Bruto Serves Up Tacos and Mezcal With Alley-Bound BOH While Upping The Ante Indoors

“For me, Bruto represents being crude and raw,” said chef Michael Diaz de Leon. A fascinating statement coming from the man who currently helms one of the city’s most refined chef counters. The reinvented Bruto — which has for six months enjoyed the stewardship of de Leon — is a transforming and transformative look into one of the area’s real rising stars. Combining influences from Mexico, Texas, Colorado, Japan, Korea, California and beyond, de Leon has been serving seven-course tasting menus four nights a week, with dishes that betray a lifetime of the thoughtful observation and interlacing of some of the globe’s best in culinary technique.

But that’s only half the story. There’s also BOH — which stands for “back of house” — that serves tacos and mezcal from a counter in the alley behind Free Market — the same counter that was most recently Run for the Roses‘ pivot liquor store. BOH is a more casual appendage, though just past the botanically-inclined entryway lies a short but impressive list of tacos, tortas, tostadas and oysters with cocktails and a brilliantly curated selection of mezcals, sotols, raicillas and tequilas from bar lead Andrew Booth. Booth is a key player — though a look under the hood would reveal a staff, one that has grown from four to 14 in the last half-year, that is full of nothing but top-tier performers.

There’s also the owner Kelly Whitaker, who while taking a truly hands-off approach still confers with de Leon every few days with questions like, “how can we make this better. How can we make this more intentional?” Admittedly, there might be more to this story than just two halves.

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Bruto and BOH share a kitchen. All 14 staff members cross-train at both. Bruto was developed more deliberately — with a loose but well-thought-out plan starting to take shape after de Leon took over in November 2020. BOH was a bit more haphazard, coming into focus by necessity later that month after ie hospitality‘s marketing and events coordinator Leigh Barnholt recommended that the team activate the back counter after Run For the Roses returned downstairs. “It got us through the second lockdown,” remembered de Leon. Both have run on serendipity.

They also run on philosophy — an outcropping of de Leon’s and Whitakers shared interest in running a zero-waste kitchen. Bruto has been grain-focused since day one, with the Noble Grain Alliance further defining the mission. Drawing early inspiration from The Noma Guide to Fermentation, de Leon has been orchestrating his kitchens in a similar way since his time at Taft Diaz — the fine dining restaurant he helped to open in El Paso’s Stanton House boutique hotel. He may also have picked up a thing or two while staging at Pujol. “We have a ‘why’ and a ‘how’ to why we do things. We don’t cook food to be cool. It either does something to you or something for you,” said de Leon.

This is where the crude and raw comes in. At the core, de Leon says the whole operation revolves around grain, fermentation and chiles. Local flour has been joined by masa, with everything being milled onsite out of corn coming from Oaxaca and Mexico State. Every single tortilla at Bruto is made from that masa, with plans to carry that over to BOH by the end of the month. Old masa is converted into tejuino, a sweet beverage that has all the unmistakable earthiness of its source. The kitchen runs a 99% compostable program with half of the materials going to compost and the other half going to projects, both fermentation and dehydration. Old materials have even been used to make a house-made Tajin. A “chili bible” with 16 different varieties of dried, otherwise intact chilis sourced by The Spice Guy sits prominently, visibly underpinning the whole affair.

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A dinner ($95 per person) at Bruto’s counter is not crude. Watching the team at work seems choreographed, with de Leon likening the place to the kind of hyper-polished kitchens found in Japanese fine dining. The menu has staples, around a third of which are tinkered with weekly, with components being flipped on the fly based on whatever de Leon has picked up that week or whatever is floating around the kitchen. The hearth bread with miso butter and mole verde has been on the menu for a while, perfectly intersecting Bruto then and now. This is a rare bite — in and of itself reason enough to attend. Aguachile, tostada and a rotating protein continue in the same vein.

Then there’s Caroline Clark — ie hospitality’s beverage director who handles the beverage pairing ($45). With a similar mind for curation, Clark has used the platform to tell a full story of Latin wines, with the inclusion of Spanish and Portuguese varieties and harder to find bottles from the Canary Islands. She’s also meticulously selected old-world vines that are now thriving exclusively in Latin America.

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Bruto only serves four nights a week, BOH — inspired by a different Mexico City ease — is instead open every day. Even in its nonchalance, the place still runs on excellence. A hydroponic system growing edible flowers, mint, violas, bibb lettuce and radicchio lines one of the walls. Of the 30 available bottles, Booth selects based as much on ethics as he does flavor. “I try to exclusively carry products where I know the people that make them are well compensated and where the land is well taken care of,” he remarked.

While the dishes are certainly more simple at BOH, it’s still clearly de Leon’s handiwork. The tacos include achiote braised pork ($5), smoked mushroom with al pastor sauce ($5), suadero brisket ($8) and chorizo ($6). But the piece de resistance may be the torta with cochinita pibil ($12) which takes Bruto’s famed piada and packs it with a generous helping of slow-roasted pork, habanero and avocado salsa.

With all that is going behind the curtains, it should hardly seem surprising that the food, no matter how plainly presented, is the kind of fare that should do nothing less than be making this city proud. “I dunno what we’ll be in six months, but this is what we are now,” grinned de Leon.

Bruto is located in Free Market at 1801 Blake St., Denver. It is open on Wednesday and Thursday for a 6:30 chef’s tasting, and Friday and Saturday for both a 5:30 and 8 p.m. seating.

BOH is located in the alley behind Free Market. It is open Monday and Tuesday from 11 a.m. – 5 p.m., Wednesday, Thursday and Sunday from 11 a.m. – 8 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.

All photography by Alden Bonecutter except where indicated.