In 2015, when Palenque first opened its doors on South Broadway, the drinking scene in Denver was a distinctly different animal than it is today. Agave spirits did not sit in the limelight, and much of the cocktail culture had yet to flourish into its current resplendence. There were people drinking well, but the sense that folks could get a sophisticated concoction in most corners of the city had yet to really arrive. Brian Rossi — the owner of the previous Palenque and former co-owner of the adjoining Adelita’s — was indeed ahead of his time, introducing curious neophytes to a producer-focused sitting room that focused primarily on expressions sourced straight from mezcaleros he had spent years developing personal relationships with. In 2020, that pioneering room reopened as La Doña, with Palenque finding a new and massively expanded home in downtown Littleton.
These days, Rossi runs his restaurant a bit differently than he used to. Perhaps most noticeably is the fact that he now resides in Lo De Marcos, a relatively sleepy beach town about an hour north of Puerto Vallarta. His occasional on-site manager and general right-hand man Tony White also lives in Mexico, conducting tours of Oaxaca City and the surrounding area with his fiancee, Carmen, who grew up there. Both pop back sporadically, with some visits lasting only a few days and others lasting as long as six weeks.
The original Palenque felt like a labor of love; the new venue rings an even greater encapsulation of the very real marvel and delight both have found across the southern border. “This is a house that gives thanks to the people who have made these beautiful spirits,” said White, noting that Palenque Cocina y Agaveria is, more than anything, a tribute to the mezcaleros. Additionally, the new space has been giving the team a chance to spread the gospel to a new audience, one both Rossi and White say has been incredibly receptive.
“It still has that magnetic pull for people from downtown,” grinned White, noting that the 196-seat space often manages to pull a blend of old-school Palenque followers, Littleton locals and new seekers from across the region. While the vibe has certainly been shifted in favor of the grand and gregarious, the place still maintains an impressive intimacy, managing to translate much of what made the original great, even across a much larger canvas. “It’s not quite as rustic as the mezcaleria was,” noted Rossi. “Whether on Broadway or in Littleton, we’ve always been a local bar,” added White. Spaces of this size can easily become swayed to the whim of the crowd — that Palenque has kept its hands on the helm, continuing to gently guide guests toward the best agave found on the Front Range is a testament to both Rossi and White’s passion. “Turning people’s preconceived notions around here is one of my favorite things,” smiled White.
Food-wise, much of the menu is quite similar to the offerings found at the previous incarnation, though it would appear that the in-house cooks have been perfecting each item in terms of nuance and depth of flavor. The tacos are an obvious choice, with the lengua being one of the best in the city. Birria tacos ($12.95) are one of the few truly new items, and vastly outshine many of the iterations that have popped up as the style has become a local trend. The Palenque Mole ($15.95) — with bone-in chicken, house-made refried beans, rice, lettuce, pico, fresco cheese and a choice of either flour or corn tortillas — is appropriately robust, both in size and complexity.
While the food is reason enough to visit, the growing collection of over 200 bottles of tequila, mezcal, raicilla and sotol are what have always been the cornerstone of Palenques raison d’etre. And while the pandemic has somewhat slowed Rossi and White’s annual pilgrimages to the furthest corners of Mexico’s agave production, the list has continued to grow, the focus continuing to favor family-owned brands and producers. “Wherever Palenque has been, it’s always been pushing regional Mexican fare and agave spirits,” said White. “We’re a one-trick pony, but our trick’s really good,” he laughed.
Palenque Cocina y Agaveria’s greatest success is that it has managed to intensify its depth in a way that even outsizes its increased volume. Rossi’s daily explorations of Lo De Marcos’ markets are discussed in the frequent digital manager meetings that have allowed for a very distinct and successful approach to remote ownership. “It’s making me appreciate much more what my restaurant is about,” grinned Rossi. The immediate, real-time connection with Mexico is evident throughout, the new location acting less as an homage than as a living, breathing portal straight to the source. “I think I’m probably the luckiest restaurant owner there is,” he continued. Dining here is a chance to share in that sense of serendipity.
Palenque Cocina y Agaveria is located at 2609 Main St., Littleton. It is open Sunday – Thursday from 11 a.m. – 9 p.m., and Friday and Saturday from 11 a.m. – 10 p.m.
All photography by Alden Bonecutter.