Torta Grill opens on East Colfax...to a cluster of habitual addicts

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You're back!" booms Steve Clifton, diverting his eyes away from the flattop just long enough to greet a customer who's on his third day straight of tortas. "It's been like that ever since we opened," says Clifton, who, along with his wife, Ardeni, took over the former Pineapple Grill at 1818 East Colfax last week and reopened the diminutive space as Torta Grill.

"This is our first restaurant, and it's been one helluva learning experience, but it's going gangbusters," says Clifton, who unlocked the doors last Friday, only to encounter a man -- a different man than the third timer -- shifting his feet in anticipation. "The first guy who we served came back on Saturday morning with a bunch of people, and we've had repeat customers every single day, which is all we can ask for."

Clifton, whose wife is from Mexico City, where you'll bump into carts selling tortas on every street corner, says they spent nearly a year looking for a space in which to replicate the gargantuan sandwiches that define Mexican street food -- and rather than choosing a storefront on Federal, where there's already a high concentration of taquerias turning out tortas, they wedged themselves inside an East Colfax shoebox with exactly five stools, an open kitchen, natural fresh-squeezed fruit and vegetable juices and a menu that mimics what you'll find on Federal.

"I don't think enough Americans know what a torta is," claims Clifton, who jokes that it's the "new burrito." And, his mission, he says, is to make sure that urban neighborhoods like Capitol Hill, which doesn't have a large Hispanic presence, get a taste of what they may be missing. "We wanted to be in a neighborhood that's a melting pot of cultures, which is one reason why we picked this space. It's central, there's a lot of foot traffic and unless you go a long way in either direction, there's no place else to get a torta," he says.

And speaking of those tortas, they're certainly worth a repeat visit. The bread, baked by a woman north of Denver who owns a panaderia, is split and buttered, slapped on the flattop, smeared with ripe avocado, lardy beans and mayonnaise, strewn with onions, streaked with an inferno of chipotle chiles or jalapeno jelly, and stuffed with cheese, pork, breaded steak, chroizo, ham or bacon (or all of the above, if you get the especial, which also comes heaped with a hot dog) before it collapses into your lap from the weight; there's a vegetarian version, too, spilling over with scrambled eggs, nopales, cheese and crushed red peppers.

Be prepared to wear it.

Torta Grill is open 11 a.m. to 9 p.m. Monday through Saturday. For more info, call 720-420-0964. The joint also delivers.

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