Food & Drink » Appetite

With a playful spirit, Lucha Cantina finds fun in a familiar framework

Appetite

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As I've opined before, C-Springs needs more Tex-Mex joints like Vegas needs more neon. But that's not stopping entrepreneurs, and damned if we aren't glad each time a new spot proves worthwhile.

Lucha Cantina, an extension of a six-year-old Breckenridge-launched mini chain, took over the former Olive Branch early this year, hanging weathered wood over two walls but keeping red brick and plaster elsewhere, creating the look of a Southern barbecue shack mated with a wine bar. But it's actually a margarita that speaks to the site's propitiousness.

At happy hour (3 to 6 daily), the phenomenal Undertaker drops from $10 to $6, fresh grapefruit juice blending seamlessly with orange juice and Agave Underground añejo; it's one of my favorites in memory. The Lucha Classic (Exotico blanco with house mix; $4HH, $6 regularly) and the Natural (lime, agave and high-end Corzo Reposado; $7HH, $9 regularly) perform perfectly, too, thanks to quality hooch and more real juices.

"That's the one thing we said when we opened [in Breck in 2007]," says 46-year-old co-owner Chuck Holcomb: "No cans, and no sweet-and-sour mix."

The "cans" refer to the food-end of matters, where extra effort's made to buy local (grass-fed beef, Red Bird chicken, Pueblo chilies), and almost everything's made on-site. As much as is possible for a place that deals in burgers, cheesy plates and fried things, Lucha works toward healthfulness. Holcomb, calling it "natural Mex" by style, describes slowly sneaking brown rice in 50-50 with the white in Breck to see "if the kids would care," then going all in.

He openly shares that he wasn't formally trained to cook, that he and co-owner Chris Verikas "were just experimenting with things we like to eat." Today, Lucha soaks its own beans; blends its own spices, sauces and superior salsas; and bakes on-site daily-rotating desserts, like a dense and delightful parfait of strawberry tres leches ($6).

More often than not, Lucha lands its punches with peppered aplomb. That said, not everything is flawless — be it a long wait un-greeted at the door; another nearly 10-minute wait for those happy hour drinks, eventually delivered without the desired rim salt; extraneous snowboarder patois like "redonkulous" next to menu descriptions; or a couple of lackluster flavors and textures.

Everyone apparently loves the Lucha Tots ($8), but I couldn't grow to even like them. Essentially potato latkes formed like falafel balls and over-crisped, they remind me of The Empire Strikes Back when Han slits open the tauntaun — stringy guts spill out, tasting too much of raw spud even with a sexy-sounding Sriracha mayo dip.

Holcomb describes working hard to adjust the tots recipe to a mere 2,000 feet in altitude change, and a devoted daily process to churn them out, but I'd rather stay in the happy zone of the great house guacamole ($8 and ample) or fun seven-salsa sampler ($6), both with thick house tortilla chips.

Salsas are rated by heat: The tzatziki-like cilantro dill (0) and cucumber-tomatillo Lucha Fresca (2) are light and lovely, while the chipotle-based Matador (5) dials up the furnace. Spiciness and flavor hold through the awesome habañero garlic (9), before getting stupid with the Bhut Jolokia-bearing The Ghost (13), which packs enough lingering, punishing smolder to ruin a dish.

Bypassing the burgers — yeah, there's a PB&J-bacon one — we do go gringo with the Garden Mac (and cheese, $11), which could use more greenage but otherwise tastes grown-up enough with a Cotija infusion. Our atypical Caesar Salad ($9) feels a bit oily and overdressed, but its grilled honey chicken and light spice notes are wonderful with cucumber crunch and red onion bite.

The chicken rellenos ($12) succeed, too, with hulking poblanos wrapped in crispy wonton wrappers that slowly sog when a knife's cut produces a gratifying, oozing cheese eruption. I find both the pork green chili and Colorado red buffalo chili toppings hearty but a bit tame, which is where the habañero salsa in particular finds value.

Verde con pollo enchiladas ($12) also need a salsa add-on to pop, as the blue corn tortilla dominates the flavor; the excellent side beans with garlic attitude almost steal the show. The Surf & Turf ($12), ordered without the shredded beef by my non-red-meat-eating friend, tasted texturally tacky, like a tuna casserole — the wahoo fish's freshness lost under heavy dairy components and as a whole only enjoyable with added guacamole and a generous rain of Cholula squirts.

Still, much of Lucha's menu remains untested by us, and even scanning it now, pondering sauce and salsa options, I'm curious, which is more than I can say for the majority of Tex-Mex menus. I prefer playful over staid any day, and this legacy space has clearly been recreated with a recreational heart.

matthew@csindy.com

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