Texas has its nachos and fajitas. California's got fish tacos and Mission-style burritos. Arizona? Sonoran hot dogs and cheese crisps. And New Mexico's synonymous with Southwestern cuisine. So — considering we don’t even share a border with Mexico — what can Colorado possibly bring to the table? Besides, uh, Chipotle and Casa Bonita?
How about the rugged, adventurous spirit of the Rocky Mountains? In these parts, we cover the gamut of regional Mexican cuisines from north and south of the border as we please — and we do it well. But we also keep a few homegrown traditions all to ourselves. As no lesser an authority than Gustavo Arellano of ¡Ask a Mexican! and Taco USA fame once wrote in Westword, Denver’s comida may just be “the most bizarre in the United States…The least-loved. The most unknown…But I promise to sing your gospel, to proclaim the glories of your Mexican hamburgers and smothered burritos wherever and whenever I go.”
In the spirit of such praise, here’s a look at 21 restaurants that represent the rich diversity of Mile High Mexican — be they lowbrow, upscale, old school, mod, classic or totally oddball.
Why it matters: Not only does Adelitas’ ultra-rustic, back-alley sibling whisk you straight to a barroom of a dusty Oaxacan village, but it also boasts the best selection of mezcals in town — and a staff that knows just which one you're craving.
Must-order: The daily cocktail special (ask for chapulines on the side, if you dare) and the tlayuda with carne asada (pictured)
13 E. Louisiana Ave.; 303-778-1294
Tarasco’s New Latino Cuisine
Why it matters: Without a liquor license or any ambiance to speak of, this modest Athmar Park cocina has managed to make a major mark on our landscape with its taste of Michoacán and all its warm, earthy comforts.
Must-order: Mole de siete chiles (pictured), morisqueta, tamales de elote
370 S. Federal Blvd.; 303-922-2387
Birrieria El Viejon
Why it matters: Though you’ll find Jaliscan highlights like pozole, tortas ahogadas and, of course, tequila in almost any Mexican joint, this College View specialist in stewed and roasted goat brings Denver perhaps its most intense experience of the country's cuisine — complete with all the trimmings (including homemade tortillas) — against the festive backdrop of a packed house.
Must-order: Birria de chivo, of course, whether dry (seca), with broth on the side (horneada, pictured) or soupy (en caldo)
3000 S. Federal Blvd.; 720-490-9327
El Taco de Mexico
Why it matters: For decades, this bright-yellow, Lincoln Park beacon has stood as an exemplar of simple, straightforward tacos — just ask Andrew Zimmern, who filmed a segment there a few years back. The (mostly female) crew behind the counter has every last batch of carnitas, refried beans and, above all, green chile down to a science.
Must-order: Smothered chile-relleno burrito, taco platter (pictured), menudo
714 Santa Fe Dr.; 303-623-3962
La Calle Taqueria Y Carnitas
Why it matters: Along with El Taco, we'd put this low-key Valverde fave up against the best taquerias in any city for its luxuriant meats, electric rainbow of salsas and addictive aguas frescas.
Must-order: Tacos de cochinita pibil, buche and cueritos with avocado and habanero salsas
1565 W. Alameda Ave.; 720-583-6586
Work & Class
Why it matters: Because no one brings together the foodways of her homeland with elements of Americana quite as soulfully yet seamlessly as Dana Rodriguez, who has created a style of cooking that could well help shape the future of Colo-Mex cuisine.
Must-order: The cabrito, the peppers five ways and anything with Colorado lamb — be it coriander-roasted (pictured) or al pastor–style in a torta
2500 Larimer St.; 303-292-0700
Tortas A Toda Madre
Why it matters: Actually, Denver’s torta game is strong across the board, from Las Tortugas to Las Tortas to Torta Grill; this bare-bones Berkeley storefront earns its place in the local pantheon with sandwiches that are somehow as well-balanced as they are enormous, gloriously messy yet never downright sloppy.
Must-order: The Rumbera with layer upon juicy, salty layer of carne asada, chorizo, queso, ham, avocado, tomato and onion (not that you can go wrong with any of them)
3143 W. 38th Ave.; 303-433-1764
Why it matters: This Jefferson Park fixture is a testament to the complexity and elegance of Pueblan cuisine, with its tinges of French influence and distinctive use of various fruits in savory preparations.
