Richard Sandoval is still making waves in Colorado after helping put our state on the national plate by opening Tamayo on Larimer Square in 2002. Sandoval's restaurants can seem like they're stuck in time, rarely shifting with times and trends. But Sandoval's newest venture, La Biblioteca, offers a happy hour that doesn't simply go through the motions or carry the whiff of old age. And Tamayo underwent a menu overhaul and a remodel two years ago to update it to this decade. I thought happy hour at Sandoval's flagship would tell me if there was life left in this old burro.
Something is certainly attractive about Tamayo's happy hour, kicking off early from 2 from 7 p.m. daily. Bar space was shoulder-to-shoulder on a Tuesday after working hours, with little room for idle conversation on either side of the rail. The happy hour menu changed with the remodel, but hasn't budged in the years since. There's the collection of $5 margaritas — whittled down from the $11-$12 dinner margs with simple well tequila for Monte Alban — $5 sangria and wines, $4 drafts, and the same 'ol menu of tacos and Mexican tapas.
No matter my reservations about the food, I can solve the mystery of Tamayo's popularity — the margaritas are seriously great. My sandia Tajin had the sweet tang of real watermelon and tongue-friendly spice from lime and a chile-syrup and salt rim. They're not as thick as the margs at La Biblioteca, but how smooth, how tangy — they don't taste like mass-produced beverages even as they're poured left and right.
Now for the solids, which had let me down on my previous happy hour visits. Tuesdays are Taco Tuesdays, with $2 tacos (normally $3), and botifarras (small plates) for $4 each. The more interesting selections are the small plates, but by the time they reach the fork the intrigue is lost. The masa covering the chicken tamal was soft on the inside but clammy and gummy on the outside, and whatever bland filling was inside wasn't worth the effort. I would have sworn that the chunks of pork on the teeny al pastor taco were overcooked tofu if the menu hadn't indicated otherwise. But there are bright spots too: The meat in the chicken tinga taco had all the piquancy missing from the tamales, and the three salsas on the cute little squash blossom quesadilla asserted themselves nicely over the sweetness of the morsel itself.
A high-volume happy hour can bring out all the flaws in a restaurant like Tamayo, which really does pretty well with its bigger entrees. It looks like this Larimer Square mainstay is angling toward visitors and tourists (see below) more than foodies. That's no big deal — a marg or two or five can sand down almost any kind of roughness. Just make sure you know what you're sitting down to, and the many other happy hours in this part of town that strive for something more.
Perfect for: With a newly-reconfigured rooftop patio, Canopy at Tamayo, the restaurant is hoping to attract the club-going set. If you want to dress up nice, stay out late and don't mind staying hungry, the Canopy serves a similar late-night menu from 10 p.m. to close on Fridays and Saturdays.
Don't Miss: To my regret, I missed the perro caliente ($4), a mini Sonoran hot dog wrapped in bacon and doused with salsa. You truly cannot go wrong with a bacon-wrapped frank, nor can you go wrong with one of Tamayo's margaritas, which are satisfying and even a bit creative.