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Clouds of smoke escape the last embers in a black barrel smoker, the only evidence that whole chickens had roasted under the closed lid in the early morning. The smoky smell mixes with the scent of meat sizzling on the grill and sauces and soups simmering out of sight in food trucks and trailers parked in a loose circle around picnic tables and open tents in an Aurora parking lot .
The owner of this smoker is Tacos y Pollos ZaZaZa, who sells whole, half and quarter birds, as well as chicken burritos, tacos and quesadillas from a yellow and red trailer in La Esquina Del Sabor, a type of truck rally at 15200 East Colfax Avenue.
“Food truck owners are usually lone wolves; they don’t like other trucks,” says Doug McMurrain, who owns the mall, parking lot and manages La Esquina Del Sabor, where twenty or more vendors gather to sell on busy weekends Food from different regions of Mexico as well as from El Salvador, Venezuela, Colombia, Honduras and other Latin American countries. “But here they attract more customers by being all in one place.”
A drone view of La Plaza Colorado and La Esquina Del Sabor.
Courtesy Doug McMurrain
McMurrain purchased the property in early 2019 as part of a plan to convert a former Super Kmart into an indoor event center and marketplace. He had received calls from some food truck owners asking if they could settle in his parking lot, but last spring he suddenly heard from many more owners because of the coronavirus pandemic. “I got two or three calls a day from food trucks saying they had no other location,” he recalls.
This was the beginning of La Esquina, which initially took the form of an outdoor market where vendors sold both goods and groceries. McMurrain didn’t ask too many questions, but he soon heard from the Tri-County Health Department that not all grocery vendors were licensed, and those vendors were instructed by the department to pack and go home. Some of them did what it took to get licensed, inspected food companies, McMurrain points out, and then got back on the market … where they stayed. More and more residents of Aurora heard about the place and its unique dining options.
“Now there are only food trucks with permits,” emphasizes the owner. “I charge $ 300 a month [to start]and they can come for one day of the week or every day. I know I could ask for more, but I just want them to sell groceries and support their families. “Once the food trucks are set up, the price will rise to $ 600,” he adds.
Pointing out the variety of cuisines available, McMurrain explains that he always pushes chefs who say they make Mexican food to reveal more information. “I could say I make American food, but does that mean New England lobster rolls or Texas lobster rolls?” he asks. “It’s the same in Mexico.”
How to find the Birria specialist Tacos El Reydesel (who turns everything into Birria, even Birria Ramen with cult status), seafood from El Zarandiao, Juarez-style street food from Lonches El Bañado and specialties from Jérez, Juárez, and Mexico City many other regions. McMurrain advises truck owners to bring their A-game and use the best ingredients possible as customers vote with their dollars. “Friday, Saturday and Sunday are the biggest days, and on Sundays people come out with their families, so there are socially distant tables in the open air,” he adds.
These cheesy chorizo tacos from La Carpa are all the rage on the Mexican street food scene.
La Esquina is sort of an audition for Aurora vendors looking to move up, as McMurrain is more than a truck rally manager. He is a real estate developer with a number of large projects, most notably the Atlanta Plaza Fiesta, an indoor market, mall, food hall and event venue combination that opened in 2000. His plan is to open something similar in La Plaza Colorado. the mall that is currently La Esquina Del Sabor, the free Super Kmart and a VASA Fitness Outlet. Work is underway on the 100,000-square-foot Kmart property to create enough commercial space to have a significant economic impact on the area just a mile down East Colfax Avenue from the University of Colorado Medical Center on the former Fitzsimons property.
McMurrain’s plan is to have twenty ship container kitchens so some of the food truck owners who are now in La Esquina can move indoors. In the central area of the cavern space there are also 192 stalls, a bakery and a butcher’s shop (both with glass walls so that customers can see what is going on), a goods department, a flower shop, a café and a beer cave. And that’s not all: on the opposite side of the building there are rooms for services such as hairdressing and nail salons and massage therapists, private rooms for birthdays and other events, and a play system for children on the second floor.
This former Super Kmart will soon become La Plaza Colorado
“It’s basically a village,” explains the developer. “I focus on the Hispanic population.”
McMurrain’s interest in Hispanic culture extends beyond economics. He cares about the food, the people and the community to understand the needs and wants of business owners and customers alike. La Plaza Colorado is a massive endeavor with more space for vendors – many of whom are already committed – under one roof than many small towns. “Of the 268 corporate jobs, 55 percent are owned by Spanish women,” he notes.
In the vast La Plaza Colorado in Aurora.
While the opening of such a huge project in the middle of the pandemic could have been disastrous, McMurrain said initial delays have proven to be a blessing in disguise. While COVID will almost certainly affect business in the months to come, La Plaza is a few months ahead of its completion, with May as a possible destination.
Until then – and even after the indoor market opens – La Esquina Del Sabor will continue to serve food outside. McMurrain has set up a stage for live music at one end of the parking lot and continues to take calls from interested providers. He points to an open field west of the property on which new apartments will soon be built. The medical campus is also getting busier as staff and visitors need more options for breakfast, lunch, and dinner.
The aroma in the parking lot that seduces fans of tacos, tortas, dolls and other Latin American cuisine? This is only the first course of cooking at La Plaza Colorado.
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Mark Antonation is the Westword Food & Drink Editor. He began eating and writing about every restaurant on Federal Boulevard, and continues to cover the diverse international food scene on Metro Denver and the city’s rapidly changing dining landscape. Mark was named an Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association in 2018.