Vaca Gordo BBQ Unites OAK and SMOK for Tex Mex at Avanti Denver

On Monday, November 1, Vaca Gordo BBQ opened at Avanti Denver in the upstairs stall that previously held Lea Jane’s Hot Chicken. The new Tex Mex concept is a collaboration between longtime friends and former coworkers Bill Espiricueta — the owner of SMOK Barbecue and Bellota in The Source — and Steve Redzikowski — who opened OAK at Fourteenth in 2011 and most recently debuted New Yorkese at Avanti Boulder.

The menu expertly intersperses the same kind of cue that has made SMOK a city-wide favorite with Mexican standards, allowing patrons the option of either tortilla, crispy tostada, rice and beans or a salad bowl as the vehicle for their choice of protein. The portions come sturdy — hearty meals intentionally created to anchor or capstone vigorous drinking bouts. “It’s built around the barbecue. We don’t want to be known as a taco shop,” said Espiricueta. The food was designed for maximum craveability, a concept Avanti co-founder Patrick O’Neill takes seriously when selecting contributors. In this, Vaca Gordo is a fabulous success.

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Entree orders are built simply. Guests need only pick a meat — smoked brisket ($13), smoked chicken thigh ($11), jalapeno cheddar sausage ($12) and al pastor pulled pork ($12) — and one of the aforementioned styles. And while the idea of paying $13 for a taco might look absurd to the uninitiated, the smoked brisket option arrives with a seven-ounce slab of tender, fat-laden meat and an appropriate heap of cheese and jalapeno-heavy fixings, laid atop a jumbo Caramelo tortilla. Espiricueta has been devoted to serving the Kansas City-based company forever, with a smaller version of the tortilla providing the backbone for many of Bellota’s best dishes. This is by no means a street taco, leaning closer to the fare found at SMOK despite using a tortilla as the vehicle. “One thing we’re still doing to this day at SMOK is educating people about barbecue,” said Espiricueta, noting that quality meat tends to come with a heftier price tag.

Sides also come with real weight. The Frito Pie ($11) — with chopped meat, sour cream, pickled onion, jalapeno, cilantro and a combination of cotija, jack and queso — delivers a helping of down-home comfort that could easily be stretched across meals. Despite the decidedly robust nature of the savory options, saving room for the churros ($6) — complete with a bubbling side of dulce de leche — shouldn’t be limited to those with true grit.

Vaca Gordo does a good job of acting as a conceptual hybrid of Espiricueta’s other concepts, though remains more tangential than simply being a direct blend. “We’re all floating around in the same pool,” grinned the chef. Redzikowski’s fingerprints also are evident across the menu, with each item meeting the same rigorous standards that have made his other concepts lasting successes. Banking on what should be Vaca Gordo’s inevitable success, Espiricueta and Redzikowski are hoping to replicate the concept sooner than later.

Vaca Gordo is located in Avanti Denver at 3200 North Pecos St., Denver. It is open Sunday – Wednesday from 11 a.m. – 10 p.m., and Thursday – Saturday from 11 a.m. – 12 a.m.

All photography courtesy of Avanti Food and Beverage.