Gourmet Mexican has always struck me as something of an oxymoron. Usually combining the two words equates to getting fleeced for the same plate of rice, beans and flour-tortilla-wrapped something that costs barely $5 at one of the many authentic hole-in-the-wall Mexican eateries in town. If you're lucky, maybe your margarita gets upgraded with top-shelf liquor. But in the case of two local Carlos Miguel's outlets one five-year-old in Woodland Park and one three-year-old near Cheyenne Mountain frijoles with flair prove worth their weight in pesos.
Since both family-partnership-controlled locations sit well within the Indy's readership areas, we opted to visit each one once. The menus and attentive service at each proved identical, though the buildings themselves varied from a common Springs strip-mall space enlivened by orangish-brown sponge-textured walls, Diego Rivera prints, Southwest pottery, stone floors and tan tablecloths to a cozy mountain cabin with low ceilings and wood-paneled walls trimmed in sherbet green. Each exuded a certain high-end air upon entry.
Dinner up the Pass brought first a Grande Traditional Margarita ($8.95) that lived up to its name in size and flavor. The goblet damn near doubled as a trophy. Its rim salt accented warm baskets of chips (whose frying oil came through as needing a change) that arrived with a delightful refried bean dip and fresh, not-too-hot red salsa.
Next came an appetizer of guacamole, prepared tableside ($9.50), a fine, fresh mush of an avocado and a half, spiked with chili heat (by request), onions, tomatoes and a bit of spice. The brief show and fine service point produced a solid guac, but for the price, I'd recommend another appetizer that you can't easily make at home.
Order Cami's Combination ($12.95) instead, as I did on a following lunch visit in Colorado Springs, and sample shrimp ceviche, mini chimichangas, a cheese quesadilla and fried zucchini, habaeros and calamari. Contrary to most fried foods, this plate retained a lightness achieved by fresh preparation and finely chopped citrus ceviche.
Entres in Woodland Park consisted of another light item, the Tilapia Chapala ($9.95 lunch, $12.95 dinner), and a significantly richer plate of Chiles Poblanos ($8.95 lunch, $10.95 dinner). The poblano decision came by way of recommendation from a table of regulars nearby, who vouched for the restaurant's consistency. Sure enough, the large chiles, stuffed with ample Mexican cheese and topped with a divine cream sauce, prompted a declaration: This restaurant would be our go-to for one-up Mexican. The tilapia, cooked simply with garlic, olive oil and mushrooms, benefitted from spice restraint and a side of gently sauted zucchini, squash, broccoli and carrots. Each entre came with moist Mexican rice and more of the refried beans.
The meal's only disappointment came with dessert. The Tres Leches cake ($4.25) arrived still half-frozen and missing its characteristic lightness, while the flan ($4.25), though sporting a fine caramel sauce, lacked the ideal, smooth texture of properly executed egg custard.
This letdown repeated at the later lunch, when the Chocolate Lava Cake ($4.25) failed to distinguish itself from your typical Safeway deli option. The only saving grace came with an order of the sopapillas ($3.95), which arrived heart-shaped and cinnamon-dusted alongside a puff of whipped cream, with a honey bear in tow for self-sweetening. The doughy, fry-bread-like treats weren't far from fine homemade versions to which I've been privy.
As for the lunch entres, they matched the dinner ones. The Pollo en Mole ($8.50 lunch, $13.25 dinner) carried an alluring chocolate scent to the table, revealing moist chicken pieces under a gravy-like blanket of dark, rich and earthy, chile-enriched chocolate. Though an odd pair, cocoa and meat make for a sensory fiesta when done correctly.
The Chimichanga Ranchera ($9.50 lunch, $11.25 dinner), ordered with shredded beef (ground beef and savory chicken are also options), allotted me a second meal. The flour tortilla was neither overly crisp nor heavy under melted cheese and ceded to delicious, stringy seasoned beef and black beans. After eating the half that I was able to finish in-house, I realized I hadn't even dipped into the accompanying sour cream or guacamole, a sign of the staple item's stand-alone greatness.
When Carlos Miguel's shores up what its lacking in the azucar (sugar) department (a potentially easy fix), it will fulfill the full promise of its outward, higher-end persona. Until then, it's well worth a visit in every other regard, and deserving of the gourmet Mexican title.