By Jonathan Shikes
By Alex Brown
By Cafe Society
By Samantha Alviani
By Lori Midson
By Mark Antonation
By Loren Lorenzo
By Nate Hemmert
"The breakfast burrito at Santiago's," I wrote, "is everything I love about Denver — humble, not ostentatious, the perfect size, and resolutely Mexican at its heart, even as the whiteys that were the eggs and potato tried to supersede the green chile and chorizo for taste, with each bite provoking desires for more. In other words: muy bueno."
I finally tried a cooler burrito on another 2008 trip; it was wonderful. On the trip back home, I had a chance to read Westword's 2005 masterpiece on the phenomenon ("Word of Mouth," Adam Cayton-Holland, January 27, 2005) and started realizing there was something unique about your Mexican food.
Oh, was I to be proven right.
It was in early 2009 when I told Westword I was researching for a book on the history of Mexican food in the United States. "You know Colorado has its own Mexican food, right?" Calhoun told me. Why, no.
I'm sorry to say this, Denver, but I didn't even know Colorado had its own Mexicans. Oh, I knew about Corky Gonzalez — or thought I did. At the time, I didn't know about the proud Chicanos of this city, the long relationship with the manito culture of New Mexico, the unique trends, vocabulary, mores and traditions that resulted from a migration that predated Colorado's entry into the United States. Denver's Chicanos have never gotten a fair shake in Chicano Studies because, well, you're Denver. John Elway, Tancredo, now Peyton Manning — you have some of the most gabacho gabachos in the United States, and coming from a native of Orange County, California, that's saying a lot.
Denver has its own Mexican food? I needed to research, to see what abominations you could possibly create. Burritos are one thing; anything that veered from that? ¡Vendidos!
The next time I visited, for a 2009 lecture at an art center in Boulder, the Westword crew took me to lunch at a restaurant called La Fiesta; the sons of the family that owns it are fans of my column. I asked which dish was most uniquely Colorado Mexican, and the answer was unanimous: La Fiesta's chiles rellenos.
Huh? What spin could Denver possibly give to chiles rellenos, a dish I had never had in any other way than a pasilla or Anaheim chile stuffed with cheese (maybe with ground beef), coated in egg batter, then fried? The answer came with my order: mini-size it with a Chinese spin. Out came something that looked like an egg roll, drowned in a sickly gravy that seemed more paste than food. The table explained it was a Colorado chile stuffed with "premium" cheese, then wrapped in a wonton wrapper and fried. Yes: a wonton wrapper. And all that yuck surrounding it? Chile. Not "chili," as in the ground-beef explosion created in San Antonio; not a salsa, but chile. What's chile? No one bothered to explain it; instead, they looked at me like the clueless pendejo I was. Oh, and the chile relleno wasn't drowned in chile, it was "smothered."
I dug in. Gooey, crunchy, spicy, but really gooey, like concentrated nachos thrown in a fryer, then covered with the most sumptuous sauce I've ever tasted: deceptive, flecked with pork, but deathly spicy. I wanted to ask for Tapatío, but none was necessary. It was bizarre, but it was delicious. I didn't find it "authentic" at all, but I figured I'd do at least a shout-out to this plate in Taco USA, out of my respect for Denver. I picked up another street-cooler burrito for the flight home.
It was a fruitful trip. I returned to California and told friends about Denver's strange-ass chiles rellenos; they all laughed. I told them about the street-cooler burritos; they laughed again. And then a friend who used to live in Denver uttered the magical words: "Have you gone to Chubby's? That place is CRAZY."
Chubby's. When I posted on my Facebook fan page that I was thinking about a trip to Chubby's on my next visit to Denver, a war of the words broke out. One person said I had to eat there, then someone else chimed in to slam Chubby's. Then someone else slammed that person, and someone else said that everyone was attacking the wrong Chubby's. Finally, someone mentioned a "Mexican hamburger" — and all hell broke loose yet again, while I read on in bewilderment.
Trying to act like the all-knowing Mexican I am, I never admitted that I didn't have a clue about their conversation, not to mention their quibbles. Finally, I did my research in the Westword archives and discovered the amazing story of the Cordovas, starting with the late Stella Cordova, who was working at the Chubby Burger Drive-Inn in the late '60s when the owner decided to sell it. She bought it, kept the name, added her own green chile recipe to the menu, and kept working there for the next forty years. Easily another sidebar for Taco USA, I thought. I needed to try this Mexican hamburger, and to try Chubby's. The only problem: My book was due by the fall of 2010, and I had no scheduled trips to Denver. But like angels knowing that a wretch needs salvation, the Department of Chicano Studies at Metro State contacted me in the spring of 2010, wondering if I would accept an offer to participate in its Richard T. Castro Distinguished Lecture series, which takes place every fall. At the time, I had no idea who Castro was (now I do, of course — what an amazing man. You need to promote him on a national scale, Denver), but accepted under one condition: that my handlers take me to Chubby's.
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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.