Grant Hopfenspirger, son of the restaurateurs who created Gunther Toody’s and brother to the owners of Meatball Eatery and Zig Zag Smokin' Burger (which took over the Greenwood Village outpost of Gunther Toody's last year), is no stranger to the restaurant business. But now he's struck out on his own to create Teocalli Cocina, a modern Mexican eatery scheduled to open in the heart of Old Town Lafayette in mid-June.
“I’d been thinking about this idea for years,” Hopfenspirger explains. “I wanted a place that featured regional, authentic Mexican cuisine.”
Once Hopfenspirger found his location, at 103-C North Public Road in Lafayette, he put an ad out to find a chef who could collaborate with him to carry out his idea for creating dishes that represented various regions of Mexico. “I received over a hundred applications,” he recalls, “but there was one that stood out.”
And it should have — since the application came from well-known executive chef Johnny Curiel, who’s recognized for the regional Mexican dishes he’s created and served at various eateries for big-name restaurant groups such as TAG and Big Red F, including Centro Mexican Kitchen in Boulder. Guadalajara-born chef Curiel has spent much of his career traveling through Mexico and learning from distinguished chefs and wise abuelas, and has the experience and educational chops to re-create dishes the same way they’ve been prepared in Mexico for hundreds of years.
“Johnny was very interested in working with me, because he feels that not a lot of people are serving traditional Mexican cuisine, and so much of it is actually Tex-Mex,” Hopfenspirger adds.
Teocalli’s menu will offer the flavors of Nayarit, Jalisco, Sinaloa, Yucatan and Oaxaca. “Our menu represents many regions but is nearly 50 percent Oaxacan at this point,” the restaurant owner notes.
Upon Curiel’s recommendation, Oaxaca-born chef Julio Gaspar was brought on as the house chef at Teocalli to help execute the traditional dishes in the way Curiel and Hopfenspirger intended. Gaspar's Denver experience includes Zengo and La Sandia, and he was most recently chef de cocina at Lola Coastal Mexican.
The collaboration between Hopfenspirger and the two seasoned chefs should prove a winning one, the owner says, pointing out that one of his Latino employees walked into the Teocalli test kitchen and remarked that the room "smelled like home."
“You’re going to get a lot of Mexican clientele in here,” Curiel told Hopfenspirger over one of their final menu tastings.
The dishes that will beckon Mexican expats and Denverites of all nationalities are specialties like pork shank pibil tacos, pork shank wrapped in banana leaves with achiote paste and braised overnight; birria de res, a Mexican beef stew with roasted tomatillo sauce and grilled bone marrow; and esquites, an off-the-cob cousin of elotes. One of Hopfenspirger’s favorite menu items is the salsa trio that includes salsa macha: “It incorporates raw peanuts and smoky peppers and has a sweet, rich heat to it," he explains "I could eat it with a spoon!”
Even the corn tortillas will be made according to the traditional nixtamal method, in which corn kernels are soaked in a lime-and-water solution, then ground up to make a buttery-tasting masa flour that is used for fresh-griddled tortillas made daily in Teocalli’s kitchen. “Our tortillas are made with imported heirloom corn, which comes in various hues depending on the season, so our tortillas will be different colors throughout the year,” Hopfenspirger points out.
Since the eatery is sticking so closely to traditional Mexican cooking methods and ingredients, Hopfenspirger realized that their food offerings are naturally gluten-free, noting, “We weren’t trying to make Teocalli’s menu gluten-free, but wheat flour just isn’t an ingredient in any of these dishes. Traditional Mexican cooking doesn’t use it.”
However, the gluten-tolerant can still get their fix in liquid form, since the eatery will offer ten local beers on tap, including the Post’s Mexican lager, Top Rope. Mixologist Mathew Hemphill, who worked at Collision Brewery and Ocean Prime, created the house margaritas and other specialty drinks, and also selected the mezcal and tequila offerings for the bar.
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While the food has a traditional theme, the dining room is another story, described as “Mexican Glam” by Teocalli’s interior designer, Sara Blette. Guests will take in a modern Mexican-inspired atmosphere while they sip their mezcal. On the patio, a plain wooden fence has been transformed into a work of art featuring colorful agave plants by muralist Catherine Pistone, while a massive, vibrantly colored Aztec design created by graffiti artist Chad Bolsinger is displayed above booths in the dining room.
“I wanted everyone involved to collaborate on the overall vision I had for Teocalli while still giving them the freedom to creatively express themselves in the particular line of work that I hired them for. I think it turned out really well,” adds Hopfenspirger.
From muralists to mixologists, one commonality seems to exist between the eatery’s collaborators, and that’s a clear passion and talent for what they do. Don’t take my word for it, though: You'll be able to experience the food, drink and decor at Teocalli when the restaurant opens its doors to the public on Monday, June 17.