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...
Walking into Taqueria Las Palmas is like visiting a neighbor's house. Despite the presence of a cash register and a specials board, the popcorn ceiling, Home Depot light fixtures and laminate-topped tables set up in what, perhaps decades ago, was surely someone's living room with the cozy (if cramped is too unkind a word) space filled with the air of being lived in. Patrons eventually exchange money for food, but until that time comes, they're just as likely to be an aunt and uncle -- with a brood of kids in tow --popping by to catch up on family news.
Federal Boulevard has a distinctly residential feel in the area immediately surrounding Las Palmas, which sports a few bright signs and tacked-on architectural features, along with an armor of incongruous stonework, but otherwise hides demurely behind a few overgrown elm trees and does its best to attract customers with a whispered "Bienvenidos" floating in a cartoon thought bubble above the entrance foyer. The restaurant has its own lot, but I parked a couple of blocks west on 40th so I could walk up and get a feel for the neighborhood. Brick bungalows and more of those elms line either side of the street, their roots pitching the slabs of sidewalk at treacherous angles, given the crust of ice still clinging in the shady stretches. The menu covers the standard spread of combo plates, a la carte tacos, enchiladas and tortas, and few house specials. Heeding my own theory that handwritten signs often contain the best suggestions, I went with tacos made from the house birria (lamb), which is also available in a bowl in a more soup-like format. I make a point of ordering birria wherever I can find it, as lamb and kid pack a great flavor punch that melds particularly well with Mexican spices and heat. More often than not, the lamb is slow-braised and bathed in its own juices, but the kitchen at Las Palmas serves a drier version, no less tender, but finished on the griddle in crisp-edged shreds more akin to pork carnitas. The shingled row of single-ply tacos were as good as any I've had in town, sided with finely chopped mounds of radish, onion and cilantro. Amy took advantage of the whiteboard suggestion of mole enchiladas stuffed with tender shredded beef (chicken and ground beef were also available). Draped in a velvet robe of sepia-toned mole, the enchiladas started sweet but finished with an herbal complexity and subtle warmth. We also shared a small bowl of blistering green chili, since the menu skewed toward the Den-Mex spectrum and I wanted to see how it compared to recipes from close-by competitors. This version lacked chunks or shreds of pork but still offered a rich meatiness beneath the wicked hit of chiles. The specials board also featured "divorced eggs," a literal, if humorous, translation of huevos divorciados, a dish featuring eggs smothered in pools of red and green chile, separated by a furrow of frijoles refritos. We didn't have room, but it would have been a wiser choice than the unfortunately freezer-burned churros that made it to our table, after we were informed that flan was not available. In retrospect, Las Palmas probably just isn't busy enough to support fresh desserts. Over the past couple of decades, Las Palmas has weathered the continuous ebb and flow of restaurants on Federal. Equal parts charm and unintentional kitsch, the dining room amuses with silk roses on the tables, a Thomas Kinkade print that mirrors an almost idyllic ideal of the restaurant and its faux stonework finish, and colored glass panels above the kitchen pass-through. Over all that, the unmistakable aroma of good homestyle cooking keeps the goofiness in check. Las Palmas is nothing if not a survivor in a neighborhood giving way to flips, scrapes and pop-tops. Survival, though, is equal parts skill and luck. And with any luck, newer neighbors will give the kitchen a chance to keep demonstrating its skill.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.