Food & Drink » Dining Reviews

Piglatin Cocina takes a stylish street favorite to new heights

by

1 comment
Co-owner/chef Andres Velez takes a brief respite from his exhausting success. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Co-owner/chef Andres Velez takes a brief respite from his exhausting success.
As I walk into Piglatin Cocina for the second visit in a week, co-owner/chef Andres Velez happens to be exiting his kitchen, rounding the bar at the rear of the eatery with a can of Costa Rican Imperial beer in one hand and serving of pollo frito in the other.

The small dining room’s full around 8 o’clock, as he says it’s consistently been during almost all hours since opening in late January, but we spy the same table that just opened up near the front. We converge there, and he asks if he can sit with us — we’re acquainted from interviews I’d done with him five years ago around the opening of the Piglatin Food Truck, a couple years prior to Guy Fieri giving it a big traffic boost with a Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives spotlight.

When you have a chance to eat with a chef in his own restaurant, do, because over a meal and drinks and casual chatting you’ll glean so much more insight into the flavors with which you’re engaging, or, in the case of the kimchi quesadilla, quietly freaking out over. More on that in a bit, but first we’re hearing about the protracted effort to launch the brick-and-mortar successor of the food truck, which has been off the road since last August and will remain down for the time being while Velez and crew try to keep up with daily prep to meet demand, out of a small kitchen.
Velez, who grew up in New Jersey, served in the Army and graduated from Pikes Peak Community College’s culinary program, already kinda resembles international U.S. soccer star Clint Dempsey. But sitting across from him during month two of his opening, he looks more like Dempsey after a brutal World Cup match. He doesn’t look defeated — getting crushed by business is a good problem to have — but E-X-H-A-U-S-T-E-D. He says he lost 16 pounds in the first two weeks of the Cocina’s launch. (Make that Dempsey on a keto diet.)

Clearly he wasn’t eating enough of his own fare, that lean street-meets-comfort food, plenty filling and fulfilling. He calls his style Latin American fusion, which draws in some Caribbean influence, as well as Asian nods (his wife and kitchen cohort Tricia has Korean heritage). With the sit-down spot, he’s taken the truck favorites and popular specials and added entirely new plates, expanding beyond pork obsession and into some chicken and seafood offerings. The result is, in a word, awesome.

It’s also affordable. As part of the cool graffiti decor on walls and tables that maintains the heart of Piglatin’s street style (along with proudly loud hip-hop playing), a sign above the bar reads: “Food for the people.”

Sounds somehow communist, but it’s more anti-elitist. I had commented on how cool the Cocina feels, how it would play seamlessly in locally trend-setting Denver. Velez replies: “Our counter with Piglatin to Denver’s scene is you don’t need to be on that level to enjoy good food. This is food for the people ... not enough [chefs] are trying at the lower level.”

In other words, nobody needs to be overcharging for tacos or cocktails, because Velez is proving that you can kill it for under $10. Two tacos run $8, including a side item, and a duo of arepas with a side are $10. Smart cocktails are only $7 and the priciest item, a seafood boil, is only $12. Side items include killer garlic-Parmesan fries, starchy yuca fries, fried plantains, or our go-to, cheesy rice balls, Mozzarella-Parmesan cheese risotto fried into a breaded ball with some ham pieces.


I like how Piglatin’s menu is presented, with icons indicating the older food truck items versus new Cocina dishes (I’d call them plates but they’re all served in paper food trays, as if off the truck). But the item descriptors are thorough, so much so that as I look to write about them now, I almost feel like I’m plagiarizing. More importantly, guests ordering the Yucatan Taco ($3 if solo) don’t have to stretch the imagination to wonder what pork that’s tequila-braised and baked in banana leaves tastes like, garnished with cilantro, cotija cheese and pickled onions.

The short answer: outstanding. Longer: As with Hawaiian kalua pork, the leaves impart a subtle aroma and flavor that’s faintly sweet, and the booze here tenderizes the meat, leaving a little Mexican earth and spice behind, accented by the astringent herb, salty cheese and acidic onion bite.

Two other tacos, the Island and Chimi Shrimp, shine in different ways. Pineapple (bromelain really) forces the pork’s surrender on the Island, spiking it with talkative jalapeño-habanero cilantro cream and lime juice, with cabbage adding some snap to a hard blue-corn taco shell’s crunch — a departure from the typical street-style soft corn seen on its menu mates. Sharp-biting minced garlic — totally ballsy and highly appreciated — leads the punchy chimichurri component of the shrimp taco, also with additional arugula pepperiness, softened a bit by black bean paste.
The tired Velez springs to life with a big smile upon seeing our satisfaction with our shrimp bites in particular — the plump prawns are perfectly seared soft. A Jersey accent appears: “Yeah, you like dat?”

Jesus saves, Dempsey scores.

The flavors in this kimchi quesadilla reveal themselves like layers in an onion. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • The flavors in this kimchi quesadilla reveal themselves like layers in an onion.
Those same super shrimp, minus the chimi saucing, appear on the aforementioned seafood boil, with baby clams (a couple still holding a grain of sand) and red potato hunks beautifully seasoned by spicy crumbled chorizo bits and a peppery sofrito sauce. A side of elote, corn on the cob lathered in a lovely “creamy cheese cilantro ancho chile sauce” completes the low-country boil tribute.

