Category Archives: Mexican and Tex-Mex

Tame Tamales for the Road

When we drive to the high country from Boulder, we drive south on Colorado Highway 93, turm west onto US 6 through dramatic Clear Creek Canyon and feed into Interstate 70 east of the Central City Parkway and Idaho Springs. If we need to fill the gas tank or grab some coffee early in our trip, we usually veer off onto Rubey Drive, just off 93 as we are coming into Golden.

Yesterday just after noon, en route to Snowmass for a few days, we decided to try The Tamale Kitchen. It has a bright, inviting sign, and tamales are slow to cook but quick to eat. It turns out that there are eight or so Tamale Kitchens in metro Denver. The tamales themselves come from a central kitchen (a “tamale factory,” according to the website) in Lakewood.

The posted menu includes breakfast items and the usual assortment of Tex-Mex dishes, but when a place has “Tamale” as its middle name, that’s what I order. They offer two kinds, one each with with red chili and green chili. Of course, the corn husks encase the requisite rectangles of masa. Between these masa layers, the red tamales are made with pork and mild red chiles, while the green ones contain very modest slivers of pork, silvers of green chilies, corn kernels, zucchini cubelets and perhaps other vegetable bits. Both versions are mild. The price is right (half-a-dozen tamales for $5.50) and the location convenient. But otherwise, these tamales are not memorable.

This location of The Tamale Kitchen is at 109 North Rubey Drive, Golden; 303-273-9999.

Pupusas for Pupusas and Other Latin American Treats

Hungry after a morning hike, my husband and I stopped at Pupusas, a small Salvadorian and Mexican restaurant in North Boulder that opened a little over a year ago and has developed quite a following — including us. Boing from Mexico was our drink of choice — and mango or guava being the choice of the choice. Pupusas also offers real Mexican Coca-Cola, made with cane sugar rather than corn syrup. It’s the only kind purists will drink.

I ordered a Salvadorian chicken/vegetable tamales (above left). The vegetable was primarily potato cut into chunks about the same size as the chicken white meat chunks, plus a couple of chickpeas (garbanzos) and a couple of small pieces of green bean in each tamale. In El Salvador, tamales are cooked in banana or plantain leaves instead of corn husks. The kitchen unwrapped the pair of tamales, served with a bit of shredded iceberg lettuce and tomato, some delicately flavored rice and beans topped with shredded cheese (I prefer whole black beans to refried, but both are available). My husband had a small open tortilla (I think it’s called a taco on the menu) De al Ambre — a mix of grilled carne asada, spicy chorizo, bacon and cheese (above center). It came with some iceberg lettuce and chopped tomato.

We also shared a chile/cheese pupusa (above right), a Salvadorean specialty made of a pair of thick, fresh corn tortillas filled with a choice of ingredients. It resembles a double-sided quesadilla made with corn rather than flour and as thick as a piece of pita that somehow had been filled before it was baked. The chiles were hot — heat that was offset by a sweet, smooth red salsa. The dividing line between the pupusa and the salsa was a row of excellent cole slaw.

Pupusas is one of the few restaurants serving tongue and tripe (menudo), which we didn’t order but are rare treat for those who enjoy these ingredients. I’m just hoping it will all last. The building directly to the south, which I think until recently house Salvation Army offices, is vacant — and “vacant” in Boulder these days means ripe for redevelopment. Our filling lunch cost well under $20, and I hope that if it has to move, Pupusas will find an affordable spot from which to service authentic and yes, affordable, meals like ours.

Pupusas Sabor Hispano is at 4457 North Broadway, Boulder; 303-444-1729.

Santa Fe (NM) Comes to Santa Fe (Boulevard)

Upscale NM Eater to CO

The Santa Fe Tequila Company, an upscale (but moderately priced) New Mexican eatery, celebrates its grand opening next week, bringing swanky Santa Fe-style cuisine and ambiance to Denver’s burgeoning five-block Art District on Santa Fe. Santa Fe cuisine is that fortuitous blending of Spanish, Mexican, Cowboy and Pueblo Indian culinary cultures, presented with style and flair, and usually accompanied by tequila (straight with lime and salt or in mixed drinks), sangria or wine; beer optional).

The new restaurant is the brainchild of Bill Kennedy and Joe Falko. Kennedy brought a club, lounge and tapas bar called The 9th Door to LoDo. Falko is in the real estate biz, but his passion for Santa Fe cuisine is palpable when he talks about this new venture. Kevin Marquet, executive chef at The 9th Door (and before that at MODA Ristrorante and a couple of country clubs), has assumed that role at the Santa Fe Tequila Company too. He has created such dynamite lunch specialties as a chili cheeseburger served with Spanish-style aïoli (derived from Marquet’s tapas time, no doubt) and fall-off-the-bone cowboy-style ribs at dinner (I’m not guessing at the provenance of that dish).

