Michael Beary is the chef/owner of Zocalito, the Latin bistro that just relocated from its 15-year home in Aspen to downtown in the Denver Place building. (Provided by Zocalito)
Michael Beary loves peppers with the intensity that most people save for other people, pets or, well, the finished edible product of those peppers.
Beary is the chef/owner of Zocalito, the Latin bistro that just relocated from its 15-year home in Aspen to downtown in the Denver Place building. The Aspen building was sold and intended to be demolished, according to a release.
The food is all about Oaxaca, Mexico, but it’s not quite the Mexican food that most of us are used to. That’s because of those peppers.
The menu revolves around them — specifically chilcosles, pasilla de Oaxacas and the red, black and yellow variations of chilhuacles — and highlights their unique flavors in moles, salsas and picos. These guys are rare; so rare that Beary said they stopped showing up in 2004 due to genetic erosion of the peppers’ species. So, like Justin Timberlake with sexy, he decided to bring them back.
“My goal is to continue to stop the genetic erosion of the product and to make people aware of them,” Beary said.
Now Beary is a primary importer of those peppers, but he keeps a good stash of them for his own restaurant. Each year he heads down to Mexico to buy hundreds of kilos of fresh peppers. He brings them back for Zocalito and sells the leftovers to other chefs and pepper aficionados.
“They have to come through me to get them,” Beary said.
Because they’re not as pervasive as habañeros, jalapeños and other household-level peppers, it’s hard to find chiles like these on other Denver restaurant menus. Their flavors are earthy, and none of them are overly spicy. Or, as Beary described, “they’re not going to burn your face off.”
The chilcosle chiles are fruit-forward in flavor with just a little kick, and as they are grown by only a few families, they’ve become scarce. The deep, intense chilhuacles are a crucial ingredient in the seven Oaxacan moles, but because they’re risky and costly to grow, there aren’t a whole lot of them left these days.
On both the lunch and dinner menus, the taco-topped skirt steak in negro mole ($29) — yes, taco-topped steak — is a favorite. This mole, made with the negro chilhuacle peppers, isn’t sweet, but rather layered with roasted spices and raw cacao beans.
The standout red pozole ($13) sees chunks of pork and hominy bobbing happily in a rich red chile-tomato broth. Off of the relleno menu, the Santa Leaf (a large, subtly anise-flavored leaf; $17) is stuffed with mozzarella and chorizo and placed atop a corn and tomatillo sauce.
Zocalito does chicken wings ($15) a little differently than what we typically expect. Instead of being super spicy, they’re more spice-heavy. The four dry-rubbed flavors range from a citrus-tangy Peruvian spice blend to the smoke-dried pasilla de Oaxaca.
Of course there are margaritas, mezcals and tequilas, and also some borrowed Latin drinks like mojitos and caipirinhas. Lots of Spanish and Argentinean wine, too.
Brightly colored sculptures of mythical creatures originated by artist Pedro Linares, called alebrijes, hang from the ceiling and greet you at the door.
The vibrant alebrijes and Beary’s beloved peppers are available for your viewing and eating now — Zocalito opened last week. Who knows, maybe you’ll fall in love with a pepper.
Zocalito Latin Bistro: 999 18th St., Denver, 970-920-1991; zocalito.com; Mon.-Sat. 11 a.m.-11 p.m.