What: Latin American, New World food in a sharp new space on Broadway.
Where: 24 Broadway St.
When: Saturday & Sunday, 10 a.m. – 2 p.m.
Pro: The steak sandwich boldly represents Chef Toby Prout’s measured cultural influences.
Con: Compared to the other entrees, the chilaquiles were the only menu item that fell short of remarkable.
Dining at Leña marked this writer’s inaugural first-hand account of a retail-to-restaurant conversion in Denver, and it’s a welcome success. There is something to be said about the experience of a “before and after” scenario, the emotional output of rechristened space — even more so when it involves social interaction and food. Joining a collection of other flourishing eateries and bars, Leña took over the space after Lee Alex Modern Vintage shuttered its doors last year. It will surely become another marker in what is fast becoming one of the hippest neighborhoods in Denver.
The facelift that proprietor Jimmy Callahan gave the space — laying bare painted-over brickwork, installing garage doors at the façade and expansive mirrors behind the bar — situates it within the rustic-modern context. It is similar decor which made his other restaurant, Prohibition, a great place a bite and a drink over on Colfax. Here, though, the long room slopes out in a similar style to Historian’s Ale House next door. Banquettes, tables, and a long bar offer ample invitation from the street view. A second level that juts out over the main floor like a mezzanine offers additional seating, and there is a private dining room set up in the basement as well.
The name Leña, which means “firewood,” dually expresses the restaurant’s aesthetics — burnt ceramic plates and cutting boards make for exceptional, photogenic presentation — and flavor profile. The white oak wood-fired grill at the heart of the kitchen similarly lends an alluring smokiness to almost every dish that comes from it. Yet, while smoke and mirrors characterize the look of the restaurant, there is nothing tricky about the food: indeed, it is relatively simple and oozes zest.
For brunch, start out with the Cachitos ($9 for order of 3): buttery crescent rolls stuffed with house cured ham and served with jalapeno pepper jam. Basically oversized pigs in a blanket, they bespeak the distinct ingredients that comprise all of Leña’s recipes. Moving down to the entrees, the Rabanada ($10) and Desayuno Tacos ($13) represent Chef Toby Prout’s inclinations toward both ends of the spectrum; the plantain chips and chile butter, chorizo and Oaxaca cheese concurrently nod to the restaurant’s Latin American roots. The Arrachera Sandwich ($13) with a side of yuca fries is distinguished and memorable, the kind of specialty that people come back for again and again.
Leña offers bottomless mimosas for $14 with the purchase of an entrée, but the various tequilas and mezcals are the forerunners of its liquor-centric booze program, which, like the food menu, is fairly straightforward and excellent. While the house margarita and sangrias are top-sellers, the soft bite of the ancho liquor in the Agricole Mule ($8) or the roast-forward Mezcal Hibiscus Old-Fashioned ($10), a muddle of orange and hibiscus flower, follow the fine fashion of the smoky food.
Named by 5280 as one of Denver’s Best New Restaurants in 2015, Leña occupies a cherished niche in the city’s dining scene. More specifically, it is a great addition to a bustling Broadway and another hit for Callahan.