That thunder you heard back in April was actually the sound of people rushing to try the latest and greatest in Mexican food to hit our city, Hacienda Colorado. The enormous restaurant in the University Village shopping center has been attracting crowds since the moment it opened.
With four locations in and around Denver, the owners of Hacienda Colorado have had time to perfect their offerings. I found the staff to be friendly and helpful. The atmosphere is a little on the carnival side - lively and loud. While you can get traditional Mexican favorites here, you can also explore the menu to find something a little different and a lot more tasty.
If you get the chance, it's worth the wait to get a table upstairs on the balcony. There are plenty of seats that have a great view from the upstairs bar, but sitting outside you can watch the sun setting behind the sweep of mountains flanking Pikes Peak. With heaters and fire pits at the ready, you won't have to head inside the moment the weather gets cold, either.
The meal starts with crispy and thin tortilla chips made in house. On my first visit, the house salsa was on the bland side, with none of the finely minced ingredients adding much flavor. The second trip yielded better results, with fresh tomato taking the lead, supported by mildly spicy and smoky notes. A bowl of Queso Blanco ($6.99) made a good counterpoint, the creamy white cheese sauce studded with spicy bits of roasted poblano pepper.
The strength of Hacienda Colorado lies in the freshness of ingredients and the creativity in preparation. Even in something as simple as chipotle-lime chicken tacos ($10.99), the marinated chicken meat is juicy and tender. It's combined with a chipotle aioli and a lemon cream sauce, then topped with avocado, pico de gallo and a jicama and cucumber slaw for a fresh crunch. There are three accent sauces to choose from for your tacos, and the habanero deserves its six-chili rating, even if the flavor is mostly restricted to heat.
The fire-grilled garlic shrimp ($15.99) is similarly simple in design but flawless in execution. The pile of savory shrimp are sweet, tender and firm. The accompaniments include fresh jalape?s, roasted poblanos, roasted bell peppers and onions, sour cream, pico de gallo, shredded Jack and cheddar cheeses and guacamole, all waiting to be piled on a fresh, warm tortilla.
The tamales here aren't the fat, wide pillows I'm accustomed to picking up at the local farmers markets. Since they're served in pairs, there's no danger of going away hungry. The green chili-chicken tamales ($11.99) are packed with roasted Anaheim and poblano chilis, chicken breast meat and cheese. I took the advice of the waitress and got them topped with spicy pork green chili, which is a thick, velvety sauce studded with chunks of slow-cooked pork. The spice level was pretty warm, but not incendiary.
If you're in the mood for beef, you should definitely try the Carne Asada a la Hacienda ($16.99). The 8-ounce sirloin is rubbed with adobo seasoning and grilled to order. It was one of the tenderest, beefiest steaks I've had in a restaurant, and the grilled jalape? slices that garnished it were impossible to resist. The meal was rounded out with a garnish of pico de gallo and ample servings of beans and rice.
The beans and rice merit a little attention all on their own. Having a vegetarian in the house, I appreciate the notice on the menu stating which beans have bacon in them. I also appreciate not being locked into a serving of bland, flavorless refried beans. Both the black beans and the pinto beans were perfectly cooked, mildly seasoned so they accent the meal instead of just taking up space. The rice is fluffy and firm, meaning the kitchen is paying attention and not serving a bland filler.
The applewood-roasted carnitas burrito ($10.99) was a hotly contested item. I love carnitas, but my husband got to it first. The slow-cooked pork is smoky, tender and succulent. The burrito is huge, packed with pork and black beans. The recommended sauce is roasted jalape?, and the tangy bite is a perfect foil for the mellow pork.
Equally large is the portobello burrito ($11.49), but the stuffing is a delicious blend of roasted chilis, black beans, meaty portobello mushrooms, rice and poblano and bell peppers. We opted to top it with the roasted jalape? sauce for extra kick, and it was made even more zesty and tangy with the crema limon and fresh cilantro.
If you're very hungry, the applewood chicken-stuffed Anaheim ($13.99) is a monster of a meal, as if your favorite relleno ate a burrito. A giant, roasted Anaheim chili is stuffed with smoked chicken, roasted poblanos, bell peppers, onions and cheese. The filling is held together by a smoky chipotle sauce, then the Anaheim is coated in crunchy panko bread crumbs and lightly fried.
Be cautious if you order one of the combination plates. While some restaurants will give you scaled-down versions of your favorite items, that won't happen here. The Comida Deluxe ($13.49) is two full-sized (and delicious) beef enchiladas served with rice and beans on one plate. The full-sized beef burrito needs its own plate to be conveyed to the table.
One unfortunate aspect of Hacienda Colorado is that they do not take reservations or allow call-ahead seating, even for large parties. This can mean a long wait at peak dinner hours. At some restaurants, the wait gets shorter as the newness wears off. I suspect that isn't going to happen here for a very long time, if ever.
Restaurant character: It's lively, loud and crowded, but the staff does an excellent job keeping up with demand. Basic Mexican food favorites are prepared with flair, with an eye to fresh ingredients and a list of house sauces developed to suit every whim.
Rating total: 4 out of 5 stars
Food: 4 out of 5 stars
Ambiance: 4 out of 5 stars
Service: 4 out of 5 stars
Value for dollar: 4 out of 5 stars
Address: 5246 N. Nevada Ave.
Contact: 418-7999, www.hacienda colorado.com
Hours: 11 a.m.-9 p.m., Sunday-Thursday; 11 a.m.-10 p.m., Friday-Saturday
Credit cards: Yes
Vegetarian options: Yes; Portobello Burrito ($11.49), Hacienda-Style Cheese Enchiladas ($10.49)
What's online as of June 26:
- 65 percent of 20 voters "liked it" on Urban Spoon
- Four out of five stars based on 11 reviews on Yelp
- Not on Facebook
- Three violations were corrected during a March inspection by the El Paso County Health Department.