The restaurant with tequila with in its middle name stocks 60 tequilas, some with little known labels, some very moderately priced ($4-$5 a shot) to ultra-pricey premium labels (up to $80 a shot). Food prices are reasonable too, with entrées $8 to $12 lunch and $12 to $18 at dinner.
The restaurant is at 901 West Tenth Street, Denver; 303-534-7900.

Just as Santa Fe authenticity is coming to Denver, the original bastion of Santa Fe cuisine has changed hands. Mark Miller who is credited with creating this distinctive modern New Mexican cuisine has sold the Coyote Cafe that he founded to a quartet of new managing partners (Sara Chapman, Tori Mendes, Quinn Stephenson and Eric DiStefano), all of whom have been associated with the Santa Fe, NM, restaurant. Chapman and Stephenson began busing tables there as teenagers, which makes for a nice culinary Cinderella story. Mendes has been managing the restaurant for more than three years, and DiStefano has more recently been executive chef at Geronimo Restaurant. The Coyote Cafe menu will probably be tweaked, but the core concept will continue. The Coyote Cafe is at West Water Street, Santa Fe; 505-983-1615.

Sandoval at La Sandia — In Person

Just last week, Westword restaurant critic Jason Sheehen took Richard Sandoval to task for having become too distant from his numerous restaurants. He was named Bon Apetit’s Restaurateur of the Year in 2006, but now his restaurant group operates Tamayo, Zengo and La Sandia in Denver; Maya in New York, San Francisco and Dubai; Zengo in Washington, DC; Pompano in New York; Isla in Las Vegas, and another La Sandia in Tysons Corner, VA. Five more restaurants will open soon in Mexico City, Acapulco Chicago, Scottsdale and San Diego. That’s an overloaded plate, and Sheehan noticed.

Setting the backdrop for his review of La Sandia, Sheehan wrote, “Because Sandoval has so many restaurants to keep track of…he has no day-to-day control over his properties…He sets a concept, writes a menu, staffs up with trusted lieutenants (sometimes), trains a crew and then unlocks the doors. His business is not so much about creating great restaurants as it is about creating great food-service machines that can run flawlessly in his absence. And there’s nothing wrong with that — as long as customers understand that going in….As a chef, I can’t help but be impressed by his menu from an organizational and force-disposition standpoint…[but] I’m not a chef anymore. And what might have once made me respect a guy for his smarts now makes me disdain him for his detachment and those parts of the dining experience that are just too cold-blooded and calculating to be ignored.”

Yesterday evening, I went to La Sandia for the second time. Previously was for lunch with friends, and it was fine — a little programmed, but fine. The space is attractive, every item dishes was very nicely presented (a Sandoval signature), the guacamole was good, and the tortilla soup and house salad made for a nice, moderately priced lunch. There was a sterility to the place, partly because it’s in the NorthfieldStapleton “village” which alone equates to sterility, plus La Sandia occupies a fairly large space, and very few of us were in it. Still, because I enjoy Tamayo so much, and I was ready to return to La Sandia at dinner, to see what other dishes were like.

Last night, I did. New York-based Richard Sandoval Restaurants hosted a small media dinner, complete with tortilla-making demonstration, and Richard Sandoval himself (top photo) was there to do a little demonstrating and a little Q&A with writers. Outstanding watermelon mojitos, and regular and hibiscus margaritas were passed around before the demonstration. Then, we sat down at a very long table set with baskets of tortilla chips, three-legged lava bowls with guacamole and little bowls of roasted tomato salsa. The waiter took our orders for a choice of “Mexico City-style” tacos, which means on soft, freshly made corn tortillas. The offerings are from the regular dinner menu.

I picked the grilled chicken, which was cut into a rough dice and well cooked — perhaps a tad too well, because it was no longer moist. Grilled slivered vegetables and a small bowl with two sauces (a light and a dark presented in sort of a yin/yang fashion but not easily identifiable) were came on a hot platter. On the side were a small plate of rice and black beans and a basket of napkin-wrapped tortillas to make the “fajita-style” tacos.

