Mile-High Masa: Best Tacos in Denver

Make your taco dreams come true in the Mile High City.

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Photo By: Adam Larkey

Photo By: Adam Larkey

Taco Time

The Mile High City shimmers with countless pit stops serving the magnificent foodstuffs of Mexico. And the almighty street taco reigns supreme on nearly every menu. From unpretentious dives shaving al pastor off a spit to innovative hot spots unleashing ribbons of raw tuna, there’s a taqueria for every taste.

El Sampa Taqueria & Bar

Between the blare of TVs showcasing soccer matches and the pulsating mariachi tunes that escape from the speakers, small talk is all but impossible at this spirited taqueria that doubles as a watering hole. No matter: The tacos are more captivating than conversation. Traditional meats like long-simmered carnitas are heaped onto tortillas, then blitzed with cilantro and onions. The tacos are served with lime wedges, but can be customized with additional adornments, thanks to a condiment bar brimming with pickled red onions, chile-laced salsas, cactus-studded pico de gallo and a bracing brew of pickled carrots, onions and chiles. For those who want to keep snacking on Mexican delicacies after the meal is over, El Sampa also carries fresh-made chicharrones and other specialty items to go.

La Calle Taqueria Y Carnitas

This taqueria’s facade certainly stands out, with its vibrant shades of blue and orange that evoke both the stain of a Colorado sunset and the uniforms donned by the Denver Broncos. But once inside, the tacos are what command attention. Showstoppers include an al pastor taco surfaced with black-etched pineapple; a carne asada taco that dribbles with fat; a corn tortilla toppled with chorizo and cheese; and a steamed taco flush with fragments of tongue. Taco lovers looking for the ultimate food adventure may want to consider the cabeza option, which comes stuffed with slippery bits of meat from the cheeks of a cow. Arguably as alluring as the taco selection is the salsa bar, a remarkably robust display of fiery red and green concoctions — plus pickled onions that glow magenta, radishes, triangles of lime, singed jalapeños and fresh cucumbers.

Tacos Tequila Whiskey

What started as a food truck with a memorable name (Pinche Tacos) and even more memorable tacos has evolved into a duo of hip taquerias. You won’t find tripe or brain tacos on Chef-Owner Kevin Morrison’s menu, but that doesn’t mean this spot is basic. The tacos are fantastic, perhaps none more so than the Queso a la Plancha. It starts with a blanket of cotija cheese, which is griddled on the flattop until crisp and caramelized. Once ready, the griddled cheese is slapped on a corn tortilla crested with slices of avocado, a squirt of lime and fragrant roasted tomatillo salsa. Leave room for the Agridulce, too, which comes bursting with sweet-and-sour-braised bits of pork belly punched up with candied garlic, braising jus and a slaw of cabbage and cilantro. If you’re not feeling tacos, try the chicken chicharrones — streamers of deep-fried chicken skin dusted with chile powder.

Dos Santos

Decorated with weathered red brick, distressed wooden tables, statues of saints and flickering prayer candles, Dos Santos could pass for a place of worship… with the object of devotion being the beloved taco. Channeling the flavors of Cozumel, Mexico (an island that was home to Dos Santos co-owner Kris Wallenta for 15 years), these tacos are worthy of adoration. Corn tortillas come masked with your choice of marinated strips of grilled steak, beer-battered shrimp, shredded chicken thighs, slow-braised pork or raw slabs of tuna. Leave room for the updated guacamole, specifically the mash that’s haloed with pumpkin seeds, roasted tomatillos and prickly pear cactus. And don’t sleep on the seasonal eskites: grilled corn on the cob smeared with habanero aioli, dusted with chile powder and rolled in cotija cheese. Complete your meal with a house cocktail; the Coco Fuego made with blanco tequila, chile-infused agave and spiced coconut water tea is particularly celestial.

Tacos La Morenita

This strip-mall taqueria turns out tacos at a decidedly unhurried pace. Translation: When tight on time, call ahead for pickup. If, however, you’ve got an afternoon (and patience) to spare, an authentic Mexican dining experience awaits, complete with the sort of tacos that you’d find at the loncherias dotting the asphalt all over Mexico City. Shards of chicken, porky carnitas, asada or crisp bits of richly flavored tongue serve as the fillings. They’re piled onto soft corn tortillas, bundled with white onions and cilantro, then festooned with a tart tomatillo salsa. Also worthy of the wait are tortas, burritos, sopes and (weekend-only) bowls of piping-hot menudo. And to drink? Cold Mexican sodas wedged inside a cooler.

