Food & Drink » Potluck

Salsa for the soul

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What is Mexican food, really? Seems to me that a profusion of beans and shredded iceberg does not a Mexican party platter make. True Mexican food must come from a kitchen that loves the distinct flavors, ingredients and history behind the recipes. The food should echo the Mexican culture -- spicy, colorful, bright, rich. A handful of restaurants around town have captured the atmosphere that makes eating Mexican meals a wonderful, soulful experience, but few offer the down-home vibe you'll find at Vallejo's Mexican Restaurant.

Vallejo's is barely visible from East Pikes Peak Avenue, and those who are lucky enough to find it on their own feel as though they have stumbled upon a genuine treasure. The squat turn-of-the century adobe building, once the neighborhood grocery store, sits on a shady, unassuming side street near the old train station. Inside the small storefront is a crowded grouping of booths and tables upholstered with red pleather, diner-style. Across one wall, shelves mounted on the simulated wood grain paneling host a crowd of brightly shining glass and porcelain knick-knacks, pictures and other tiny trinkets.

An old jukebox stocked with '70s-era country and western, salsa, and rock 'n' roll sits near the front door, but the majority of the noise inside comes from the chatter of friends, employees and familiar customers relaxing beneath a large, vivid painting of the restaurant's originator, Paula Vallejo. Snippets of laughter and conversations about kids, family, money and community scandals carry across the room like gossip in a relative's kitchen, making you feel at home -- like maybe you should take off your shoes.

Just when you think you may have missed the after-hours notice on the front door, someone rises up grinning and asks you what you'll have today. Your order is quietly discussed between the staff -- "Did she want tomatoes?" "Of course you want tomatoes, right? Who eats a taco without tomatoes?" -- before someone meanders back to the kitchen to prepare it.

Vallejo's specialty is chiles rellenos, green chile peppers stuffed with cheese, rolled in egg and flour and fried to crispy perfection. The restaurant also offers basic Mexican fare of burritos, enchiladas, quesadillas, chimichangas, tostadas, etc., but it's the ingredients that make these dishes far above par. The chicken -- juicy, generous and flavorful. Ditto for the beef. The beans -- cooked to the perfect consistency.

The toppings are the crowning point of your visit. While not too thick, the blend of fresh tomatoes, onions and peppers in the salsa is expertly seasoned, complimenting everything underneath it, not too hot and not too salty. This salsa would taste great on a steak, on a chip or eaten with a spoon.

But the green chile makes even this salsa look like Pace Picante Sauce. If Vallejo's green chile were a season, it would be Indian summer. If it were a sound, it would be the explosive crackling of a firecracker. The chile is such an expert fusion of spice, vegetables and pork that the dribbles left over on your plate are worthy of a to-go box. It won't burn your mouth, but on a cold day it will chase the chill from your frozen bones.

A visit to Vallejo's is not complete without an order of sopapillas and honey. The deep-fried, sweet strips of batter are so light and airy, it's possible to eat an entire plateful without realizing what you've done. Unlike imitations that weigh down the stomach and leave a greasy residue in the mouth, these sweets float over the lips and down the throat.

Most single items on the menu are $5 or less, and generous combo meals can be had for under $10 -- not significantly more than, say, Taco Bell, but immeasurably better.

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