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Bicker and Better

The number of people who could not imagine missing the fiftieth-anniversary celebration of Tosh's Hacienda restaurant is about 500. The menu is ready. The mariachis are on deck. Where everyone will park, though, is a bit of a mystery. The valet parking guys, who are somewhat out of their element at the corner of 30th and Downing streets, are waiting for an answer.

"Think, Ruben," says his daughter-in-law Stacy Mackintosh. "What property do you own around here?"

"I can't figure that out right off hand," Ruben Mackintosh says, from his regular corner booth, which is stacked with papers and topped with a cordless phone.

"Well, didn't you say you were going to buy some?"
"Yeah, I probably did," Ruben agrees. "Well, where do you want to park them, anyway? Just go over and talk to those people and ask them, and they will let you park. Sure they will."

The valet parking guys exchange a look. Ruben catches it, but says nothing. Right now the wholesale-food guy is on the line, and his delivery plan is absolutely not going to work. Chef Dan Martin is stumping around on an injured leg looking for a flashlight so that Ruben can look inside the abandoned building next door--if the locksmith shows up, which he may not. Also, there is the matter of this latest batch of chorizo.

"It's too spicy," Ruben informs Chef Dan. "I just ate an egg-and-chorizo burrito, so I know."

"You're just getting old. Your tastebuds are flat."
"Oh, so what," Ruben says, as waitress Rose Quesada appears tableside, wondering if Ruben wants anything else. He isn't a luncher as much as an all-day snacker, so it's hard to tell.

"You've been here twenty years, is that right?" Ruben asks.
"Yeah, practically since I was in diapers," Rose replies.
"As far as I'm concerned, you still are."

"Fine then, I'm ready to be changed," Rose retorts, flouncing away without bringing him the glass of water he requested. This doesn't seem to trouble Ruben unduly, as he is too busy greeting the lunch crowd, at least half of which seems to know him and have eaten here since they were in diapers.

The restaurant has changed considerably since then. Its menu--now a four-page listing of complex combo platters and blender drinks--was nonexistent. Who needed it?

"All we was, was a tamale and tortilla house," Ruben recalls. "We sold five things: burritos, tamales, tacos, tostadas and enchiladas. It was two kitchen chairs, an ice machine, a stand with candy and a four-burner stove with a grill that fit exactly nine corn tortillas. And we was never a neighborhood restaurant. People came from all over Denver to buy burritos."

That was fifty years ago, in 1946. Ruben's father, Salvador Mackintosh, had quit his job as a ham-boner at Armour Meats following a dispute with his employer. With the Gonzales family of Auraria, he started a tamale house but backed out less than a year later after a "disagreement."

"My father was a hard-head," Ruben admits. "He was a proud man who had been belittled and mostly stood up for his rights and was always fighting."

The elder Mackintosh may not have had a grasp of workplace etiquette, but he knew tamales. The son of a Scottish immigrant who'd moved to Old Mexico, married and been killed by Zapatistas, Salvador crossed the border to Texas, then to Denver, with his wife, Esther. He never lost the taste for the cuisine of his native land--a fact his seven children, who had to spend summer weekends picking chiles in fields outside Denver, soon learned by heart.

Ruben, the oldest Mackintosh son, was ten years old when the family take-out operation opened, and as such, he was expected to operate the tortilla press and the corn grinder. As he did so, he watched the restaurant--then called La Hacienda--grow. It moved from the family kitchen, with its two chairs, into the dining room, the front room, and then a stucco building his father erected hurriedly where the front lawn used to be.

The original La Hacienda, at 3036 1/2 Downing, is located a half-block from the current Tosh's restaurant. The family sold it in 1956. Last year, as a sentimental gesture, Ruben bought it back. Last week, with the help of a locksmith, a pair of bolt cutters and a flashlight, he revisited his boyhood home. The original nine-tortilla stove lurked in the shadows.

"I remember the first hundred dollars my father made in this house," Ruben said. "He got us all around the kitchen table and he threw all these ones in the air and said, 'Look at all the money!' And he would always give us some if he had it. Hey, this is the old tortilla press. I used to have to stamp on it to get the air out of the bags. As soon as I get time I'm going to put it all back the way it was. I have a strong feeling for the past."

It's a relatively new development. Called to Korea in the Fifties, Ruben decided not to return to Denver. "I didn't want to work in the restaurant or the carry-out anymore," he recalls. "I wanted to maybe travel in the world. But then I got the only letter my dad ever wrote me. He said you better come on back home. And I did. And then I was stuck."

By 1956, Ruben was living in what is now the current restaurant's dining room with his wife, Carole, and dreaming of expansion. With his four brothers, he began opening carry-out tamale houses all over Denver. At various times, he attempted to wholesale green chile, tortillas and tortilla chips. "And I was way ahead of my time," he sighs. "Safeway and Piggly Wiggly's told us to go away--they didn't have Mexican customers. Frito-Lay hadn't got into tortilla chips yet, and no one wanted them."

The Mackintosh brothers forged ahead anyway--making plans to build a huge Mexican food cannery near Trinidad. "We grew too much too fast," Ruben concludes. Overextended and terminally argumentative, the family dissolved its partnership in the late Seventies, and Ruben came back to Denver to close down all the restaurants except the original Hacienda, which had become a leaking, barely salvageable hulk.

"I remember them days," says Delores Archuleta, who has waitressed at La Hacienda since 1962. "I was mixing up a margarita at the old service bar one day and this huge chunk of plaster fell from the ceiling right onto the bar. God, I jumped."

"I had loans up the ying-yang--first and second--on everything I ever owned, and no one would lend us money," Ruben recalls. "Finally, an angel helped us."

That, or the Mayor's Office of Economic Development, which in the early Eighties helped the Hacienda get back on its feet. In the process, the restaurant underwent a complete remodel--doubling its size--and a name change. No one has ever addressed Ruben as "Tosh," he says, but "Tosh's Hacienda" sounds appropriately trendy. "It was the beginning of my rebirth, anyway," he says.

After a rocky start, the Hacienda staff suddenly found itself running between tables and pacifying customers who had to wait for reservations. By the 1990s, the Ruben Mackintosh family, in a cartel that includes four of his children and their spouses, was operating a Denver Tech Center restaurant as well as one in Tubac, Arizona. They have not overcome the family tendency to bicker on the job, but it doesn't seem to matter. ("Personally, I just sit back and laugh at them," says Chef Dan.) In the ten years since the renovation at 30th and Downing was completed, and especially since an RTD light-rail terminal opened one block away, business has been steady and encouraging.

Which is why Ruben is hard at work on his fiftieth-anniversary celebration, to be held later this week. Chef Dan has prepared an elaborate menu. Ruben's daughter Paula, who runs the uptown Tosh's, is cranky. This is a fine time for her father to be repurchasing antique family buildings and poking around inside them with a flashlight, seeking ancient tortillana. Ruben listens to all this with mild interest. Then he goes back to working on the speech he will deliver at the party.

"It's about my family, and how I feel as loved as President Kennedy did," he says. "It's about all the people from all walks of life who come in here and ask me how I'm doing." (Here, he is interrupted by a 72-year-old former produce baron, two high school principals and a well-known black activist, who stop by one at a time to ask how he's doing.)

"It's going to be about the tents I had to put up to keep the roof from leaking on the customers. And the lady who sat over there and plaster fell on her. And the guy who was down in the basement cutting plumbing pipes and he cut the gas pipe instead, and all the people ran out of the restaurant, but some of them came back in and paid for their meals. Those people," he says. "It's about them all.