Some chefs wait their whole career to receive top accolades, but for Jose Avila, owner and chef of La Diabla Pozole y Mezcal in Denver, in just two years he and his restaurant have received some of the highest recognitions available in the industry.
The accolades include Bon Appétit magazine naming La Diabla Denver’s best new restaurant of 2022; two nominations for a James Beard Foundation Award, recognition from The New York Times as one of the 50 best restaurants in the United States and, most recently, Michelin gave La Diabla a Bib Gourmand in the inaugural ceremony for the Colorado guide last month.
"I never in a million years expected this, just to get all of them, or most of them in our industry, especially in two years," Avila said over the phone. "It's a feeling that you are doing something right, not just for you, but for the staff and team."
Avila opened La Diabla in spring of 2021. The idea came from the jueves pozoleros, or pozole Thursdays, in Mexico where he would gather with his family to indulge in the weekly two-for-one deal at a local restaurant and talk about their week. When Avila moved to Denver he noticed Mexican immigrants flocking to pho places for steaming bowls of soup spiked with hot sauce and extra lime. In a way, he thought, that's like pozole. He wanted to bring the soup and tradition to Denver, and given the popularity of La Diabla it was a smart venture.
"It's different,” he said of La Diabla. “It's in its own little shell and I don't think there is anything like it in town."
Avila opened the restaurant without an official sign to add to the intrigue and also give it a hole-in-the-wall feel. "I have been working on a concept like this since I was a kid, and the place has its own soul that people can see in what we do," he said.
The menu is simple, with drams and cocktails featuring smoky mezcal to sip on, and rich pozole to slurp. Avila offers five types of the corn stew, including the well-known red variety and his signature negro, as well as white and green versions and a vegan offering. Each hearty bowl starts at $18 and includes house nixtamalized corn from Mexico plus lettuce, cabbage, radishes, onion and lime, as well as chicken and pork (except for the vegan option)..
Avila said pozole isn't just a comforting bowl of soup. It's a dish filled with history dating back to the Aztecs when it was made in tandem with human sacrifice and the appeasing the harvest gods. Yes, cannibalism was part of the protocol then, but when the Spanish arrived the tradition shifted to using pork and chicken, the main proteins found in pozole today.
"History-wise it's just super cool to still have this iconic dish in 2023," said Avila, adding that many diners coming into La Diabla had no sense of what pozole actually is. "They didn’t understand what I was selling. At the same time, in a humble way, it was my job to educate people."
La Diabla also offers tacos ranging from $5 to $9, featuring cochinita pibil (a slow-roasted pork dish from Yucatán) with black bean salsa, beef birria, chapulin grasshoppers with guacamole, and a cheese taco stuffed with red beans and the herb epazote. Diners can add on a bowl of chips with guacamole ($13), flautas ($16), seafood ceviche ($14) and flan ($7), as well as any daily specials.
Mezcal can be bought by the glass ($5 to $20) or as a three-part flight, ranging from $24 to $41. There are a few other agave-based spirits on the menu too, including bacanora, raicilla and tequila. Mexican and local beer also grace the menu, as well as a few wines by the glass.
Inside La Diabla it's easygoing, with simple wooden tables and bright murals on the walls. It feels like stepping into a pozole joint in Mexico City, and there's no pretense even after all the recognition the restaurant has received. But there are more customers now, and a bigger staff. Avila has had to hire a barback, a second bartender, a general manager and an expediter to help manage the increased volume.
While La Diabla is newer to the Denver restaurant scene, Avila has long been part of it. Moving from Mexico to the Mile High City more than 20 years ago, notably, he started at Chez Jose in the suburb of Greenwood Village, Colo. Next he went to cook at Elway’s Steakhouse in the Denver neighborhood of Cherry Creek North. In 2011 he opened taco spot called Machete, where he was a part-owner until selling his share in 2019. Avila never had formal culinary training; his food is based on the home-cooked meals of his mother and grandmother.
In early 2021 Avila launched a Sunday barbacoa pop up he dubbed El Borrego Negro (Black Sheep). Located in one of the Latino neighborhoods in the city, eaters from all over the metro area started lining up at 8 a.m. to spend $35 on a pound of meat, consommé and horchata, fresh tortillas and all the fixings one needed to make an epic meal. During that time he also ran a food truck, X’Tabai Yucateco, which served pre-Colombian Mayan preparations of meats including cochinita and pollo pibil, and Yucatán dishes such as fried and stuffed tortillas called panuchos. La Diabla followed shortly thereafter.
Avila said he never expected to win any awards.
"You shoot for the best, you put your head down, and you keep working," he said. "We aren't the hole-in-the-wall people loved in the beginning. Now we're super busy, and it's great since you have to pay the bills too."
For now, Avila said he's just happy to be on the map, support his staff and growth of the restaurant, and is excited to see what's next.