In many restaurants, the term "Latin American" is loosely applied, describing mostly Mexican food with some ropa vieja thrown in for good measure. But in Denver's northwestern highlands, Ulises Santiago and Jose Acevedo of Red Tango are proving that Latin food can have a much wider reach.
Santiago and Acevedo, natives of Mexico and Chile, respectively, met as co-workers during a stint at another Denver restaurant. The two bonded over their shared love of Latin flavors: Santiago cooked in California after leaving Mexico City as a teenager, while Acevedo worked as a wine merchant in Chile before a sideline career as a professional soccer player brought him to Denver.
When Santiago invited Acevedo over one evening for a home-cooked meal, a restaurant idea was born. "We spent the next eight months cooking dinners for friends, trying out new dishes," Acevedo says. "Seeing their reactions, we knew we had something."
Red Tango, like a growing number of Latin restaurants, offers a complex array of foods from Mexico and Central and South America, and Santiago leaves plenty of room for improvisation. The result: His Mexican potato pancakes are topped with fish or vegetarian variations instead of the traditional beef, while cilantro steps in for parsley in his Argentinian chimichurri sauce. And many dishes are flavored with the Middle Eastern and Spanish spices he came to love during his time in California. "It's Latin fusion, with a Mediterranean twist," Acevedo says.
It's a lively collaboration, and with help from wives, children, and grandchildren, it's made Red Tango a popular destination. If you're not traveling to Denver soon, here are three recipes that bring these flavors home.
INFO: Red Tango ($$; lunch Tue-Fri, dinner Mon-Sat; 5807 W. 38th Ave., Wheat Ridge, CO; 303/420-2203)
Chimichurri is the national condiment of Argentina, a tangy herb paste that's used as both a marinade and a sauce. Here, Santiago replaces traditional parsley with cilantro.
Wine pairing: A slightly spicy red wine with ripe plums and cherry, such as La Boca 2003 Malbec from Argentina.
In true fusion fashion, traditional Mexican potato pancakes are the base for Santiago's Mediterranean-inspired salmon.
Wine pairing: Sparkling brut Champagne with a high percentage of Pinot Noir, such as Korbel Natural Sonoma County Champagne, Russian River Valley.
Like a Chilean shepherd's pie, pastel de choclo tops spiced ground beef with a puréed corn crust.
Wine pairing: Chilean Cabernet Sauvignon or Merlot with dark cassis, plum, and black-olive flavors, such as Santa Rita Cabernet Sauvignon 2003.