Given its proximity to Mexico, the Southwest has developed a love affair with the country’s rich food and beverage heritage. Yet, while originally inspired by mere geographical coincidence, these Southwest states have helped to bring Mexican food into the greater American consciousness, revitalizing traditional recipes and breaking grounds with exciting new dishes. This dynamic may seem most obvious in states like Arizona and Nevada, but Colorado is also among the places with a firm love affair of the Mexican culinary experience. As graduates of the Boulder culinary school have made their way into the workforce, they’ve established some of these must-visit Mexican restaurants across the Berkeley of the Rockies:
1. Sancho’s: Though founder Shawn Camden hails from Boulder, he recruited a number of chefs directly from Mexico when he started Sancho’s several years ago. The staff embraces this a kind of distinction, touting itself as the next chain in the long tradition of Mexican street foods. That is apparent by the sizable Sancho’s menu, which includes barbacoa tacos, California burritos, chicken queasadillas, enchiladas and carne asada. Sancho’s also has perfected a number of Mexican staples that aren’t as popular among Americans, namely lengua tacos – made of beef tongue – a shrimp cocktail made with V8 and avocado, tortas ahogada (a kind of spicy sandwich) and Milanesa, or breaded fried steak. Enjoy any plate with one of Sancho’s signature salsa blends, from mild to red hot.
2. Centro Latin Kitchen: Located directly in the heart of downtown Boulder, Centro Latin Kitchen draws inspiration from Mexico’s northern Baja, a beachfront paradise where seafood is usually king. As such, Centro has a wide variety of Baja-esque tacos – all with a slight tweak – including garlic eggplant and shrimp, carrot escabeche, ahi tuna tostada and fried avocado. Yet Centro’s menu also includes a number of other traditional Mexican dishes, like taco salad, enchiladas drenched in red sauce, grilled steak burritos and pork green chile. Of course, a visit to the restaurant wouldn’t be complete without one of their dozen or so specialty cocktails, like the mojito float, the old-fashioned Jalisco or the authentic Spanish sangria.
3. Zolo Grill: Since opening its doors way back in 1994, Zolo Grill has touted an approach to the restaurant business that they call Zolo Love. It’s an ideology that emphasizes great customer service from the front door to the time customers head back out, where guests are made to feel like long-time friends. Those same concepts also help to inform how the chefs approach making food, taking traditional Mexican dishes and giving them them all-new life. Some of the more popular dishes include pan seared Alaskan salmon with cucumber-jicama salsa, lamb sirloin glazed with fennel and black beans, corn-poblano tamales and fish tacos with charred tomatillo salsa. Zolo also has a devout commitment to maintaining an ecologically-minded business model, using only locally-sourced ingredients.
4. Efrain’s Mexican Restaurant & Cantina: The family behind Efrain’s has operated restaurants across Boulder, Lafayette and Longmont for some 30-plus years. In all that time, the family has maintained a commitment to replicating the food and larger culture of Mexico’s Northern Chihuahua region. Unlike the seafood menu of a Centro Latin Kitchen, the offerings from Efrain’s are more centered in beef and chicken dishes. Menu standouts include shredded beef enchiladas, chicken chimichangas with chile verde and pork tamales doused in a traditional red chile sauce. However, Efrain’s two core specialties are menudo – a deeply traditional mix of tripe and hominy – and the Mondongo bowl, which features beef tenderloin, chiles, mushrooms, spices and wine.