In Colorado Springs, if you want your burrito smothered in green chile it usually appears in a puddle of gelatinous, gray goop speckled with bits of pork and hunks of green chile peppers. Sometimes it tastes delicious, exploding on the roof of the mouth, and sometimes it's as bland and boring as it looks.
Not so at La Carreta, the utterly authentic Mexican eatery hidden between Union and Circle, just east of downtown at the corner of Kiowa Street and Iowa Avenue. This may not be a neighborhood you're familiar with, but the search is well worth the effort: Once you've found La Carreta, you'll never forget it -- especially those of you who are constantly complaining that there's no good Mexican food in this town.
It's true that what passes for Mexican in the Springs is often actually Tex-Mex or New Mexican fare, hence our chunky, ubiquitous versions of Mexican gravy -- green or red chile. When the Sandoval family first came to town about four years ago, they brought with them a proven selection of recipes from their Mexico City home, served for many years at their Washington, D.C. restaurant. The green sauce was green as grass and the consistency of a smooth, slightly thickened soup. Mild and refreshing, it danced on the tongue and did not overwhelm the flavors of the carefully prepared dishes it accompanied. More adventurous diners could opt for the hotter red sauce, also smooth and brightly colored, packed with the wallop of finely pured red chiles.
I'm pleased to report that four years later, La Carreta's green tomato sauce -- a pungent pure of tomatillos and seasonings -- is as lovely and tasty as ever. The restaurant has expanded to include the space next door that used to be a Mexican grocery, the dcor is still tasteful and subtle with heavy wood chairs and Diego Rivera posters on the wall, and the prices are eye-poppingly low given the quality of the food.
A routine Saturday morning breakfast of Huevos Rancheros ($4.50), two soft fried eggs over white corn tortillas, served with refried beans and skillet fried potatoes, became a trumpeted wake-up call when smothered with the green sauce. My son's breakfast burrito ($3.50), eggs scrambled with mild chorizo (Mexican pork sausage seasoned heavily with red chile powder), wrapped in a flour tortilla, came swimming in the brilliant red sauce alongside a pile of potatoes. He declared the burrito the best he'd ever had.
A weekday lunch at La Carreta introduced me to the exquisite Tacos Al Pastor ($8.95), a dish so cherished in Mexico City that many taquerias serve only this type of taco. Slow cooked pork, marinated in a spicy red sauce, is topped at the end of a long roasting session with pineapple chunks, allowing the sweet fruit juice to permeate the meat. La Carreta's version is served with avocado on white corn tortillas with plenty of fresh cilantro, and I found a few caramelized pineapple pieces mixed in with the juicy meat.
The menu is basically the same for lunch and dinner. At a special weekend family dinner, my kids and I shared three entrees: Carne Adovada ($7.95), Enchiladas de Mole ($7.95) and the Carne Asada Grande Burrito ($6.75 with rice and beans; $5.50 without). We agreed that the Carne Adovada, shredded beef and cubed potatoes cooked in a potent red salsa of chipotle peppers and tomatoes, was our favorite. Fans of an authentic mole sauce will be pleased with La Carreta's, a deep brown version composed of seven different peppers, Mexican chocolate, onion, garlic and a mlange of spices. In the enchilada dish, hand-pulled, cooked chicken is soaked in the bittersweet sauce, wrapped in corn tortillas and drizzled again with the thick mole.
We shared a cheese flan for dessert, heavier than a standard crme caramel but cold and delicious, floating in a pool of dark, thin caramel.
While individual dishes stand out at La Carreta, it is the overall quality of the place that continues to draw me back. Instead of automatically being served a lukewarm pile of doughy, supermarket brand flour tortillas, you are given a choice of flour or corn. Both are fresh and served piping hot. If you want more, the waiter will deliver them to your table, wrapped in a soft, cotton cloth. The dining room is open, bright and spacious. A wide variety of imported beverages, including Jarritos fruit-flavored sodas and many different Mexican beers are on display up front. The dining room is set up to accommodate large parties at long tables. Families are made to feel welcome. Margaritas are served icy cold in thick, stemmed glasses. The service is helpful and polite, not overwhelming. There is the distinct feeling that you are invited to stay as long as you want.
I could quibble that the chips are not handmade and the salsa, though freshly made, is somewhat bland. But good chips and salsa can be found in any number of Mexican-style eateries around town. Far more rare are the smoky flavor of the beans, the careful seasoning of the sauces, the perfect charred texture of the carne asada and the soft, white corn tortillas to be found at La Carreta.