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Why Denver is home to the best Mexican dish in the United States

Also read: Chipotle or Qdoba? Either way, burritos legally stand on their own

Why Denver is home to the best Mexican dish in the United States
Javid Rezvani
Chubby's! The greatest Mexican restaurant in the United States! Slide show: Take the Den-Mex tour!

Tom Tancredo doesn't like Mexicans — no way, no how, no duh. The former Colorado congressman and one-time presidential candidate spent most of his political career railing against a supposed invasion of the United States by Mexico — and while intelligent minds can disagree about the benefits versus detriments caused by unchecked migration to this country, Tancredo flat-out feels that Mexicans and their culture are downright deficient.

"Sadly, corruption is deeply ingrained in Mexican society, from the local police to the government owned utilities," Tancredo once wrote in a column for WorldNetDaily. "It's a way of doing everyday business."

It was a direct dig at me. In November 2010, we debated in Denver about whether Mexicans ever assimilate into American culture in a standoff that made national news. (I maintained we do; Tancredo didn't accept the possibility, yet couldn't explain how I — who only spoke Spanish when enrolled in kindergarten, the child of two Mexican immigrants, one of whom came into this country in the trunk of a Chevy — did it.) The debate was held at Su Teatro, that chingón Chicano theater on Santa Fe Drive in the heart of what was once Denver's Mexican neighborhood,and is now Denver's Art District on Santa Fe. There's no need to get into all the details of the evening (find them in the archives of the Latest Word, por favor), except for one pertinent point: Before lambasting Mexicans and our supposed refusal to join American society, Tom ate a Mexican dinner with me.

The late Stella Cordova ran Chubby Burger Drive-Inn for more than forty years.
Mark Manger
The late Stella Cordova ran Chubby Burger Drive-Inn for more than forty years.

We went across the street from Su Teatro to El Noa Noa, a large restaurant that advertises itself as the Mile High City's "best and most authentic Mexican restaurant." At night, art deco-style neon lights flash the restaurant's name, a reference to a legendary nightclub in Ciudad Juárez that was the subject of a famous Mexican song. A party on your plate. The atmosphere isn't obscenely ethnic: no strolling mariachis or women fluttering fans and eyelids. Eaters sit; waiters bring out baskets of chips and bowls of salsa and fetch drinks. People of all ethnicities come in to eat, though the clientele leans more American than Mexican.

Tancredo and I sat down near the middle of the restaurant; Westword editor Patricia Calhoun and a few staffers joined us. Patty, who's known Tom for years, was the one who had long sought to have him and me face off, and figured we should break tortillas beforehand, as she was going to moderate the Su Teatro theatrics. We traded small talk, saving our salvos for the discussion to come — but around us, tables whispered, fingers pointed. Some people came up to our table to greet Tancredo, wish him luck for the evening. A Facebook friend, a woman from Boulder who works with undocumented college students, offered me a pin that said "DREAM ACT" and her appreciation that I was confronting a person she considered a living manifestation of Satan. She wanted to make a scene, but her chile relleno supper was getting cold.

Our plates came. I drank tequila, of course; Tancredo, a dry red wine. He'd ordered the tamale dinner, hold the Spanish rice. Two tamales, slathered (or, as more accurately stated in the Denver lexicon, "smothered") with green chile, absent their corn husks, each as long as a palm, as thick as a copy of a book, sat before him. They glistened with the dabs of lard needed to make a tamale moist and more than mere cornmeal and shredded pork. I stole bites of the same plate from Calhoun: soft, spicy filling. The pork sang sweet notes on my palate; the green chile piqued toward the end. These weren't the tamales of my youth; they were smaller — familiar, yet different from anything I'd ever eaten. The chile — born of the fertile soil of southern Colorado, which Hispanics had tilled before there was a United States — seared differently from the Mexican chiles on which I grew up. It needed no extra salsa, it was so flavorful.

Tancredo thought so as well. He polished off his plate, laughing and talking between each bite, getting himself fueled for a night decrying the very culture that fed him. More than a year later, I can recall just some of the points of our philosophical fisticuffs, but the scene I can't get out of my mind is Tancredo's massive, tamale-induced smile throughout the night. Tom Tancredo may not like Mexicans, but he sure loves his Mexican food — of course he does. And if a pendejo like Tom can learn to love Denver's unique take on Mexican food, then so should the rest of the country.

Especially a pendejo like me.

