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...
Expectations play a huge role in how I experience a restaurant meal, whether I'm returning to an old standby or trying out something new. Any build-up of a restaurant's reputation can lead to a letdown if the details have been botched or the comparisons prove inaccurate. Even at places where I eat regularly, slight changes to the standard presentations or flavors can set off Rain Man-esque bouts of confusion and mumbling. Although I'm not a creature of habit and am always game for a new culinary adventure, if someone messes with my favorites, I'm likely to wander out in a grumpy stupor and never return. And I don't think I'm alone when it comes to expecting consistency, even in the humblest of surroundings.
Because of this, Torres Mexican Restaurant is somewhat of a conundrum. I'd eaten a few meals here before beginning my dining south-to-north on Federal mission, but I've never been particularly impressed. Some of the basic dishes -- the chilaquiles and smothered burritos, for example -- seem lackluster, undersized and overpriced. If Torres can't get the simple things right, how can I expect any kind of quality with the more exotic or complex?
See also: - Federal may be busy, but brunch is never hurried at Newbarry's - Tacos Junior deserves senior status on Federal - Rico Pollo won't fly on Federal, but San Antonio Mexican Bakery rises above the fray
But I would have been wrong to simply judge Torres by my earlier meals and move on without ever diving deeper into the menu. Because in my most recent visit, my expectations were completely upended by the unique and intense flavors of a few of the seafood offerings.
It was fortunate that among my dining companions was an afficionado of camarones aguachile, literally translated as shrimp in chile water. Her recommendation meant that I'd be trying a new dish -- and something that I would otherwise have overlooked in my indecisive scan of the typically encyclopedic menu. But now thanks to her, I have a new favorite -- at least in the way it's served at Torres. Five simple ingredients -- raw shrimp, lime, chiles, cucumber, and onion -- are served ceviche-style. The shrimp are butterflied and marinated briefly in a puree of lime juice and serrano chiles, then served swimming in that marinade with the addition of sliced cucumber and slivered onions.
This seeming simplicity yielded complex and eye-opening results. Despite a wet and gloomy February evening, my mind drifted elsewhere -- surrounded by white sand and swaying palms -- as I savored the sharp tang of the sauce and brininess of the shrimp.
The caldo de dos pescados (soup with two kinds of fish) was satisfying in an entirely different way. Although I couldn't identify the variety of fish bobbing in the pale, tomato-tinged soup, the broth itself was homey and comforting in the same way as the best green chile. The flavors were similar to Colorado green chile, too: a homogeneous blend of stewed tomatoes and cozily warm roasted chiles with hints of garlic, onion and herbs. The tender chunks of fish absorbed the flavors of the soup without falling apart or becoming mushy.
A giant schooner of a shrimp cocktail known as revuelve a la vida (or "return to life," because of its powers as a hangover cure) was thick with fat shrimp, rings of calamari, bits of white fish, and a few sloppy oysters hiding out in a sweet tomato bath.
More standard dishes were dull amidst these treasures. The enchiladas suizas were barely recognizable as that classic Mexico City dish, and the chicken mole was merely passable.
Many of the restaurants I've visited along Federal on this project have been eerily quiet or even completely empty, regardless of the time or day of the week. Torres had the first genuinely bustling, vibrant and overflowing dining room I've found along this stretch. It made me feel like I'd cracked a small secret in understanding the perfect intersection of timing and food selection.
I can't thank my friends enough for helping confound my expectations by ordering dishes I would have passed on otherwise. I was ready to write off Torres as nothing more than a pleasant patio on which to enjoy a giant margarita and a basket of chips on a sunny day. And while it does have one of the best patios for watching the slow march of traffic and time on Federal, that dish of aguachile is really what will keep me coming back, as long as Torres keeps making it in that bright, fresh and intoxicating way -- without changing a thing.
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For more of my adventures dining on Federal, visit our "A Federal Case" archives.