Maybe it was because I’d drunk two mojitos, or eaten entirely too many tortilla chips with guac and salsa, but my taste buds wouldn’t hook onto anything. The textures were pleasing, but something was missing in the taste department. Dessert was churros with hot chocolate for dipping. The chocolate was thin (maybe that’s the way it’s supposed to be), but didn’t have much taste either. What I really like about Tamayo is the interplay of strong, distinctive flavors. I didn’t find them last night. Like the Northfield/Stapleton venue, it was all watered down and bland. The Cafe de Olla (made with decaf coffee on request, orange zest, cinnamon and piloncillo, a Mexican dark brown sugar) was so delicious that it made me almost forget the empty flavors that marked the rest of the meal.

We were told that Sandoval visits Denver about every six weeks and hosts events in various cities. I asked whether the events were all for the media or whether some were open to the public too. I didn’t get a real yes or no answer. Sandoval is an engaging man, one who has created awesome food elsewhere. I just haven’t found it at La Sandia. Neither, FWIW, did Jason Sheehan.

Boulder Weekly’s "Best Of" Picks

The current Boulder Weekly offers up its annual “Best of Boulder County” issue. Here is the long list of the paper’s staff and readers’ picks — and mine too (sometimes instead of an sometimes in addition to the Weekly‘s selections):

Staff and Readers: The Mediterranean Restaurant (“The Med”)
Runner-Up: The Kitchen
Honorable Mention: DeGabi Cucina
Claire’s Pick: Zolo Grill, Tahona Tequila Bistro

Staff and Readers: Moe’s Broadway Bagel
Runner-Up: Einstein Brothers Bagels
Honorable Mention: Big Daddy’s Bagels
Claire’s Pick: No contender this side of the Hudson River; Moe’s all the way

Staff and Readers: Lucile’s
Runner-Up: Walnut Cafe and Walnut Cafe/South Side
Honorable Mention: Dot’s Diner, Turley’s
Claire’s Pick: Foolish Craig’s

Staff and Readers: Breadworks
Runner-Up: Great Harvest Bread Company
Honorable Mention: None
Claire’s Pick: Breadworks and Whole Foods for breads; Spruce Confections and Breadworks for pastries

Staff and Readers: Mountain Sun and Southern Sun
Runner-Up: Tom’s Tavern
Honorable Mention: Dark Horse; V.G. Burgers
Claire’s Pick: Jill’s at the St. Julien

Staff and Readers: Illegal Pete’s
Runner-Up: Chipotle
Honorable Mention: Wahoo’s Fish Tacos
Claire’s Pick: Mina’s Latin Restaurant (Erie)

Business Lunch
Staff and Readers: The Kitchen
Runner-Up: Brasserie Ten Ten
Honorable Mention: Prima Ristorante
Claire’s Pick: Jill’s at the St. Julien, Q’s at the Boulderado, The Boulder Cork

Staff and Readers: Glacier Home-Made Ice Cream
Runner-Up: Spruce Confections
Honorable Mention: Belvedere Belgian Chocolate Shop
Claire’s Pick: The Flagstaff House, Q’s at the Boulderado
*In my opinion, the paper combined “Dessert” and ” Miscellaneous Sweet Stuff” here. “Dessert” in this context should have been limited to the dessert course in a restaurant. An ice cream dipping store, a bakery and a chocolate retail shop — no matter how worthy — do not fit into this category. Anyone editing this newspaper?

Happy Hour
Staff and Readers: The Mediterranean
Runner-Up: Triology Wine Bar & Lounge
Honorable Mention: Mountain Sun/Southern Sun
Claire’s Pick: Tahona Tequila Bistro, Redfish, El Centro

Fine Dining
Staff and Readers: The Flagstaff House
Runner-Up: Frasca Food and Wine
Honorable Mention: Sunflower
Claire’s Pick: The F-team, Flagstaff and Frasca, get high votes from me too. So do The Kitchen, Q’s at the Boulderado, L’Atelier

Staff and Readers: The Golden Lotus
Runner-Up: Moongate Asian Bistro
Honorable Mention: Orchid Pavilion
Claire’s Pick: China Gourmet (casual), Spice China (Louisville, fancier)

Ice Cream
Staff and Readers: Glacier Homemade Ice Cream
Runner-Up: Ben & Jerry’s
Honorable Mention: Boulder Ice Cream, Bliss Organic Ice Cream
Claire’s Pick: Hatton Creamery

Readers: Trident Booksellers and Cafe
Staff: Laughing Goat Coffee House
Runner-Up: Vic’s Coffee
Honorable Mention: Amante Coffee, Bookend Cafe
Claire’s Pick: Bookend Cafe

Staff and Readers: Taj Restaurant
Runner-Up: Tandoori Grill
Honorable Mention: Sherpa’s
Claire’s Pick: Same three

Staff and Readers: Jambo Juice
Runner-Up: Berry Best
Honorable Mention: None
Claire’s Pick: Juices Wild, Anjou, Cafe M

