Dos Santos blesses South Downtown with superior tacos 

click to enlarge MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
If it seems like taquerias are on a campaign for world domination, well, they kinda are, inasmuch as more keep popping up around town, and the saturation point for taco trucks and sit-down spots doesn’t appear anywhere in sight. Though the politically charged Make America Mexico Again hats and T-shirts serve as an amusing political statement, I can’t help but think that, were they co-opted into a culinary call, nobody with a sensible palate would complain.

Though Dos Santos just opened here in early October, mirroring a successful Denver location that launched in 2015, its owners — brothers Jason and Kris Wallenta and Jason’s wife Riley — told us they already have a desire to open several more locations around the Springs, plus expansions of their Denver pizzeria White Pie. (Jason and Riley relocated here, so they’re now locals.)

Before anyone gripes more about the Denverization of the Springs we’ve written about since Atomic Provisions’ opening (neighboring Dos Santos), we might opine that: 1) if it’s good, preferably great, we’ll take it; 2) regional chains with hands-on, visible and hard-working leadership are preferable to giant, corporate, generally faceless franchises found in any city (and yes, Denver-born Snooze has grown into the latter category); 3) anything to up the game of our culinary landscape, whether filling a void, exploiting a niche or besting the competition with a badass rendition, elevates our whole scene by challenging our chefs to be their best creative selves; and 4) in our experience, Denver’s finest have shown more consistency between visits than the vast majority of Springs eateries. (Shots fired: You can refute me at letters@csindy.com.)
Location Details Dos Santos
70 E. Moreno Ave.
Colorado Springs, CO
11 a.m. to 10 p.m., Tuesday-Friday; 10 a.m. to 10 p.m., Saturday; 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Sunday
In Dos Santos’ case, their greatness taste-wise seems to stem from the fact they’re rooted in Mexico. As we’ve previously reported, la familia Wallenta owns two eateries in Cozumel that date back more than a decade. Kris, the chef, first learned to cook authentic Mexican fare from a family in Cozumel, prior to attending culinary school in New York. Jason describes Kris’ style as traditional Mexican, but with the application of French techniques. While any gringo can pack stuff onto a tortilla, fold it, and call it a taco, Kris’ recipes demonstrate the power of a traditional approach as it applies to coaxing out the full flavors of meats (and veggies) and complementing them with relatively simple and effective garnishes and sauces to create just the right textural counterpoint and flavor balance. Really that’s a convoluted way to say the man and his team make damn good tacos, beautifully presented, as good as those we’ve crushed in Mexico.

I hesitate to play the comparison game locally, due to several popular spots I find lackluster, plus some other eateries’ intentions may be different. But I can say I still hold mobile units like El Chapin in high regard for street style and affordability, and I consider Dos Santos more a gourmet option (with tacos mostly in the $3.50-$4 range; cocktails running $8.50-$12) where dinner for two, including a starter, a couple of cocktails and dessert, can easily hit around $75 post-tip. That bill fits the atmosphere of the place on the cool new block: stylish with a high ceiling, open kitchen, long bar backed by booze-bottle rows against a black wall, silver and metallic accents and furniture reflecting off shiny polished concrete floors, with pops of neon pink and blue whispering a Miami Vice aesthetic. Plus, speedy and attentive service matches the price point.

From the starters list, elote (soon to be seasonally replaced by Brussels sprouts) arrives on a long butcher block heavily dusted in zesty Tajín-like seasoning and topped with seaweed-like fried cilantro garnish. A cob of corn’s never looked so regal, segmented pieces propped in place with cucumber wedges (like woodblocks under tires), doused in creamy aioli rolled in salty cotija cheese. Guacamole gets several treatment options, from which we can’t resist a fruit-bacon option, flecked with juicy pomegranate seeds, tiny cubed pineapple and green apple pieces, and little bits of fatty pork. The avocado’s otherwise seasoned simply so that the seasoning clinging to the thin house-fried chips contributes the most zing. It’s a custom blend made for Dos Santos by Denver’s The Spice Guy, bearing dehydrated lime zippiness, paprika and salt, notably.
click to enlarge Tacos arrive with many pops of color, and character. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • Tacos arrive with many pops of color, and character.
Chicken Tinga Chips are like a focused nacho plate consisting of tender, juicy shredded poultry strands with a little cotija-cilantro plus chopped white onion garnish. Though there’s a zigzag squirt of red pepper sauce on top, order a side of the vibrantly orange, lightly vinegary carrot-habanero hot sauce ($1.50, like two other sauces, while four side salsa options are $2 each) to add seriously scorching spice that folds fabulously into the earthy, piquant chipotle-garlic-onion-flavored chicken. (Also dig a chicken tinga taco.)

