There are few foods as iconic as the taco. They’re easy to eat, delicious, and, depending on what type of taco you get, can either be the ultimate comfort food or the epitome of experimental fusion cuisine. Exactly when tacos were created is up for debate. Indigenous cultures in Central America have eaten corn flatbreads with various meats and stews for thousands of years, but the name for tacos is believed to have derived amid the 18th century. Back then, a “taco” was the paper wrapped around a gunpowder charge used in silver mines.
Oh, how the times have changed. Today, tacos of all shapes and sizes are enjoyed at street-side taquerias and fine dining restaurants alike. You’ll find that full range in Denver. There are tacos inspired by coastal Mexican cuisine, like at Washington Park’s Perdida Kitchen, as well as local steadfast favorites like the beloved tacos dished out at Tacos Tequila Whiskey. And they wouldn’t be complete without the salsas, spices, and peppers that tie every taco together—thankfully, local Colorado purveyors have everything you need to forge your own recipes. And, of course, don’t forget the perfect Margarita to wash it all down. We think this issue has everything you need to fall in love with Denver tacos, again and again.
Perdida Kitchen is the latest concept from Gastamo Group, a company that also runs Birdcall, Park Burger, and Homegrown Tap & Dough. The menu is filled with cuisine you might see at an upscale beach restaurant: tacos filled with jumbo shrimp, pork shoulder, chicken, or Oaxaca cheese; whole fish cooked with guajillo adobo sauce; and house-made salsas and guacamole. The open kitchen features a wood-fired grill, and a large skylight illuminates the expansive bar and its wide range of tequilas and mezcals.
Perdida is Wash Park’s newest oasis where guests can experience the magic of the Mexican Coast in one of Denver’s historic, bustling neighborhoods—and its bright and colorful interior is a true celebration of Baja culture.
Chef Profile: Philippe Failyau
Denver is about 1,000 miles from Tijuana and the start of Baja California. That’s a distance you might forget after walking into Perdida, a new restaurant in Washington Park with a focus on coastal Mexican cuisine. Perhaps the coastal vibe shouldn’t be surprising; after all, Perdida’s menu and artful conception were each inspired by a road trip along the Pacific.
In 2018, owners Philippe Failyau and Peter Newlin ventured from the top of the Baja California Peninsula in Tijuana to Cabo San Lucas by car. They stopped at as many restaurants and roadside taquerias as they could along the way, soaking up the architecture, design, food, and culture of the region.
“When I look back on that trip,” Newlin says, “I remember the food and what it tasted like, but also the experience of what it felt like to be in some of these taco bars; or to be in Guadalupe tasting wines and seeing these famous chefs in the restaurant with dogs running around; and what it feels like to be eating tacos on the beach.”
Tacos were just one part of the trip, though an important one. “There’s just something about holding a taco,” Failyau says. “Whether it’s at a fancy restaurant or a taco stand, there’s something comforting about a taco.”
Each element of the menu has a tie to the Baja pilgrimage. The roasted vegetables taco with carrots and cauliflower has a noticeable woodsmoke savor, akin to the tacos served at the duo’s many roadside stops. Likewise, the airy, tempura-battered shrimp taco is reminiscent of the “shrimp tempura famous to the region,” Failyau says. The list goes on.
Failyau, Perdida’s chef de cuisine Charles Rivera, and the rest of the team took that inspiration from Baja and put their own twist on the recipes to make Perdida’s menu a Denver original. The shrimp taco has a mango slaw and a sweet heat kick from a honey and chile de árbol sauce, for example, and the black bean hummus comes with pico de gallo and queso fresco. Not to mention, the chicken tinga taco is served with a layer of Oaxaca cheese cooked onto a tortilla and assembled with slow-braised chicken and shaved radish salad. The chile-crusted carnitas taco, which is topped with grilled pineapple, adobo sauce, pico de gallo, and Cotija cheese, is one of Perdida’s heartier taco options.
A mix of Baja and north-of-the-border influences can be seen on the drink menu as well. Off-beat American classics like Texas Ranch Water made with Topo Chico, tequila, and lime sit next to standbys like the Margarita and Paloma. There’s also a fair selection of wine and beer—Denver is a beer town after all—but there are also hard-tofind tequilas, mezcals, and sotols to complement your meal.
Then there are the house-made rojo and verde salsas. “Sometimes the salsa gets overlooked or isn’t homemade,” Failyau says. “For us, it was how can we make the homemade salsas stand out so it sets the tone for the rest of the meal.”
Perdida’s carefully curated culinary climate helped it quickly grow a following since its opening in February 2021. Perdida’s future plans include a menu that’s constantly evolving, including, Newlin adds, the potential for guest menus featuring chefs from the Baja region.
“What a special journey to go on,” Newlin says. “I don’t think we can be more proud of what ended up coming out.”
Chicken Tinga Tacos
Stretchy queso asadero and queso Oaxaca are fried on the griddle until brown, which is quite possibly the best way to add cheese to a taco. The grilled cheese would steal the show if the slow-cooked, shredded chicken in a sauce of adobo, tomato, cumin, and other spices wasn’t so tasty. A watermelon radish slaw completes it. This is a taco that’s a study in layers in all the best ways.
Yields 10 Tacos
CHICKEN TINGA INGREDIENTS:
21/4 lbs. chicken thighs, boneless and skinless
1/2 Tbsp. kosher salt
2 Tbsp. canola oil (for searing)
11/2 c. yellow onion, diced 1/4”
21/2 Tbsp. garlic, minced
4 Tbsp. chipotle in adobo
½ Tbsp. Mexican oregano, dried
1½ tsp. cumin, ground
1½ c. canned crushed tomatoes
1½ c. chicken stock
CHICKEN TINGA DIRECTIONS:
Salt chicken thighs, set aside. Set a large pot on medium high heat and add oil, let oil heat up just before smoking. Add chicken thighs to pot and sear on all sides. Once all chicken has been seared, add remaining ingredients to deglaze. Bring liquid to a boil and drop to a simmer. Add chicken thighs to tinga, cover, and let cook for 1.5 hours. When time is up, carefully shred chicken and mix together.