El Taco Veloz

The no-fuss facade of this humble spot may not do much to catch the eye, but there are few pleasures more obsession-worthy than the tacos served inside. Opt for tacos al pastor and lightly charred shards of pork will be carved off a rotating spit capable of mesmerizing the masses. The meat is heaped onto fresh griddled corn tortillas, then blanketed with burnt pineapple, cilantro and ribbons of fried onions. You can (and should) supplement the tacos with a jaunt to the salsa bar, a splendid parade of pickled vegetables, lime wedges, blistered whole jalapeños and a half-dozen housemade salsas. Be forewarned: Most of these spice-laden sauces aren’t for the faint of heart. If you do start a fire in your belly, the menu’s cinnamon-laced drink known as horchata may just subdue the burn.

Carnitas California

Intense flavor may not be a word commonly associated with strip-mall restaurant food, but Carnitas California delivers it in spades. Roll up to this shopping-plaza storefront to get your fill of wondrously pungent pork wrapped in corn tortillas. Flavorful pulled pork is the filling in the restaurant’s namesake tacos de carnitas, which are so habit-forming that ordering more than four at a time is recommended — or else risk standing in line all over again. Another excellent taco option is the cochinita pibil, which features slow-roasted ribbons of lime-marinated pork dressed with onions, cilantro and radish coins. While the tacos are the obvious draw, the flushed pozole is the sleeper hit. Pork meets hominy in this chile-forward stew that’s studded with onions and cilantro.

Garibaldi Mexican Bistro

A gas station restaurant may seem like an unlikely spot to score authentic Mexican cuisine, but that’s just what you’ll get at Garibaldi. Inhabiting a swatch of square footage just adjacent to the fuel pumps at a Conoco station, this eclectic restaurant is adorned with culinary-themed love notes like “Very best chile rellenos ever, anywhere” handwritten on its walls. You may feel compelled to pen a note of your own after trying the huarache. Built on a hefty tortilla that is about half an inch thick (and freshly made, to boot), this Mexico City delicacy comes paved with refried beans, grilled cactus, crumbles of queso fresco, pico de gallo and whatever animal parts you fancy. But don’t stop there. There are also tacos, gorditas, tortas, carne asada fries, blue corn enchiladas and a carnitas platter, too, as well as elusive quekas, which are thick ovals of masa stuffed with white cheese, pungently herbal Mexican epazote, meat and/or vegetables, all folded into a half-moon and deep-fried. Delicioso.

Los Carboncitos

In a perfect taco universe, there would be a Los Carboncitos on every street corner. But three is better than one, and since the locations are scattered across the city, you’re never too far away from a taco that satisfies. Every locale features the full repertoire of Mexico City meats: al pastor, carnitas, chorizo, lengua, steak and cabeza, plus tripe, shrimp and fish — all of which are mounted on fresh-made discs of masa, then crowned with onions and cilantro. The standard order is a platter for the table, but if the shared dishes aren’t enough to satisfy your appetite, opt for a molcajete as well. This steaming union of stewed tomatoes, onions, garlic and jalapeños comes studded with your choice of seafood, tongue or a medley of pork, beef and chicken. And dialing up the heat of any dish is as easy as reaching for the caddy of chile-smacked salsas that grace every table. But be warned: They’re gonna make you sweat.

El Taco de Mexico

A roadside beacon painted in the brightest of colors, this tiny spot brings together meats, pliable corn tortillas and superior salsa in the most-compelling of combinations. Step inside and you’ll likely hear the emphatic thump of razor-sharp cleavers slicing and dicing mounds of pork, steak, tongue, chorizo and cheek meat. If you peek over the counter, you’ll see an efficient team of calm, cool and collected women (many of them have worked here for years) manning the sizzling flattop. While tacos are the main attraction, it would be blasphemy to forego the spot’s green chile. Laced with garlic and roasted jalapeños, this legendary sauce yields a slow but persuasive burn. Order it as an add-on for a burrito or enchilada and the dish will come cloaked in the hot-blooded sauce. Temper the heat with a cold glass of horchata or Mexican soda.

La Potranca Taqueria

This humble Globeville taqueria does a brisk to-go business, thanks to an extensive menu that’s easy on the wallet. Options include a seductive array of street tacos cradling well-seasoned meats adorned with onions and cilantro. The al pastor is a particularly excellent selection, with the juicy carne asada tacos right behind. No matter which kind you order, you can step ‘em up with the “loaded” option (which costs a couple of quarters more) and your tacos will come topped with cotija cheese and a mound of guacamole. La Potranca’s extensive menu also features shrimp cocktail, tortas, sopes and gorditas. If you choose to dine at the restaurant, save some room for the complimentary basket of chips paired with an adrenaline-inducing duo of spicy housemade salsas. The absence of a liquor license thwarts any hope for a cold cerveza, but the creamy horchata is a great counterbalance to all that heat. The joint also crafts some of the city’s best breakfast burritos. Opt for one and you’ll get a flour tortilla busting at the seams with soft-scrambled eggs, diced potatoes, peppered bacon, sausage, chorizo or ham, melted cheddar cheese and fiery green chile studded with pork.

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