Taqueria El Nopal | AspenTimes.com

Taqueria El Nopal

Christina Patterson

Part of the fun of being a local in resort areas is a certain status about restaurants.

It’s fun to say (in a voice usually reserved for insider-trading stock tips) “well, I know this little (fill in an adjective: Italian, sandwich, breakfast) place.” Do it property, and you imply, subtly, that it’s the kind of place we full-time residents usually conceal from lesser mortals. Well, I know this little Mexican place …

It’s called Taqueria el Nopal, a tiny diner-style spot next to a good antique store in Basalt. My friends who go there have warned me not to praise it, because they value the atmosphere and speedy service.

So don’t go to 22826 Two Rivers Road unless you’re cool, okay?

You immediately realize this is not your usual valley restaurant. From the sign outside above two picnic tables to the authentic bullfight poster on the wall, this is the real thing.

When the Taqueria el Nopal specials board says “Especiales de hoy” they are not developing a theme.

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The food is highlighted by two home-made items: corn tortillas and salsas. The five salsas range from mild to oh-my-god hot, and they seem designed to accompany the plentiful portions.

They were. Chef and owner Ismael A. Cabrera, 32, was a chef at Mezzaluna in Aspen for eight years. He is from El Salvador and is married to a woman from Mexico. Their recipes come “from just traveling around,” says Cabrera.

Those travels must include places with hot food, because Taqueria el Nopal is not afraid of the heat, at least in the sauces. The food itself is mostly the stuff of good eating: Carne Asada, marinated chicken and pork. It’s served with homemade corn tortillas, generous avocado and both red and green salsas.

But the standard fare is supplemented with De Lengua (steamed beef tongue), De Tripita (roast beef tripe) and De Cabeza (steamed cheek meat).

On a recent trip, we tried the burritos and the carne asada. Previous experience tells us that you really can’t go wrong, but if your dining companion gets the stack of tortillas you will end up poaching.

The burrito is a popular favorite. This one was chicken, but the other meaty fillings are also good and the veggie is among the valley’s best. The carne asada is classic, plentiful and wraps well in the stack of eight or ten tortillas.

The light lunch crowd might consider just the carne asada and make mini-burritos. But don’t do it to save cash, because Taqueria el Nopal is a great deal. The burritos are $5, the carne asada leads the “expensive” section of the menu at $8.50.

We skipped the shrimp soup this time out, but it’s probably the best thing on the menu. It’s actually shrimp and octopus soup served hot with limes ($8).

Another sure bet is the quesadilla, a flour tortilla topped with heaps of cheese and other goodies for $4, adding pork, beef or chicken adds another buck.

“Traditional tacos” are $1.50. Buy three and insist on getting the little round salsa tray.

And top this all off with orchata, a sweet rice drink, or the usual array of soft drinks. There’s no alcohol. Granted, this little Mexican place ain’t fancy. It keeps its diner roots (Basalt locals might recall the location’s days as Charcoal Burger, where they enjoyed “Harley burgers” named after the proprietor, not the bike).

But there are other places for all that. This is a chance to chomp into some really well-prepared food, enjoy neighborly service and do it all at a price that’s also reminiscent of another culture.

In the world of “I know a great little place,” the Taqueria gets my highest possible rating.

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