The Heat Is On

For the Cordova family, the forecast is always chile.

The sun isn't up yet, and already Ernie Cordova is sweating.

He's hunched over the grill at the Chubby Burger Drive-In, getting ready for the morning rush. A mound of hamburger sizzles to his left. A mound of scrambled eggs and chorizo sizzles to his right. Bubbling in an aluminum cauldron on the back burner is the primary reason he is here: the chile.

Ernie got here at 4:30 a.m. to make that chile, just as he has been doing for over twenty years now. And every morning, he prepares it the same way: by taste, smell, and something his mother, Stella Cordova, passed along in her DNA.

All in la familia: Stella and Margie Trujillo take care of customers.
All in la familia: Stella and Margie Trujillo take care of customers.

"You know how some people have green thumbs when it comes to flowers?" he asks, dabbing his forehead with a dish towel. "Well, it's the same with chile. You just do it."

Ernie bends over the big pots and breathes in the aroma of fried pork, tomatoes, jalapeños, green chile, garlic salt and a pinch of red chile powder.

Perfect.

Chubbys occupies a nondescript cinder-block building that squats beside a sidewalk freckled with cigarette butts and old gum. The building is tiny -- too tiny to contain the aroma of charred meat, melting cheese, deep-fried potatoes and bubbling chile that wafts out the door and through this northwest Denver neighborhood. Too tiny to hold the people who follow that smell.

All day they come, squeaking the door open, slamming the door shut. High school kids and grandpas. Gangbangers and cops. Barflies and office workers. Street people and tourists. They stand with their hands in their pockets, lean against the Coke machines, sift through the stack of zoot-suit fliers, slouch on a pair of wooden benches as stiff and narrow as church pews.

"Time to go to church and get a burrito," they like to say.

Visiting Chubbys is a ritual: the first stop on the way to work, the earthy place to take the office gang for lunch, the fast alternative to dinner at home, the last stop after the bars close on Friday and Saturday nights. It's familiar, unchanging and homey, a place where the tortillas are always warm and the chile is always hot. And the woman who serves them, 91-year-old Stella Cordova, is grandmother to one and all. With her simple, satisfying food, she has fed a generation of customers. But even after 33 years in the restaurant business, she has no plans to hang up her apron. In fact, later this summer she plans to expand into the empty grocery store next door, doubling the size of Chubbys, putting ice cream back on the menu, and adding actual seating, so that customers will no longer have to eat their food while sitting in the parking lot.

"When we started, people used to call us the 'hole in the wall,"' she says. "I never expected it would be like this. Never."

For the record, Stella is not Chubby. She's small and wiry, with puffy white hair, large eyeglasses and big hands, a woman you'd expect see in the front row at church. But on this day, she's settled in an overstuffed easy chair at her home near Federal Boulevard and 46th Avenue, hands clasped in her lap, stealing glances at the soap opera on a nearby TV. She's surrounded by gold: gold lamps, gold planters, gold knickknacks. Stella herself sparkles with gold bracelets, gold rings, gold necklaces. And when she smiles, which she does often, a gold cap flashes from a front tooth.

"It's my favorite color," she says. "My husband's was purple."

Stella was born in the railroad village of Walsenburg in 1909, the oldest of four boys and three girls. She never knew her father and was raised by a grandmother and an uncle on a 350-acre farm where they raised beans, corn, cantaloupe and watermelon. When she was only eight, she joined her relatives in the fields.

"We all worked," she says. "And I worked like a man. Sometimes we ate two full meals a day, and sometimes we just had bread and water."

At harvest time, Stella moved into the kitchen, where her grandmother taught her to prepare the foods that would become her trademark.

"My grandma always told me, 'One of these days you're going to get married and you're going to have to cook," she recalls. "I could always cook. It's just something I could do."

In 1922, Stella's family moved to Greeley, where they picked beets, potatoes and beans in the blistering sun. There she met a railroad man with a broad smile and a big heart named Alex Cordova; she married him when she turned twenty. Together they had five boys and five girls.

"In those days, if you were healthy, you had kids," Stella says. "They weren't hard to raise. I had them trained. I was strict. If they didn't obey me, I'd give them a little pinch. And, well, I had a belt."

She also had tortillas. Tortillas the size of pizzas. Tortillas as soft as butter. Tortillas so thick and chewy they could only have come out of an oven.

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