By Lori Midson
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By Lori Midson
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It didn't happen. The trip was packed with everything from student lectures to public lectures to dinners and the Tancredo debate. I ate burritos, I ate hotel food, but I couldn't sneak away to Chubby's. Finally, a helpful gal took me to Bubba Chino's on Federal, part of a chain run by Leonard Cordova, one of Stella Cordova's grandsons. I finally tasted the Mexican hamburger, and enjoyed it immensely. Leonard was a gentleman, bringing me other dishes he was trying out. (Only later did I find out how loathed he is in some Denver circles; that's your fight, cabrones, but Leonard was nice and his food was good.) Still, it wasn't the original Chubby's.
I panicked. I thought I'd have to fly out to Denver on my own, just to visit this much-mythologized restaurant. I couldn't finish the book without a Chubby's mention — but I was already half a year late with the Taco USA manuscript.
Fate intervened with yet another Denver trip — this one in the spring of 2011, for a University of Denver speech. DU kindly catered the event with Chipotle burritos. By then, I was savvy enough about Den-Mex to crack a joke before the appreciative audience that I needed the burrito smothered. After the speech, I insisted that my hosts take me to Chubby's. They wondered out loud why I'd want to visit a place like that instead of a nice sit-down restaurant.
I had already learned that, according to Denver legend, the Mexican hamburger was created at Joe's Buffet, a long-gone eatery just up the street from Su Teatro. It was first advertised as a blackboard special in the late 1960s as "Linda's Mexican Hamburger," named after a waitress. From there, the Mexican hamburger spread across Denver — but only across Denver, much to the surprise of Mile High City denizens I talked to, who'd always assumed that their dish, like the local NFL squad, had a national reach. Maybe it didn't go further because it's so straightforward: Putting a hamburger patty inside a burrito? How truly revolutionary is that? More likely because you just don't get a fair shake from the rest of America, Denver. Yet that's what made the Mexican hamburger so brilliant: its simplicity, its utterly unremarkable nature, the effortless mixing of traditions. Mexican. American. Den-Mex. And at Chubby's, I finally discovered that the Mexican hamburger reaches every overblown food cliché one can imagine.
Because even Denver doesn't realize the significance of the Mexican hamburger, Chubby's is most famous for its chile, still made according to Stella Cordova's original recipe, which smothers everything there — burritos, fries, cheeseburgers. A hearty condiment for a hardy city where you need all the comfort you can get. It works best, though, smothering a Mexican hamburger, the greatest Mexican dish in the United States. This is how I describe it in Taco USA:
Brace yourselves, folks: underneath that Syracuse Orangeman-hued chile lies the structure of a burrito—a flour tortilla containing refried beans, your choice of meat, and a grilled hamburger patty, almost extant in shape. On top of this is the chile: flecked with pork, spicier than the competition, smothered completely over the burrito until it's little more than a beached whale over a viscous, spicy sea. The flour tortilla itself is cooked well until it becomes firm, almost crispy, so you can slice off a chunk of Mexican hamburger and it won't flop around on your fork as it enters your mouth. The patty sits in the center, well-done, its beefiness absorbing the pork fat of the chicharrones and the lard of the refried beans. When you order one, the Chubby's staff serves it on a cardboard plate, then puts another plate on top and staples them together, to ensure not a drop of the ambrosia spills and wastes.
I've had puffy tacos in San Antonio that produced visions of grandeur, glorious bowls of the green in Hatch, fabulous taco pizzas in Minnesota, and gargantuan Mission burritos in San Francisco, but the Mexican hamburger is the dish that best personifies the Mexican-American experience, a monument to mestizaje. The tortilla is wholly indigenous; its flour version, the legacy of Spain. The focus on green chile places the Mexican hamburger firmly in the Southwest; its gravy, the legacy of Tex-Mex. The hamburger patty, of course, is wholly American—but even that has a German past. This fugue is pure rascuache, the Mexican concept of creating beauty from seeming crap. And the taste? Heavy, thick, yet Chubby's Mexican hamburger at its best retains all the flavors of its distinct parts. No added salsa is necessary—amazingly, underneath all that heartiness, the chile comes through and zaps every cell of your body into attention.
I ate that Mexican hamburger sitting at a picnic table outside of Chubby's, since there's nowhere to eat inside the original Chubby Burger Drive-Inn. And I took a to-go menu, the one with a portrait of Stella and Alex Cordova, another grandson, with the blared warning at the bottom "NOT AFFILIATED WITH ANY OTHER CHUBBYS." It has a hallowed spot at my office, where it serves as reminder of everything wonderful about Denver, a reminder that I need to return again and spread your glory.
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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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