Denver Loves Mexican: 10 Can't-Miss Mexican Restaurants from Traditional to Nouveau
By Christine Loomis
Denver Local Expert
The Mile High City has no lack of Mexican restaurants, but they’re not all created equal. Some are downhome traditional, such as Tamales by La Casita, while others, including Lola Mexican Fish House, are upscale-contemporary by design. A few fuse both styles and are places where you can get hearty chicken enchiladas as well as delicate pan-roasted mahi-mahi. Tamayo falls in that category. By its nature much of Mexican cuisine is gluten free, and south-of-the-border dishes have long been vegetarian friendly, centered as many are around chiles, rice and beans, to say nothing of chips, salsas and guacamole. Mexican is in many ways the Latin version of comfort food, its dishes warm, filling and recalling a welcoming home where someone’s grandmother has been in the kitchen all day preparing for guests to arrive. Some of the best restaurants in Denver today started out as food trucks, including Comida in the art-centric RiNo neighborhood. Now, these trucks’ brick-and-mortar siblings have taken popular street food and made it available to those who want to dine at a table in pleasant surroundings. Ideally, these tables are in a restaurant with a full bar where Mexico’s renowned national spirit, tequila, is front and center in its many forms, from affordable and best mixed in a margarita to carefully aged and perfect for sipping. It may be cliché to say Denver’s Mexican restaurants offer something for everyone, yet it’s the truth.
Benny's Restaurante y Tequila Bar
An anchor of the Capital Hill neighborhood restaurant scene, fun and funky Benny's Restaurant & Tequila Bar is a place lovers of Mexican food can go multiple times in a week without busting the family budget--or having the same thing twice. Order a Dos Equis or any of the dozen margaritas and take your time perusing the lengthy list of possibilities, which range from mole-smothered chicken breast and fish tacos to the famous Sloppy Burrito and crispy chile rellenos. If deciding proves too challenging, there are more than 20 combination plates mixing and matching the most popular items, such as a smothered Barbacoa burrito and chicken enchilada served with rice and beans, or a crispy relleno, smothered bean burrito and guacamole tostada. Nice amenity: the patio is heated and air-conditioned for year-round dining. (303-894-0788)
Located in a historic house in northwest Denver, La Loma celebrates foods typical of the Yucatan, Mexico City and Acapulco, among others. The menu offers the best of Mexico's traditional dishes, from tacos, chile rellenos and chimichangas to flautas and sizzling fajitas. There's also a mesquite-grilled selection of entrees--chicken, shrimp and steak--and salads that make a flavorful but lighter meal. The Acapulco chicken salad, for example, puts mesquite-grilled chicken with fresh pineapple, mango, jicama and avocado, topped with passion-fruit vinaigrette. Combos let diners mix and match an array of Mexican favorites, and portions are not skimpy here so sharing is easy. Don't skip the margaritas crafted with fresh fruits and juices and the option of premium tequilas and orange liqueurs. (303-433-8300)
Tacos Tequila Whiskey
Tacos Tequila Whiskey evolved from the cheekily named Pinche Taco food truck, but the name didn't fit the funky but slightly more sophisticated aesthetic of a sit-down restaurant in Capital Hill. While the truck retired from street service (it's still used for catering private events), the restaurant remains devoted to those uber popular street tacos food-truck devotees crave. In fact, small but filling tacos make up the bulk of the menu, encouraging guests to order sushi-style and try several kinds. Tempting fillings include braised pork belly with candied garlic and cabbage-and-cilantro slaw; chipotle-and-beer-battered fish with slaw, avocado-pineapple guac, pickled red onion and lime; and citrus-marinated skirt steak with avocado, onion, cilantro, cotija cheese and lime. There are also vegan and vegetarian items, more fish, and breakfast tacos are served weekends. In addition to more than 30 types of tequila, the restaurant serves beer, house-made sodas and limited wines. (720-475-1337)
Machete Tequila & Tacos
In March 2014, Machete opened its second restaurant, this one in LoDo situated between Coors Field and spectacularly renovated Union Station. While the original Cherry Creek eatery has a charming Mexican dive-bar feel, the aesthetic in LoDo is more upscale. Interesting artwork was purchased on the streets of Mexico City, a fitting complement to Chef Jose Avila's menu inspired by dishes typical of Mexico's capital, his hometown. Tacos are front and center but with twists, such as a version featuring grilled halibut marinated in recado rojo, pineapple butter, onion and cilantro and served with a squid-ink tortilla. Tostadas are topped with ahi tuna, mako shark or octopus, among other possibilities. There are mezcals, dozens of tequilas and a fine selection of hand-shaken margaritas--including the fiery Hot Mess made with tequila infused in-house with habanero and Serrano peppers. Reality: Machete is hot, and we're not just talking spice. (720-612-7698)
Tamales by La Casita
For nearly four decades Paula Sandoval and her family have offered up exceptional, fresh-made tamales in north Denver, food that reflects what Sandoval calls New Mexican style. She describes her restaurant as "a clean, well-lighted place that speaks of comfort, home and friendship, a place to enjoy a good plate of food and don't forget to take tamales home!" Truth be told, this is the place in Denver for authentic, affordable, house-made tamales--green, red or vegetarian. So highly regarded are the Sandovals, they also have a factory that sells tamales wholesale to other restaurants. Of course, there are tacos, tostados, enchiladas, huevos rancheros, chili rellenos, burritos and smothered sopapillas on the menu, too. Tamales by La Casita has an outpost at Terminal C in Denver International Airport, so you can also get your tamale fix--and other regional goodies--coming or going from Denver. (303-477-2899)
