I met up with my good friend Lalo for this week's eatery. He was aptly chosen as my dining companion for his expertise in traditional street-style Mexican food. Lalo knows his cosas when it comes to la comida. I arrive before him and have a minute to check it out. While officially called La Abeja, it has the usual-for-a-taqueria three to five unofficial names/offerings in well-produced and maintained spray paint above the door: Panaderia Y Pastelleria Bakery La Abeja Tacos Tortas Burritos. Really, you can't miss it. While I've lived in Colorado for 13 years, I'm still a pale girl from Michigan at heart, and any time I get the chance to go in somewhere authentically Mexican, I'm always surprised a little bit. It's not just an eatery you see, it's a little Mexican smorgasbord: convenience store, phone card store, candy store, bakery, and of course, the restaurant. Lively and loud Mexican polka music is blasting from the speakers. Right inside the door and immediately to the left is a whole wall rack of Mexican spices. And I thought Whole Foods had some offerings of that variety, hmph! Now I know where to go when I want to make mole and posole.
There are a few glass cases with the baked goods, most are similar looking in that white flour, sugar, and cinnamon-sprinkled kind of way, like gigantic snickerdoodles. A couple kinds have more glitter-like sprinkles than a queen at Pride. Lalo walks in while I'm perusing the cases and, as I knew he would, declares "we will get that on our way out". Lalo is a big fan of bread products. The convenience store aspect of the place is true in this way: if you really need toilet paper or laundry detergent or bar soap, you can conveniently get it at La Abeja. It reminds me of a camp ground store, the bare essentials plus some cookies.
The menu is above the cash register/order counter. Actually they have two menus, one in words and one in pictures, advertising different things. We focus on the words menu, I've seen enough picture menus lately anyway. Different things, new things!, I think. Chilaquiles (safe) and a lengua taco (dangerous). Lalo gets two tacos, carnitas and carne asada. (Believe me, at this point I'm sick of the italics too but I guess I'm going with it). I grab a pineapple Jumex from the case and try to pay, but the counter girl tells us we can pay when we're done. Well how do you like that. How trusting.
The dining area is in a different room, separate from the store/ordering place. It's spotlessly clean and humming with the sound of an ice machine and a refrigerator. Ceramic roosters line the tops of the walls, and glittery virgin Marys and other metallic still-lifes reflect the well-lit room and shine down on us. This place is busy, it's lunchtime, and the blend of demographics is reassuring. It's good enough for all denizens of Denver. To be sure, I had heard nothing but raves about La Abeja before coming. The server (and cook!), smiling and full of energy, brings out our dishes, a little surprised that the lengua taco is for me, most likely because the chilaquiles is actually a platter, with the requisite rice and beans. In other words, it's a lot of food. Enough italics, this is Denver, but of course, I will elaborate: Lengua means tongue. Cow tongue specifically. And chilaquiles are fried corn tortillas cut into triangles covered with green chile and cheese. Sounds like nachos maybe? Well nachos it ain't. It's soft and hearty and definitely something to be eaten with a fork. I stab a piece of lengua first. It's a little spongy, lacking the fibrosity of a more commonly eaten cow muscle, but tastes like beef and has a wonderful buttery texture. With a little cilantro, white onion, and salsa verde on top, it is a typical and tasty Mexican taco. The corn tortilla, doubled up of course, has a fluffy consistency and tastes like it was pounded out that morning.
Lalo is happily impressed with his tacos as well. The carnitas (pork) is a bit salty, but tenderly soft and stringy, like it was just pulled from the pig, and the carne asada (beef) has a delectably savory barbeque/chile powder essence that I have yet to taste in a Denver taqueria. Going back and forth between the dishes, I am amazed to find the chilaquiles stay as hot as when the plate was delivered, as if the cheese and chile are an insulator for the wonderfully messy fried tortillas underneath. The green chile has a wonderful spicy heat that sneaks up on you in the best of ways. This is an amazing dish, something that is also frequently served with eggs in it, ahh, Mexican breakfast. Next time, next time.
We savor the food, animatedly talking about math dreams and Tucson weather patterns and weddings and quiet, rainy retreats. We pay and leave and stroll down Grant Street, and Lalo keeps coming back to the food: "They tune in a lot to the undercurrents". Now if that doesn't rouse your interest and appetite in La Abeja, usted no atiende.