Awakening to Chiles Rellenos 

The Bean Bandit serves em up right

It was an evening of epiphanies. Nothing on such a grand scale as the meaning of life or why two-year-olds eat crayons dipped in belly button lint, but meaningful in a personal sort of way.

The first realization came from my dining partner, who put down his fork, looked around the bustling restaurant with a thoughtful look on his face, and said, "You know, I've been eating at this restaurant for 17 years." That's longer than he's known me, longer than he's had his car, longer even than he's had his cat.

The second awakening was mine, and in the course of my eyes and my tastebuds being opened, I realized that someone in this town did me a grave injustice years ago, when I first moved here and was anxious to become familiar with Mexican food. At some restaurant here in town I ordered chiles rellenos, and they were awful. I couldn't figure out why people ate these things and raved about them.

Then, last week I hesitantly ordered the same thing at the Bean Bandit (some seven years after the first aborted attempt) and discovered that I am now one of those people who raves about how fabulous they are. This could easily become my new favorite comfort food. Gooey melted cheese inside a silky roasted chile, enrobed in an puffy, light, eggy batter that is fried but not greasy ... I can't believe I wasted seven whole years thinking I didn't like these things! Thank you, Bean Bandit, from the bottom of my heart (and stomach)!

The Bean Bandit has been sitting comfortably on Circle Drive (a bit south of Platte) for 29 years, after residing on Boulder Street for its first five years. Owner Marge Vasquez moved here from Pueblo in 1966 to open the restaurant, and raised her sons in the middle of it all, teaching them how to dish up good food made from scratch while treating customers with warmth and respect. Whenever she is in the restaurant (which has been every time we've ever visited, except when she injured her arm in early 1999), she personally visits every table, making customers feel more than welcome, like a part of the family. Jokes are told, family news is shared, babies' cheeks are pinched, and the whole time the restaurant is running quickly and smoothly. Sons Derek and Darin have taken over the day-to-day operations of the restaurant, but Marge still comes in to greet her guests, many of whom are second and third generations of loyal customers.

You won't be surprised by anything weird or funky on the menu at Bean Bandit, or by the prices. You'll get the tried-and-true, familiar dishes you associate with Mexican restaurants, like pork and avocado burritos, enchiladas, tacos, tamales, green chili and, of course, chiles rellenos. If you've never had a freshly fried taco shell, you deserve to treat yourself, at least once, with a fresh, crispy corn tortilla holding ground beef, lettuce and tomato. This is a crunch you can't buy on the shelf at your local Safeway.

I usually prefer shredded beef to ground beef, but the beef burrito I tried was filled with high-quality, nicely seasoned ground beef that was flavorful and garlicky without being too spicy. But then I tried the shredded beef enchilada for lunch, and I found that beef to be very moist, tender and tasty, too.

The lunch and dinner menus are very similar, with the main difference being the enormity of the dinner portions. Most entrees come topped with a green chile sauce that you can get mild, medium or hot. It's not a blazing, make-your-eyeballs-sweat kind of hot, but a moderate heat that most diners can enjoy. Most dishes also come with a sprinkling of melted cheese on the top, and I for one appreciate the kitchen's restraint. I just don't trust restaurants that cover their food with a thick, molten flow of cheese and a heart attack's-worth of sour cream. I always figure they're trying to hide something.

Try to save some room for the sopapillas. These large, deceptively light squares of fried dough are covered with a heavy shower of cinnamon and sugar. They're served piping hot (unless the order is going to a younger diner, when the server will make sure it doesn't arrive at the table too hot to eat). Take the little squeeze bear full of honey, be prepared to have sticky fingers, and get ready for a sugar high that will last till your next meal.

The Bean Bandit is the kind of place you can look forward to taking a date, your family, your in-laws, your boss or your friends. Kids are always welcomed and can often be found pitching pennies into the gurgling fountain just behind the host stand. It's a homey, comfortable place, and I can't wait to go back and have more of the rellenos. This could be the beginning of a beautiful (and long) relationship!


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