*****

I love you, Denver: You've always been beyond supportive of my work, have always sent some of my favorite questions for my ¡Ask a Mexican! column, have always provided one of my biggest fan bases outside of my Southern California home base. I've spoken at three of your universities — University of Denver, Metro State, even Johnson & Wales, for chrissakes — and at your beautiful downtown library; have done three signings at the Tattered Cover; moonlighted as a guest judge for Geeks Who Drink; and been on many of your radio and television stations. Every time I visit, everyone is nice — except that jerk Peter Boyles, who'll never have me on his radio show, for reasons I can't comprehend. (Let's do it, Pete!)

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17 comments
ChileLover
ChileLover

Chubby,s???Really???? I ate there once, Yuk! Even TacoBell's better than Chubby's.......

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Zamora Carl

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Zamora Carl

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Jenn the Barbarian
Jenn the Barbarian

Have you any praise for the sister of the cooler burrito?--the parking lot tamale. If you are very lucky, then you will happen upon one of the groups of Mexican ladies who set up illegal but awesome vendor-stations in mall parking lots, usually out of the backs of cars, where for $1 each or so, they deliver you a steaming Ziploc bag filled with fat, succulent pork tamales, fresh as can be, to devour on the ride home, since you simply cannot resist waiting until you get home to unwrap at least one plump, spicy tamale.

JIm Beam
JIm Beam

As an OC transplant I agree that trying to find a good Mexican restaurant that we are used to in Southern California is daunting to say the least. As I started to explore and sample I also have come to find that Colorado has its own unique flavors. Love the cooler burritos before Bronco games which reminded me of a guy who used to go door to door back in OC selling tamales out of his cooler. I did manage to find a good taco truck, while not El Chavito, it still satisfies while brewery cycling in Fort Collins. Thanks for the tips on some new places to sample in Denver. I'm disappointed that you won't be coming to Denver on your book signing tour because you still owe me a signed copy of your OC a personal history book!

The title of the story has Mexican in it, where are the comments from mitch young and 909 jeff? hahahaha

Ann
Ann

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Gloria Storey Jones Talbott
Gloria Storey Jones Talbott

The only thing wrong with this article is the author hasn't tasted the best green chile in town! We all start with the restaurants that boast they are the best & authentic Mexican restaurant in town. Denver has alot of them. I have tried all the restaurants mentioned in the article except El Noa Noa. And I do enjoy a breakfast burrito from Santiago's! But, the very best "smothered" mexican food in town is La Casa Del Rey in Commerce City. I even do the HOT green chile! I have heard tables next to me say "we drive down from Evergreen", "this is the first place I come when I get out of the airport"! Dog the Bounty Hunter never misses the place when he comes into town from Hawaii. The thing is, once you have learned to love Denver's green chile & you move away, it's always on your mind! I would suggest the author try La Casa Del Rey next time he is in Denver & take Patty with you! And, I don't agree with the comments about Tom Tancredo, but Westword is known for being a bleeding heart liberal. I enjoyed the article!

Pd
Pd

I thought this was a substantive food review, not a political piece. Complete waste of time.

wyrob
wyrob

I can't believe there is just one comment on this as of Friday morning.

I don't dig the Mexican Hamburger the way Gustavo does. But he did a damn good job trying to understand Denver's culture over the course of a few short visits. And the love he expressed for Denver-Mexican food is close to what I feel as a native. This piece gives far more depth and insight to Denver's food than anything Anthony Bourdain and his crew have managed here.

Ganja Man
Ganja Man

The best green chili in town comes from my kitchen at home after making a stop at one of those hatch chili stands along Federal in late summer (or early fall). Yum.

calhounp
calhounp

thanks, gloria: I won't wait until gustavo's next in town to try that!we'd like to publish your letter in the print edition, too.

monopod
monopod

Uhh... did you read past the first page? 4/5 of the article is about Denver's indigenous version of Mexican food, and Chubby's Mexican Hamburger specifically - the Tancredo bit is just an intro. Maybe try reading the article before criticizing it.

gustavoarellano
gustavoarellano

Tom: You don't have to post under initials you sly dog, you!

calhounp
calhounp

i'd love to publish this in our print edition, ideally with your full name/town. If that's okay, e-mail me at patricia.calhoun@westword.com

wyrob
wyrob

Hi Patricia. You are welcome to use this. My town is Denver.

 
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