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Food Fight!

If you can't stand the heat, get out of Lupe Nunez's kitchen.

The orders are coming in fast--so fast that Lupe Nunez has to do a little sideways skip as she keeps piling on the beans and rice. She passes each plate to her brother, Porfidio Marin, who adds the meat and then hands the finished dish to the waitress, who doesn't seem the slightest bit concerned that everything is falling behind.

After all, this is La Bonita, the oldest continuously operating Mexican restaurant in Denver, and its owner, the eighty-year-old Nunez, has been in charge since she opened the doors at her first location on Larimer Street in 1945.

But this spot, at 3380 West 38th Avenue, is Nunez's sixth location, and it very well may be her last. After a series of complaints filed against La Bonita by some of its new neighbors, who contend that the place is a nuisance, and through a series of errors that resulted in the loss of La Bonita's cabaret license--and thereby its ability to offer music and dancing to the Latino community--La Bonita is one macarena move away from going belly-up.

Not only does Nunez owe $94,000 on a bank loan, but she's $190,000 in debt to the city. And that's after Denver foreclosed last August on the collateral backing its $300,000 Mayor's Office of Economic Development loan: the house of Nunez's eldest daughter, Mary Ellen Casco, who's 55 and wheelchair-bound. After the city took her house, Casco moved into her mother's home--and now they're hanging on to that house for dear life.

"I can take it," Nunez says. "It's just that my daughter, who signed for the loan, she shouldn't have lost her house. I can live with my own mistakes and pay for them, but it tears me up to have somebody else like my daughter get hurt."

So Nunez is trying to sell La Bonita, but so far, potential buyers have balked over the lack of a cabaret license--and the neighbors who will fight against any license reinstatement at the 39,200-square-foot facility. "This building is so big, you have to have live music and DJs to make it work," Nunez says. "I thought this would be a good place, but I didn't realize that the music would be such a problem. And I didn't know that some of the neighbors would hate us so much and that they would work so hard at shutting us down."

Nunez and several of her family members, as well as most of her employees, claim the complaints about their cabaret business have been racially motivated rather than connected to any wrongdoing on La Bonita's part. "It's this one woman who has been doing most of the complaining," says Nunez, "and she and her husband have a reputation for being prejudiced against Mexicans."

Lois Welch is the neighbor who's done most of the complaining, but she denies that she and her husband are racists. In fact, Welch says, they don't want to see Nunez go out of business. "I've had no problem with any of the restaurants that have been in that space," she adds. "And I've never heard that from any of the other neighbors, either. I think they play the race card when they can't think of anything else. Really, the trouble only started when they tried to make it a dance club instead of just a restaurant. Lupe's other restaurants were so popular, I don't know why she didn't just stick to that."

A better question would be why she didn't just stay at the 1361 Court Place location that had been La Bonita's home for almost thirty years. Nunez says she moved because business had dwindled, especially at dinner and late at night on weekends, when the dance floor that had once been standing room only began to sit empty. "People didn't want to go to that part of town anymore," Nunez says. "They want to go to LoDo. Slowly, people stopped coming, until it was only my most loyal customers who stopped in."

As for why she chose the gargantuan Plain View Inn as La Bonita's next home, Nunez offers two answers. First, a good friend of hers, an investment specialist, she says, convinced her that she could make the space work. "He was so supportive, and he really believed in me," she adds. "He's known me for years, and he walked through the building with me and said I could do it." The other reason is that she has lived in that northwest Denver neighborhood, raising her ten children in a house just down the street from the Plain View, for forty years. "This neighborhood is mostly Hispanic, and I thought they would want to come here and eat and dance," Nunez explains. "Even though the building is big, the plans I had for it would have worked if we'd had more business. It would have worked if we could have kept the cabaret license."

But a dance hall wasn't part of the deal when Nunez presented her business plan to the Mayor's Office of Economic Development three years ago. Instead, she intended to put in a pool hall. On the basis of that plan, MOED lent Nunez $300,000, with most of that money going to the purchase of the building, according to MOED's deputy director, Bill Lysaught.

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