Adios, Zocalito: Chef-owner Mike Beary departs Aspen for a Denver opening
IF YOU GO ...
Zocalito Latin Bistro
Closing Party: Sept. 22
420 E. Hyman Ave.
999 18th St.
Denver Place Building, Denver
At 18 years young, Zocalito Latin Bistro is leaving the nest of the Roaring Fork Valley. Long marked for demolition to accommodate reconstruction on the Hyman Avenue mall, the building occupied by chef-owner Mike Beary’s colorful subterranean restaurant (as well as C.B. Paws, Annette’s Mountain Bake Shop and Aspen Hair Co.) is falling, finally. While closing Zocalito in Aspen this coming Saturday, Sept. 22, represents the end of an era, Beary is excited for the next episode: opening in Denver.
“We have a huge patio, and it’s looking really good,” Beary says of a new, 3,000 square-foot buildout in the modern Denver Place Building, located at 18th and Champa streets. “It’s gonna be fun to have a center stage in a town where the food scene has exploded. The restaurant economy, from my perspective, has slumped in Aspen. There’s no place for us to go (here).”
For Beary—and fans of his complex Oaxacan cuisine, made with rare chiles and artisan ingredients (even roasted grasshoppers!) the chef imports straight from sources south of the border, plus produce and herbs cultivated at his impressive garden in Carbondale—moving Zocalito to Denver is bittersweet.
“We’re very happy about coming about in Aspen. It was a great vibe and place to live and develop recipes,” Beary says. “I grew 350 pounds of tomatoes this year, and all that goes into my product, my moles. That’s gonna be hard to replicate in Denver.”
Regrettably, Zocalito is one in a handful of beloved restaurants that may vanish this coming year due to development—an unsettling trend.
“By May of 2019 we’re seeing 10 restaurants gone,” Beary continues, rattling off a list that includes Zocalito, Annette’s, Grey Lady, Jimmy’s Bodega, Wild Fig, Su Casa and Eric’s Bar, among others. “That’s a lot of change in the Aspen food and dining scene. At some point you’d think there would be regeneration, that the city would make some effort (to accommodate independent restaurateurs). But they let that building go through review, and be designed as a glass building with a penthouse. Are you f—ing kidding me?”
Locals will want to swing by Zocalito’s closing party this Saturday to enjoy the flavors of Oaxaca through dishes adored over the years: chile rellenos, spicy dry-rubbed chicken wings, Mayan pork belly tacos, shrimp and octopus seafood salad, red pozole, slow-cooked chicken tamales, braised baby back ribs and grilled meats, fish and vegetables, all seasoned with Beary’s authentic moles, sauces and signature spice rubs.
“We cook a huge lamb to do lamb tacos,” Beary adds. “We’re not gonna try to empty our wine or liquor stock, because we’ll take it to Denver. But that’s not to say we’re not gonna give away some margaritas! Maybe we’ll do some salsa dancing in the back room.”
Zocalito Latin Bistro Denver is slated to open in mid-November. Boasting 80 to 100 seats indoors and another 40 or 50 on the outdoor patio with sunny, southwest exposure, the restaurant will launch with the help of kitchen and FOH staff able to relocate, some at least temporarily, to the Mile High City to set up and train during Aspen’s fall offseason.
Capitalizing on Zocalito’s expansive dinner menu currently (some 50-plus items), Beary plans to divide dishes among separate lunch, dinner, and bar menus in Denver. These include hearty dishes such as Oaxacan mozzarella skirt steak with rare chilhuacle mole plus lighter items including those painstakingly prepared tamales, fried mussels and a slew of tacos: potato-chorizo, fish, pork belly, and beef.
“Do we add some kind of sandwich or more salads?” Beary muses. “A fun torta on the lunch menu or do it on the side? Maybe the mozzarella skirt steak is smaller, or with tortillas so they can make tacos? I get this feel from Denver that they tend to latch on to a super-filling lunch—do you have to have a giant plate of rice and beans? I think we are gonna show Denver Mexican cuisine that it hasn’t seen.”
Colorado-based interior designer KD Fikso, longtime friend of Beary’s from their native Pacific Northwest, set about warming up a sleek, contemporary space with materials and colors that recall both the rich agrarian history of Mexico and the urban landscape of Oaxaca City. Dark-stained maple-wood tabletops mix with metal tones, dark green-gray wood wainscoting in the bar, and seating covered in striped fabrics with open-weave structure. Rust colors rule outside, home to a large fire pit table with an earth-toned, striated granite top.
“We needed to make sure the soul of Zocalito that was developed in Aspen, and Mike’s vision, was included in this new iteration,” Fikso notes, hence Beary’s collection of colorful masks, costumes and folk art finding a home in Denver. “It feels modern but not slick. A big window on one full side of the restaurant will open up onto the patio. Even if you’re in the restaurant you’ll feel like you’re outside.”
A massive, 22-by-11-foot mural created by photographer Chris Guibert—who collaborated on “Zocalito to the Source,” a 2012 essay book that chronicles Beary’s hunt for rare chiles in Oaxaca through stunning imagery—commands a wall in the bar. Such graphics hark to Beary’s deep relationships with Mexican farmers, cultivated over a decade and a half.
“Despite being in a big building and downtown, it’s still a chef-driven restaurant,” Fikso explains. “There’s a young demographic in (Denver) and I think they’re gonna be psyched about the food. It has a lot of character and feels fresh. There are other terrific restaurants in the same building … but you’ll be able to enter (Zocalito) from the street. It will have its own presence.”
The countdown is on. At least one silver lining to Zocalito departing Aspen this week and opening in Denver in two months, in terms of sourcing the rare Oaxacan ingredients that compose chef Beary’s creative cuisine? “One less plane flight to Mexico,” he quips.
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