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...
Did I just eat the best tamale of my life? The masa -- moist, fluffy and steaming -- did not conceal a meat filling, but instead hid gems of sweet corn. It wasn't slathered in a flamboyant, fiery sauce, but only a generous drizzle of Mexican crema, enough queso fresco to add a mild tang, and the barest inkling of chile verde that whispered from a sauce so light I at first mistook it for melted butter. The tantalizing touch of green and a demure heat that tingled like a first kiss had me scraping the husk for every last clinging drop of it. Simplicity. Magic. Perfection. The kitchen at Tarasco's New Latino Cuisine had once again delivered a plate of restrained and effortless beauty, this time in the form of an inglorious lump of dough wrapped in a homely dried maize leaf that Tarasco's had treated with the same affection that many upscale restaurants devote to trios of expensive proteins or exotic ingredients fawned over by the easily impressed. But this was just corn: earthy and humble masa, candy-sweet kernels, and a waft of woody, farmland perfume from the steamed wrapper.
Tarasco's peeks out from its corner spot like the shy girl in a homemade dress at her first dance. The signs have been added onto, painted over, and even blacked out in places (maybe to obscure any comparisons to the logo of a similarly-named Louisiana condiment). But hints of beauty are there even in the chaotic patchwork of announcements and enticements (a little knowledge of menu Spanish will pay off here): "mole de siete chiles", "los mejores perros calientes," "Westword Best posole," proclaim the jumble of posters and window paint added at various points in the restaurant's existence. It's not atypical of any number of other taco shacks around the city, but somehow there's a sense of humble pride and not merely a hawker's bravado here.
So of course we ordered that mole made with seven chiles and that perro caliente -- literally "hot dog" -- that declared itself "the best." Along with those, we ordered a deceptively simple plate of morisqueta: rice, beans and cotija cheese with a pink-hued sauce that, like those tamales, proved to be so much more than the sum of its parts. I added on a huarache (a thick tortilla named for its sandal shape) with fried eggs smothered in a gravy-like green chile -- the liquid yolks completely obscured but not overwhelmed by the rich and spicy sauce.
But I couldn't stop there. With a nearly endless list of fruit and veggie juices and smoothies to choose from, I tacked on a thick and sweet blend of papaya, strawberry and oat milk. Well past the point of discomfort and into that stage where I just wanted to be horizontal, I kept stealing bites of tender pork jacketed in a velvety layer of that complex seven-chile mole (a specialty of Michoacan), which thankfully lacked the cloying sweetness of some of the mole Poblano found in other restaurants.
Because Tarasco's only has a few booths and tables between close walls covered in Spanish aphorisms and juice descriptions, it can go from quiet to boisterous in a matter of minutes as the tables fill up. I've only ever seen one waiter there, and he's always in motion -- seating new arrivals, balancing plates, chatting with regulars. When it gets busy, he chats a little less and hurries a little more, but he always takes a moment to check that everything is good and that everyone is happy. But with the skill of the cook behind him, he hardly needs to bother; happiness is only as far as a lunge of the fork.
My one complaint? I'm an incorrigible hot dog purist and there are two frankfurter crimes I find almost unforgiveable: hot dogs made from chicken and hot dogs topped with ketchup (Dirty Harry has my back on this one). Since the menu clearly states that the franks are of the chicken variety, I couldn't complain too much. And ordered con tocino (with bacon), there's still enough pork-fat to satisfy. Even the squiggle of mayo and a charred serrano pepper added the right balance of Sonoran spice and country picnic zip. Next time, I'll just have to remember to ask them to hold the ketchup. But that tamale? Yes, it was the best, or the best I can remember, which makes it -- for now -- the only tamale on my mind.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.