I recently found myself on the horn with a friend who was spending a few days in my old hometown of Denver. She loved how clean and friendly the city was, and she had a fine meal at Euclid Hall — a gastropub in a prominent historical building that gets good word of mouth. We talked about a couple of the region’s other top restaurants that she might put on her to-chew list.
“More than anything else, you really, really need to get some green chile, ” I said before we hung up.
Mexican restaurants in Denver hang their reputations on their green chile, which you can get by the bowlful, ladled over a combination plate or smothering an unforgettable pile of yumminess called a “Mexican hamburger.” You haven’t been to Denver until you can feel the green chile coursing through your veins.
The best part about it is that the most dubious green chile in the sketchiest little joint is still pretty good. You don’t have to study one of the many published guides to green chile around Denver and trek from here to there to indulge. In fact, you should walk into the first Mexican restaurant you see, wipe the tortilla crumbs from the seat and get some enchiladas smothered green. This is almost preferred. When the green chile looks like thin, pale sludge and offers only two or three smaller-than-sugar-cube chunks of pork and a few flecks of tomato, you have the baseline taste of Denver’s Mexican restaurant comfort. It is the taste of place, as certain as terroir in wine.
As you smear the enchiladas around in the sauce, your inner eye will clearly observe how that flavor grounds you on a day that turns from windy and snowy-cold to shockingly bright and cheerful, the way things often go in Denver’s thin atmosphere. Simple Mexican restaurants tread this territory — comfort, sense of place — better than almost any other kind. When my daughter comes home from college, she eats so frequently at the Taqueria del Sol in Decatur with all her high school friends and with us that it has become something of a joke. But Taqueria is the first thing she craves; it’s the flavor of home.
This restaurant’s nontraditional menu features a number of items that seem as much Southern as Mexican, including spicy turnip greens, fried chicken tacos and barbecued pork tacos. My kids grew up eating this food — a family fave for those times when we didn’t want to cook and didn’t want to spend a lot of money.
So it’s little wonder my daughter wants to get her cheese dip and fish taco fix when she comes home. Rich, spicy, soul-satisfying food.
But I have to think it’s more than just the eats. A big part of the draw is sitting on the patio under whirring fans and enjoying the respite from the sweltering heat. It’s crunching ice cubes between bites of food, and giving up on the dregs of the chip basket when the cheese dip congeals, and bumping into friends and neighbors.
I thought of this special quality of Mexican restaurants again when I visited Chuy’s in Dunwoody. This first Georgia branch of a big Austin, Texas, chain is, at first glance, one of those scarily over-the-top franchises that line suburban byways. It’s all ersatz diner tack: plastic palm trees, garlands of Christmas lights, multicolored chrome booths, an Elvis shrine, acres of pink tile.
But the food immediately took me to Texas. There was something about the creaminess of the guacamole, and the way it was presented atop iceberg lettuce shreds. The thinness of the chips. The frank pow of heat in some of the smothering sauces, including a wickedly delicious cheese-and-chile iteration called “boom boom” sauce. In Texas, the more homegrown versions of this restaurant are sprawling places that grew and grew by serving generous platters of Mexican food.
I can see how homesick Texans will be happy with the presence of Chuy’s. Through all its artifice, it has that sense of place unique to Mexican restaurants.
- by John Kessler for the Food & More blog