One might think that picking the competitors would be extremely tough in the case of tacos, as Denver has more dive tacos than you can shake a dirty mop at. Rather than agonizing over the decision, I took the easy way out. For the first competitor, I had someone tell me where to go. I typically get little or no feedback to my blog posts, which is probably a good thing. One of the few times I did, though, the lovely reader mentioned El Taco de Mexico, and since it was a joint I had not had the opportunity to check out, I figured that it was a shoe in for contender #1. Number 2, getting whipped into a froth in the stables as we speak, would be a place from my neighborhood that I’d driven past before called Los Trompitos. Picked at total random, basically. Let’s start by getting dirty at El Taco.
After seeing the wall menu running the length of the restaurant, you would agree that El Taco de Mexico to could very well call itself A Whole Bunch of Stuff de Mexico. From breakfast burritos to posole to gumballs, you can get it at El Taco. Fortunately we aren't talking about information overload like the hundred plus items at the Breakfast King (winner of the last dive-off), and fortunately I had already narrowed down my focus to what the sign outside the restaurant told me I should be eating: tacos. I ordered a three taco variety mixer, comprised of one cabeza, one al pastor, and one carnitas. The unsmiling waitress took my cash money (cash only!), a pretty steep $1.70 each, and went back to ignoring me. She couldn’t even crack a smile when some extremely blanco guy came in and asked for ‘mas tacos’.
Don't be intimidated by the Wall O' Menu
While one of the surly ladies in black hacked up my tacos with a mean looking cleaver, I checked out the place. The dining area was small, encompassing only a handful of booths, especially when considering the enormous modern stainless steel clad kitchen. What caught my eye was the large copper cauldron bubbling away on one of the burners, a sight that left me slightly moist in anticipation of the carnitas, which are traditionally cooked in a cauldron of boiling oil. The walls were plastered with all sorts of local dining awards and such from years past. Really, though, I don’t care if someone voted El Taco de Mexico the best taco in the city back in 2007. Three years ago? There's got to be some prevailing rule of thumb on how long one should be able to display awards. I suppose if I ever won a plaque, though, (I am pretty sure that one is coming for Dad of the Year soon) I’d display it until the end of time as well. Heck, I still have my Royal Palm Beach Recreational Soccer league champion trophy from 2001 displayed on the mantle. But still, unimpressed. More impressive was the walls themselves. While the kitchen was decked out head to toe in stainless, the dining area, bathrooms, pretty much everywhere else was covered in FRP. Fiber Reinforced Plastic is the white stuff you put on the walls when you want to be able hose down the entire place in lieu of actually cleaning. It's especially handy for when people spontaneously fire food at the wall or in case of vomit. That's got dive written all over it.
After working El Taco over, and taking in the general salty vibe, I came to a realization. El Taco isn’t about us... it’s about them. The ladies. The ladies run the show at El Taco, and you are granted taco goodness at their behest. Quiet gruffness forcing even the squarest gringos to try and order in Spanish (when they speak perfectly good english)? You are there for their amusement. Gigantic sparkling kitchen while the customers sit in decor usually reserved for truck stop bathrooms? You should appreciate what you have. I decided to sit patiently, looking straight ahead, and wait for my tacos.
Be intimidated by a lady in black wielding a cleaver
El cabeza came first. One word for the cabeza taco: greasy. The Al Pastor taco was stained red with spices and tasted strongly of chili powder. It was slightly spicy, but not overpowering. Decent enough. Last was the carnitas. The juices from the pork had soaked and softened the double corn tortilla to the point of chewy deliciousness, but not past the breaking point. The taste was phenomenal, rich and salty and wonderful. The included salsa added a touch of smokiness that was nice, but unnecessary, as I found out when I ordered a second with no accouterments. I left immediately after the second serving of carnitas, not wanting to draw any unnecessary attention to myself by uttering a 'holy shit, that's a good taco' out loud. Maybe the ladies would have appreciated it, but I didn't want to risk it. I wanted them to allow me to come back. But first, I had a date with Los Trompitos...
El Taco de Mexico is located at 714 Sante Fe Drive, down near... well, it's not really near anything of interest. There is a bus stop on the corner and you can get your tires inspected across the street.