Let’s all acknowledge that the only drawback to happy hour is its timing: Sure, you can score rounds of food and drinks on the cheap for a couple of hours a day, but that’s assuming you can cut out of work during what’s really still the afternoon. Moreover, if happy hour is your way to experience Denver’s dining scene on a budget, relying on these food specials for dinner means relenting to eating at an hour normally reserved for senior citizen surf-and-turf specials. If these scenarios make you sad, your best bet is to seek out that rarer bird: the all-night happy hour.
Taco Tuesday is essentially that, and in Denver, such early-week deals net formidable crowds at Mexican restaurants across the city. At most of these places, for a precious hour or two, traditional happy hour overlaps with discounted tacos, creating an orgy of frugality.
There are a number of places in Denver where it’s possible to partake in such seductive cost savings, but one of the newest is El Jefe, the Sunnyside farm-to-table Mexican restaurant from the owners of Lucky Pie, which unveiled its own take on Taco Tuesday about a month ago. Each Tuesday night, the restaurant offers a cast of four different $1 tacos, plus $5 Herradura margaritas. Come between 4 and 6 p.m., and you’ll also score access to the happy-hour menu, which lands you discounts on drinks and snacks; look for $4 house margaritas, $5 palomas and $3 cans of Tecate or Modelo on the beverage list, and $5 queso, $7 guacamole and an $8 chicken posole among food offerings. On days that are not Tuesday, there's also a special $3 happy-hour taco.
The Taco Tuesday tacos, your bartender may point out, are smaller than El Jefe’s regular offerings, but they’re still generously heaped. Three is enough for a light meal, especially when coupled with other snacks. And note that the roster isn’t totally set, it seems, because our bartender also said the kitchen is trying to figure out which Taco Tuesday tacos sell. On the slate when we stopped by were tacos topped with chicken posole, BLT, turnip potato salad and carnitas with beans.
While we’re not exactly taco purists, we harbored initial deep skepticism toward the less traditional offerings here, especially the BLT, since the name immediately conjured a rather vile impression of iceberg sheets, tomato slices and mayo on a corn tortilla. That prejudice turned out to be misguided; the cheeky blend of crispy bacon strips, earthy black beans, tangy tomato and textured kale was the best of the lot. Similarly, the turnip potato salad, enhanced by a zip of smoky-tart chipotle aioli, read like an item at a stoner’s picnic, but it was just as munchable without the weed. Ironically, chicken posole was the weakest link. While the shredded chicken and firm chickpeas (instead of the standard hominy) had nice textural play, the mix was bland, imparting none of the pleasures of the rich stew.
If you miss the boat on happy hour, the $5 Herradura margarita is a nice additional all-night special. But between the hours of 4 and 6, save your buck and stick to the $4 house version. The latter made our list of the best margaritas in the city; the nicely balanced tart sipper is distinctive thanks to its salt-sugar rim, a boon for savory-sweet hounds.
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As for the happy-hour food, make a beeline for the queso; the creamy blend of four molten cheeses picks up a nice crunchy note from a topping of pepitas, and disappears quickly when scooped onto freshly fried flour tortilla chips. Give it more crunch by adding toasted crickets, or boost the heat by lacing in jalapeños.
Think twice about the chicharrones, though: The crispy puffs are a nice drinking snack, but they need more chili powder and salt to be truly addictive; that boost in seasoning would also cut the tongue-coating unctuousness of the pork fat. You’re unlikely to finish the small bowl — not a tragedy at $3, but you might as well spend your money on chips and a trio of salsas instead.
El Jefe's Taco Tuesday will probably catch on quickly, but for now, word doesn’t yet seem to be out, so it’s not hard to score a seat. That's a boon for people who hate lines; we know of far less appealing Taco Tuesdays that command long waits.