Eating Adventures

Exploring Havana Street: Nopales and Gorditas at Taqueria Corona

A nopal taco and a gordita at Taqueria Corona.
A nopal taco and a gordita at Taqueria Corona. Maureen Witten
According to the dictionary, a “taqueria” is a restaurant or stand specializing in Mexican dishes — especially tacos. Taqueria Corona covers both restaurant and stand, since the sit-down eatery at 2222 South Havana Street in Aurora was born from modest beginnings as a taco stand at the corner of Mississippi Avenue and Peoria Street ten years ago. This hole-in-the-wall restaurant, sandwiched between a hookah cafe and a sushi bar, puts the "home" in home-cooked Mexican food. Not because the simple, quaint cafe-style dining room is particularly homey, but because you’ll feel like family as you put in your order with one of three members of the Corona family, who own and work at the restaurant — and because the food is created from recipes used in the family’s kitchen long before they left their home in Guanajuato, Mexico, to come to the U.S. twenty years ago.

usually Startled by a woman's voice behind me asking, “What would you like to order?,” I realized that the man standing at the cash register wasn’t the one to talk to — but rather the woman doing the cooking in the kitchen. I told her what I wanted, and she quickly walked back into the kitchen and began to work. I felt like a little kid waiting for Mom to cook up my favorite lunch, reveling in the excitement and anticipation of the meal to come. I knew the food was almost ready when the smell of griddled tortillas and sounds of sizzling meats filled the small eatery. The cook soon came out and placed several Mexican specialties in front of me: a nopal (prickly pear cactus) taco ($1.50), a carnitas-filled gordita ($3.00) and a chicharrón plate ($7.50). My dining companions always laugh at me because I’m usually the one who ends up with several different plates in front of me, but with the affordable prices at Taqueria Corona, it’s almost impossible not to try more than one thing.

click to enlarge The chicharrón plate with homemade beans and rice. - MAUREEN WITTEN
The chicharrón plate with homemade beans and rice.
Maureen Witten
Nutritionists note that prickly pear cactus has anti-viral, anti-inflammatory properties, while others claim that it's great for curing hangovers. I wasn’t hung over, but I still had to try the supposedly nutrient-dense food, since Taqueria Corona seemed adept at de-spining and cooking this unique provision. The taco contained bite-sized hunks of sautéed nopales served on palm-sized white-corn tortillas. The pieces, sautéed in vegetable oil, tasted like a mix between green bell peppers and green chiles, with the plant's anti-inflammatory juice oozing out onto the tortilla. Chopped cilantro and onion topped the three-bite taco, giving it another layer of crunchy texture and garden-fresh flavor. These tacos are small, but at only $1.50 a taco, it’s easy to order a meal-sized quantity with your choice of nopales, pork, steak, tripe, tongue, cabeza (meat from the head of a cow) or chicken.

Next to my healthful, vegetarian cactus taco, sat a fat carnitas- and queso-filled gordita. You might think me ignorant for assuming, prior to visiting Taqueria Corona, that the gordita was the invention of Taco Bell rather than a traditional Mexican snack. The word "gordita" translates to “little fat one” in English, and Taqueria Corona serves up a light, flaky little gordita, pudgy with your choice of seven different fillings. A large dollop of crema as well as ample chunks of queso fresco (for an extra 25 cents) graced the top of the deep-fried masa pocket. Nothing about this portly delicacy remotely resembled its bastard fast-food counterpart, whose similarities stop at the name. Ignorance, in this case, was definitely not bliss: I didn't realize how good a gordita could be until I tasted the real thing.

The chicharrón, while fried, was actually soft rather than crispy, since it came swimming in a thick tomato salsa that gave it mildly spicy boost. Owner Carlos Corona confirmed that the rice and beans on the side were both homemade. The rice came out delicate and steaming, light-orange and perfectly cooked with little bits of tomato skin as evidenced that fresh vegetables went into its preparation. The refried beans played a background roll, adding a mild taste and thick texture alongside the fluffy rice and slippery strips of fried pork skin. For a little added flavor, the kitchen provided chilled squeeze bottles of red and green salsa, both medium to hot on the spice scale.

click to enlarge The unassuming Taqueria Corona is worth a visit. - MAUREEN WITTEN
The unassuming Taqueria Corona is worth a visit.
Maureen Witten
No fountain drinks are served, just horchata ($1.50-$3.00), coffee ($1.50), tea ($1.50) and assorted canned and bottled sodas (99 cents and up), some of which are imported from Mexico, like bottled Coke made with cane sugar instead of high-fructose corn syrup. Flan ($2.00) is served for dessert, as well as an assortment of Mexican candies displayed in a case by the register. Other popular menu items include menudo ($7) and carne asada ($7.50), according to the owners.

If I’ve learned anything from my time on Havana Street so far, it’s to not discount the camouflaged restaurants strewn among tire stores and car dealerships or next door to popular big-name chains. If anything, my mission to venture in and try these unemphatic places has helped overcome initial trepidation; I have yet to be disappointed, and often discover that the most bona fide and unique foods can be found in these establishments. Taqueria Corona is no exception, started from little more than a street stand and built with a dream to share a piece of the Corona family's home, culture and traditions, in food form.

Taqueria Corona is located at 2222 South Havana Street in Aurora and is open daily from 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Call 303-755-1034 for menu information and takeout orders.
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Denver native Maureen Witten is a suburban mom of two and online author who is unapologetically obsessed with all things food. Eating her way up major thoroughfares throughout metro Denver, she enjoys highlighting the gems hidden among the chain eateries.