After a year of restaurant openings across Denver, José Avila’s La Diabla stands out as one of the more personal and original eateries around.
“Ninety percent of restaurants are just copycats of other restaurants, with their own touch. But (in Denver), there’s nobody else to copy or lean on to open up this concept,” said Avila, the chef and owner of La Diabla Pozole y Mezcal.
He opened La Diabla in June, on one of Denver’s most storied downtown streets and inside a century-old building that stands between a tattoo parlor and a pawn shop. The wood floors creak, the original bar has stories to tell and the dining room always feels dark, even as sunlight beats on the back patio, about the size of a two-car parking spot.
“It’s like old Mexico,” Avila said, explaining how the restaurant is like an extension of himself. “I always just like to be in the background, but at the same time making noise.”
When Avila first opened La Diabla, he actually did so quietly, without signage or fanfare. Six months later, there is just an empty corn sack hanging above the entrance that reads, “Pozole Mezcal Tequila.”
It’s about all you need to know before dining at La Diabla. The restaurant has subtly become a destination, a “nobody knows but everybody knows kinda thing,” Avila said.
As for the louder side to both the chef and La Diabla? There are the red and green walls that recall the Mexican flag, the bright, pre-Hispanic symbols painted over top. But mostly, it’s all in the service and food.
“You can have cool decor, a great location, but if you don’t have good food and service, you’re just not going to survive,” Avila said. So he draws deeply from the flavors of Mexico City, where he first worked at taco carts and went out for pozole with family once a week.
“I grew up with this, and basically every Thursday I would go with my mom and brother to eat pozole at pozolerías in Mexico,” he said. “I guess it was just a matter of time for me to put something together to open up this concept.”
By the time he moved to Denver 20 years ago, Avila was working his way up from dishwasher to cook and eventually head chef at local restaurants, many of them in Cherry Creek (Elway’s, Machete). But when he went out to eat himself, he noticed fellow Mexicans eating along Federal Boulevard, where he always assumed they were “there for the broth.”
Now he wants Coloradans to become as fanatic about Mexican pozole as they are about other cultures’ broths, such as Vietnamese pho.
“We kind of had to do our homework, and change the (idea) that Mexican food (doesn’t) go beyond tacos and tequila,” Avila said.
So on Thursdays, true to the Mexican tradition, La Diabla serves two-for-one bowls of pozole for $17, which will likely leave you with leftovers for a party of two.
Five varieties of the nixtamalized (the hominy-soaking process that readies maíz for tortillas) corn stews (all are $17) come with rich broths and chile salsas, heaping with pork or chicken, and topped in lettuce, cabbage, radish and onions, plus limes for squeezing.
On Wednesdays, La Diabla lures diners with “probably the best happy hour in town” — two al pastor tacos (normally $3 each) and a house margarita for $5, until they sell out. You’ll notice the pork grilling together with pineapple on a trompo, or spit, in front of the restaurant.
And this, too, is straight from Mexico City, where taco shops spill onto sidewalks for carving meats in the open air.
“We knew coming in that we were gonna have to work extra hard to draw people in,” Avila said.
Tacos have become an easy draw in Denver, but here they rise above, starting with the straightforward (and perfect) al pastor and advance to braised and stewed meats like beef birria with bone marrow. A lighter huachinango — red snapper — is topped with citrus slaw and slathered in pineapple butter.
And because La Diabla is on the same street as Snooze, “We said, ‘Let’s join the party,’ ” Avila said. Recenty, he and his crew started serving a brunch of chilaquiles ($15) and huaraches ($12), plus breakfast burritos to go.
La Diabla could easily fall into the traps of some of its now commonplace offerings — tacos, margaritas, brunch. But it just doesn’t.
Avila, along with general manager Cristina Farmer and bar manager Iván Ramirez, are slowly bringing pozolería and mezcalería into the local vernacular — even if plenty of Coloradans don’t know the words yet.
“We’re downtown, and Mexican people aren’t necessarily downtown,” Avila said. “So for us to see the place filled … sometimes with 60 percent Mexicans enjoying our food, that’s when you know you’re making something good.”
“Me pone la piel chinita,” he said, looking for the words in English. “It gives me the goosebumps.”
If you go: La Diabla at 2233 Larimer St. is open from 10 a.m. to 9 p.m. Sunday through Wednesday, until 11 p.m. Thursdays and until midnight Fridays and Saturdays. Find daily happy hour and special information, plus menus, at ladiabladenver.com.