The Legacy of Patzcuaro’s “Denver Mexican” and Four Decades of Culinary Brilliance

On Mother’s Day 1978, Francisco Almanza II opened Patzcuaro’s Mexican Restaurant in the Highlands. Initially built simply as a place where he could hang with his friends, the establishment has since become one of the more enduring places to grace the city. In the over 40 years that have followed, the restaurant has evolved with the rest of Denver, changing hands in 2004 when Francisco Almanza III inherited the place after graduating from Colorado State University. Centered around Michoacan cuisine and what the younger Almanza refers to as “Denver Mexican,” the menu includes hefty meat plates, sturdy burritos and tacos and heaping platters of bright, deliberately-spiced seafood.

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The place has all the inimitable warmth of a family affair, with the involvement surpassing just father and son. The younger Almanza’s uncle — a trade metalworker — built out the lamps, chandeliers and bars during one of the location’s several refurbishments. The cozy interior booths didn’t arrive until 1986. Having been in the restaurant all his life, Almanza III operates the place with instinctive precision and devotion. “I could run this place in my sleep,” he smiled.

The intimacy of the place is palpable, surpassing blood ties. “It’s kind of a life sentence when you work for us,” laughed the owner, noting that one of the waiters has been on staff since 1979, with most of the kitchen having been employed since the ’80s.

Even as the restaurant has undergone multiple overhauls, the food has remained largely unchanged. The smell of freshly-made tortillas is apparent even on the patio, the cuisine a heartfelt reflection of Almanza II’s Michoacan upbringing. A whole section of the menu is devoted to the house-specialty, slow-braised pork carnitas. The Carnitas Michoacan Plato ($12.95) is the best way to try the stuff unadulterated, joined only by beans, fresh pico, guacamole and steaming-hot tortillas. Another house-favorite, the Tacos Albanil ($10.95) come four to a plate and are stacked high with strips of steak or chicken grilled together with onions, potatoes and inch-long slices of fresh jalapenos. The Camaron al Mojo de Ajo ($16.95) is a more delicate affair, seeing the shrimp sauteed with olive oil, plenty of garlic and a good dash of lime juice.

Capitalizing on the quality of the house salsa, Almanza III decided to sell it to-go, branding it as Taq Salsa. Available both at the restaurant and at locations across the city, a jar is surely worth the investment.

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Surviving on the strength of the food alone, the taqueria didn’t seek a liquor license until 2006. Since then the jumbo house margarita ($8.95) has flowed frequently, its 24 ounces acting as one of the last great bang-for-your-buck margs in town. The Cuba Libre ($9.95) — with Flora de Cana rum, coke and lime — and the Coyote ($10.95) — with Heradura silver, fresh cantaloupe and lime — are both worthy ventures, though not quite so ubiquitous as the towering margaritas, which seem to dot nearly every seat filled by those of drinking stock.

Patzcuaro’s has been weathering the seismic turbulence of 2020 with grace. Initially staying open for pickup only, the spot has since been using the massive patio to safe effect. Masks and rigorous cleaning protocols are all employed with care. “The bulk of our business has been coming from dine-in customers. The general sentiment we got from customers was we needed to get out, we missed your patio, and we missed eating our food hot and fresh at the restaurant. Music to our ears because we could not have survived on takeout alone for much longer,” said Almanza III.

“We feel that public health and safety are paramount in times like these. So we feel very fortunate that we can continue to operate in a manner that addresses both public health and the economic vitality of our industry, which employs and feeds so many. My only concern comes as I think forward to upcoming inclínate months when outdoor seating will no longer be a solution. Under current six-foot spacing guidelines, I will only be able to use five maybe six interior tables, this will not be enough to support our business. I’m sure industry-wide this will be a huge issue,” said Almanza III.

Since opening, the place has remained steady, with COVID-19 delivering the most destabilizing blow to an institution that had until-now been hard to distress. “I’ve been walking a fine line of staying true to my roots and addressing the newer clientele, everyone deserves to taste my food,” rightfully noted Almanza III. With a customer-base spanning four decades, the place has acted as a window into the neighborhood’s evolution. Almanza III has done a good job of reshaping the space to accommodate each crowd, creating a friendly overlap that displays the city’s cosmopolitanism at its finest. “Even if I won the lottery, made billions of dollars, I’d still keep this place going,” he continued. “I come here, my dad’s here, even when he’s not here.”

Patzcuaro’s is located at 2616 West 32nd Ave., Denver. It is open Sunday – Thursday from 12 p.m. – 8 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 12 p.m. – 9 p.m., it is closed on Tuesdays. Both food and cocktails are available for dine-in and takeout. 

All photography by Adrienne Thomas.