Cliff divers. BOGO entrees. Seating in a trolley car. Gimmicks are fun, but good restaurants don’t need them. In fact, the more a place focuses on attention-getting, the more you wonder who’s paying attention in the kitchen.
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).
Super Mega Bien veterans know to spring for the ropa vieja, which has become something of a staple, along with the wings and ceviche. I don’t remember exactly what I said when I first dug my fork into the tangle of shredded beef, but it certainly wasn’t kid-approved. With that bite, I felt the same visceral shift that occurs after you’ve been listening to a song on your phone, putting it in your car’s cup holder to amplify the tinny sound, then hear it in concert as the bass pulses through you and you’re standing and waving your arms and singing along with thousands of other people. Rodriguez’s version of this Cuban classic has the same amped-up intensity that lets you experience the dish anew.
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.”
Everything at Super Mega Bien is meant to be shared, even items from the separate “Big Food” menu. Don’t make the rookie mistake of over-ordering early on, leaving no room for an entree. I’ve learned the best game plan is to pick what I want for the main course, then backfill with the right number of small plates — though that’s easier said than done once the cart arrives. You’ll definitely want to try the Spanish rice, a cross between paella and fried rice that’s intriguing in its mix of hot, crispy, creamy and cold, with raw watercress and nuggets of Manchego and goat cheese, and grains baked crunchy from contact with the searing cast-iron skillet. Hot stone stew is thick with shrimp, halibut and vegetables in a spicy fish stock. It has its own gimmick: a 600-degree stone set in the bowl to cook the seafood as you watch. Break the tortilla chips into the broth for a soup that one-ups the standard chicken-tortilla.
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.
While the dim sum definitely works, Super Mega Bien’s gimmicky decor, a cacophony of clutter, is less successful. Posters clipped to the bright-red wall are for sale, which seems an obtrusive grab at commercialism. Long wooden dowels, presumably a nod to chopsticks, hang claustrophobically from the ceiling. And even the dim sum delivery has drawbacks: The pacing is so quick, with the cart arriving as soon as water glasses are filled, it’s hard not to feel that Super Mega Bien is happy to see you and even happier to see you go — and then turn the table.
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.
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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