Taco Wonderland

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Life is full of small pleasures and little joys. Sometimes, they're all you get. The bad stuff is big, often overwhelming, frequently spinning madly out of control. Focus on it and you'd think the whole universe is going to hell. What with wars and disasters, tragedies both personal and global, there are days when it just isn't worth getting out of bed.

Lots of people fall back on religion when the all-encompassing crap of the world starts getting them down -- on the sweet love of Jesus or Buddha or whoever and the flittering of angel wings -- but not me. I grew out of my faith a long time ago, and what I've got in its place is Mexican Coca-Cola.

I mean, Mexican Coca-Cola isn't all I've got, but it's a start. These days, I am a big believer in the quick hit of happiness, the rapid flash of a fleeting smile. I am trying hard to appreciate the little things: the way even cheap whiskey tastes good at midnight, the smell of cool rain hitting hot blacktop, finding that sweet spot in the traffic flow that lets you hit fourth gear when you're headed for home. I am trying to be a better, happier person -- and Mexican Coke is a big part of that.


El Coyotito #3

4978 Leetsdale Drive, 303-333-1970. Hours: 9 a.m.-10 p.m. daily

Burrito: $4.50
Tortas: $4.25
Shrimp soup: $10.99
Shrimp cocktail: $10.99
Octopus cocktail: $11.99
Menudo: $7.50
Enchiladas: $7.50

Everyone knows Mexican Coke is better than American, right? It's sweeter, thicker, more syrupy, and lighter on the bubbles. It still comes in glass bottles, thick and curved like in a Life magazine ad from the 1940s, sweating beads of cool water in the heat. You still need an opener (or a Bic lighter, or the edge of a table) to pop the top off, and I love that sound -- the sizzle of carbonation and tink of the crimped cap hitting tile. It's a noise that lives deep in the collective unconscious of entire populations, proof of the efficacy of global product marketing.

At El Coyotito #3, our waitress slides two bottles across the table -- Mexican beer for Laura, an effervescing Mexican Coke for me.

"Bebidas," she says, and smiles. Then she says about fifty more fast, slurring words, and I don't understand any of them. Probably, she is telling us what the kitchen has on special today (menudo; huge shrimp cocktails served in hurricane glasses painted with green palm trees; chocolate rice milk; and seafoods of every description, judging from the construction-paper signs on the walls and what's on nearby tables), but I don't know. She could be reciting the Gettysburg Address or issuing a warning not to order the soup. Laura and I glance at each other and blink.

"Don't look at me," she says. "You're the one who speaks Spanish."

Which is true, sort of. I can confidently order beers in Spanish. I can ask where the bathroom is. I can curse with surprising and vicious facility, and talk about Pepe and Julio's trip to la biblioteca -- a combination of what little proper Spanish I remember from high school and the pure gutter vocabulary I've picked up while cooking. But understanding conversational Spanish (which is to say, anything that doesn't involve garlic, grill temperatures, what kind of books Pepe wants to read or calling somebody's mother a whore) is somewhat beyond me.

"No espanish?" the waitress asks, looking concerned.

"Poquito," I say and laugh, holding up two fingers very close together. Pepe quiere los libros de la historia.

But poquito is enough for her, apparently. She reaches over and picks a menu off our table, opening it up and pointing, speaking slowly, the way you would to a dog or a slightly dim child.

"Burritos," she says. "Tortas. Enchiladas." She smiles. "Que quiere usted?"

Ah, ordering. This I can handle. "I would like the shrimp of soup, please," I say proudly. "And tacos of the chicken."

She looks at Laura.

"Burrito," says my lovely wife. "Desebrado. Gracias."


Tacos are another small pleasure I'm trying hard to properly appreciate, because Denver is a taco wonderland, and sometimes I think the people born and raised here (or anywhere around here) have no idea how good they have it. When Laura and I quit the coast and came west six years ago, the availability of tacos was one of our motivating factors. Tacos and posole and restaurants where they bring you salted chips and salsa before the menu, as at El Coyotito. Living in Rochester, we had two choices. There was a place right on the edge of the blighted downtown with a bullfighting theme and awful watery margaritas where you could get "quesadillas" (pronounced with a hard L), which were actually flat enchiladas dosed with Old El Paso taco sauce or enchiladas that were actually something else entirely because they were rolled and baked and filled with ground beef. If that didn't refry your frijoles, you could get in the car and drive almost an hour into farm country, where there was a combination restaurant/employment agency that serviced the migrant peach-pickers in the area, most of whom were Mexican. That joint was authentic to a fault, with real menudo and fat burritos and fantastic huevos rancheros, but it was also openly hostile to the gringo trade. Every dish was made brutally hot in what sometimes seemed to be a direct converse relationship to the lightness of one's skin, and getting the kitchen to lay off the cilantro required threats of terrible violence and a pistol.

