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When I moved to Denver almost a year ago, I knew next to nothing about the local restaurant scene. There were a few places along the Front Range with which I had a passing acquaintance. I knew Johnson's Corner outside of Loveland, because it's the second-best diner in the United States (numero uno, I still contend, is the State Diner in Ithaca, New York). I knew Boulder's Asian Deli, because it has excellent pho and spring rolls (I came into this world with my belly radar constantly tuned to the proximity of good Vietnamese food). And I knew Juanita's, also in Boulder, because that's where -- more than three years earlier -- I'd showed my finest feathers during the courtship ritual that finally scored me my wife.
1043 Pearl St.
Boulder, CO 80302
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Chips and guac: $5.50
Black beans: $2.75/$3.50
3 tacos: $8.75
Chicken Cuervo: $6.95 quarter, $9.95 half
Fish tacos: $9.95
Shrimp asada: $11.95
She was living in California by then, after attending the University of Colorado and spending years in Boulder, Fort Collins and Loveland, and I was living in the passenger seat of my buddy Gracie's purple Ford Taurus. She was in Cali, temping and Rollerblading around Balboa Park, while Gracie and I were taking a wildly circuitous, three-month jaunt around the 48 contiguous states, looking for lost friends and the perfect margarita. Earlier that year, I'd stepped out for a smoke on the dock behind this little Italian place in Rochester where I was working and never went back in. No reason, really. It just felt like the right thing to do at the time.
We hit the road not long after. On the extreme western end of our swing through the States, we rumbled into Blythe, California -- a town of two gas stations, one cafe, roughly twenty old codgers and far fewer teeth. I tried to reach Laura in San Diego, but in the time it had taken us to drive to Blythe, she'd wandered into Tijuana and now refused to leave. She liked it there. So instead, Gracie and I went to Vegas. He won forty bucks on the Wheel of Fortune at Circus Circus. I was looking for a showgirl to fall in love with. It was beautiful in a Technicolor, American Gothic kind of way, and I was ready to stay forever (or until the money ran out). But then we heard through the grapevine that Laura was back in Colorado.
We peeled out of Sin City like Bullitt coming back from a commercial break and drove through the night across the high desert, sneaking into the Rocky Mountain Empire the back way, through Green River, whipping that poor Taurus up and over Vail Pass. It was a heroic bit of endurance driving by Gracie. I helped by keeping the radio fed with good road music: Clutch, the Blasters, Less Than Jake. All across the backbone of that night, I was half in love already, and by the time the three of us -- Gracie, Laura and I -- were socked into one of Juanita's back booths behind bottles of Dos Equis and kiddie-pool-sized margaritas, the deal was done. I was in deep. Still am.
Juanita's celebrated its twentieth anniversary just a couple of weeks ago. But in my personal cosmology, it popped into existence -- fully formed, with crusty regulars, boozy hat boys and that perfect, upscale slummy resonance -- on that afternoon four years back. I've been a fan of everything it is and everything it isn't ever since.
As an East Coast service-industry brat, I wasn't yet very familiar with Mexican food as I blearily romanced Laura in that booth. Back then, kitchen wisdom said that if you wanted to make a guaranteed fortune in the restaurant game, all you had to do was open an authentic Italian bistro in the Southwest -- where they didn't know a San Marzano from a marinara -- or a real menudo-and-desebrado Mexican spot in New York, where there weren't any to speak of. At least, not in a neighborhood where the swells felt safe walking after dark. Back East, Mexican food was largely limited to Taco Bell, jalapeño poppers at T.G.I. Fridays and the occasional gloppy Cheez-Whiz sort of burritos that make the fare at Casa Bonita look like haute cuisine. So tucking into Juanita's soft, almost milky black beans -- studded with fatty pork and onions and spiced with the deep, earthy burn of cumin -- was a moving experience. Add to that spicy braised carnitas slopped into a pool of gooey, stewy, smoky-hot green chile, plus my first-ever taste of mole, with that "Whaddaya mean the sauce has chocolate in it?" feeling of new possibilities suddenly opening up. The whole meal marked a paradigm shift, offering me a new look at a cuisine that I'd written off as the worst kind of junk.
Gracie and I spent a few days in Colorado with Laura, and when we left, I took with me two obsessions: the girl and the grub. The girl would later come out to live with me in New York; soon after, we'd head for New Mexico together, chasing after the flavors of real Mexican food. Eventually, the girl would marry me (in Vegas, but not at Circus Circus), and I'd learn from neighbors, from busboys and line cooks, and from generous friends how to cook what I was tasting. I'd learn my norteño from my centrado and the difference between the easy, classic abuelita table food and fiery borderlands fare. But I always kept a soft spot for Juanita's. Every time we made the long drive from 'Burque to Boulder, we'd end up there, and every time we ended up there, I'd learned more about quote-unquote real Mexican food -- about the careful and proper balance of heat and flavor, the judicious use of raw-milk cheeses, the difference that a fat block of White Cap lard can make. But that never made me like Juanita's any less.
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