tomorrow in Highland

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Back in July, when we announced that Matador Restaurant and Tequila Bar, a Seattle-based Tex-Mex restaurant, had signed a lease on the now-shuttered Heidi's Deli space in Highland, outspoken opponents weren't particularly shy about voicing their dismay: "I think most of us in the Highlands could really care less. We would rather spend our money locally not at a chain with crappy service and food because they're not invested in their business or community," wrote one cranky commenter. Be that as it may, Zak Melang, who co-owns Matador with partner Nate Opper, was all smiles last night during a packed-to-the-rafters preview party, and to the antagonists who are kvetching, Melang says this: "There hasn't been a day that's gone by that five or six people haven't stopped in front of the door to get their picture taken. The interest is there."

See also: Matador will open in Highland

In fact, Melang, who opened the first Matador in Seattle in 2004, contends that the Seattle store has more than its share of regulars, some of whom have made the shrine to skulls a weekly habit. "We have people coming in three, four times a week," he says. "We offer great value for what you get, our plates are beautiful, we make just about everything from scratch, including our chips, and while this isn't authentic Mexican food -- that's not what we're going for -- I truly believe that this is the best Tex-Mex food out there," he adds, noting, too, that he and his staff are "experts in tequila."

To prove his point, he gestures to the expansive back bar, a hallowed enrichment of the distilled spirit that gets it potent buzz from the fermented juices of the blue agave plant. Melang estimates that the wooden shelves harbor more than 110 tequilas, plus a dozen mezcals and a a few sotols. "It's my hope," says Melang, to "have the largest tequila selection in the state, and we'll keep upping the count as more great tequilas are made."

The tequilas obviously pair well with Matador's Mexican cuisine, a homage to tacos and enchiladas, burritos and fajitas, nachos and ceviche, queso, carnitas and carne asada. And a twice-daily happy hour -- 4 to 6 p.m. and 10 p.m. to 1 a.m. -- features "Texas size" nachos, pork verde flautas, ancho-chile wings, a taco plate, habanero- or garlic-prawns, and several more dishes for just $5 each.

"Our goal is to bring value and quality, both with our tequilas and our food, to the Highland neighborhood," says Melang, adding that his decision to open Matador in an area that already has its share of Mexican restaurants, including Pinche Taqueria, El Camino and Chipotle, was dictated by the space itself. "I've wanted to do this concept in Denver for the past six years, and this is just an awesome, awesome neighborhood, plus there's not a lot of turnover, and when we found out that this building was available, we knew it was the perfect spot for us," he adds.

And as anyone who has walked past Matador's facade knows, it's a space to behold. A fire pit, rimmed with ten seats, sits front-and-center in the bar area, creating a focal point for everything that surrounds it: custom-designed tables, a fascinating, patterned bar top created from five different woods amounting to well over 1,000 individual pieces and 4,000 nails, most of which were pounded by Melang, who admits that he "loves to build and design restaurants." Intricate metal work; antiqued sconces that glow dim; hardwood floors; Mexican folk art, including Gothic brides; red brick walls; and a wrought-iron horned bull that casts its gaze upon bar patrons, bedeck the quarters. In addition, hand-crafted skulls, designed by local artists, are mounted to the walls -- and they're being auctioned off to the highest bidder.

Beginning tomorrow, the skulls go on sale at a starting bid of $400. The online auction with continue through the duration of this year, and the winners of the skulls can choose to keep them secured on the wall, flanked by a plaque with the winner's name, or take them home. All of the profits from the auction will benefit the Conflict Center, a local nonprofit.

Matador will open tomorrow at 4 p.m, and on Saturday, it'll start its regular hours of 11 a.m. to 2 a.m. daily. Kids, however, are not allowed past 9 p.m. "Adults like adult places, and this is an adult place," says Melang, the father of three. "I love kids, I have three, and I'm probably going to have more, but after 9 p.m., this is for grownups."

With that disclaimer out of the way, here's a sneak peek at the space, the cocktails and the food.

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