Sometimes it pays to be a regular guy.
At Señor Pepe's, the regulars are treated like royalty. As for the rest of the riffraff, let them eat cake. If they can ever catch a server's attention, that is. Because unless you're known by one of the staffers at this Denver institution, you may wait quite a while before you see any food.
"I have a lot of regulars," says Ramon Luevano, who founded Señor Pepe's thirty years ago. "They are people who have been very loyal to us and have supported us through good times and bad, and they have not left us for the chains."
Seor Pepe's, 1422 Poplar Street, 303-321-1911. Hours: 10:30 a.m.-10:30 p.m. Monday-Thursday; 10:30 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday-Saturday; 4-10 p.m. Sunday. La Cocina de Marcos, 2260 South Quebec Street, 303-750-6733. Hours: 10 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Friday
After working as a matre d' at Le Profile in the Sixties, Luevano opened his own place in Cherry Creek, the short-lived Ramon's, where he did "French continental cuisine," he says. "Those were the old days, when it was a lot easier to run a restaurant." These days, there's too much competition -- for both customers and employees. "I've been very lucky that my cooks and my waitresses, they've all been here for years," Luevano adds. "I know how hard it is to find good help these days."
Luevano, who is originally from Mexico City, still does a lot of the cooking at Señor Pepe's, and the recipes are all his. "Yes, I cook, and I wash dishes," he adds. "Sometimes you have to do a little bit of everything in this business."
Too bad he's not waiting tables, too.
When two of us showed up for dinner one night, we had to wait to be seated and then waited for twenty minutes more without so much as a menu to keep us occupied, even though a host-type person was walking around with a whole stack of them in his hands. Meanwhile, staffers were lavishing attention on the two guys at the next table, along with anyone else they recognized. We were just about to leave when a waitress finally deigned to come over, and after that, we braced ourselves for a lengthy wait every time we needed something. Meanwhile, we sipped our bad, too-sweet margaritas ($3.50) -- we'd had to ask for them twice -- and nibbled on chips that had been sitting under the heat lamp too long, wondering what we could do to make it look like we'd been to Señor Pepe's many times before.
Once the real food started appearing, though, we began to understand why Señor Pepe's has so many repeat customers. The guacamole was a big improvement on the chile-powder-heavy salsa that had come with the chips; the avocado had been hand-mashed, then mixed with onions, tomatoes and not too much garlic. As a result, we downed the guac in a flash, then settled down for a long wait for our entrees. I don't know why the carne Tampiqueña ($10.95) and chimichanga ($7.65) took so long, but at least they turned out well. The chimichanga was particularly fine: A tortilla wrapped around seasoned, shredded beef had been deep-fried into a golden crust with the flaky, deliciously oily texture of fine pastry. Topping it was a tasty, if not particularly distinguished, cornstarch-thickened green chile, packed with heat and big hunks of pork. Although the beef that had been prepared Tampiqueña-style -- the recipe comes from Tampico, Mexico -- was on the chewy side, its flavor was better than what I've found in many high-end steakhouses. The meat had been rubbed with garlic and arrived steaming hot, with a big blob of herb-flecked butter melting over the top. The guac had been included with this entree, which also came with a cheese-and-onion enchilada smothered in Señor Pepe's red sauce (it tasted like chile powder, too), along with the usual Spanish rice and refried beans.
And although we endured another wait for our dessert -- the waitress confessed she'd forgotten about it -- the scoop of Mexican chocolate ice cream ($2.25) was something special. Rather than a lame supermarket brand, it was quality chocolate with the surprise of cinnamon.
I returned the very next day, hoping to get the same server, who might now treat me like an old friend; after all, she'd certainly been prompt about bringing our check the night before. But no such luck. The service was just as slow at this meal. I had to ask three times for water and twice for a fork -- and that was after the food had arrived. With dishes steaming in front of me, I watched our waitress hugging some guy, all the while holding the coveted fork.
