On Wednesday, December 26 chef Michael Beary opened the doors to Zocalito Latin Bistro. Located in the Denver Place building at 18th and Champa, the restaurant recently relocated after enjoying 14 successful years feeding downtown Aspen. The move — prompted by the landlord’s decision to demolish the building that housed the former locale — will give Denver diners a chance to enjoy some of Colorado’s more exciting and original Latin cuisine.
The menu serves as a vehicle for Beary to explore the rare and flavorful peppers he goes to great length to import himself from Oaxaca. Having been classically trained in French technique, the chef and his team prepare flavorful moles, piquant chicken wings, innovative rellenos and a variety of highly original starters, soups, salads and entrees.
The space’s large south-facing windows flood the interior in splendid natural light. Custom-made Alibrejes — brightly-colored mythical beasts originally born from the mind of Pedro Linares and popularized after catching the attention of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo — fill the restaurant, with a particularly ornate Quetzalcoatl (a serpent) specially designed for the Denver location greeting guests as they enter. Photographs taken from Beary’s comprehensive photo essay detailing his many chile-driven travels in Oaxaca (called Zocalita to the Source) have been blown-up and serve as wallpaper. Oaxacan textiles, masks and photos further fill out the space. Despite the art’s ubiquity, the decor never feels busy. Instead, the colorful splashes make the room all the more inviting.
The lunch and dinner menus feature many of the same items, with lunch being a slightly stripped-down version. Luckily, a majority of the best selections are available on both. A helpful glossary of ingredients is printed on the back of each list detailing the particulars of the coveted chiles and spices that make Zocalito’s flavors so distinct. Spicy dry rubbed chicken wings ($15) are offered in four varieties — Escondido, Oaxacan, Peruvian and smoky pasilla. The wings are a good way to experience the chiles at their least adulterated and are served with a lime crema. Rellenos are given a broad treatment where more traditional ones like the pasilla de Oaxaca ($16) — a large smoky pepper conventionally breaded, stuffed with black beans, cheese and vegetables and served in a yellow chilhuacle mole — are joined by the equally appetizing santa leaf ($17) — a large anise-flavored leaf filled with Oaxacan mozzarella, chorizo, corn and tomatillo sauce. The most remarkable dish may be the skirt steak in negro mole ($29) — a tender slice layered with Oaxacan mozzarella and topped with rich negro chilhaucle mole and served with bean and cheese tacos.
The dessert menu — full of mousse, crepes, ice cream and gelato — shines brightest with the Mexican flan ($10) a dish that takes much of its flavor from cocoa beans, cocoa flower and canela. The moderately sweet custard is then balanced with two raspberries and a drizzle of chocolate sauce.
The drinks, though decidedly less experimental, still succeed due to excellent execution and quality ingredients. The raspberry mojito ($14) is rum, lime, mint, sugar cane, soda and a heavy helping of muddled raspberries. The Brazilian national cocktail is given just representation with the Leblon caipirinha ($14), a crisp blend of Leblon cachaca, fresh lime and cane syrup. The bar is also stocked with a solid selection of mezcals, tequilas and red wines with a more sparing array of white wines and beers completing the thorough though not overwhelming list. The drinks are simple and refreshing, providing excellent backup for washing down the many spicy dishes.
While the opening menu is a largely completed replica of the Aspen version, Beary promises that it will fill out with a few of his more complicated dishes as the restaurant moves forward. A happy hour menu will also be introduced this weekend.
Zocalito Latin Bistro is located at 998 18th St., Denver. It is open daily from 11 a.m. – 11 p.m.
All Photography by Alden Bonecutter.