The new Al Lado serves tapas, wine and cocktails. (Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post)
 You would not expect to find a taste of Spain along the South Platte River — after all, the water is headed for Nebraska and its casserole-worshipping citizens — but restaurateur Richard Sandovalseems bent on establishing Latin-inspired dining rooms everywhere, so there you go.
His latest Mile High outing is Al Lado, a tapas restaurant. It sits in a spiffy, contemporary building on Little Raven Street just south of the Platte and across from Commons Park. It joins his other downtown Denver outlets, Tamayo and Zengo, the latter just up the street. (The globe-trotting Sandoval also operates two La Sandia restaurants in Park Meadows and Northfield Stapleton.)
Al Lado is as much bar as restaurant, befitting a classic tapas place. But unlike the tapas scene in Barcelona, where you drop by, have a plate and a glass of sherry, then head to the next tapas joint to lather, rinse, repeat, Al Lado is a room where you tend to park yourself.
The space is dark and cool, albeit with a bit of afternoon light, but doesn't have an ounce of grotto to it. There is an airiness, thanks to decor with mid-century-modern touches and fine black-and-white photography on the walls. It feels akin to a 1,850-square-foot rec room for Don Draper and the "Mad Men" crew, minus his wife singing "Zou Bisou Bisou."
Al Lado's menu manages to be crisply edited and expansive at the same time, in the sense that
AL Lado invites diners to sit, sip and savor its Spanish small plates. (Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post)
all the typical tapas notes are hit, along with some new twists. Yes, you get the classic albondigas de cordero (lamb meatballs), but there are a few of-the-moment offerings such as braised short ribs, which have become nearly ubiquitous. And the traditional pepper dish pimientos de padron uses blistered shishitos, which is sort of the it-pepper in restaurants for the past year or so.
All this is served up by an efficient wait staff, who are also quick to the table with glasses from a smart, Spanish-oriented wine list and cocktails with lots of craft but zero twee factor. (Consider ordering the Malaga G&T, made with Botanist gin, Fever Tree tonic, pink grapefruit and a hint of mint. For $9, it's a great
Cazuela with lamb meatballs, served in a cast-iron pot. (Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post)
post-cubicle balm.) Worthy choices on the 14-item tapas portion of the menu include those roasted shishitos ($5), tossed with sea salt and olive oil and paired with a roasted garlic aioli.
The bacon-wrapped dates ($6) were savory — how could they not be? — and came with a dipping sauce spiked with cabreles, the Spanish blue cheese.
Baby octopus ($13) was a tangle of tentacles over a mix of fennel and salad greens. The kitchen didn't shy from the salt, and there was a big dash of citrus notes from a drizzle of blood orange. But the dish was a bit of a disappointment, for somehow all those flavors did not meld.
The patatas bravas ($8) were a solid take on that classic, with crispy small spuds, chorizo and a chipotle romesco, plus an aioli made with Valdeon cheese, the milder cousin to cabreles. It was a lot of savory flavor in a small dish.
Potatoes were also treated well in the tortilla espanola ($8), a sort of potato pie. Sliced spuds were layered with spinach, roasted peppers, olives and topped with a roasted garlic aoili.
A skewer with hunks of filet mignon and lamb sausage ($15) was plated atop a wash of chimichurri, the traditional herb-infused olive oil, and sided with a Cabrales cheese sauce. The steak was flavorful; the lamb not so much. It was just a tad bland.
Three cocas, or
Pimientos de padron: blistered shishito peppers. (Cyrus McCrimmon, The Denver Post)
Spanish flatbreads, are offered. Try the salchicha y aceituna ($11), a crisp-crusted number topped with Catalonian sausage, manchego cheese, olives and a tomato-garlic sofrito. Bigger appetites can dig into the four cazuelas, soup-stews that come in individual pots. We enjoyed the coarse-ground lamb meatballs ($12), which swam — well, waded was more like it — in a hearty broth with tomato, zucchini and goat cheese.
Al Lado also offers an interesting deal called "The Whole Shebang," which is apparently the Spanish phrase for "enough food to serve at least 6-8 adults or one teenage boy." It works like this: For $170, you get everything on the 21-item menu. Cough up another $50, and you get your choice of a magnum of wine.
The bottom line: The menu here isn't exactly a model of originality, and on one level feels like a "hey, why not?" cog in the Sandoval restaurant machine.
But Al Lado delivers value and good service, and makes for a fun night out. Olé to that.
William Porter: 303-954-1877, or
Tapas. 1622 Little Raven St., 303-572-3000
** Very Good
Atmosphere: Dark, modern
Service: Friendly, efficient
Beverages: Wine, beer, cocktails
Plates: $4-$15
Hours: Dinner: daily, 5 p.m.-until; happy hour, daily 5 p.m.-7 p.m.
Details: Street parking