My passion for authentic Mexican food began thirty years ago in Mazatlan when I ignored travel guide warnings and wandered from my hotel buffet to an open air street vendor for lunch. It was a small brightly colored kioske surrounded by bar stools where you bellied up to a counter to order and eat. Unable to communicate with the man who was cook and server, I pointed at the Pacifico beers in a bucket of ice and shrugged when he asked me what I wanted for lunch. He threw some chicken on the grill that had been rubbed with earthy spices, alongside knob onions and fresh chile peppers. Plated with a warm tortilla, a dark colored salsa and some pickled vegetables and the rest is history.
Unfortunately authentic Mexican food can be hard to find in Denver. And lucky for us who live on the South side of town, that La Sandia Restaurant opened up a few years ago in The Vistas at Park Meadows Mall. A creation of Internationally recognized Chef Richard Sandoval, La Sandia offers authentic Mexican specialties and over 200 fine Tequilas and agave spirits. Inspired by his culinary mantra of ‘old ways, new hands,’ Chef Sandoval reinterprets traditional dishes with innovative techniques and impressive presentations.
Now through January 31, La Sandia is showcasing their Tamale Festival as an à la carte supplement to their lunch and dinner menus. Inspired by tradition and a variety of Mexican regions the menu is as exciting visually as it is in its flavors. I was invited for a tasting of this special menu and we were treated with some of the most creative tamales this Gringo has ever seen. You really owe it to yourself to make it over there as I doubt you can find anything like them anywhere else.
What made our experience even more special, we were guided through the menu by Jose, La Sandia’s best server. He’s smart and he’s passionate about the cuisine. Lucky you if you find him at your table. Greeting us with cocktails, little did I know our lunch would also include a in depth tutorial about the tamales inspired through different regions of Mexico. I hung on his every word, a true learning experience. The tamale festival features these refreshing cocktails, a Pomegranate Margarita made with blanco tequila, pomegranate puree and citrus. And the Ponche Mexicano, a traditional tequila spiked with Mexican punch, cinnamon and tropical fruit.
First out was Tamale de Frijol. It’s a bean and cheese tamale with sliced poblana peppers. The entomatada salsa is made with roasted tomato and serrano chile and it’s drizzled with poblana creme. Jose insisted we follow tradition and eat a bite of pickled vegetables with a bite of the tamale. I love this idea of plating it on a banana leaf for presentation…note to self.
Another impressive presentation was the Tamales Fritos Toluca. It’s a chicken tinga tamale with tomatilla poblano sauce. The tamale is fried after it’s made and then drizzled with salsa verde and crema fresca. I’m a fan of tinga, so this was one of my favorites.
Heading to the north part of the country next out was the Chile Relleno de Tamale Durango. This is a poblano chile filled with a chicken tinga tamale, Mexican cheeses, and served in a wonderful sweet and spicy chipotle sauce. There are some chorizo black beans tucked next to the pepper which sits in salsa Jalisco and cotija cheese. Finally it is drizzled with crema fresca. Topped with a crunch of jicama and a leaf of epazote, this is a very special feast for the eyes and the palate.
Tamale de Pescado a la Campeche is an event in itself. It’s served in a molcajete and comes out steaming hot sealed in foil. You know you’re in for a treat when you open the package and the aromas of Mexico’s Pacific Coast fill the air. Cooked in banana leaves, this is a fish tamale made with tomato masa. Topped with epazote, serrano, cilantro, grilled yellow squash and green onions all a garlic sauce this Pacific Snapper tamale is an adventure.
In my opinion, this is the show stopper. Pork Tamale Estilo Oaxaca is beautifully packaged in banana leaves. It’s smothered with mole negro and served with charro beans and creamy plantain rice. This is only the second mole sauce I’ve ever tried and I must say the flavor blew me away. Complex, somewhat sweet, earthy and exotic La Sandia’s version is delicious and we savored every bite. The rice is elegant and silky made with cream and with a touch of sweet from the plantains. It is a very special side dish.
Regular readers will know I’m not much for dessert but I flipped over this Tamale Dulce. A traditional Mexico City style red tamale served over cajeta and chocolate. I had to Google cajeta when I got home to find out what makes it so wonderful. Cajeta is a caramel-like concoction, yet more milky and silky, and with a deep, rustic and almost nutty flavor. It’s Mexico’s version of Dulce de Leche and thanks to La Sandia, I’m officially smitten. There are golden raisins in the tamale and it’s sprinkled with walnuts. I filled my fork with a bite of the tamale, drug it through the cajeta and chocolate, speared it with a piece of fruit and then dipped the whole thing for a second coating in the chocolate next to the fruit. Nuff said except for cafe de olla…where have you been all my life? Cafe de olla is a Mexican spiced coffee traditionally prepared in earthen clay pots to enhance the flavor and flavored with piloncillo (pure unrefined sugar, resembles brown sugar), orange, cloves and cinnamon.
Thanks to La Sandia for a very special menu and remember, you’ve only got until the end of this month to try it yourself. The tamale festival menu is available at both their Park Meadows and Stapleton locations.