SHAVED RADISH SLAW INGREDIENTS:
6 ea. watermelon radish, julienned
1/8 c. red onion, julienned
1/8 c. cilantro, chiffonade
extra virgin olive oil as needed
lime juice as needed
salt to taste
SHAVED RADISH SLAW DIRECTIONS:
Mix watermelon radish, red onion, and cilantro together. Add extra virgin olive oil, lime juice, and salt, to taste.
VAMPIRO STYLE TACO INGREDIENTS:
2 c. queso asadero
2 c. queso Oaxaca
VAMPIRO STYLE TACO DIRECTIONS:
Mix both cheeses.
Using a large skillet or griddle, place cheese directly on pan and lay tortilla on top. Once cheese is caramelized carefully flip and cook for another 30 seconds. Set tortilla on a plate, add chicken tinga, then radish slaw. Crush with an ice cold Modelo!
Tacos Tequila Whiskey
This Denver staple has won a lot of awards, including best tacos, best Mexican restaurant, best cocktails, and best desserts. “We look at the tortilla as the canvas for our art. We take traditional Mexican ingredients, cooking techniques, and traditions and put a modern gringo spin on them,” says Kevin Morrison, chef and founder of Tacos Tequila Whiskey. “We are not authentic; we do not care to be. We respect the Mexican culture and try to introduce it to as many people as we can.”
Originally a taco truck, it’s no surprise then that the restaurant’s mission, “Put a Modern Twist on Comida De La Calle” [translation: Put a Modern Twist on Street Food] hasn’t changed. You’ll just have to check out one
The Flower Child of Mexican Cuisine
There are few better ways to enjoy a plate full of tacos than with a cold, freshly shaken Margarita in hand. This is something the team at Tacos Tequila Whiskey knows all too well—tacos and tequila are right next to each other in the name, after all.
“Margaritas are very special cocktails,” says Aaron Farkas, bar manager at Tacos Tequila Whiskey. “A traditional Margarita is tequila, lime juice, and then some form of sweetener. It’s hard to mess up, but also very easy to tell when it’s messed up.”
Legend has it that the cocktail was created in the mid-1900s in Acapulco, Mexico. There, socialites were sipping a drink called the Daisy, made with gin or brandy, lemon juice, a sweet orange liqueur, and sparkling water. They swapped in tequila and translated “daisy” to Spanish (Margarita is the Spanish name for the daisy flower).
Today, the Margarita is one of the most popular cocktails in North America, with too many variations to count. At Tacos Tequila Whiskey, the Margarita and other drink options are all designed to complement each of the tacos.
“Since our taco menu has a variety of flavors from meat to seafood to vegan, we felt it was important to utilize tequila, mezcal, and whiskey for a better pairing menu,” says owner Kevin Morrison.
The goal, Farkas says, is to not oversaturate the menu but rather showcase what a Margarita should be. That doesn’t mean there’s no room for experimentation, though. He came to the world of bartending about seven years ago after leaving a job with FedEx. He’s been with Tacos Tequila Whiskey for about three years now, and has been able to put his own spin on the Margaritas and other drinks.
“There are so many different ways to turn a basic Margarita into something special,” Farkas says. “Working with seasonal flavors, for example, is something so subtle that can change the drink so much.”
The creativity can be seen in the weekly specials from the bar, which Farkas works on to match the weekly taco specials. A pineapple Margarita that uses a house-made syrup with roasted pineapple, for example, or a Margarita with a red wine float on top. “[It] seems a little strange,” Farkas says, “but the bitterness from the red wine really meshes well with the sweetness of the tequila.”
A simple adjustment of the basics can put a twist on the classic Margarita, as well. Tajin (a spice mix of dried peppers, lime, and salt) can replace the plain salt rim for a bit of a kick, and a sugar-salt mix can bring out the best in a spicy Margarita.
Then, of course, there’s all of the tequilas to choose from. Two cocktails made the exact same but with different brands of tequila will taste entirely different. Consider the natural citrus flavors from the organic Uno Dos Tres versus the earthy minerality of Fortaleza, Farkas says. You can also swap the tequila for its smoky relative mezcal (technically, tequila is a type of mezcal just like how bourbon is a type of whiskey) — mezcal cocktails make for the perfect complement to any of the meat tacos, Morrison adds.
When it comes to what Farkas considers the ultimate taco and Margarita combination, he doesn’t hesitate: a carnitas taco with the restaurant’s Purist Margarita.
“We call it the Purist because it’s the purest way to make a Margarita,” Farkas says. It’s made with two ounces of blanco tequila (Tacos Tequila Whiskey uses Corralejo), an ounce of freshly squeezed lime juice, and a quarter of an ounce of organic agave nectar. Everything is shaken with ice and then poured into a glass on the rocks with a spicy salt.
To find your own perfect combo, you’ll just have to try the variations for yourself.
Adding a topping of red wine to a Margarita may surprise some, but it will take your cocktail to the next level. “The bitterness from the red wine really meshes well with the sweetness of the tequila,” says bar manager Aaron Farkas. For a smoky touch, swap the tequila for mezcal.
1½ oz. El Mayor Tequila
1 oz. lime juice
½ oz. agave
½ oz. Malbec float
Build in tin, shake and pour into a salted/unsalted rocks glass and garnish with a lime. Fill with Malbec float.
Find more taco and margarita recipes in our print April 2021 Magazine.