We never found a decent taco place in Philadelphia. In Buffalo, it was burritos or nothing, and half the burritos in the city came dosed with Frank's RedHot. So when we came west, we were looking for spots exactly like El Coyotito -- community restaurants wallpapered in ads for Enramex and El Toro Loco international phone cards, with cars in the parking lot sporting pictures of the Virgin of Guadalupe and dining rooms filled with neighbors and families, giggling knots of high school girls in heavy eye shadow picking at rice and refritos, construction workers still in paint-spattered work boots and knee pads shoveling down bowls of menudo, and cowboys who take their hats off to eat and feed quarters into the jukebox in the back, punching up sad songs full of accordions and regret.

Sure, we had to give up chicken croquettes, great meatloaf and real chicken wings. But in trade we got El Coyotito and places like it, packed in sometimes three and four to a block. Now, it's spots like El Coyotito that make me think I can never go home again.

Our food arrives in less than ten minutes, probably more like five. The chicken tacos are excellent, even a little jazzy, with chile-marinated and shredded meat spiked with chunks of green chile, doused in thin sour cream and laid on top of a single, fresh corn tortilla. The burrito is massive, the desebrado almost sweet and tender -- not refried after braising, the way I like it, but very good nonetheless. The beef smells of thin gravy and chiles, glommed together by the refried beans inside the tortilla, and the entire plate is slathered in chunky Colorado verde with onions and sauce-poached tomatoes that spills over onto the plain rice, plus more refried beans topped with white queso fresco.

I enter into another ill-considered Spanish-as-a-distant-second-language negotiation with the waitress over what I'd like with my soup, our conversation consisting mainly of her slowly and carefully explaining my options and me nodding like a bobblehead and just saying "Sí, sí" over and over again. Finally, she gives up and simply brings me tortillas and limes and little bowls of diced onion, chopped jalapeño and shredded cilantro. The soup itself is thin and mild -- fish stock and tomato, unthickened, like an under-complicated cioppino -- with the odd chunk of carrot, celery or potato drifting through the depths. It's peasant mirepoix, the soup base for every cuisine on earth. And the bowl is packed with shrimp. I count a dozen or more big ones, butterflied with the tails left on and set to swim through a fragrant broth in which they are both the prime and base ingredient.

Shrimp soup and fish soup and soup with shrimp and octopus; big shrimp in the shell laid over sliced tomatoes and cucumbers, needing only a little salt to achieve three-ingredient perfection. Plates of pulpo (octopus) and cocktails of the same in a spicy brine powerfully spiked with chiles. Seafood is the specialty at El Coyotito, but there are also tacos made from lips (tacos de labio -- first time I've ever seen that), rich menudo as complex as the shrimp soup is simple, killer fried pork chops over rice, and every kind of Mexican comfort food under the sun.

Returning for an early dinner a few days later, I sit alone in the small, empty dining room, watching soundless soap operas on the TVs hung from the ceiling and marveling at the way El Coyotito's space has been repurposed. I don't know what existed previously at this address in the run-down strip mall that El Coyotito calls home -- it's been here as long as I've been in Denver, and I've never encountered an El Coyotito #1 or #2 -- but at some point this space must have been a deli, because all the orders from the kitchen are expo'd across the top of an old glass-front cold case still laid with fake plastic greenery. This view is blocked from the dining room by a hastily constructed partition painted with a sunny Mexican beach scene, but if you get a table against the far wall -- between the giant, polished bowling trophy and the gleaming juke -- you can still watch the waitresses waiting on pickups like housewives shopping for a pound of lean pastrami.

Dinner is so good that I return for takeout. As I wait, sitting beside the counter with accordion music filling the air, I try to figure out the words for ordering the Mexican doughnuts, the sweet buns, the fat slices of larded bread smeared thickly with butter and dusted with table sugar, or even just the chunks of piloncillo (brown sugar) in the bakery cases near the register. I think about how lucky I am to have found a place where I could have this problem.

I'm trying to be a better person, I really am. I'm trying to find joy in the little things. So when the waitress returns with my tortas de carnitas (the best I've ever had: a delicious and addictive marriage of fried pork bits, lettuce, raw onion and smooth, fatty avocado on heavy, chewy, grilled bread), I grab a couple of Mexican Cokes out of the cooler, gesture and grunt at the bakery case until I make myself somewhat understood, then pay for everything. I get change back from a twenty and count myself fortunate to know a spot where I can go for twenty bucks' worth of happy, a spot offering small pleasures for those who are far from home.

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