Over a recent lunch, a friend in the restaurant real estate business marveled over the fact that in Denver, restaurateurs tend to fight for the same forty core Denver spaces. This is baffling, he pointed out, because that not only means those restaurateurs are paying a premium for their rent, but also because they’re fighting for crowds thinned by immense surrounding competition. More perplexing, he continued, is that it’s not that restaurant real estate is exactly sparse: “There are so many other neighborhoods in this city that are dying for a good restaurant,” he noted.
Perhaps to illustrate his point, he’d taken me to a place near the border of Denver and Englewood, which served a fairly ordinary menu of pizzas and salads and yet was commanding a crowd that rivaled downtown hot tickets with prime locations — for a weekday mid-day meal.
I had the chance to ponder this conversation again when I hit Cochino Taco for happy hour. Owner Johnny Ballen crested to Denver fame on downtown restaurants — he co-owned the now-closed Squeaky Bean, which made waves in the LoHi neighborhood before moving to a high-stakes address in the heart of LoDo. But when he started plotting a casual taco joint, he looked to his Englewood neighborhood, where, he told Westword two years ago, “There's nowhere near here to sneak out for a quick whiskey.”
Cochino, which inhabits a former Phillips 66 gas station at 3495 South Downing Street, deals in the same type of whimsy as the Bean did, with its colorful murals and irreverent tchotchkes (including many, many pigs, the cantina's mascot). The menu is flooded with intense, flavor-bombed takes on Mexican food that ought to draw in this city’s weed fiends like flies to honey. Perhaps that crowd seeks this place out (and the restaurant encourages it: The often punny sign out front read recently “SMOKE EASTER GRASS, EAT TACOZ”), but during happy hour, at least, which runs daily from 3 to 6 p.m., the restaurant sees instead what seem to be eager neighborhood regulars, who drop by to chat with Ballen, have a few drinks at the bar, or linger for several hours on the patio with groups of friends. By 5 p.m. on a Tuesday, it can feel like one of the more energetic crowds in the city.
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The drinks are the most compelling of the specials, and they’re also what I’d go out of my way to return for. Start with a $5 fish-bowl-sized michelada, built on a spice-imbued Clamato-base bolstered by an entire can of Montucky Cold Snacks beer. Consider next moving to a $6 frozen paloma, which swirls tequila and grapefruit in silken ice, or what is a very good $5 mojito, bright with lime and delicate on the mint. The casa margarita is a solid bet at $5, too, though I’d spring for the $7 Coin-style upgrade, made with single-barrel reposado tequila and still poundable. If you’re not really a cocktail person, head straight for the $3 and $4 beers (including a draft Negra Modelo) or a $5 glass of wine.
As for the snacks, junk food-ified Mexican bar snacks take up considerable real estate next to three different types of tacos. The $5 Doritos nachos were the best of the lot; Doritos are addictive in all forms, and they make a tasty if somewhat unnecessary base for gooey queso, fresh jalapeños, tart pico de gallo and the kind of stewy seasoned ground beef your mom used to scoop into hard shells on taco nights (maybe that was just my mom). The Frito pie was also a solid snack, although the al pastor pork was lost enough in the mess of beans and cheese that I didn’t realize it was al pastor until I looked back at the menu. I’d skip the evil Cheetos next time — much has been made of these cheddar-dusted pork rinds, but the dusting was so light, the rinds desperately needed their side of pickled jalapeños for flavor. Ditto the green chile-smothered tots with cheese: In a town in which green chile is practically a competitive sport, this one, thin and mild, just doesn’t stand out.
Above all, Cochino’s got a freewheeling vibe and a die-hard base of neighbors who were no doubt thirsty for something like this to open. That’s a good formula for long-lived success.