The taco, revisited

Chefs put new twists on a classic

A taco from Moontower Tacos
Photo courtesy of The Social Route

The taco has deep, traditional roots that go back as early as 18th-century Mexico, and still today those same flavors can be found at traditional Mexican restaurants across the United States and in Boulder County.

But in recent years, more and more restaurants have popped up around the Denver metro area that offer a different, creative version of the beloved Mexican tradition, essentially developing a new style of Latin cuisine.

From Hawaiian to Southern barbecue flavors, restaurants are experimenting with tacos, trying to offer something unique and bring more people in their doors. Nowhere is this trend toward creativity more evident than at one of Denver’s newest “Mexican” restaurants, Moontower Tacos.

At Moontower, some of the menu items — which include six breakfast tacos, two beef and pork options, six very different chicken options and two seafood and veggie tacos — resemble traditional Mexican tacos in tortilla only. There’s the Doggfather, with fried chicken, bacon and a waffle in a flour tortilla; the Gangnam Style, pork with fresh slaw and crushed peanuts; and the Jim Bob for breakfast, eggs and brisket with smashed potatoes in a tortilla.

The owner of Moontower, Brent Thrash, is a CU-Boulder alumnus who traveled around the world to all seven continents, falling in love with the different varieties of street foods he found along the way. Thrash then incorporated international flavors and sauces to combine with traditional taco meats and vegetables into his Moontower menu.

“There is a lot of good, authentic Mexican food in Denver and Boulder, but the idea here was to go away from that,” Thrash says. “Tacos in theory are Mexican, but we’re doing something completely different, we’re not trying to be authentic in any way.”

He says the menu gets great feedback partly because Moontower is simply different.

“I think people love the concept and the idea of not-your-average street and Mexican tacos,” Thrash says. “Some people probably don’t understand it yet because they expect authentic tacos when they see a taco shop, but people do love it.”

Other restaurants and chefs see Moontower’s concept as an interesting way to create tacos, and also a new style of cuisine that somewhat takes away from the roots from which Latin cuisine originated.

Meanwhile, Enrique Socarras, executive chef at Boulder’s Centro Latin restaurant, says he focuses on the roots of the dish.

Tacos at Centro | Photo courtesy of Big Red F

“Preservation of the roots of all of the dishes that we make is very important to me,” Socarras says. “I don’t want to lose sight of what we’re doing, and really what’s intriguing about Latin food is the cultural aspect of it, and once we lose sight of that, then we’re just creating our own cuisine, and that’s not what we’re trying to do.”

At Centro, flavors cover a wide spectrum, from the traditional carnitas to the more creative flavors of shrimp and masa fried avocado.

“Whatever we offer, whether it’s a taco or an entrée, we really have to look at the customer base that’s walking through the door,” says Socarras. “I think although they want to come in and have the Latin cuisine, what is going to separate us from all the other Mexican restaurants in Boulder and Denver? We have to set ourselves apart a little bit so we try to do everything as craftsman as possible.”

One of the most authentic Mexican restaurants in the Boulder area is Restaurante 100% Mexicano, which offers a variety of traditional Mexican flavors, including tamales, gorditas, ceviche and, of course, freshly made tacos.

“People are always looking for something new and different. That’s just how people are, especially in Boulder,” says Restaurante 100% Mexicano owner Shawn Camden. “So many people come from different places, and people want real, authentic Mexican and not the exotic restaurants that are sometimes, honestly, over-priced.”

Camden’s tacos are sold individually at $1.75. Along with asada (grilled steak) and barbacoa (shredded beef), 100% offers traditional ingredients less commonly seen in the U.S., like tripas (cow tripe), buche (pork throat) and lengua (cow tongue).

Tacos at Restaurante 100% Mexicano | Photo courtesy of Shawn Camden

Camden emphasizes the importance of maintaining the true, authentic Latin flavors at his restaurant, but he says he isn’t opposed to interpretation and innovation.

“I’m all for experimenting with food and being creative and coming up with something different as long as it tastes good,” Camden says. “I think it’s good to be creative, that’s what is so exciting about food. The sky is the limit. It’s like music, you create new things, and some taste great and some don’t, and creative tacos are a fun new thing.”

One Boulder restaurant that has nothing at all to do with Latin cuisine, The Rib House, has joined in on the creative taco bandwagon and has been very successful in attracting in people through its doors on Tuesdays, when its Southern pork tacos are $1 each. The Southern pork taco features a hard shell stuffed with owner Tracy Webb’s famous illegal rib meat that is topped with cole slaw and cornbread crumblings.

Webb says it’s a rather unusual combination for a taco, but it’s tasty, and selling them for a dollar gets more people in his doors.

“It’s not a money-maker, but it makes people happy,” Webb says. “People come in, they try the tacos, and they find out how good our food is, and they come in and spend their money on another day. So I think the best plan is to give people a deal. Give them good food at a price they like, and make them happy, and they’ll keep coming.”

In Boulder and Denver, the taco’s deep historical roots are clearly starting to change, as some chefs have begun approaching the tortilla as if it were a blank canvas, allowing creativity to flourish.