The ghost of Howard Johnson still haunts El Padrino

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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...

A cup of coffee at a diner is a contract with the waitress: Like the harried private detective in a film noir, you get your cup and the implied promise of frequent refills in exchange for your tacit agreement to not be a tightwad when it comes time to tip, even if the brown stuff in the mug is day-old sludge, even if you only got one scalding sip before you had to slap down some money and bolt for an exit -- the side door if it's the cops piling in through the front, or else just the quickest route back to your car if you're answering a frantic call from the broad who hired you to find her missing brother. The shambolic, linked dining spaces of El Padrino serve many purposes: Mexican restaurant, late-night dance club, truck stop. But it's all centered around what at some point in history was a classic diner with a wide-open kitchen passthrough, a ticket wheel, and the constant clatter and chatter of cooks and their spatulas.

See also: The Taco House keeps the flavors -- and aura -- of 1958 alive

The ghost of Howard Johnson -- the motel itself lurks somewhere in the back of the parking lot -- still haunts the joint, even if the menu, décor and clientele signify Mexican restaurant. I may not be able to get a wedge of apple pie with my coffee, but the breakfast menu features a few short-order, if south-of-the-border, items, most of which are available all day (unless you're craving pancakes, in which case get there before 2 p.m). Machaca and eggs, with its strands of still chewy slow-cooked beef and a sautéed veggie dice glued together by just enough yolk and white, isn't much of a leap from corned-beef hash. El Padrino's version lacked some of the spicy intensity I've had in other taquerias, but a little of the table salsa that came free with a basket of chips bumped the flavor and moisture up just enough to make an adequate stuffing for the side of tortillas included in the order. Chilaquiles also seem perfectly at home in a diner. Here, a mild red chile sauce cloaked chips soaked to just the right texture, somewhere between crunchy and chewy. Although El Padrino mixes in a few strands of egg, Amy added a couple more on top. Crumbles of queso and a spoonful of sour cream added a little tang to punch up what otherwise might have bordered on bland. Between the machaca and the red chile, bold flavors and heat seemed a little shy of the typical Federal Boulevard standard, but a plate of barbacoa tacos quickly made up for that with shreds of beef cheek that absolutely melted with each flavor-packed bite. There was no sauce and little detectable seasoning other than salt, but the fat, the molten collagen and the juices cooked into the meat combined to form a deep and tongue-coating complexity that needed no sidekick. I've had tacos that seemed like nothing more than the result of someone cooking meat in sauce from a bottle labeled "barbacoa," but these tacos were the purest expression of beef, much in the same way that the best carnitas present pork and pork fat as a simple but memorable combination of low heat and time and nothing else. Beyond the ringing of steel on steel from the kitchen, the low conversation of nearby tables and the quick exchanges of the waitstaff as they put in tickets and squeezed passed each other in the narrow aisle alongside booths freshly reupholstered with squeaky faux leather, the dull hum of the highway swathed everything in a subliminal white noise, or maybe it was the buzz of electricity from the knots of exposed wiring, conduits, neon lights and TVs. Whichever the case, it was a calming influence, as if the entire place was submerged in a clear and viscous liquid.

A motel diner perched on a highway off-ramp that has been slowly, more-or-less consumed by a Mexican restaurant still has the faint pulse of its former self, while offering a few exceptional bites of its present incarnation. Among the party-centric menu of parilladas (grill platters of meats and mariscos) and seafood combinations, there's still a hint of loneliness and moving-on. It's the proximity to the freeway, the pact with the girl bringing the coffee, the unspoken understanding that paying and leaving are more a part of the history here than returning and staying.

For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.

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