A quick walk through the Yellow Pages shows more Mexican restaurants in Colorado Springs than any other type. Most of those listed are long established and well known throughout the community.
But a drive down any of the Springs' major traffic corridors reveals an even deeper infiltration of Mexican food into the city's formerly white-bread culinary scene. In the past few years, scores of small, mom-and-pop taquerias have opened their doors, many of them open seven days a week, some offering 24-hour drive-through service. Among these new eateries, practically every type of regional Mexican cuisine is represented -- from the mole poblano sauces of central Mexico to the seafood dishes of the Pacific coast, from tortas to tostadas.
A closer look at our city streets reveals a similar proliferation of Mexican grocery stores and butcher markets or carnicerias, nestled between hair salons and motels, flanking Home Depots and neighborhood strip malls.
One such market is Carniceria Leonela, a supermercado located just west of South Academy on East Pikes Peak Avenue.
I first heard about Leonela's over the Christmas holiday. A friend found it accidentally and was charmed by a Peruvian peddler, his cart set up outside the front door of the grocery store, selling tiny handcrafted crches.
"And they sell those delicious, ripe, small avocados that you find everywhere in Mexico," she said.
I was there. Years of picking out golf ballhard avocados at my local supermarket, rustling through baskets of blackened fruit the size of softballs shipped from some unknown country over months of refrigerated transit had left me wanting the mellow flesh of an already or almost ripe avocado.
The produce section of Leonela's provided plenty of other delights in addition to the promised avocados -- tomatillos in their paper-thin shells, shiny poblano chilies, whole or halved coconuts and soft, thin-skinned limes, 10 for a dollar.
As I shopped, two little black-haired girls with Asian features, neither of them taller than two-and-a-half feet, raided the lower shelves of the colorful bakery case while their mother talked with the butcher, her back to them. They settled on a bright pink cookie the size of a potholder and walked off munching on its edges. Overhead, bright piatas swayed and the air was filled with raucous canned mariachi music.
The smell of fresh baked goods drew me to the bread case. Six soft sandwich rolls for a dollar, and two thick slices of sweet bread spread with butter and sprinkled with sugar joined the produce in my basket.
The centerpiece of Leonela's is the meat counter that stretches all the way across the back of the store offering every piece of a cow or pig you can imagine -- beef and pork feet, beef tongue, tripe, neck bones for soup and whole oxtails are displayed in trays next to expansive cuts of brisket, skirt or "flap" steak, pork loins, whole chickens and dishes of pre-marinated fajita meats, your choice of beef or chicken.
At the far left end, huge wedges of soft, white queso, all-purpose mild Mexican cheese, glowed like snowdrifts. At the far right end, large aluminum bowls of fresh, iced shrimp, tiger shrimp and filets of tilapia were being set out.
A stroll through the aisles found an affordable variety of useful dishes and appliances. Tamale steamers in two sizes (small, $12.99; large, $15.99) sat next to heavy iron tortilla presses ($10.49) and steel esprimidors, heavy-duty citrus squeezers (large, $5.59; small, $2.89).
On the spice aisle, racks of packaged dried herbs, flowers and seeds hung on the wall. Hunks of sugar cane, hulled pumpkin seeds, whole coriander seed and allspice mingled with seven or eight different chili powders, dried rosebuds and chamomile flowers, saffron buds, whole cinnamon sticks, eucalyptus leaves and star anise. Another rack offered bagged, dried, whole chilies, as many as 10 different varieties.
From the refrigerator case, I snagged a single serving of flan ($1.79) floating in a thin, chilled caramel sauce. It turned out to be the light, traditional Mexican cheese flan rather than egg custard and was delicate, smooth and mild-flavored.
Rounding the corner to the cashier, I spied, atop a can of beans, the remains of a huge pink cookie, its edges nibbled away. Near the front door, a squatting mother wiped the hands of two little girls with a wadded up tissue. They giggled and skipped into the adjoining restaurant, and after paying (cash only), I followed.
The clean, bright and busy taqueria adjoining Leonela's carniceria offers walk-up and drive-through service. Movie star photos, huge sombreros and festival costumes hang on the walls and torch songs fill the air. The menu offers six types of breakfast burritos ($1.99 - $2.99), an assortment of tortas or sandwiches and plate lunches, and a huge variety of 99 tacos.
The special on the day I visited was a whole grilled chicken for $11.99. While I waited for the chicken to be prepared, I sampled three different pork tacos -- the pastor (spicy pork), carnitas (fried pork) and chorizo (sausage). They came open-faced on soft corn tortillas, topped with chopped onion and a sprinkling of fresh cilantro leaves. The condiment bar off to the side offered garnishes of crisp radish slices, lime wedges, three different salsas and whole, fat green peppers. The tacos were fragrant, well seasoned and utterly satisfying.
The chicken, moist and succulent with the skin slightly charred, was chopped into quarters and packaged in a take-out container with another huge container of tortillas, beans and rice on the side. At $11.99, it provided a perfect dinner for four, one I'll definitely go back for.