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But your Mexican food? The most bizarre in the United States — and I've had tater-tot burritos and Taco Bueno. The least-loved. The most unknown. The most — excuse my English — weird. Outside of Coloradans and expats, no one gives a shit about Denver's Mexican-food traditions, let alone wants to know about them. Your most unique culinary contribution to Mexican food, the Mexican hamburger, is unknown outside of your state, derided by everyone to whom I describe it; they're incredulous that anyone can consider that Mexican food and dismiss it as yet another Denver oddity à la Tim Tebow and, well, Tom Tancredo. Your most famous Mexican restaurant is Casa Bonita in Lakewood, an Oklahoman import immortalized in South Park and called "the world's weirdest Mexican restaurant" by this fine publication.
Your Mexican food never makes the national conversation about America's regional Mexican styles — Tex-Mex, Cal-Mex, Sonoran cuisine, Southwestern food...Den-Mex? Sounds like a cholesterol drug. If the country knows anything about Denver's Mexican grub, it's Chipotle, the wildly successful burrito company started by Steve Ells in a former Dolly Madison shop near the University of Denver — and instead of making your indigenous burritos a national obsession, he instead went with San fucking Francisco. Traitor. When Colorado Mexican finally reached the national spotlight, the Travel Channel's Food Wars decided to focus on Pueblo's Slopper. Sad. Even I, who professes to love Denver, largely ignored your cuisine in my new book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. There's a paragraph about your native food in the chapter about burritos, and that's about it; meanwhile, I devote pages to Ells. Really sad.
But after years of wrestling with the cuisine, of wondering why you wrap wontons around chiles rellenos and put hamburger patties into burritos, of marveling that your green chile is as orange as the jerseys of the Broncos, I have finally learned to love Den-Mex. Your epic Mexican hamburgers, your combo plates slathered — scratch that, smothered — in furious chile. Your street-corner, foil-wrapped burritos steaming with chunks of pork, the late-night runs to Chubby's. (Chubby's! The greatest Mexican restaurant in the United States! More on that in a bit.) When I first came and tasted Den-Mex, I dismissed ustedes as a heresy as dangerous to Mexican culture as the only Mexican thing I knew about Denver at the time: Tom Tancredo.
That's now changed: I'll devote the rest of my life to spreading your gospel, with the fervor of the converted. Let the rest of the nation snicker: Yours is a foodway deserving of love, because your cuisine is the I Corinthians 13 of the grub world — patient, kind, waiting for people to wise up to it, as I eventually did.
I first visited Denver in the summer of 2007, on the tour for the initial release of the book version of ¡Ask a Mexican! It was a whirlwind stay, one that didn't allow me to get a bite until after my book signing at the Tattered Cover — a burger at a bar. I didn't try Denver's Mexican food then, but I do remember street vendors with coolers, handing out burritos to people ranging from blue-collar workers waiting for a bus to men in suits buying them from their cars, windows cracked open just enough for a transaction to occur. It struck me as odd: I'm from California, where we think we invented the burrito, and only eat them from the fast-food drive-thru or a lonchera, so to see a bunch of Denverites carrying around our birthright in a container we use to store beer at the beach seemed silly.
The thought of a cooler burrito did pique my palate, though, so I vowed to buy one the next time I was in Denver — for the fall 2008 book tour for my Orange County: A Personal History. I returned to the Tattered Cover that September, but another whirlwind PR tour prevented me from trying the cooler burrito. Thankfully, editor Calhoun intervened. I was due to leave Denver right after appearing on Jay Marvin's old show. (Strange but true: Jay Marvin is a native of Orange County, so he always had me on his show when I was in town, for hours at a time; it's a tragedy he had to give it up for health reasons.) Right before a car was supposed to pick me up at 9 a.m., she met me in the lobby of Denver's Clear Channel operations and gave me a burrito. It initially seemed like any other burrito: wrapped in foil, in a flour tortilla, and big. Big deal. But then I took a bite. The beans were wonderful, the rice fluffy, the chorizo magnificent, the eggs silken. Then the spice hit: not the salsas I've known for so long, but something better, something fragrant, fleshy and with a kick like Jason Elam. It was spectacular, and taught me more was out there.
It was only later that I realized the importance of that particular burrito maker: Santiago's, which many of you deem the best Mexican food in Denver. Then, I just knew the brilliance of this burrito, so I happily obliged when Calhoun asked for a quote describing my experience.
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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.
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
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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!
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.
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.
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.
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.
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