Molcajete Sizzle

By John Lehndorff
Photography by Christian Marcy-Vega

EL KARAJO proudly dishes blazing green chili, steaming fajitas and real margaritas

As it does in the film “Forrest Gump,” shrimp plays a starring role at Centennial’s El Karajo Mexican Restaurant. There’s shrimp ceviche, spinach quesadillas with shrimp, plus a burrito stuffed with shrimp fajitas. Don’t forget the shrimp cilantro lime salad. 

“I like everything, but I really love my seafood,” admits Raul Flores, who co-owns the Littleton institution with his wife, Edith Flores. 

Owners, Raul and Edith Flores

“Diabla shrimp is made with a special sauce using chile de arbol. That’s very spicy,” he says. 

The ultimate salt-water excursion is Kaldo Mares, a stew swimming with shrimp, mussels, scallops, clams, fish and crab legs.

Since El Karajo opened eight years ago, diners have made a beeline here from Greenwood Village, Cherry Hills, Lone Tree and Centennial to satisfy their green chili cravings. When they enter the cantina, the typical drab strip mall exterior gives way to a warm welcome and a color-drenched atmosphere.

Edith grew up in California. Raul is a native of Durango, Mexico. “My first job when I was sixteen was working at Las Brisas in Denver,” Raul Flores says, pointing out he has cooked in metro restaurants for more than 30 years.  

The restaurant’s name is a play on a similar-sounding (shall we say “colorful”) Spanish expression. “To us, it means we’re tough about serving very good food and making everything from scratch,” Edith Flores says. That list includes all the sauces; the fork-tender, slow-cooked birria; hot sopapillas; and fresh churros accompanied by Mexican hot chocolate.

At El Karajo, an uncompromising attitude means serving breakfast all day every day, something not every eatery does. “There are customers who love to eat huevos rancheros at 8 p.m.,” she says with a grin.

El Karajo’s expansive menu ranges from tortas—Mexican sub sandwiches overloaded with achiote-marinated al pastor pork—to chile rellenos, Mexican burgers to tamales.

Meals start with sharables like guacamole and queso fundido con chorizo—hot cheese and sausage—scooped up with the fresh tortilla chips (and salsa) that come with every meal.  

The most spectacular dishes are the molcajetes (mowl-kuh-HAY-tays). These hot-from-the-oven bowls made from volcanic rock are chock full of spicy tomato sauce and festooned with a grilled array of meat, seafood, jalapeños and cactus leaves.

Raul Flores says he’s particularly proud of his poblano pollo enchiladas and the pollo poblano and shrimp, both delivered under warm comforters of creamy poblano chile sauce. 

“They have a lot of flavor—not just heat,” he says, adding that the eatery’s most popular items are the enchilada fiesta plate, various carne asada dishes, combo fajitas and street tacos.

A diverse menu means diners can enjoy the combo #1 with its shredded beef burrito, cheese enchilada, and chile relleno with rice and refried beans, or dig deeper for cool choices like Koctel de Campechano—iced shrimp and octopus in Clamato juice with cucumbers, avocado, and jalapeños.

El Karajo caters to many dietary options, but the signature green chili comes in exactly one zesty version.

“Our green chili has roasted pork, roasted Hatch chiles and jalapenos. It cooks for at least three hours,” Raul Flores says. The green chili is served in a bowl with warm tortillas (corn or flour) and is used to smother burritos and chimichangas.

While they aren’t grouped under a meatless banner, vegetarian items fill the menu. Edith Flores points to meatless fajitas, enchiladas and burritos and the excellent rajas street tacos filled with roasted poblano chilies, onions and crumbled cheese with a corn cream sauce. 

From the day it opened, El Karajo has been all about family. Several extra-large tables are reserved to welcome large groups and families, especially on weekend. When spring’s sunny afternoons return, the patio at El Karajo is the place to be on Thursdays for $2 street tacos filled with al pastor, adobada or carnitas.

Naturally, the tacos need to be washed down with a margarita, especially since a sign on the building boasts: “The Best Margaritas in Town.” 

Sip an example, like the Karajo margarita, and it is obviously not an exaggeration. “That’s my recipe. We make the margaritas from scratch, not from a mix,” Raul Flores says.

John Lehndorff hosts Radio Nibbles on KGNU-FM.

El Karajo Mexican Restaurant
6600 S. Quebec St.