In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard - south to north - within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...
There's a restaurant on Federal that's close enough to my house that I can make it home -- on foot -- with a stack of heavy, straining Styrofoam boxes before the steam even begins to condense on the undersides of the lids. It's open for a crazy number of hours every day and is situated in a strip mall with way more parking spaces than customers. You order at the counter and your food, cooked to order, is ready in a few minutes. The menu is huge, but the options are relatively simple. It's fast and casual. Jealous?
See also: - Rico Pollo won't fly on Federal, but San Antonio Mexican Bakery raises above the fray - Cafe Chihuahua is pregnant with possibilities - Andy's Kitchen Asian Express is worth a risky left on Federal
You probably should be, because the food at Tacos Junior is addictive and satisfying in a way that transcends concerns about sustainability, local sourcing, organic ingredients or any of the other buzzwords that so many fast-casual restaurants employ to enhance credibility.
But when you're seated before a sizzling mound of seared goodness featuring three kinds of meat (pastor, carne asada and ham), molten cheese, peppers and onions, your only thought will be to thank me for cluing you into the menu item known as alambres mixtos, which is Spanish for "fried leftovers" (unless you choose to believe the notion that the dish evolved from grilled meats and vegetables skewered on alambres, or "wires").
As you spoon the fatty, salty mess onto warm corn tortillas, you may also wonder if you should have instead ordered the ranchero version so that you could enjoy the textural oddity of nopales (green bean- like strands of cactus) and cubes of queso fresco together with beef, onions and tomatoes. Or maybe you should have ordered this combination atop a huarache or a tlacoyo. If you're not sure, order it, anyway. You won't find anything much more exotic than the names themselves in the many variations on corn masa: from the basic, soft and tender sope, to the chewy and substantial huarache, and onward yet to the bean-stuffed tlacoyo. Maybe your tastes are simpler, or it's late and you only want a snack. The picaditas are just sopes with fewer toppings (that's not the case with this dish elsewhere). The namesake tacos are pure, simple, rewarding -- with double-layered tortillas and a little onion and cilantro to complement the savory meat selection -- and small enough that they disappear in a bite or two.
While there's no single item on the menu that I would claim is the best in town, the sheer variety of antojitos exhibited means that Tacos Junior is practically a one-stop shop for those little pleasures that purists will argue over until the late hours of the night, even as they inhale a torta, flauta or enchilada.
Yes, the shredded chicken buried in those enchiladas is a little dry and bland, but the mole makes up for it with a complex and spicy kick accented with a raisiny flavor. And the bolillo rolls on the tortas may not be as tender or lardy as the best around, but the fillings are plentiful and varied, so you can still get your cubano, for example, if that's what you crave.
Those other places may offer enticing mounds of rice or noodles onto which they pile a few protein options (beef or chicken, and maybe tofu for the lucky vegetarian!), they may promise that those proteins enjoyed lives of the privileged livestock upper-crust, and they may surround you in minimalist elegance and the comfort of homogeneity. But do they offer floor-to-ceiling murals depicting lush tropical scenes? Are the colors bland, blond wood and steel, or are they riotous citrus greens and yellows? Do the windows look out onto stretches of parking lot, or can you pick out your favorite piñata hanging from the rafters of the attached grocery without ever leaving your seat?
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I, for one, have no trouble making my decision. If I'm looking for a respite from the office but only have a few minutes before my next meeting, I'll opt for the nearest assembly line of food with its modern angles, point-and-shoot ordering, and simplicity of choices, leaving the part of my brain that makes decisions free for the minutia of the work day. But when I want my senses to be overwhelmed with colors, aromas and choices, I'll stumble over to Tacos Junior for a hangover cure, a solution to a late-night craving, or just an easy dinner that I know will put a quick end to any string of disappointments that plague a day.