Beyond Burritos

Beyond Burritos

Flavors from Oaxaca come alive at Garcia's in Carbondale, one of many restaurants in the Roaring Fork Valley that serves up local specialties. David Frey photo.

Leticia Garcia’s hometown of Tlacolula is one of the great centers of cuisine in Mexico. At its weekend market, Oaxacan vendors crowd in from the surrounding mountains to sell everything from chiles to cocoa to crickets. But when Garcia moved to Carbondale, the fabulous foods of Oaxaca were nowhere to be found. So Garcia brought them with her.

At Garcias market at the entrance to Carbondale, she and her husband Samuel secretly serve some of the most interesting Mexican food in the valley. The building doesn’t look like much from the outside. Inside, an informal little eatery seems like an afterthought compared to the rows and rows of Mexican groceries in the back. From this unassuming kitchen, though, come flavors from Oaxaca diners won’t find anywhere else in the Roaring Fork Valley.

“It’s very traditional in Oaxaca,” says Garcia, who was recently featured on a Food Network show. “Our grandmothers cook. The children cook. It’s a tradition that we carry on.”

The onslaught of Mexican restaurants in the valley can leave even Mexican food lovers with a been-there, done-that aftertaste. But look closer at some restaurants’ menus and you’ll find regional specialties you may not find anywhere else.

The classic dish of Mexican haute cuisine is mole (pronounced MO-lay). A succulent sauce of chiles, nuts, fruits, spices and sometimes chocolate, mole is the dish that conjured ecstasy in Like Water for Chocolate, and it’s easy to see why. It’s a luxuriant dish, sweet and spicy, and best made fresh from nuts and chiles freshly ground.

“It takes a lot of work,” Leticia Garcia said. Her native Oaxaca is famous for its black, red, yellow and green moles. Black mole (the one with chocolate),served over chicken, is a regular on the menu at Garcias, but other varieties appear occasionally as specials. Another specialty is the tlayuda, a dinner-plate-sized roasted corn tortilla ordered directly from Oaxaca, piled high with Oaxacan cheese, strips of carne asada, refried beans, tomato, cabbage and avocado.

“It’s a Mexican pizza,” Garcia said.

At El Korita in the Willits subdivision in El Jebel, many of the specialties come from beachfront palapas, the palm frond-shaded eateries that serve up fresh seafood to sunbathers. Owners Beto Gamboa and his wife Lupe hail from Nayarit, and they bring the taste of the Pacific Coast with them.

Entrees like grilled snapper and oysters could have come straight from the sandy hands of a waitress in San Blas. Same with the ceviche, the lime-drenched seafood cocktail, the fish tacos and the shrimp empanadas. One of the most spectacular items on the menu, though, comes from down in Puerto Vallarta. Take half a pineapple, scoop out the center and fill it with cold ceviche or a baked blend of fish, shrimp, octopus, scallops, clams. Add diced pineapple. El Korita serves it with a cream sauce and melted cheese on top.

“The fruit and the seafood is so good, you can’t imagine,” says manager Evelia Montoya.

Down the road at La Plaga Chilanga, owners Ignacio Pimentel and his wife Maria Victoria serve classic Mexico City taqueria fare in the former Capitol Deli spot next to Movieland. Throughout Mexico’s capital, taqueros slow roast thinly-sliced pork on a vertical spit with fresh pineapple and onion and serve it up as tacos al pastor. It’s a Mexican take on Middle Eastern shawarma and it’s about as delicious as a taco can be. Finding genuine tacos al pastor, with the pork slowly roasting on the rotating trompo, seemed impossible in the Roaring Fork Valley, though, until La Plaga Chilanga opened last year.

“The food can’t have a fast-food taste, but the flavor of something cooked at home,” Pimentel said. “Not something prepared in a rush, but prepared when the flavors are ready.”

A former Mexico City butcher, Pimentel marinates the sliced pork overnight in a secret chile guajillo sauce, then piles it onto the trompo, which spins it in front of the heat, while he shaves off layer after layer for tacos served with roasted pineapple and onion. For his barbacoa tacos, he slow roasts lamb wrapped in maguey leaves, the same plant that brings us mescal. He makes his own longaniza sausage by hand, too.

“In Mexico we say some people have the sazon to cook, but others were born without it,” Pimentel said. His El Jebel restaurant isn’t fancy, but Pimentel has the sazon.

So do Ismael Argueta and his wife Elida. Their Taqueria El Nopal restaurants in Basalt and Glenwood Springs are famous for genuine Mexican food, but while Elida is Mexican, Argueta is from El Salvador, and their restaurants are among the few places to find the Salvadoran staple, the pupusa.

“In Mexico it’s the taco. In El Salvador it’s the pupusa,” Argueta said.

Pupusas are like thick corn tortillas stuffed with cheese, pork rind or both. They’re grilled, covered with a mild tomato sauce and a topping of sliced cabbage, carrot and onion marinated in vinegar. The result: Salvadoran comfort food, and one of the fabulous regional specialties hiding in local Mexican restaurants for adventurous diners to discover.