Mouthing Off

Last call: La Loma's cream of cilantro soup recipe first appeared in the Denver Post years ago, in the food column that Helen Dollaghen Vogel wrote for forty years. Sadly, Dollaghen Vogel died at the beginning of 1998. And just a few weeks ago, we lost another friend of the food world, Sam Arnold's wife, Carrie, who drew and painted the eye-catching illustrations for Arnold's Eating Up the Santa Fe Trail, as well as the watercolors for several other books.

I never knew Dollaghen Vogel, but I read her columns to stay in touch with what people in the area were cooking and eating. And Carrie Arnold I knew only socially, from running into each other at culinary events, but she was always exceptionally warm and gracious, and she was the ideal hostess for The Fort. The first time I visited that restaurant, I was eight months pregnant, and when I shivered in the mountain air while eating on the restaurant's expansive patio, Carrie walked over to me and without a word took the sweater off her shoulders and put it around mine. From what I've heard, that was Carrie all over. She'll be sorely missed.

In fact, there were too many sad losses this year. Ed Maestas, who ran the wonderful Johnnie's Market on Larimer Street, passed away in February; the old storefront that housed his market--downtown's oldest grocery until it shut its doors when Eddie became ill in the fall of 1997--remains shuttered. Two doors away at 2010 Larimer, the forty-year-old La Casa de Manuel closed in mid-December when the landlord abruptly terminated its lease. The building is slated for demolition; owner Manuel Silva hopes to reopen elsewhere. But farther up the street, at 2706 Larimer, M&G Cafe is gone for good; when Pat Gaitlen died a few months ago at almost ninety, the city lost another institution that had started over forty years ago on Larimer.

There was one bright spot on Larimer, though: After Esther Garcia, the matriarch who ran the Mexico City Lounge at 2115 Larimer Street for the past three decades fell ill last year, the eatery closed for a few months--but then Alicia Muniz and her husband, Bob, took over. Today the Lounge (pay no attention to the banner out front that calls it an "Inn," or earlier signage that refers to it as a "Cafe") is better than ever--and, in fact, proved just the spot for some fog-clearing New Year's Day huevos.

Say cheeze: La Loma isn't the only decades-old Mexican eatery still open for business. Tortilla Flat, still doing a big business at 2850 West Church Avenue in Littleton, originally opened in 1959 as The Shanty on Littleton Boulevard. Three years later, owner Helen Estrada was forced to move the eatery when the landlord sold the building; she reopened the restaurant, now named Tortilla Flat, at the corner of Bowles and Church. But that location wasn't meant to be, either: The flood of 1965 wiped out both the restaurant and the Estradas' house. When a new Tortilla Flat debuted the next year, it occupied the site that once held the Estrada home. The restaurant moved once again twenty years later, to the spot it has now occupied since 1986.

From what I understand, it hasn't changed much since then. I ate there recently with a late-thirty-something Denver native who says she's been going to Tortilla Flat since she was a little girl. "Whenever we'd go shopping, or when we just had that craving for a lot of gooey cheese and green chile, we'd head over there," Geri Steele says. "I think the only thing that's different is that they opened up the dining room and put in these booths." Even the waitresses have been around forever, like the one we had to cajole into admitting that she'd worked there "about thirty years."

We'd stopped in after a hard morning of Christmas shopping, and I was so hungry that I ordered from the dinner menu instead of lunch. Tortilla Flat serves up the cheap, greasy stuff, all right, but it was delicious cheap, greasy stuff. The chile relleno in the Helen's Combo ($8.50) sported not the typical egg batter or crispy shell, but a combination of egg and breading that gave a crunchy skin to the softer bread inside. And inside that was a well-roasted poblano, packed with runny American cheese. The whole package had been smothered in a thin green that contained minuscule bits of pork and big chile heat. My combo also included a chalupa, the little boat made from corn-tortilla dough, which in this case was filled with shredded chicken, and a beef taco de guacamole, which showcased Tortilla Flat's simple but tasty guacamole.

Steele ordered her usual: the cheese enchilada a la carte ($2.30) as well as the chile relleno ($5.50) lunch special that comes with standard-issue rice and beans. The enchilada was smothered in green and loaded with cheese--Steele says she once asked what kind it was so she could re-create the dish at home, and all they would tell her was that it was from Borden. We ate every last bite and scraped the final bits of cheese off the plates with our forks.

In this fast-changing town, it's nice to know that some things remain the same.


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