So forget everything you’ve heard about the gimmick at Super Mega Bien, which opened in May in RiNo’s Ramble Hotel with a dim sum setup, complete with pan-Latin small plates wheeled tableside so that all you have to do is point and eat. There’s nothing wrong with these rainbow-colored carts — or the way they wind around the restaurant with the “brrring, brrring” of a kid’s bicycle bell — but to focus on their novelty is to sell this place short. Super Mega Bien is a serious restaurant from Dana Rodriguez, one of our city’s most talented chefs and a repeat James Beard Best Chef Southwest nominee, and Tony Maciag, her partner at Work & Class, right across the street. The carts are only a vehicle. Literally. These plates could be delivered by mimes or shoved on a cafeteria tray by a lunch lady and they’d still be terrific.
The selection changes weekly, but whatever is on board is bound to mesmerize. Deep-fried fritters of corn, cheese and zucchini. Carne asada with chimichurri. Creamed corn with all the grassiness of fresh corn on the cob, topped with halved cherry tomatoes spilling their juice and seeds into the bowl. Jamaican jerk chicken wings, lacquered light brown with a fragrant, spicy sauce that rivals mole for its complexity and number of ingredients (gluten-free hoisin adds the unexpected backdrop).
Traditional ropa vieja is medium-toned, thanks to a sauce built of tomatoes and red peppers. Here, chiles de árbol and guajillos are thrown in, too, taking the sauce down a few notches until the flavors darken with concentrated earthiness. The meat is tender, patiently braised for twelve hours, so that the heat and acid, garlic and onions fully soak in. Use your fork to slice off a piece of maduro, the caramelized ripe plantain that curves upwards out of the bowl. The sugary, squishy insides and chewy, bitter edges pair beautifully with the meat.
“Our signature is the spice of Latin countries,” says Rodriguez, who got the idea for a dim sum-style spot after a meal at State Bird Provisions in San Francisco, and then did research in Peru, Cuba and Mexico. “We try to make [each recipe] ours, to bring the memories of where we went.”
Lamb wrapped in pointy banana leaves and tucked in a foil pouch is spectacular: braised, shredded and dripping with haunting mole negro. You can eat it by the forkful — which I recommend as the best way to savor it — or inside a corn tortilla like a taco. Created with five types of red chiles, including the all-important (and hard to find) chilhuacle negro, and none of the chocolate that mellows the more familiar mole, this dark sauce made the lamb one of the best dishes I’ve had all year. Too bad every Super Mega Bien dish can’t be as good: The filling inside a chile-chocolate bar was rubbery, and once the cart’s daily “wild card” turned out to be a cold, dense coconut tart.
What, I wondered, would happen if I intentionally slowed things down? Would things go awry, with the cart diverted elsewhere, then returning without the most popular dishes? Would time-sensitive food be a casualty of the delay? One night I put the system to the test, sending back a cart that had rolled up before I’d even had a minute to consider which gin and house tonic I wanted, much less time to slough off the cares of the day in conversation with my husband. When our thoughts finally turned to food and we signaled for the cart, I feared for those fritters. But they were as crispy as ever, the ropa vieja still hot and transcendent.
Super Mega Bien was named for a line cook’s favorite expression. It could become yours, too.
Super Mega Bien, 1260 25th Street, is open from 5 to 11 p.m. Tuesday through Sunday. For more information, call 720-269-4695 or go to supermegabien.com.
Select menu items at Super Mega Bien
Ropa vieja $5
Corn-zucchini fritters $7
Jerk chicken wings $5
Spanish rice $25
Hot stone stew $28
Braised lamb $29