For more than a decade, Tarasco’s New Latino Cuisine has drawn vegetarians and carnivores alike to 470 South Federal Boulevard. Now diners in search of lighter, healthier options have another choice: Noe Bermudez, the chef/owner of Tarasco’s, just opened Kahlo’s at 450 South Newton Street in the Westwood neighborhood.
The new restaurant, named for Bermudez’s favorite Mexican artist, Frida Kahlo, offers a menu based on the food of his home state of Michoacán, along with a lineup of fruit and vegetable juices similar to those served at Tarasco’s. “The times change; it’s not like it used to be,” Bermudez says, explaining why he includes more vegetarian, vegan and gluten-free dishes on Kahlo’s menu. “I think it’s very important for businesses to offer these options.”
The ingredients used in the cuisine of Michoacán add depth to dishes without needing meat or fat. “The food is rich in flavor and rich in vitamins,” he says. “I make a mole with thirty ingredients; just think of all the good things that end up in your stomach.”
Bermudez grew up in Uruapan, Michoacán, the son of a professional chef. “My mom runs a restaurant in Mexico,” he says. “She put me in a corner and told me to watch while she cooked.”
And so he watched and learned as she used avocado leaf, bay leaf, oregano, chiles and other ingredients native to southern Mexico — and he still calls her to ask how to make certain dishes. But after eleven years of cooking in Mexican restaurants around town and even more years running Tarasco’s, Bermudez thinks he’s developed his own style, one that honors his roots and avoids the heavy use of canned goods and cheap cheese that he sees in many other eateries.
While working in other kitchens, though, he learned valuable skills that help him with his own establishments. One former boss “pushed me to the limit, but that’s the way it should be in the restaurant business,” he says. He applies those early lessons not just to running his business and maintaining a clean, safe kitchen, but to cooking. Enchiladas are one of the house specialties at Kahlo’s; the menu lists eight different styles, some distinctive to Uruapan — and none of them weighed down by molten yellow cheese.
The enchiladas plazeras are stuffed with sautéed carrots and potatoes and enlivened with three sauces: guajillo salsa that stains the tortillas a deep red; tomatillo salsa, which adds a touch of tangy heat; and fresh tomato salsa. You can order enchiladas filled with morisqueta, a traditional mix of rice, beans and tomatoes; spinach enchiladas; and enchiladas montadas, which are stacked rather than rolled. There are also steak, chicken, pork and shrimp variations for those who want something meaty. Bermudez tops his enchiladas with a light shower of finely shredded cabbage instead of lettuce, because that’s the way it’s done in Michoacán (cabbage is also less likely to carry salmonella, he says); all can be ordered with or without queso fresco and crema. The lineup also includes Oaxacan tamales, two styles of mole, filling salads and more typical antojitos like tacos and huaraches.
Westwood, which surrounds the diagonal strip of Morrison Road between Alameda Avenue and Sheridan Boulevard, had earned a reputation as a rough part of Denver in years past, but recent redevelopment and new businesses have improved prospects for residents and restaurant owners alike. The Del Corazon apartment community, which broke ground last fall, will rise on both sides of the road, while the Westwood Food Cooperative will soon be in business right across from Kahlo’s; a small mercado is selling locally grown produce there until the full co-op opens. Bermudez has already made plans with the co-op’s founders to buy produce from their urban garden so that he can utilize organic vegetables in his green chile and other dishes. “I have a lot of faith that this neighborhood is getting better,” he says, even if things are a little slow right now.
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But Kahlo’s has only been open for a month, and Bermudez says he welcomes the challenge of attracting new customers; it’s part of the reason he chose the neighborhood. While Tarasco’s is small, with limited seating and an open kitchen that dominates the dining area, Kahlo’s is considerably more open and airy, with sunlight streaming through the windows of the triangular dining room, bright-pink walls adding a festive glow, and a juice bar that would fit right in inside one of RiNo’s hip new watering holes (don’t expect alcoholic beverages here, though). There’s an antique piano in one corner, but not much else in the way of decor.
Even so, Kahlo’s has the feel of an urban cafe in one of Mexico’s cosmopolitan cities. The restaurant is open for lunch and dinner from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Bermudez says he plans to add Sundays — an important day for family restaurant outings — once business picks up. And he’s sure it will. After all, his menu includes this quote from Frida Kahlo: “Pies, para qué los quiero si tengo alas para volar?” — which translates roughly to “Feet, why would I want them if I have wings to fly?”