The Whole Enchilada

Lucero's is the kind of place you have to be looking for to find, which is understandable, since there are no signs on the building, unless you count the black spray-painted scribble of a street gang.

Which most people don't. Instead, most people follow their noses, which lead them along a scented ribbon of fried pork, green chile and tortillas toward a century-old building at the corner of 37th Avenue and Fillmore, where the owner, his wife and his helpers have been known to read minds.

Ask Brian Wages. At least several times a month for the past six years, he and his insurance-office buddies have driven all the way from Lakewood to northeast Denver for one of Fred and Dee Dee Lucero's combination plates.

Smothered in chile.
Extra taco on the side.
As soon as Brian swings back the door, before he has even had a chance to scan the menu, Fred, Dee Dee or their daughter-in-law, Teresa, call out, "Brian Special."

Brian likes that. He also likes the bucket of leftover Halloween candy passed around after lunch and sneaking behind the counter to pour his own soft drinks.

"This is not a real nice neighborhood," Brian says. "I wouldn't come here after 10 p.m., to tell you the truth. But this is just a good, hole-in-the-wall dive. The best Mexican food in Denver. By far. But we really come here for the atmosphere."

The atmosphere. The fluorescent lights. The wood-grain Formica tables. The aroma of chile. The hiss of fried hamburger. The Polaroid of Fred and his trout at the Colorado River. The 1985 softball trophy on the windowsill. The "Man of the Year" plaque from Fred's church. The gallon jars of pickles. The cartons of Caramel Apple Pops. The ever-present John Elway poster. The portraits of Fred and Dee Dee's grandsons. The stack of yesterday's newspapers. The familiar faces.

"When you come in here, you're comfortable," says Louis Cruz, another regular. "They're friendly. Friendly to everyone. It's not like Taco Bell."

It's not like many other restaurants, either. Lucero's, which looks more like a house than a cafe, lies smack in the middle of a neighborhood, a throwback to simpler times. Fred, with his Roman nose, cabbie's cap and sports page, waves from a corner table. Dee Dee, armed with apron and dish towel, smiles from behind the counter. Together they serve up a brand of mom-and-pop charm that has gone the way of milkmen, house calls and penny candy.

"It's nice to have a place where people know your name and know your order before you get out of the car," Brian continues. "You don't see that much anymore."

Fred and Dee Dee first opened their place as a grocery store back in 1962, after Fred quit his job as an assembler for Samsonite. He bought an apron, set up a meat counter and stocked the shelves with everything from milk to postage stamps to work gloves. But the big attraction was the rows of chocolate bars, caramel suckers, cupcakes and Popsicles.

"Kids would be lined up outside," recalls Isadore Lucero, Fred and Dee Dee's nephew. "They came from all over. He only let in five at a time because there were so many."

Fred knew them all. He offered free RC Cola to kids who could chug a whole bottle. He discussed the virtues of bubble gum. He waited patiently while children deliberated between Jawbreakers and Red Hots. And--more important--he redeemed empty pop bottles.

"There were so many, we had a room in the back just for the bottles," Dee Dee recalls.

Fred and Dee Dee also donated food when someone from the neighborhood died, brought out jumper cables when car batteries died, and helped neighbors with yard work.

"He was sort of like a father figure," says the Reverend Leon Kelly, who grew up a few blocks from the store. "He would always ask how our grades were, and if we got a good grade, he'd give us a candy. And if we didn't have a penny, he'd give us a candy anyway. I remember one time, I went in the store and ended up trying to take some candy--being a kid, I thought no one would know. Well, Fred caught me and said, 'You don't have to take it. Just go ahead and have it.' That was the first and last time I did that. It was just the way he handled it. It has stuck in my mind for 36 years. He planted many seeds and many pieces of candy out there."

During football season, Lucero's became a tiny Mile High Stadium, plastered from one end to the other with Broncos clocks, Broncos stickers, Broncos schedules, Broncos posters and Broncos blue-and-orange chairs.

"We've been fans since they started out," Dee Dee says. "We used to get a lot of razzing, too. But they're like your kids. When they have a losing season, you can't get down on them. You have to cheer anyway."

One Sunday in 1968, something happened that would change Lucero's forever: Fred got hungry. Dee Dee decided to fix him a burrito. She made a stack of tortillas in the back kitchenette, fried a pan of potatoes and warmed a little green chile and pork. The aroma carried through the neighborhood, and the customers followed. One time a man walked in for a Coke and stopped in his tracks.

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