It's taken five years and hundreds of meals, but I think I'm finally starting to understand Denver's obsession with Mexican food. When it's good, it can be very, very good (although when it's bad, it's horrid)--and it doesn't get any better than at La Loma.
But then, this restaurant has been polishing its act for 25 years. Back in 1974, the Mendoza family and their partners, the Brinkerhoffs, opened the first La Loma in a Victorian bungalow at 26th Avenue and Clay Street. In that small kitchen, grandma Savina Mendoza cooked up a fantastic green chile that attracted fans from around the area--so many that in 1981, the two families decided to expand. They bought three houses a few blocks away, on a hilltop off 26th that overlooks the city, and remodeled them into one huge restaurant. While the original La Loma space is now occupied by Bali Island, this new, improved model has three distinct dining rooms (the Colonial, the Galleria and the Victorian) and the Cantina, a good-sized and good-hearted bar area. And even though Grandma Mendoza passed away a year ago, at the age of 91, she still presides over the place in the form of a larger-than-life-sized portrait that hangs by the foyer.
Otherwise, the Mendoza family is gone from the business, having sold out a decade ago to the Brinkerhoffs. "Bill and his dad, Sonny--the Brinkerhoffs--they come in all the time to check on things," says general manager Manny Franco, whose son, Joe, was one of our excellent servers. "And even until she died, Grandma Mendoza came in to check on the green chile, to see that it was still being done her way."
It is, thanks to chef Richard Marquez, who's kept La Loma cooking for the past five years and makes almost everything from scratch, including fresh tortillas and chips. A complimentary basket of those thin, super-crisp, warm corn chips arrives at your table shortly after you're seated, along with a zesty salsa teeming with crunchy bits of jalapenos, their seeds and whole oregano leaves. But wonderful as that starter was, I couldn't wait to try Grandma's green chile. My first encounter with the green was as a dipping sauce for the appetizer sarapes ($4.95), which had the shape of Jeno's pizza rolls and a spicy stuffing of freshly shredded chicken chimichanga meat. Although those little bundles were mighty tasty, they couldn't carry enough of the great green, so we started slurping up the contents of the bowl. We didn't want to miss a lick of the medium-thick stew, full of large chunks of soft pork, showing not a trace of cornstarch sheen, and redolent with tomatillos, jalapenos, a hint of cumin, some oregano and a touch of garlic. The green had just enough heat to warn us, but not enough to scare us off.
I'd ordered the milder red chile on the "anniversary plate" of chile rellenos, a stuffed sopaipilla and a chicken flauta ($8.95)--a combination so popular that after La Loma celebrated its twentieth year in 1994, the dish became a regular menu item. The red was fine, concentrated and mellow, with a gentle ancho bite and a bit of a cumin kick; it worked well with the rellenos, whose crispy skins encased strips of roasted poblano layered with cheddar and Jack cheeses. Still, the red was nothing compared to that green, so I ordered a side bowl of the stuff to pour over the rest of the platter. Unadorned, the flauta was a respectable version packed with seasoned meat; the well-made sopaipilla had a crispy exterior and a wonderful melded interior of refried beans and cheddar and Jack cheeses. Smothered in green, both items were elevated to major-league status.
In addition to the usual enchiladas and burritos, La Loma's menu includes such specialties as Mexican steak ($11.95), a mesquite-grilled New York strip sliced into thin ribbons and topped with sauteed red and green bell peppers, onions and tomatoes, all tossed with garlic and cumin. The steak came with a side of chile-fired, properly cooked black beans (they resisted a tiny bit before yielding) and La Loma's light, fluffy white rice. The shrimp-and-crab enchiladas ($11.50) were even more impressive (although I wish the menu had revealed that it was Krab, not real crab). The seafood had been wrapped in blue-corn tortillas and topped with saffron sauce for an appealing, if very rich, combination.
We weren't about to skip dessert, however. While the flan ($2.95) was only mediocre (too eggy), La Loma's fudge pie ($3.95) came topped with a delicious mess of pecans and warm chocolate over vanilla ice cream that had melted all over the pie.
On a return visit, ice cream was the last thing we wanted to eat, since the city was in the midst of its sub-zero cold snap. Hoping to get home before a threatened storm hit, we'd called ahead and ordered our food to go. But by the time we arrived, the snow had subsided, and the staff graciously set us up with a table. We warmed up over bowls of the charro-style bean soup, the black bean soup and the cream of cilantro soup ($2.95 a cup), all three highly flavored and well-blended, especially the cilantro (see Mouthing Off for the recipe). The black bean soup was tantalizingly spicy, and the charro-style bean soup overflowed with pinto beans sparked by a fresh pico de gallo.
The rest of the meal continued the warming trend. The carne guisado ($8.75) sizzled with serranos and cilantro-heavy tomatoes and onions that topped the sauteed, heavily seasoned (bay, thyme, cinnamon, nutmeg) sirloin tips. Although carne guisado is traditionally made with pork--it's a Guatemalan specialty--and relies on soured orange juice and tomatoes for the sauce, La Loma's variation turned out less acidic and more meaty. And orange juice did play into the preparation of the pollo tampico ($8.75), which used citric liquids as well as mesquite grilling to enhance the flavor of the chicken breast.
The most intensely flavored part of this meal, though, was the shredded beef in the chimichangas ($7.95), two crunchy/chewy fried flour-tortilla packages bursting with salty, tangy, juicy meat. We'd ordered them smothered with Grandma's green, of course, and turned down the heat with a small side of guacamole ($3.95). The guac is based on another old Mendoza family recipe and calls for hand-mashed avocados--you could tell, because the kitchen missed several chunks--merged with a little diced tomato, a little garlic and a lot of onion.
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After so many sharp, spicy flavors, we needed just a little sweet. And we couldn't have asked for anything sweeter than the capirotada ($3.25), a Mexican bread pudding soaked in a rum syrup and served warm with whipped cream on top (see Mouthing Off for the recipe and some capirotada lore). Finding this dish on a Mexican menu--rather than just the usual flan and fried ice cream--was a real treat.
While so many local Mexican joints settle for throwing some cheese on a greasy taco and calling it a day, the folks at La Loma clearly believe in taking those extra steps that raise one restaurant above the rest. And they do it so well that they make it look easy--although after eating hundreds of lousy Mexican meals, I'm here to tell you that it isn't. It takes a commitment to quality, a commitment that La Loma reflects in everything from the inventive entrees to the fresh ingredients to the excellent staff.
Grandma would be proud.
La Loma, 2527 West 26th Avenue, 303-433-8300. Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m. Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m. Friday; 4-10 p.m. Saturday.