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...
There are a few poignant signs along Federal Boulevard, leftovers from a simple and optimistic time that evoke the past more than the establishments they announce today: The geometric shapes and washed-out colors of the Irving's Used Cars sign stand watch over little more than a weed-infested parking lot just north of Eighth Avenue; the peeling Googie swoops and angles of Bungalow Liquors at Alameda today promise only a cheap suitcase of Bud or a bottle of fortified wine; the magnificent block letters set between the twin domed minarets of the Federal Theater peek timidly over the relatively new -- but still venerable -- marquee signs jutting over sidewalks that yearn for the days of packed houses spilling out into a warm Denver night. So it's not surprising that the sign over the Taco House, almost bigger than the building, is more of an icon in this town than the restaurant itself.
Despite age spots, facelifts and weathering, the building maintains a roadhouse charm and tidiness that stand in opposition to the forces of decay. I was torn between wry admiration of Taco House's defiant quaintness and a little dread at having to make a meal from items that might not be much fresher than the sign. But a visit that began with a bit of an eye roll and a sense of duty turned into something more interesting when I opened a menu proudly announcing the restaurant's 55th anniversary.
Yes, I'd eaten at Taco House before, and it was even one of the restaurants that gave birth to the idea of dining at every restaurant on Federal. On a trip back from a football game at Sports Authority Field, I had announced that I wanted to try every taco joint between the stadium and home. "Tonight?" my wife had asked. Well, not all in one night, I had reasoned. But a few that night, and a few more every weekend, and soon enough we could genuinely claim to be Federal Boulevard taco experts. The idea eventually expanded beyond just tacos, but Taco House had been one of our first stops.
And now, with menu in hand, I ordered just about everything listed except tacos. Owner Greg Risch -- grandson-in-law of the original owner -- and his son, manager Scott Risch, both agreed that the #4 dinner (three cheese enchiladas, a bean chip, a queso chip and a guacamole chip) topped their list of favorites, so I selected cheese enchiladas, but ordered everything else a la carte to get a broader taste of the menu. Amy chose a tamale smothered in chili verde (as spelled on the menu), and I added a beef-and-bean burrito, similarly smothered, with a side of chili con carne. Our waitress started us out with a basket of tortilla chips and housemade salsa.
And how is the food at Taco House? It really depends on whether you like your Mexican food seasoned with nostalgia. Scott Risch said the dishes have never been authentic interpretations of Mexican standards, but instead represent a glimpse into what working-class Denverites considered good south-of-the-border fare in 1958. I like to think of it not as Tex-Mex or Den-Mex, but rather as Vintage-Mex -- simple recipes more reliant on tomato sauce than chiles and more attuned to the preferences of your granny than of tu abuela.
The red enchilada sauce and the salsa that came with the chips both exhibited the smooth and familiar flavor of slow-cooked tomato sauce, with only hints of typical Mexican seasonings like cumin, chile powder, garlic or onion. But the enchiladas themselves were made with care -- each tortilla dipped in sauce and rolled before being cooked, rather than having sauce carelessly ladled over top. A second portion of sauce pooled like a lake of lava on the hot plate. Sure, the cheese filling and shredded topping were both of the bright-orange American variety, but it only takes a little self-confidence to admit that American cheese is a pleasure free of guilt. There's a perfect cheese for almost every meal, and sometimes it just happens to be American.
The tamale was tender and stuffed with a flavorful meat that stood out above the mild chili verde, which added a ghostly wisp of tang and maybe the barest inkling of heat. The ground beef in the burrito -- and in the chili con carne -- had been simmered to a fine-grained consistency. Nothing stood out among the flavors and textures, but to my surprise, I scraped every last smear of sauce and congealing cheese from our multitude of plates. And then I ordered dessert.
My family is Canadian and I didn't experience Mexican food until I moved to Texas at the age of seven. But the food at Taco House, especially the apple enchilada -- which was nothing more than apple-pie filling wrapped in a cinnamon-dusted flour tortilla and broiled in a buttery caramel sauce -- could have come from any of my aunts' kitchens, if they'd grown up with even the remotest exposure to Mexican flavors or ingredients. As full as I was, that apple enchilada, sided with a quickly dissolving scoop of vanilla ice cream, didn't stand a chance.
According to Greg Risch, the Taco House has been serving up these recipes virtually unchanged since 1958, when his wife's grandfather, Gerald Bevelhymer, opened the place as a mostly takeout shop with a drive-up window. The apple enchilada is one of his recent creations, but then, he's only been cooking there for thirty years or so. In that time, he's seen Federal evolve from a working-class neighborhood to a diverse and bustling urban corridor with a dangerous reputation. An undeserved reputation, agrees the younger Risch, adding that a few bad seeds don't change that fact that the residents of the neighborhood are still honest, working-class folks, only now they're also from Vietnam, Mexico and many other parts of the world.
Finishing up the last dregs of caramel sauce in the immaculate, sepia-toned dining room, I looked around at the families and couples enjoying their meals. They could have been a young version of your grandparents out on a date before heading to a showing of Ben-Hur or Some Like It Hot. The toddler bumping his head on the table and being consoled by Greg as he made his way from table to table could have been a young me, eagerly sampling my first taco. A group of teenage girls were busy gossiping and forming memories that will, hopefully, draw them back to the Taco House as mature adults to reminisce about the crazy days.
The past, present and future all blend together under a time-worn sign with an outdated sleepy burro and his sombrero-topped passenger. Federal Boulevard will keep evolving and drawing new businesses and residents, but the Taco House quietly reminds passersby and customers that not everything must change or become complicated. Time is not always something that passes; sometimes it's something that sits still, waiting for us to notice.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.