I’m going to tell you about Cantina Loca, James Beard finalist Dana Rodriguez’s new Mexico City street food restaurant in LoHi, but first I’m going to tell you about my neighbor’s blind date.
When she asked me for a suggestion as to where she should first meet the guy she’d been talking to on a dating site, I suggested Cantina Loca. Top-notch food and drink, a fun vibe, plus it’s affordable; a first date no-brainer. She gets there, they have a drink, talk some, and then, when the server came to take their dinner order, the guy bolted. Said he didn’t see a future and took off. She was stunned, but settled up the tab and then went to her car.
As anyone who’s ever looked for love on the Internet knows, there are a lot of bad first dates. My neighbor has been on all of them. And so, acutely feeling the stinging disappoint of yet another one, she cried. She sat in her car outside Cantina Loca and cried.
But my neighbor is a smart woman. She still wanted to eat Dana’s al pastor Colorado lamb and queso fundido, and so she pulled herself together and marched right back into Cantina Loca to get the dinner she’d been looking forward to.
Her table, however, had already been filled, and now they were on a wait. They don’t normally do takeout orders when they’re busy—they know and respect their limits so as to keep up quality—but the host took a look at her puffy eyes and heartbroken (about the food; not the guy) expression and said, “We can do it. What would you like?”
One bite into the dry-spiced, beef cheek barbacoa taco and her hope was returning. Two bites in and her heart was healed. This is exactly what Cantina Loca is. There’s care in every aspect of the restaurant, from the uncompromising recipes that Dana creates based on the Mexican food she grew up eating, to the prime ingredients they use, to the people who work there.
It’s a restaurant full of care, but it’s also a restaurant full of fun. Cocktails have clever names like the Perra Basica (look up the translation), a take on the margarita made with Dana’s own tequila brand, Doña Loca, because yes, she also has her own tequila brand. And the Oaxacan on Sunshine, a blend of tea-infused mezcal, aperitivo, sweet vermouth, and Aztec chocolate bitters.
The space is anchored by a lavender flowered Jacaranda tree, and traditional mezcal cups make up the light fixtures. It’s not a huge space, but it feels roomy because of its separate eating areas in the main space, at the bar, in a sectioned off dining area, and on the patio.
If you’ve been to Work & Class or Super Mega Bien, Dana’s other two Denver restaurants, you already know the food is going to be great. Cantina Loca’s menu is Dana’s take on Mexico City street food, and it’s divided up into snackies, tacos, shareables and sweets. Highlights include that heart-healing barbacoa taco, the charcoal tempura-fried cactus with chipotle aioli dipping sauce and the red chile pollo adobado served with all the fixings.
There’s nothing too fancy, but that’s the point. It’s designed to be an everyday restaurant, where you can enjoy good food and drinks for your real life. Which sometimes includes bad dates.
Cantina Loca: 2890 Zuni St., Denver, 303.284.6738, cantinaloca.com
Smooth Like Loca
Food isn’t the only thing Dana Rodriguez, aka Loca, is passionate about. The woman loves herself a good pour of tequila and mezcal, and so she set out to make the best. Meet Doña Loca tequilas and mezcals, traditionally-made, additive-free spirits in three expressions each. Taste it for yourself in one of Cantina Loca’s cocktails, then buy it at your favorite local liquor store and make her New Old Oaxacan at home. donaloca.com
New Old Oaxacan
Makes one cocktail
2 oz Doña Loca Espadín Mezcal
.25 oz simple syrup
2-3 drops Angostura bitters
Stir together all ingredients in a cup with a large ice cube until well chilled.