There are some dishes that come to your table hot — so hot as to elicit a warning from your server to be careful not to touch the bowl or the plate. Then there are the molcajetes from Ni Tuyo, a new Mexican restaurant in Denver’s Bonnie Brae neighborhood, which come steaming to your table heaped with beef, chicken, shrimp, peppers and panela cheese, and bursting with a rich tomato-based sauce that boils over the sides like lava from a volcano.
Which is apt, since the footed bowls that Ni Tuyo’s signature dish is served in, also called molcajetes, are made from pockmarked volcanic stone from Mexico.
And while the vessel — similar to a mortar and pestle or a mano and metate — has been used in the Americas for thousands of years to grind and mix ingredients, the entrees themselves are a relatively new phenomenon, a mashup of traditional Mexican dishes and an Instagram-worthy presentation that has found a home on both sides of the U.S.-Mexico border.
“People in Mexico have used molcajetes for a long time, but not for serving meals,” said Tu Niyo executive chef Adolfo Aguilar. Molcajetes can typically serve as a centerpiece on a table or in the kitchen, as cookware or for holding salsas or guacamole.
“When you think about traditional Mexican food, it is not something that comes up; it is a new thing that is happening,” dating back about 20 years or so, Aguilar said.
Ni Tuyo opened on July 7 in a light and airy space at 730 S. University Blvd. in the former Brightmarten space in the Bonnie Brae neighborhood. In addition to molcajetes, it serves elevated tacos, appetizers like elote and aguachile, agave spirits and margaritas.
It is the third restaurant from Silvia Andaya, who founded Adelita’s Cocina y Cantina in 2013 at 1294 S. Broadway, and at its sister restaurant, La Doña Mezcaleria, which opened next door in 2016. All three are now run by family members, among them son-in-law Nathan Ayala-Schmit.
Adelita’s focuses on authentic cuisine from Mexico’s Michoacan state — recipes that Andaya grew up making with her mother — while La Doña is centered around the food and mezcal of Oaxaca. Ni Tuyo, meanwhile, returns to Michoacan, but with some added flair.
“Ni Tuyo was born of the idea that Silvia and Adolfo have set menus at Adelita’s and La Doña that will probably never change. So this is a way to express the creative side of what they can do,” Ayala-Schmit said. “We focused on molcajetes because they really stand out.”
There are a few other restaurants in metro Denver that serve molcajetes as well, including versions at Los Carboncitos, Tacos Jalisco and El Paraiso. “But we put it on the map as far as I am concerned,” Ayala-Schmit said.
At Ni Tuyo, there are currently five different molcajetes on the menu, all between $30 and $36 and meant to be shared and eaten with tortillas. Cielo Mar Y Tierra is the classic, made with steak, chicken, shrimp, spicy tomato sauce, cheddar and panela cheese, green onions and nopales.
The Mariscos, meanwhile, comes with mussels, tilapia, shrimp, onions, garlic, butter, white wine, red pepper flakes and cotija cheese. There are also versions with pork ribs, black beans and rice; short ribs, tomatillo sauce, bacon, rice and beans; and roasted zucchini, onions, peppers, mushrooms, corn, chayote squash and cheese.
The steamy presentation and ingredient combinations — as well as the shared plate experience — bear a resemblance to fajitas in some ways, but Ayala-Schmit doesn’t like that comparison because fajitas are “more of a southwestern United States dish that was born out of using Mexican-style ingredients, but in a way that was palatable to Americans,” he said.
Molcajetes are more of a stew, and the ideas for each one mostly come from some of the dishes that Andaya grew up making in Mexico rather than Tex-Mex or other regional specialties.
To prepare them, the chefs turn the volcanic bowls — Ni Tuyo has approximately 40 of them on hand — upside down and heat the insides over a flame. Then they fill them with the food and tomato broth and top it all off with blocks of panela cheese, which melts as the server brings it to the table. The heated bowls keep the food piping hot for 30-45 minutes or longer.
“It’s presentation, and you can understand why restaurants would all want to come up with their own versions of it, both in Mexico and in the United States,” Ayala-Schmit said.
“But like a lot of things in Mexico, molcajetes have a shroud of mystery to them. When you try to pin something down, you find yourself on a wild goose chase. There are lots of cultures down there, and since a lot of us come from immigrant grandparents, we appreciate that about Mexico.”
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