Once I finally got to dig in, though, the food was fine. The shredded beef burrito ($3.95) was filled with tender meat, although the red chile was again heavy with chile powder. The tamale dinner ($6.95) featured three homemade tamales, soft and moist and filled with spicy pork, as well as rice and beans. The relleno special ($7.65) brought two naked poblanos filled with Monterey Jack cheese and wearing a scant amount of green chile; maybe the usual relleno batter had been lavished on the sopaipilla ($5.95), whose starchy, doughy exterior was a bit daunting, although the interior was that same good shredded beef. This time the dessert was a super-creamy flan ($2.25) -- but it took so long to show up that I knew the waitress had forgotten it.
So I decided to forget about Señor Pepe's and find a place where I'd feel welcome from the start.
Enter La Cocina de Marcos. How refreshing it was to walk in, immediately be seated, have our drink orders taken promptly and the food delivered within minutes. Granted, this tiny eatery only has ten tables, but the single server has to hustle to keep everyone happy. That busy fellow would be Rick Ingraham, and you can ask for him by name.
La Cocina is owned by Cecelia and Isidro Robles, who named the restaurant after their young son, Marcos. While Cecelia keeps an eye on Marcos and the front of the house, Isidro cooks. Originally from Mexico, he's lived in Denver for decades; he cooked at Grisanti's for ten years until it closed. Then the couple found this space, a former pizzeria that came complete with handmade booths permanently attached to the walls, and opened La Cocina in April 1996.
Since then, they've developed a small but loyal following by paying attention to details -- details ranging from attentive service to very fresh ingredients. "Isidro is in here early in the morning, chopping the onions himself and making everything from scratch," says Cecelia. "I was worried when he said he wanted to do Mexican, because he's been cooking Italian for years and he knows so many other cuisines well, but he has always wanted to do this."
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Isidro's food is full of little touches that indicate a trained chef (someone you don't find in many Mexican joints) is in the kitchen. For example, the refried beans that came with the relleno special ($5.25, Wednesday nights only) had been made from scratch, the beans cooked down with onions in fat until everything was soft, but not baby-food mushy. And the rellenos themselves were the tidiest things I've ever seen -- two beautifully roasted poblanos filled with Jack cheese and thinly covered with a sheath of egg batter. They'd been smothered in La Cocina's green, a sweeter-than-usual version with a faint bite and tiny bits of tomato. More green covered the ground-beef-and-bean burrito ($5), which was stuffed with well-seasoned beef.
After one meal, I was ready to become a regular. On a second visit, we started with a chicken quesadilla ($4.75), a thick stack of roasted chicken and cheese stuffed between two flour tortillas, then fried until the cheese melted into a delicious glue and the buttery torts were crispy. An order of tacos al Caporal ($7.75) brought five tacos filled with tender beef strips that had been sautéed with potatoes and cilantro. The carne asada ($5) featured more of that rib eye, sliced and grilled with green bell pepper strips and onions. The tamales ($5.25) were homemade, big, fat bundles filled with creamy masa harina and a mixture of vegetables and beef. Good as all of these dishes were, the best item by far was the breakfast burrito ($3.75, and available all day). You get to pick three fillings from a list that includes eggs, potatoes, sausage, beans, chorizo, green chiles and cheese, and the burrito comes smothered in that great, sweet green. We opted for the eggs, potatoes and chorizo, and the combo was heavenly.
While food of this high quality should be enough to ensure loyalty, La Cocina's customers also appreciate the care that Cecilia and Isidro put into their place. In fact, Isidro often comes out to the dining room to check on people's reactions to his dishes. But their dedication does have its drawbacks: since the Robleses do so much of the work themselves, hours are limited -- they're only open until 8 p.m. during the week, and they're closed weekends so they can spend more time with their son. "We tried to offer better hours and turned the restaurant over to the employees one day a week," Cecilia says, "but they didn't care about it like we do."
Their emphasis on the care of feeding of customers, any customers, is enough to make me a regular.