Staff and Readers: A Spice of Life
Runner-Up: Whole Foods
Honorable Mention: None
Claire’s Pick: No opinion; I cook

Staff and Readers: The Rio Grande (“The Rio”)
Runner-Up: Zolo Grille
Honorable Mention: None
Claire’s Pick: The Rio for the wallop, Tahona Tequila Bistro for variety and taste

Staff and Readers: Efrain’s Mexican Restaurant
Runner-Up: Zolo Grill
Honorable Mention: Rio Grande, Juanita’s Mexican Food and Casa Alvarez
Claire’s Pick: Mina’s Latin Restaurant (Erie)

Staff and Readers: Nick-n-Willy’s Take-and-Bake Pizza
Runner-Up: Abo’s Pizza
Honorable Mention: Proto’s Pizzeria Napoletana
Claire’s Pick: Proto’s, O-Pizza

Place to Bring Kids
Staff and Readers: Red Robin
Runner-Up: Noodles & Company
Honorable Mention: Mountain Sun/Southern Sun
Claire’s Pick: Cafe Gondolier

Place to Eat Outdoors
Staff and Readers: Chautauqua Dining Hall
Runner-Up: Boulder Farmers’ Market
Honorable Mention: Mediterranean Restaurant
Claire’s Pick: All of the above, plus El Centro (which continues the patio from the location’s Rhumba incarnation) and anyplace on the Pearl Street Mall

Late Night
Staff and Readers: Abo’s Pizza
Runner-Up: Hapa Sushi
Honorable Mention: Cosmo’s Pizza, Dark Horse Bar
Claire’s Pick: The Reef (new owners introducing late food service)

New Restaurant
Staff and Readers: V.G. Burgers
Runner-Up: Panera Bread**
Honorable Mention: California Pizza Kitchen, 7 Eurobar***
Claire’s Pick: Black Cat Bistro
**The one on 29th is new, but Panera is not new to Boulder. The former Panera location on the Pearl Steet Mall (and also the one in Louisville) closed in 2004. Paradise Bakery now occupies the Pearl Street Mall space.
***This is now simply called Seven and has been reborn as a Latin/Asian fusion place and no longer is European-influenced.

Overall Restaurant
Staff and Readers: The Kitchen
Runner-Up: Frasca Food and Wine
Honorable Mention: None
Claire’s Pick: Both of those, plus the Flagstaff House and L’Altelier

Staff and Readers: Mountain Sun/Southern Sun
Runner-Up: Walnut Brewery
Honorable Mention: None
Claire’s Pick: Oskar Blue’s (Lyons)

Staff: Japango
Readers: Sushi Zanmai
Runner-Up: Hapa Sushi
Honorable Mention: Sushi Tora
Claire’s Pick: Hapa Sushi

Vegetarian Friendly
Staff and Readers: Sunflower
Runner-Up: Whole Foods
Honorable Mention: V.G. Burgers
Claire’s Pick: Cafe Prasad in the Boulder Cooperative Market for vegans

Staff and Readers: Snarf’s
Runner-Up: Salvaggio’s
Honorable Mention: Deli Zone
Claire’s Pick: Salvaggio’s

Take Out
Staff and Readers: Siamese Plate
Runner-Up: China Gourmet, Jimmy & Drew’s 28th Street Deli
Honorable Mention: Khow Thai
Claire’s Pick: Whole Foods, Nick-n-Willy’s

Staff and Readers: Know Thai Cafe
Runner-Up: Siamese Plate
Honorable Mention: Thai Basil, Chy Thai
Claire’s Pick: Yummy Yummy Tasty Thai Food (Louisville), though I understand that it recently closed. Sad.

Staff and Readers: Purple Martini
Runner-Up: Trilogy Lounge & Wine Bar
Honorable Mention: None
Claire’s Pick: The Flagstaff House

Staff and Readers: Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse
Runner-Up: Pekoe Sip House
Honorable Mention: Celestial Seasonings, Tea Spot
Claire’s Pick: Boulder Dushanbe Teahouse

Staff and Readers: Chez Thuy
Runner-Up: May Wah
Honorable Mention: None
Claire’s Pick: Kim Food to Go

Wine Selection
Staff and Readers: Frasca Food and Wine
Runner-Up: The Flagstaff House
Honorable Mention: Trilogy Wine Bar and Lounge
Claire’s Pick: Those are my top three too

Staff and Readers: Laudisio Ristorante
Runner-Up: Carelli’s
Honorable Mention: DaGabi Cucina
Claire’s Pick: Trattoria on Pearl