Food Fight!

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

After La Bonita opened in its new location in 1995, business was good for the first six months, Nunez says. "Then it got slower, and I needed to use all the space to make more money," she explains. "That's why I had to open the cabaret. This building is just too big for me."

Which is why several people, including Fred Corn, the former president of the West Highland Neighborhood Association and another vocal opponent of La Bonita's cabaret license, want to know why the city decided to make such a big loan to Nunez in the first place. "You'd think they would have gone in there and seen how huge the place is, how much had to be done to it," Corn says.

And if MOED couldn't figure it out, another city employee might have: Phil Marin, another of Nunez's brothers, is head of the inspectors at the city's building-inspection department. "Her brother was at all the meetings," Corn says. "You'd think he could have advised her to avoid that space, since he would know a lot about buildings."

Marin, who did not return Westword's phone calls, is not the only relative to get pulled into La Bonita's troubles. Nunez says the restaurant has created so many family problems that she's willing to let the place go--after over fifty years in business.

"Either way, I want it to be over with," she says. "But if I lose this, what am I going to do? This is my whole life."

Lupe Nunez and her first husband, Sam Zendejas, opened the original La Bonita Restaurant at 21st and Larimer streets in 1945. Soon after, another brother, Al Marin, came back from a trip to Mexico excitedly waving a recipe for a new drink. "It was the margarita," says Nunez. "I know that I was the first Mexican restaurant to serve a margarita in Denver."

Nunez also claims to have served Denver's first burrito, which was invented in California in the Forties by migrant workers looking for a way to carry their beans and rice out to the fields. "Not long after I opened, these women who were married to the men in a band that was playing down the street from us ordered burritos," Nunez recalls. "I said, 'What in the world is a burrito?' I thought it was something made out of a donkey. So one of the women came back to the kitchen and showed me how to make one, and they were on the menu from then on. And look how popular they are now."

Whether she was the first or not--so far, no one's been able to prove otherwise--Nunez has been one of the town's largest sellers of burritos and margaritas for decades. Customers also craved her huge tostadas, her guacamole, her refritos and, in particular, her homemade tortillas, which she continued to make by hand until this last move to West 38th Avenue. "Do you know, I didn't like to cook at home," Nunez says. "My husband was so skeptical of me opening a restaurant. But I quickly loved it, and I still do."

Nunez's recipes came from her grandmother, Timotea Flores, who had moved with her husband and Nunez's parents to Parson, Kansas, from Guanajuato, Mexico, in 1917. They were field workers, a term Nunez says is now used as an insult. "They were bean pickers," she adds, "and they were good people." Nunez, born Guadalupe Marin, came along in 1918; four years later the family followed the crops to Denver. Then they moved to Fort Collins, where her father, Feliciano Marin, decided to open a pool hall and get his family out of the fields.

The pool hall was such a success that the family moved back to Denver in 1934 to open La Bonita Pool Hall on Larimer Street. "That was long before anyone ever thought that area would be 'LoDo,'" Nunez says. The sixteen-year-old Lupe went to work that same year, for $4.50 a week, folding newspapers for a junkyard that recycled them. "I was so proud to be contributing to the family," she says. "By then, I was the oldest of ten kids, and we needed the money."

The next year, a woman whose kids she cared for told her about a good spot with the Works Progress Administration, set up to keep people working during the Depression. "But I had to be eighteen, so I told them I was so I could get the job," she recalls. "My mother and grandmother had taught me how to sew, and that's what I did there." Her first task was hemming cloth diapers, but she was soon making men's shirts from scratch.

"If I remember right, I got paid $75 every two weeks," she says. "And that was wonderful. When I got paid, I was so happy, because then I could take my family to the theater, which they loved. It cost five cents per person. Then we would go to the Rockybilt and buy twenty hamburgers for a dollar."

Because she was an accomplished seamstress, Nunez's talents were in high demand by 1942, when the soldiers serving in World War II needed bedrolls, parachutes, blankets and clothing. She was in charge of bedrolls. Not long after she started on the job, she met Zendejas, the handsome man who carried the cloth over every day. "We would have dated longer, I think," Nunez says. "But I was mad at my grandfather, so to get back at him, I got married very fast." Their first daughter, Mary Ellen, was born in 1943, and two years later they started La Bonita, named in honor of her father's pool hall.

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