Fluffy pollo frito are reminiscent of Chinese sesame chicken hunks, as a rain of sesame seeds does garnish the fried pieces, with diced green onions and melted Muenster cheese. Queso fresco of course plays a key role in filling and goo-ing out arepas, Colombia’s starring street food (Velez’s parents are both from Colombia) of cornmeal disks (smaller, fatter and less browned than those I fawned over while in the country last year), stuffed with many variations of culinary treasures. Velez features a chimi shrimp version and guiltier-good pork belly option, co-packed with arugula and black bean purée. We could see thinning and flattening them, or going open-faced even at this size, but we’re still quite happy.

But true bliss comes unexpectedly with what I’d call the first elevated quesadilla I’ve ever eaten. To be clear: I’m not a quesadilla guy, and I generally regard them as fodder for bowling alleys, cheap bars and fussy children at dinner. But here, they’re a phenomenal comfort food mouth-hammer of every sensation you want on your tongue when you’re high.

In fact, Velez shares, he created them when he was high at home in his kitchen, goofing with ingredients trying to satisfy his palate. He’d served kimchi sliders on the truck as a special, but these are next-level. Yes, there’s the ubiquitous layering of blended cheeses, but then comes low-and-slow Korean barbecue pork, marinated in pineapple juice and brown sugar, also infused with sesame oil, soy, garlic and green onion. Then, a blend of crimini, oyster, shiitake and portobello mushrooms for sub-layers of fungal funk. Next, the kimchi itself with gochugaru chili essence, garnishing chili threads (looks like saffron, tastes like the dried peppers), and a Sriracha mayo as dip.

The best chefs talk about proper layering of flavors so they reveal themselves in a way like onion layers as a diner takes a bite and the mouth’s receptors intake ingredients in some unfolding lineup. It’s a full song with verse, bridges, chorus and maybe even a refrain — dynamic. This quesadilla — and seriously, I never thought I’d spend so many damn words on a quesadilla — is in some order sour, sweet, unctuous, salty, tangy, spicy, nutty, earthy and meaty. It’s just that type of food you bite into where you think: “Shit I wish I was high right now, eating this.” I dare declare it the ultimate stoner food, obviously still plenty impressive if sober and sucking down Piglatin cocktails too, as we were.

About those drinks (there’s reasonably priced beer, wine and punch too), Principal’s Office and Axe and the Oak Whiskey alum Ryan Toth consulted to bring the Velezes’ vision to fruition, and unsurprisingly we encounter no losers on the list. Everything’s agreeable to the food flavors for pairings.
You’ll find two Old Fashioned spin-offs, one smoother with rum, another more mature with añejo tequila. The house spicy margarita doesn’t mess around, with serious chili heat countered by sweet orange liqueur and agave. The Guava Mama smacks not nearly as sweet as we feared it might, nicely balancing guava, lime and pineapple juices in tequila. Consider it for a dessert drink with the Cuban pastelito dessert option, a likable sweet cream-cheese-and-guava-paste-filled puff pastry.

A pisco mule ventures to deep South America with its starring spirit, blending it with tequila and ginger beer hit with a tart hibiscus finish. Hibiscus of course evokes the popular Mexican beverage, jamaica. But when it shows up in another drink, the rum-fueled Hibiscus in Jamaica (see their word play there?), it’s more like a Jamaican sorrel punch, highly floral with a ginger shrub base and baking spices like nutmeg, allspice and cinnamon.

In that same vein, cinnamon helps infuse the Coquito, commonly called a Puerto Rican Eggnog, but billed here as a Latin White Russian, which pairs perfectly with Piglatin’s second dessert option, thinly piped and fried churros with accompanying sweet dips: a sweet cream cheese and guava cream (kinda like the pastelito’s insides, liquefied). Because of a strong cinnamon profusion, the Coquito lands horchata-like; there’s no coffee liqueur component, just rum, and a blend of evaporated, condensed and coconut milks for a unique creaminess.

It offers a fabulous finish, heavy as a White Russian but not as cloying as it may sound. Seeing our Coquito, Velez asks one of his staff to make him one too, saying it’s his favorite way to finish a shift, usually with a side shot of aguardiente, Colombia’s national, anise-flavored spirit. We banter some more over drinks, at some point him joking about how every time Diners, Drive-Ins & Dives reruns on TV, he gets a fresh pop of clientele, some even driving from Denver and beyond.

It’s jarring to think back to Piglatin’s roots, when we first spoke with Velez cooking on the line at The Rabbit Hole. It’s only now, sipping this drink after a roundly satisfying meal in a vibrant atmosphere, that I fully realize just how much of a poster child he is for the dreamy food truck to brick-and-mortar narrative. It’s a cliché played out countless times in countless cities, I’m sure. But street-refinement, attitude and legitimization has led to a real star here. Piglatin has more wheels than ever behind it, even while the flagship truck’s parked and its chef needs a good night’s sleep.

Comments

Showing 1-1 of 1

 

Add a comment

Clicky Quantcast