Denver’s Mexican food renaissance showcases loca chefs

Later this month, some of Denver’s most celebrated culinary talents will head down to Mexico for a dinner series at the luxury Rosewood Mayakoba in the Riviera Maya. James Beard finalist Michael Diaz de Leon, who helmed Brutø when it took home one of Colorado’s inaugural Michelin stars, is on the guest chef list.

The master of moles has been thinking through the dishes he’ll prepare: Perhaps some bison to showcase Rock River Ranches in Colorado? A hot-sweet-tangy mole using some sour oranges and tamarind from Mexico?

Helen H. Richardson, The Denver Post

Brutø executive chef Michael Diaz de Leon, center, and pastry chef Yna Zuniga, right, have a laugh together as they prepare house-made masa balls for tortillas at Brutø in Denver on Sept. 13, 2023. (Photo by Helen H. Richardson/The Denver Post)

Diaz de Leon’s participation in the Rockies on the Riviera series (Feb. 26-29) is a testament to how the Mexican food scene that’s being cultivated here in Denver is, most certainly, on the map. He’s among a cadre of Mexican-American chefs who are helping define the future of the city’s Mexican dining scene — inspired by an amalgamation of traditional family recipes, global travels and local ingredients.

“One of the reasons I cook is for connection — to connect with the person, or the country, or the region,” said Diaz de Leon, who left Brutø in mid-December and is now participating in pop-ups until he opens his own restaurant next year that will focus on fermentation and wood-fired dishes (and will have a masa program as well). His ethos that “the world is my restaurant” is something you may have experienced for yourself if you’ve tried, say, one of his moles made with miso.

Mexican cooking, after all, is a melting pot, and representative of different regional styles, said Mexico City-born chef Edgar Chávez, the executive chef of Rosewood Mayakoba who is helping coordinate the dinner series showcasing Colorado talent. (The three-night event will also feature Michelin-starred chef Ian Palazzola of Frasca Food and Wine and bartender Christian Hammerdorfer of Yacht Club, which was on the esteemed list of 50 Best Bars in North America last year.)

Remolachas Ahumadas, from Alma Fonda Fina. (Shawn Campbell, provided by Alma Fonda Fina)
Remolachas Ahumadas, from Alma Fonda Fina. (Shawn Campbell, provided by Alma Fonda Fina)

“The old misconception of TexMex as real Mexican cuisine is over, and you’re seeing a lot more authentic Mexican cooking in the U.S.,” Chávez said. “Great chefs, not only of Mexican descent, are proving that Mexican cuisine can compete with the best in the world.”

Tacos and margs aren’t going anywhere. But — from the chef’s counter at LoHi newcomer Alma Fonda Fina to chef Jose Avila’s Bib Gourmand-honored pozoleria, La Diabla Pozole y Mezcal, on Larimer Street — Denver’s Mexican food scene is on fire right now with chefs putting forth soulful, authentic dishes.

Food as a tasty history lesson

The menu at Lucina Eatery & Bar in Park Hill reads like a greatest hits list of Spanish, Latin American and Caribbean cuisine — from pupusas and paella to the tender tlacoyo cochinita made with slow-roasted pork rubbed in chayote spices.

Erasmo Casiano, chef-owner og Lucina Eatery. (Provided by Lucina Eatery & Bar)
Erasmo Casiano, chef-owner og Lucina Eatery. (Provided by Lucina Eatery & Bar)

But Lucina was almost an Italian concept because, frankly, it felt safer, recalled Erasmo “Ras” Casiano, who, along with business partner Diego Coconati, were just named among the 2024 nominees for the James Beard Foundation’s Best Chef in the Mountain Region.

Prior to opening Lucina in 2022, the chef pair was putting on themed pop-ups with dinners that revolved around different cuisines. In culinary school, it’s the French and Italian cuisines that tend to be revered as fine dining, Casiano said. But cooking tamales and pupusas during their Latin American-centric dinners inspired the chefs to use Lucina’s menu to tell the rich history and stories behind these types of dishes as well as draw from their own upbringings.

Lucina is named after Casiano’s mother, and some dishes are a tribute to her cooking — like pozole, one of Mexico’s oldest dishes. Casiano has memories of his mother blasting music by Juan Gabriel and making the fragrant soup with her secret dried chiles, which gave it its color and tremendous depth. And moles, he said, showcase the complexity of Mexican cuisine because a single recipe could include dozens of ingredients, from chile peppers to chocolate.

“The Mexican dining scene in Denver has always been great, but hidden,” Casiano said. “I think it’s going to be put on a bigger pedestal with this renaissance of talented chefs who are opening up restaurants that they’re passionate about.”

As for his next project? Casiano, along with his business partners Coconati and Michelle Nguyen, are opening Xiquita in Uptown, a spot where diners will get a glimpse of fresh tortillas and tamales being made. The Mexico City concept that’s planned for late spring or early summer bears the nickname his father gave his mother.

Johnny and Kasie Curiel both left their restaurant industry jobs to pursue the dream of opening their own business. (Photo by Shawn Campbell for Alma Fonda Fina)
Johnny and Kasie Curiel both left their restaurant industry jobs to pursue the dream of opening their own business. (Photo by Shawn Campbell for Alma Fonda Fina)

“It’s our time”

Chef Johnny Curiel debuted his 38-seat restaurant Alma Fonda Fina last December as a way to share his Mexican heritage. His dishes draw from the ones he enjoyed while growing up in Guadalajara as well as others that he learned when he was a young adult, returning to the country on a culinary immersion to learn more.

His cozy restaurant, which is located in the former Truffle Table space in the lower Highland neighborhood, features plates like Birria de Borrego, an adobo braised lamb shank with serrano white onions, a creamy salsa de Guacachile and refried corn and beans, which is a nod to his family’s Sunday night feasts.

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