Blue Bonnet Cafe
Family owned and open for 46 years, Blue Bonnet is a staple on South Broadway, set between the Baker and West Washington Park neighborhoods. In some ways it's a throwback to previous generations and a very traditional concept of what a Mexican restaurant should be. But that is in no way a negative. All chiles, for example, are fire-roasted in-house, appearing in numerous popular dishes as well as in the restaurant's signature fire-roasted jalapeno margarita. Even gluten-free hits the mark with fire-roasted stuffed poblanos. In fact, every item on the menu is made from scratch and because no lard is used, vegetarians have a wide selection including roasted vegetable tacos. That said, Colorado is known for its pork green chile and Blue Bonnet's is amazing. If you're not vegetarian, go for whatever you order smothered in green chile. ((303) 778-0147)
Lola Mexican Fish House
Evoking the flavors and colors of coastal Mexico, Lola's fresh seafood sizzles with south-of-the-border flair. The LoHi restaurant is casual, upbeat and comfortable, and among its highlights is a stellar cocktail program featuring more than 200 kinds of tequila. The margaritas are legendary. Chef Kevin Grossi's menu takes its inspiration from the regions of Oaxaca, Yucatan peninsula, Baja, Veracruz and the northern Pacific Coast, and many of its freshest ingredients from local purveyors. Oysters, scallops, shrimp, chipotle tuna and tequila-cured salmon are among the delicacies of the cold bar, while hot entrees include lobster enchiladas and Baja-style whole fish. Meat-and-potato lovers aren't forgotten. Pork shoulder and carne asada are also on the menu, along with fried fingerling potatoes and street corn. Ask for a choco taco or Snickerdoodle Ice Cream Sandwich to go and wrap up a nice evening out with a stroll around the neighborhood. (720-570-8686)
Tamayo is one of the most popular restaurants on historic Larimer Square with good reason. Richard Sandoval--of Zengo and La Biblioteca fame--has created a posh, airy space in which Mexican is reimagined as an artful, surprising cuisine yet true to its roots. Among the starters are a wild-mushroom flatbread with goat cheese, black-bean puree, caramelized onion and truffle oil, and a chile-encrusted calamari served with Napa cabbage salad and a chipotle-blood-orange reduction. La Tampiquena is one of the chef's specials, a dish featuring filet mignon and served with poblano-chile potato gratin, mole-cheese enchilada, cactus salad and guacamole. A variety of tacos and enchiladas round out the menu, and there are also cazuelas--traditional braises of chicken, pork shoulder or short ribs accompanied by warm tortillas, Mexican-style rice and crema fresca. Don't skimp on the delectable sides here, especially the caramelized plantains with chipotle butter. (720-946-1433, 646-285-0796)
Owner Rayme Rosello describes Comida as a "small, funky, not overly precious neighborhood joint filled with the flavors we have come to love over the years while visiting family and friends in Mexico." The flavors are familiar but Comida offers a deliciously intriguing take on traditional Mexican, including infusing a bit of the American South into dishes. Tacos, served on soft corn tortillas, include toppings such as spicy shrimp over jalapeno grits with pico de gallo, avocado, lime, house crema and cotija, or chorizo and red onion escabeche over roasted garlic mash with salsa verde, house crema and cotija. Not 'Yo Nachos combine Comida's house chips with a blend of cotija, smoked gouda and asadero cheeses, black beans, avocado and tomatillo chile verde, to which you can add shrimp, chorizo, steak or bacon. The full bar offers tequila, beer, wine and creative cocktails, including thirst-quenching margaritas made with fresh-squeezed citrus. ((303) 296-2747)
El Taco de Mexico
This is authentic Mexican cuisine with its roots in Mexico City and dishes featuring ingredients commonly used in Mexico but less so in the United States. Cheek meat, tongue and tripe are mainstays for the famous tacos, which are also offered with beef or fried or marinated pork. Cheek meat, tongue and milanesa, a breaded beef, appear in combo plates, and every kind of burrito is available, too. Although it has been winning awards for years for its tacos, green chile and chile rellenos, it's impossible to go wrong here if you like traditional Mexican food. While some aficionados recommend smothering pretty much everything in the deeply satisfying green chile--perhaps especially breakfast burritos and huevos rancheros, served all day starting at 7 a.m.--that may be an overstatement. Or not! Several kinds of chilaquiles are served, as are enchiladas, gorditas, flautas and quesadillas, among other items. (303-623-3926)
About Christine Loomis
Christine has written about every aspect of travel, from romance and adventure to family and wellness. She is also lucky to have had three major home states through the years: New York, Colorado and California. Today she divides time between the Denver and San Francisco areas. Christine loves shoe shopping and fishing; walking anywhere; horseback riding (she was on the equestrian team at the University of Oregon); and discovering menus that include small-batch whiskeys, craft beer and lesser-known wines. She would go anywhere in an RV and believes summer is best when it includes a rafting trip.
Read more about Christine Loomis here.