There are dishes that arrive hot at your table – so hot that they prompt a warning from your server to be careful not to touch the bowl or plate. Then there are the molcajetes from Ni Tuyo, a new Mexican restaurant in Denver’s Bonnie Brae neighborhood, that come steamed to your table with beef, chicken, shrimp, peppers and panela cheese, and bursting with flavor. a rich, tomato-based sauce that boils the sides like lava from a volcano.
Which is fitting, since the footed bowls in which Ni Tuyo’s signature dish is served, also called molcajetes, are made from pockmarked volcanic stone from Mexico.
And while the vessel – similar to a mortar and pestle or mano and metate – has been used in the Americas for thousands of years to grind and mix ingredients, appetizers themselves are a relatively new phenomenon, a mix of traditional Mexican dishes and an Instagram-worthy presentation that has found its way to both sides of the US-Mexico border.
“Mexicans have been using molcajetes for a long time, but not for serving meals,” said Tu Niyo executive chef Adolfo Aguilar. Molcajetes can usually be used as a centerpiece on a table or in the kitchen, as cookware, or to hold salsas or guacamole.
“When you think of traditional Mexican food, it’s not something that comes back; it’s a new thing happening,” dating back about 20 years, Aguilar said.
Ni Tuyo opened on July 7 in a bright and airy space at 730 S. University Blvd. in the old Brightmarten in the Bonnie Brae neighborhood. In addition to molcajetes, it serves elevated tacos, appetizers like elote and aguachile, agave spirits, and margaritas.
This is the third restaurant of Silvia Andaya, who founded Adelita’s Cocina y Cantina in 2013 at 1294 S. Broadway, and her sister restaurant, La Doña Mezcaleria, which opened in 2016. All three are now managed by family members, including their son-in-law Nathan Ayala-Schmit.
Adelita’s focuses on authentic cuisine from the Mexican state of Michoacan — recipes Andaya grew up with her mother — while La Doña centers on Oaxacan food and mezcal. Ni Tuyo, meanwhile, returns to Michoacan, but with a little more flair.
“Ni Tuyo was born from the idea that Silvia and Adolfo established menus at Adelita and La Doña that will probably never change. So it’s a way to express the creative side of what they can do,” Ayala-Schmit said. “We focused on the molcajetes because they really stand out.”
There are a few other restaurants in metro Denver that also serve molcajetes, including versions at Los Carboncitos, Tacos Jalisco, and El Paraiso. “But we put it on the map as far as I’m 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, on the other hand, come with mussels, tilapia, prawns, onions, garlic, butter, white wine, red pepper flakes and cotija cheese. There are also versions with pork ribs, black beans and rice; ribs, tomatillo sauce, bacon, rice and beans; and roasted zucchini, onions, peppers, mushrooms, corn, chayote squash and cheese.
The sizzling presentation and ingredient combinations — as well as the shared plate experience — resemble fajitas in some ways, but Ayala-Schmit doesn’t like that comparison because fajitas are “more of a southern dish- western United States that was born out of using Mexican-style ingredients, but in a way acceptable to Americans,” he said.
Molcajetes are more of a stew, and the ideas for each come mostly from some of the dishes Andaya grew up in Mexico rather than Tex-Mex or other regional specialties.
To prepare them, the chefs invert the volcanic bowls – Ni Tuyo has about 40 on hand – 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 when the waiter brings it to the table. Heated bowls keep food hot for 30-45 minutes or more.
“It’s a presentation, and you can see why restaurants would all want to offer their own versions of it, both in Mexico and in the United States,” Ayala-Schmit said.
“But like many 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 a lot of cultures there, and since many of us come from immigrant grandparents, we appreciate that from Mexico.
Ni Tuyo, 730 S. University Blvd., 303-282-8896. Open Tuesday to Thursday from 4 p.m. to 10 p.m., Friday from 4 p.m. to 11 p.m., Saturday from 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. and Sunday from 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. nituyo.com
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