Smothered: The Saga of the Chubby's Empire

Family matriarch Stella Cordova spills the beans on the Chubby's restaurant empire.

But Danny isn't confident in that outcome. He's supporting the lawsuit because, as he puts it, "Let him spend his money instead of ours." But Danny still has misgivings about Julian over an incident involving a house Julian owned where Stella was once a rent-paying resident. "I don't even want to deal with Julian," he says. "I don't want to deal with Leonard. I want my attorneys to handle it."

Leonard Cordova, for his part, says he's doing something completely different.

Raised primarily in California, Leonard also spent time in Colorado, visiting the Chubby's side of his family and learning the ropes as a prep cook in the sweltering kitchen. He began running a Chubby's offshoot in 1999, at the corner of First and Federal, where he still has a restaurant. Julian had a stake in the property, and the two worked together, eventually reaching an agreement that the Federal location was Leonard's and the Washington Chubby's was Julian's. The cousins teamed up for a spell, helping oversee what they viewed as a mutually beneficial stake in the Chubby's dominion, opening Chubby's restaurants here, closing them there (both disagree as to the frequency of such behavior). But as is often the case in the extended Cordova clan, things turned south and the two parted ways.

Mark Manger
Danny Cordova runs the original Chubby's restaurant on 38th Avenue.
Mark Manger
Danny Cordova runs the original Chubby's restaurant on 38th Avenue.


Check out this slide show comparison of how two signature Chubby's dishes stack up at locations throughout the city.

"The Chubby's on 38th, they kind of have a bad thing against me," Leonard says. "They don't want me to tell anyone I'm affiliated with them. That's why I came up with Chubbys Bubbachinos. That's the name of my restaurants. I'm not saying I'm the original Chubby's, but you get the same experience, same great taste, and I add a little twist. I took that burrito and threw it on the grill. No one else does that. And the chile is different. That's what I'm going to run with. I've got one in Brighton now, one at Evans and Tejon. I want to knock this opportunity out of the park. I'm stoked that my grandmother has given me this legacy, and now it's my turn to take it in a new direction."

That new direction includes a 99-cent menu, vegetarian options, brightly graffitied Hummers hyping the brand and, if all goes well, commercials on KBPI and television spots that will run on MTV. And Leonard's First and Federal location fancies itself as a sort of neighborhood hangout, with fliers on the walls of local hip-hop artists peddling their CDs.

"That's something on 38th and Lipan that has been lost — their camaraderie with the people," Leonard says, pointing out his annual Cinco De Mayo celebration, where he invites the entire community in to party. "They used to give people credit, they used to give food away to people who needed it, they were there for the neighborhood. A lot of that kind of went out the back door, and now the greed has kicked in.

"The family is fighting, and when my grandmother passes away, I hope everyone is ready for World War III," he adds. "It's going to be a real big mess."

As for the charge of Chubbys Bubbachinos profiting off the Chubby's name that his grandmother established, Leonard doesn't see it: "I'm not saying I'm the 'Original Chubby's Mexican Food.' I'm saying I'm 'Chubbys Bubbachinos Grilled Burritos.' Where do you get the similarity?"

Lunch hour, Friday, 1231 West 38th Avenue. The hinges on Chubby's Burger Drive-In's door are getting their exercise. A sea of day laborers, construction workers, giggling high-school students and businessmen await a Chubby's lunch — served between two paper plates stapled together — that will stick to their ribs for the rest of the afternoon.

Blocks away, Stella Cordova is at home, handling a greeting card that she uses to smack the top of one of her cat's heads when it gets too close. Alert, smiling and dressed in her best, ornate rings encircling her historic fingers, she ponders what one should order if one only had a single opportunity to eat at her Chubby's. "Chile fries, smothered Mexican hamburger" is her succinct answer.

Danny, in his bathrobe and groggy, stirs his coffee, bored. He was at Chubby's until three this morning. But when the subject of the future of the original Chubby's comes up, Danny's eyes light up with excitement. "We're trying to make our place bigger," he says. "We already have the plans drawn up. The attorney says that as soon as this mess is cleared up, we can start franchising out of 38th and Lipan. We'll start fresh and expand the empire from there and spread Chubby's the way it should spread. The way it should have been from the beginning, before everyone just plundered."

Danny's enthusiasm increases as he rattles off his dreams of employee uniforms, a dining area, an outdoor patio. But Stella seems disinterested. She nods her head at Danny but offers no further comment. Maybe she knows that any courtroom drama will no doubt be protracted and ugly. Maybe she knows there's no way to change what has happened in the past. Maybe she doesn't want to change it. So she grins and bears it.

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