Best, though, and perhaps the top ceviche in town, is Dos Santos’ shrimp ceviche. Its soft plump prawns swim in a muddy, divine tomatillo-chile pepper-lime juice broth stocked with biting onion slivers. Pickled beets sting the tongue with vinegar and fried leeks add a secondary oniony layer, with radish gifting bite, jalapeño wheels more heat, and avocado slivers and thin cucumber wedges a cooling reprieve.

For non-alcoholic drinks, Denver’s Teakoe does make a delicious iced tea, steep at $3. But we recommend the crisp, citrusy, not-too-sweet hibiscus limeade, or a novel nitro-charged hibiscus tea (each $4) that’s beet-juice dark and velvety thick with a foamy head, un-iced, unabashedly tart, sweetened only faintly with agave, and inspired by the nitro cold brew trend seen in coffee shops, says Jason.

The herbaceous basil limeade cocktail masks its vodka so cleanly, with a refreshing soda body, that it doesn’t taste alcoholic. A hibiscus margarita sips smooth, with its citrus sourness spiked by a Tajín-rimmed glass. The strong Mezcalina’s smoky essence finds balance through the sweetness of hibiscus syrup and St. Germain elderflower liqueur plus orange juice for brightness. Arette Blanco house margaritas accented only with fresh-squeezed lime, agave and a salt rim capture the simple joy of a basic three-ingredient margarita.
click to enlarge The flan’s been updated to a blood orange but we already miss the caramel popcorn. - MATTHEW SCHNIPER
  • Matthew Schniper
  • The flan’s been updated to a blood orange but we already miss the caramel popcorn.
The starring tacos all come on fine corn tortillas sturdy enough to contain hefty portions of the proteins, and only a couple of them become difficult to eat under a heaping stack of toppings. O.M.F.G. Taco I’m talking about you, with your raw tuna buried (and somewhat masked) by crunchy shredded cabbage, avocado slices, pickled onions and fried leeks. Those leeks are also a great touch on the crispy, beer-battered fish, a fluffy mahi-mahi prepped with Station 26 Mexican lager (a Dos Santos collaboration), hosting again ample fresh crunch, and finishing with a sharp poblano sauce, made with onion, garlic, cilantro and a touch of Dijon mustard for kick. Also in the lighter realm, the roasted cauliflower taco pops with guac and cotija and a smoky molcajete sauce made with grill-charred tomatoes and a jalapeño-serrano pepper infusion. We also try a daily special fried cauliflower taco, reminiscent of tempura, sauced interestingly in buttermilk buffalo sauce. Another vegetarian option’s the Crimini Boomers, soft mushrooms in a tomatillo salsa verde with seared, pressed cotija, which we recommend ordering with a side of the unique, smoky Chiva hot sauce, a thin olive oil with faint garlic, colored black by charred chile peppers.

The third hot sauce on the menu, the pleasantly vegetal Yucatan habanero, pairs particularly well with the Porky Lechon, soft shredded meat served with guac and onion, plus the same poblano sauce as the fish taco. I couldn’t pick a favorite hot sauce to pair with the Steak Arrachera taco (which is to say all excel), big chewy charred beef hunks with mild zesty seasoning, accented again by the cotija-cilantro combo plus the tomatillo salsa verde.

Save some stomach for Dos Santos’ desserts, all three worthwhile. Chef Kate Doncilovic describes to me the four-day process involved in constructing the Choco Taco, including making pizzelle — small, thin Italian waffles that act like a folded cone — coating the inside with chocolate, stuffing them with Josh & John’s vanilla ice cream, then finishing in another thick, 62-percent dark chocolate glazing rolled in pepitas. They’re served in a children’s taco holder shaped like a little truck and play like a fancy-pants version of the Klondike treat.

Chocolate cajeta pudding in a parfait glass again incorporates pepita crunch, this time under a whipped cream cap, in a mousse-like airy pudding made nuttier by Nutella and the house cajeta (Mexican caramel), made with condensed milk and a nip of tequila for style points. As lavish and fulfilling as that is, perfectly textured flan still wins the day. The opening two months’ flavor was a caramel popcorn with hibiscus syrup — saltiness and tartness again contrasting well. The new seasonal presentation, to which we were treated to a sample, features a fabulous, citrusy blood orange adornment, including fresh, juicy segments and a caramelized wheel with the rind on for extra zest.

Denverization, culinary migration and any larger context aside, assessed just for the fine flavors on display, atmosphere and consistent quality, Dos Santos rates pretty stellar for our tastes, worthy of modest veneration.


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