Must-order: Chile en nogada, crepas poblanas, salpicón (pictured), tepache margarita
2311 Federal Blvd.; 720-287-2296
El Chingon Mexican Bistro
Why it matters: It's rare that a place with such heart also has such refinement, but this Tennyson Street retreat offers both against the backdrop of the American Dream. David Lopez's grandmother Gloria Nuñez began cooking in a professional kitchen in Mexico City as a teenager; his grandfather ran a Mexican food company here for nearly 50 years. And now the formally trained chef is carrying the family torch — with his abuelita's loving input.
Must-order: Daily ceviche, enchiladas verdes, bison two ways, seasonal desserts such as manzanas
4326 Tennyson St.; 303-248-3641
Lola Coastal Mexican
Why it matters: If Denverites finally grasp the culinary diversity of Mexico, no small amount of credit goes to Big Red F culinary director Jamey Fader, who began introducing us to the traditions of its coastal states way back in 2005 — from northwestern Baja to the southeastern shores of Veracruz, from what he describes as the “deep, dark, rustic” cooking of Oaxaca to the “funky, sweet-spicy Caribbean” influences of the Yucatán. And now, with Mexico City native Sharif Cruz helming the kitchen, those multiregional roots will surely spread even further.
Must-order: Chilpachole (pictured), albóndigas D.F., corn soup (while it lasts)
1575 Boulder St.; 720-570-8686
Why it matters: It’s had its ups and downs over the years, leaving newer kids on the block to steal some of its original thunder. But at its best, this anchor of Larimer Square demonstrates just why and how chef-owner Richard Sandoval was able to build an international empire on his boldly modern brand of Mexican cooking — and right now, it’s back at the top of its game.
Must-order: Bacon guacamole (pictured above), carnitas (pictured top), chileatole, plantain empanadas; don't miss the weekend bottomless brunch either.
1400 Larimer St.; 720-946-1433
The Original Chubby’s
Why it matters: In Taco USA, Arellano declared this Sunnyside institution's Mexican hamburger (complete with its thick orange blanket of "green" chile, so distinct from New Mexico's better-known version) the greatest Mexican dish ever invented in the USA. Of course, we already knew that, but the validation's nice.
Must-order: Enough said.
1231 W. 38th Ave.; 303-455-9311
Barricuda’s, Brewery Bar II and Longshot Lounge
Why they matter: Not a one is a true cantina so much as your average neighborhood bar and grill that happens to serve Mexican food in its own idiosyncratic style, per Colo-Mex custom.
Must-order: As if Denver’s trademark chile rellenos wrapped in wonton skins weren’t strange enough, Brewery Bar II does them in miniature, so they’re basically finger food for dousing in killer, brick-red “green” chile. Barricuda’s, meanwhile, serves them with — get this — honey (pictured), à la New Mexican sopaipillas and Colorado-style pizza crusts. And inside Longshot, Maria’s Kitchen serves up sloppers with the best of ’em down south in Pueblo, where the open-faced, chile-smothered burger was invented.
Comida, Dos Santos Taqueria de México, Los Chingones, Machete Tequila + Tacos, North County and Tacos Tequila Whiskey (aka Pinche)
Why they matter: We’re not lumping all of these gringo-run, gourmet-style hot spots together because they’re all the same, but because collectively they reveal just how free-wheeling and innovative our scene really is. Comida’s Southern roots show in the use of grits, pecans and fried chicken. Machete goes wild with the likes of fried lobster tail, beer-battered swordfish and flavored tortillas. Featuring ingredients like rattlesnake, apple butter and Pop Rocks, Troy Guard’s typically edgy, fusion-y style is on display at Los Chingones; the same goes for Kevin Morrison at Pinche, who puts everything from kale salad to hash browns on tacos. And both North County and Dos Santos do bright, bold interpretations of peninsular fare — the former inspired by Baja, the latter by the Yucatán.
Must-order: Griddled tacos at Comida, aguachile and Dos Dip (pictured) at Dos Santos, pig-ear nachos and panther milk at Los Chingones, halibut al pastor tacos and huitlacoche quesadillas at Machete, carne asada fries and fish tacos at North County, lengua and hash tacos at Tacos Tequila Whiskey
Comida: 3350 Brighton Blvd., 303-296-2747; 721 Confidence Dr., Longmont, 720-204-6455
Dos Santos: 1475 E. 17th Ave.; 303-386-3509
Los Chingones: 2461 Larimer St., 303-295-0686; 4959 South Newport St., 303-567-4258
North County: 94 Rampart Way; 720-532-0106
Machete: 2817 E. 3rd Ave., 303-333-1567; 1730 Wynkoop St., 720-612-7698
Tacos Tequila Whiskey: 1514 York St., 720-475-1337; 3300 W. 32nd Ave., 720-502-4608