Yes, the lines are long, but does Torchy’s Tacos live up to the hype?
Do you remember the fervor that rushed through the veins of fried dough junkies when Voodoo Doughnut opened in Denver? The Portland-based doughnut emporium thrust open its doors on East Colfax in mid-January in 2014, commanding inexplicable lines that stretched for blocks. The “I just won the lottery” expressions of those who skipped out the door carrying one of Voodoo’s signature pink boxes morphed, of course, into thousands of selfies. You, with your fuchsia Voodoo Doughnut box, were the envy of those who had yet to experience the “magic in the hole.”
Doughnuts aren’t my jam, so I’ve never really understood the hoopla over Voodoo. I am, however, a taco junkie. There is no better blank canvas, no better food in the world, than the almighty taco. And when a taco is done right, everything in the universe aligns. Even bad tacos, like bad pizza, are good.
Torchy’s Tacos, which began as a food trailer in Austin, Texas in 2006, now ballyhoos 41 outposts, 40 of which are in Texas. The lone breakaway from the Lone Star State? A single branch in Denver that, after months of frenetic anticipation, opened in January on Broadway. Four more locales are slated to grace the Front Range by the end of the year in Greenwood Village, Westminster, Fort Collins and Stapleton. Voodoo’s lines have nothing on the out-the-door-and-down-the-block queues at Torchy’s.
On the day Torchy’s opened in the Golden Triangle, the sky was dumping white crystals, but Denverites are a hearty bunch, and, despite the snow, hundreds of die-hards shivered outside for hours, slowly shuffling their way toward the counter, which eventually splits off into two lines, each governed by one person who takes your order and gives you a numbered card. You’re left to your own devices to scour one of the two dining rooms for a seat. I didn’t succumb to the hype that first day, but I can see why Torchy’s commands a cult of disciples: It’s a riot of fun, intentionally quirky and over the top. And while its “damn good tacos” tagline may arch the eyebrows of taqueria snobs, the fact of the matter is this: Torchy’s isn’t pretending to be a taqueria, and it doesn’t claim to be “authentic” (whatever that means to you). If you want bona fide street tacos, there are dozens of joints on Federal to feed your lust; if you want messy Tex-Mex tacos, then Torchy’s is damn good.
The large space, with its splay of cherry-red reflector lights, soaring ceilings, rusticated wood accents, black-and-white patterned bar tile and futuristic chandeliers that, if you’re old enough to remember “The Jetsons,” will make you long for the days when TV wasn’t dominated by school-yard theatrics, is a showpiece that might be worth a design award or two. The margaritas—terrific margaritas—pack a potent punch, and the green chile queso, dotted with crumbles of queso fresco, a swirl of diablo sauce and a liberal sphere of guacamole, is exactly the kind of sidekick you want with your margarita. It’s become an addiction, and I usually take a container of it home, along with a bag of the homemade chips, for a late-night snack while binge-watching “House of Cards.” The freshly made guacamole, splashed with lime, is pretty fantastic, too, although I find it somewhat odd that the menu makes a point of accentuating the fact that the kitchen uses “real avocados.”
The corn (also real!) is of the street persuasion and it, too, is excellent. The kernels, shaved from the cob and blistered black, are crowned with a blot of ancho aioli, more queso fresco, cilantro leaves and a scattering of New Mexican red chile powder. And the half-dozen housemade salsas and sauces, which zigzag from a roasted tomatillo to the diablo—a habanero number that’s more tart than menacing—are fashioned to appeal to every taste.
Now. The tacos. My biggest complaint is that the corn tortillas collapse, somewhat miserably, under the weight of excess. Stick to the flour tortillas, which are far superior vessels to their corn counterparts. It should be said that the tacos at Torchy’s are all about abundance and quirky combinations, which sometimes push the boundaries of sensibility, but excess and unconventional unifications are the shtick here. If you’re in the less-is-more camp, the beef fajita taco, surfaced with crimson strips of tender skirt steak, grilled peppers and onions and a smattering of shredded cheese, fits nicely inside your hand.
There are plenty of proponents of the Dirty Sanchez, a whomp of guacamole, scrambled eggs, a vinegary carrot escabeche and a poblano chile, but my egg, requested soft-scrambled, was severely overcooked and the chile, fried to unrecognizable oblivion. Three tacos are named for political party affiliations: Democrat, Republican and Independent, which, as you can imagine, makes for interesting bar banter. If, hypothetically, those tacos were competing for bragging rights, the Democrat, a tangle of steamy beef barbacoa, shredded and scaled with avocado, cilantro, onions, queso fresco and a blast of tomatillo sauce, would likely result in a majority of votes.
There are all sorts of things you can do to manipulate your tacos: remove the lettuce, pimp them with queso, douse them with salsa. There’s a “secret” menu, too, which isn’t exactly a secret, considering that it’s printed and available to anyone who asks. Still, if you want to be one of the in-the-know cool kids, you should probably request it. You would be smart to order the missionary-style carnitas taco spiked with green chiles and topped with chile queso, onions and cilantro. Shower it with a squirt of lime and you’re in a happy place. The kicker? It’s served on a crisped corn tortilla inside a flour tortilla. That same pork taco, minus the flour tortilla, is on the regular menu. It’s delicious. You’ll like it. And, when the eggs are done right, you’ll like the breakfast tacos, too.
There are two bars at Torchy’s, which are first come, first serve. If you spot empty stools while peering through the window from your spot in line, consider it an opportunity to channel your inner athlete. Race to the bar and pounce on those seats! I learned this trick on my third expedition to Torchy’s, and aside from the luxury of skipping the queue, it provides an opportunity to banter with the hipster tenders. They’re a conversational bunch, calm under pressure and quick with a drink.
1085 N. Broadway
Starters, $3.50-$5.25; entrees, $2.25-$5.50; desserts, $2.50-$2.95.
Green chile queso, chips and guacamole, roasted corn, green chile pork taco and beef fajita taco.
Relaxed, conversational and friendly.
All major credit cards accepted. Full bar. Parking lot.