Food Fight!

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

Nunez bore five more children before Zendejas died of exposure on a trip to the mountains, after just eleven years of marriage. "It was one of the hardest things I've gone through," says Nunez. "And I had six children, and I didn't know what to do." Luckily, her grandmother and mother helped out in the restaurant, along with many other relatives. And it wasn't long before the feisty, petite, rojo-haired Lupe caught the eye of Rodolfo Nunez.

They were married for 21 years. "I think he got tired of so many kids," she says, laughing. By the time they were divorced in the late Seventies, they had ten total--five boys, five girls--and all of them helped out in the restaurant.

That restaurant had moved from Larimer to East Colfax in 1959; in 1965 it moved to 1361 Court Place, where it would spend the next 29 years.

It was at the La Bonita on East Colfax where then-governor Steve McNichols, Bill McNichols's brother, became a regular customer. Nunez still has the business card he gave her, and she's thinking about having it framed. "He was so nice," she says. "He and his wife used to come in for a late dinner, and then at 2 a.m. I'd say, 'I have to close,' and they would make their security guards go home. The guards always fought with McNichols, because it was against the rules for them to leave him, but they would leave, and he and his wife would sit in the back on packing crates next to the pop machine while I finished cleaning the kitchen. They'd drink and have a good time, and then my brother Al would drive them home."

Many other politicians--and a few celebrities, Don Ameche among them--called La Bonita their home away from home. There was presidential candidate Henry Wallace, who held a fundraiser at La Bonita during his campaign, former Denver district attorney Norm Early, former mayor Federico Pena and former congresswoman Pat Schroeder, who loved her food, Nunez says. "So many nice people have supported me over the years," she adds. "Even Wilma, the wife of Mayor Webb, used to come in all the time, and they were so nice to me. Now they stay away, I think, because of the trouble we're having. I've always felt, though, that people in this city have been good to me."

The City of Denver certainly was good to Nunez. She needed $534,000 to buy the Plain View building and its inventory, which included kitchen appliances and restaurant furniture. Vectra Bank had been willing to lend her only $94,000, but in 1994, MOED tossed another $300,000 into the kitty.

MOED lends money to minority-owned businesses in neighborhoods that have been identified as needing an economic boost. West Highland is one of them, and MOED's Lysaught says the business plan Nunez and her family presented seemed solid. "She'd had such success with her previous endeavors, and her family had several key members who came forward and said they were going to help with the restaurant and support Lupe," Lysaught says. "And frankly, she had an excellent credit history. The bank was willing to work with her, and they worked with us to get her the money she needed to make up the rest. She went through a rigorous review process from both us and the bank, and we only lend where the project seems desirable."

Putting a Mexican restaurant into the Plain View--a longtime northwest Denver Democratic watering hole that had, at various times, served Italian and Chinese food--may have seemed like a desirable project, but Nunez quickly realized that the building was too big to support her restaurant. Not only was the dinner business as bad as it had been downtown, but the lunch business was even worse--and the few pool tables she'd installed in the restaurant didn't help. So rather than expand the pool hall into the warehouse section of the building, Nunez decided to put in a dance and banquet room to bring in the crowds.

There certainly was plenty of room for a dance club. Originally, the building had housed a car dealership; subsequent tenants turned the display room into a storage area. "It was so full of junk when we took it over," Nunez says. "It took us weeks to hand-carry everything out of there, and it was so filthy." She applied for, and was granted, a cabaret license--with no opposition from the neighborhood. "Why would we?" Corn asks. "We wanted to see a local business thrive, and there was no indication that there would be any problem."

Nunez spent thousands of dollars painting the cavernous room, putting in a dance floor, a DJ booth and a disco ball and filling the space with tables and chairs and two bar areas. Locals soon began booking the place months in advance for their graduation parties, wedding receptions and business functions, and Nunez began to breathe easier about her loan payments.

But not for long. The police started getting complaint calls from neighbors in February 1996, barely two months after Nunez's dance hall opened. Although the restaurant portion of La Bonita sits on 38th Avenue, the dance hall is behind it, closer to the alley between 38th and West Clyde Place and closer to residences.

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