You may live in a place with good Mexican food. You may live in a place with what you think is good Mexican food. But unless you live in the Rocky Mountain Southwest, you probably don’t have access to anything quite like what we’ll be dishing up in Denver during the DNC. Come hungry, is all I can say.
The main thing to understand is that while you’ll see a lot of words you recognize on the menu – taco, burrito, enchilada, etc. – the food itself is going to be a little different from what you’re probably used to. The key is chile verde – green chili. Around here this usually means an obscenely flavorful sauce built around tomatillos and grilled pork. Before I moved west (I’m a North Carolina native) I’d never heard of green pork chili, and the sound of it scared me a little. But one bite and I was hooked. You will be, too.
Before getting to the recommendations, a couple tips:
- stay away from the red sauces – they can be good, but are usually out a can; focus on the verde
- don’t get hung up it if your green chili is actually red – some recipes use tomatoes
As you navigate around the Mile High City you’ll notice that the place is blessed with an abundance of Mexican restaurants. I’m not sure exactly how many, but it has to be in the millions. Many of them – maybe most – are worth the effort. At the very least you’re going to get something authentic, and if it takes a couple years off your life, hey – it’s about quality, not quantity, right? I wouldn’t begin to attempt a comprehensive review of these restaurants, but if you find yourself unable to get into one of the places I’m going to recommend, ask a local or your hotel concierge. There’s something good not far away, guaranteed.
Here are three places you might want to investigate; all are close to the DNC venues.
Benny’s At a glance, Benny’s is pretty much your regular neighborhood Mexican place. With feckin’ amazing food. Nothing complicated here – huge burritos, a predictable array of combos, outstanding rellenos, great carne tampiqueÃ±a and so on.
My top recommendation here is the #12 with steak. That’s a giant sirloin burrito (you can get it with chicken, too) slathered in verde, and my guess is it’s their most popular item. I don’t advise you to bother with any of their red sauce dishes, but the rellenos and carnitas are all wonderful. I’ve taken a lot of visitors to Benny’s and not one of them has ever left disappointed.
- arrive early – there’s a line most nights and during the DNC I expect the place to be wall-to-wall
- your order will get to the table quickly, but otherwise service can be a little spotty
- they serve beer in both pint and 22-oz. sizes – New Belgium Fat Tire is usually a good accompaniment
- in addition to some of the best food in town, Benny’s is also a really popular with the GLBT crowd; it’s in Governor’s Park at the base of Capitol Hill, which is one of Denver’s more heavily gay neighborhoods, and is an extremely lively date spot
- located at 7th and Grant – a block or off Speer, not far from Pepsi Center
Lime is a good bit more upscale than Benny’s and its menu leans heavily into what I guess we’ll call “affordably creative.” That is, exec chef Pam Savage-Sims serves up thoughtful, contemporary takes on the old standards, and smanage to do it for not much more than you’d spend at a place like Benny’s. Last week, for instance, I tried the Cantina Combo for the first time – a sweet corn tamale, a chile relleno and a beef enchilada with green chili. All were rich and tasty but a lot lighter than you’d expect (let’s face it, good Mexican is rarely diet food). Their beef burrito – that’s pretty much what I always get when I first visit a new Mexican restaurant – just bursts with flavor. And it’s big enough to hold your for awhile, too. Fantastic verde, as well – all the flavor of a greasy sauce without, well, all the grease.
Let’s see, what else? Oh yeah – the flagship location sits in the middle of Larimer Square (1414 Larimer) and is one of the more lively social scenes in downtown. The after-dinner crowd packs the place, the DJ plays a wide variety of requests, the mojito is the best I’ve ever had and the Margaritas are lethal. If you can get a spot on the patio grab it – since Lime is located downstairs, there’s an intimate, cloistered feel about it. Lots of old brick and tree cover let you feel both in the middle of things and comfortably tucked away from it all at the same time.
A few things of particular interest for DNC attendees:
- The Larimer location will be open for lunch during the DNC (they usually donâ€™t open until 4 PM)
- They’ll have some great happy hour specials during the Convention
- On Tuesday they’ll be serving $1 tacos all night
If you can’t get in downtown (or if you just really want to get away from downtown) Lime operates a second location at 730 E. 6th, which is just a few blocks down the hill from the DNC venues. It’s a different vibe, being out of the city center, but the food is every bit as good and most of those who frequent it think the atmosphere is even better than the Larimer store.
Tamayo This is the Denver outpost of Modern Mexican, Richard Sandoval’s small chain of top-end Mexican restaurants. Sadly, I can’t tell you a lot about the place from personal experience, as I’ve never been there. (I’ve walked past, trying to avoid pressing my nose against the window, though.) What I can do is pass along what people have told me, and that is that it’s fantastic. Tamayo is a good target for the true foodie, as it focuses on a refined culinary approach to Southwestern cuisine. Predictably, Tamayo isn’t for the faint of wallet – most entrees run in the $25 range. But the place does a thriving business and people tell me it’s worth the money. So there you go.