Denver’s Mezcal: Mex and the City

They lounge at the bar with their cowboy hats tipped just above their brow line, dark sunglasses concealing yesterday’s hangover, and tight muscle-shirts exposing tanned, bulging biceps. They eat rice, frijoles ranchero, and coctel de camarónes.

Large, convivial groups of 10, sometimes 20 party like Prince around long rectangular tables, plowing through platters of chile rellenos and enchiladas, knocking back potent margaritas and reminiscing about their fraternity days from the 80s — when

The U-shaped bar features an astonishing roster of tequilas, mezcals, mojitos and margaritas.

Prince actually ruled the airwaves.

They come in droves to Mezcal from the nearby Capitol Hill neighborhood, sexy, young women with trendy hairstyles and bare midriffs, for excellent Mojitos, and they elbow their way through the front door after the Bluebird Theater, across the street, turns up the lights: Grunge rockers, swing dancers and soft core punkers.

There’s nothing like a trio of soft tacos to satiate the hunger pains after two hours of sweat-infused dancing.

A neighborhood hang through and through, Mezcal lures enviable crowds nightly for its South-of-the-Border menu, U-shaped Mexi-bar boasting an astonishing roster of tequilas and mezcals, margaritas made with freshly squeezed citrus juices, and savvy value pricing, where the most expensive item on the menu is $12.95.

Owners Jesse Morreale and Chris Swank — names you may recognize from their former concert-promoting days with Nobody in Particular Presents — teamed up with a couple of partners to open their funky cantina on an up and coming stretch of East Colfax Avenue.

They hand-painted the walls with blazing kaleidoscopic colors and added just enough kitsch to make it stylishly mod, but not overblown: Eye-grabbing vintage movie posters beholding busty babes, a cactus mural, Sol Cerveza advertisements, and black and white photos showcasing famous Mexican entertainers.

The menu at this funky cantina may not be groundbreaking, but fresh ingredients, memorable sauces and clear flavors appeal to a large crowd.

They outfitted the joint with Mexican church candles, stained glass sterling sliver light fixtures, and a Chihuahua bar mascot sporting glitter glasses and a black bandana.

They hung a chrome low-rider bicycle from the rafters and mounted a plastic baby Jesus to the exposed brick pillars. Then they hired Sean Yontz, the wiz chef from Vega, to consult on the menu before bouncing the kitchen reins over to the capable hands of chef Roberto Diaz.

Diaz’s cooking is not gastronomically groundbreaking, but he uses fresh ingredients and his dishes deliver distinctive, clear flavors of spice and heat as well as memorable sauces. It’s customary fare that appeals to both the seasoned Mexican food aficionado and the Tex-Mex stronghold.

I start most of my meals here with an icy Negro Modelo and the half moons of puffed corn masa enveloping melted queso and hints of smoke from roasted poblano peppers. I much prefer these to the mainstream American quesadillas, which are crunchy and crisp, but too familiar to strike an interesting chord.

Coctel de camerónes brings a large soup bowl brimming with plump, marinated shrimp bathed in a lime-laced tomato dressing galvanized with cilantro, avocado, onions and jalapeno. It’s possible to make a meal on this alone. Street snacks, like the tacos al pastor, are prepared the authentic way, with soft corn tortillas gripping chunks of charred steak showered with freshly squeezed lime juice.

For the chile relleno, a large poblano pepper is encased in a thick batter, but its outer edges are still crunchy to the bite, and while the stuffing is nothing more than a cascading river of Spanishqueso, the pepper lies in a superb cinnamon-infused red sauce tinged with just a hint of chile heat.

Queso fundido is a caloric blockbuster, marrying ground chorizo with an abundance of bubbling melted cheese. For my taste, a little goes a long way, but Señor cheeseheads will undoubtedly approve.

I’d rather eat the pozole, with its kernels of hominy and tender pork cubes bobbing in a golden broth enhanced with the proper accompaniments of lime wedges, shredded cabbage, radish coins and diced onions. For a kick to the tongue, experiment

When the neighborhood theater turns up the lights, Mezcal floods with hungry concertgoers.

with the smorgasbord of hot sauces.

I also like the cheese enchiladas draped in a complexly spiced, mahogany-hued mole. Most of Mezcal’s entrees and combination plates are served with sides of respectable rice and either pinto beans or black beans fragrant with fresh epazote, a weedy and pungent herb that adds a pleasing depth.

It’s doubtful that you’ll have the belly room to satisfy your sweet tooth, which is fine because Mezcal’s weakest assets are its desserts, especially tres leches, which should be rich, moist and sweet. It is none of those things.

But Mezcal gets most everything else right, and the friendly, conscientious servers, all of whom seem to be having a good time, insist on making customers feel as though they’re part of the familia.

If You Go

Mezcal, 3230 East Colfax Ave., Denver, (303) 322-5219

Lori Midson, Colorado AvidGolfer’s restaurant critic (, makes a career out of wining and dining her away around Denver, where she lives. She is a frequent contributor to Sunset and CITY, the local editor of numerous Zagat Surveys, and the Denver dining writer for AOL CityGuide. Midson, who holds a master’s degree from the University of Colorado’s School of Journalism, has also written for other publications including 5280 magazine, Executive Travel and EnCompass.

From the Editors: We spent a heap of time making sure this story was accurate when it was published, but of course, things can change. Please confirm the details before setting out in our great Centennial State.