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The Heat Is On

The sun isn't up yet, and already Ernie Cordova is sweating.

He's hunched over the grill at the Chubby Burger Drive-In, getting ready for the morning rush. A mound of hamburger sizzles to his left. A mound of scrambled eggs and chorizo sizzles to his right. Bubbling in an aluminum cauldron on the back burner is the primary reason he is here: the chile.

Ernie got here at 4:30 a.m. to make that chile, just as he has been doing for over twenty years now. And every morning, he prepares it the same way: by taste, smell, and something his mother, Stella Cordova, passed along in her DNA.

"You know how some people have green thumbs when it comes to flowers?" he asks, dabbing his forehead with a dish towel. "Well, it's the same with chile. You just do it."

Ernie bends over the big pots and breathes in the aroma of fried pork, tomatoes, jalapeños, green chile, garlic salt and a pinch of red chile powder.

Perfect.

Chubbys occupies a nondescript cinder-block building that squats beside a sidewalk freckled with cigarette butts and old gum. The building is tiny -- too tiny to contain the aroma of charred meat, melting cheese, deep-fried potatoes and bubbling chile that wafts out the door and through this northwest Denver neighborhood. Too tiny to hold the people who follow that smell.

All day they come, squeaking the door open, slamming the door shut. High school kids and grandpas. Gangbangers and cops. Barflies and office workers. Street people and tourists. They stand with their hands in their pockets, lean against the Coke machines, sift through the stack of zoot-suit fliers, slouch on a pair of wooden benches as stiff and narrow as church pews.

"Time to go to church and get a burrito," they like to say.

Visiting Chubbys is a ritual: the first stop on the way to work, the earthy place to take the office gang for lunch, the fast alternative to dinner at home, the last stop after the bars close on Friday and Saturday nights. It's familiar, unchanging and homey, a place where the tortillas are always warm and the chile is always hot. And the woman who serves them, 91-year-old Stella Cordova, is grandmother to one and all. With her simple, satisfying food, she has fed a generation of customers. But even after 33 years in the restaurant business, she has no plans to hang up her apron. In fact, later this summer she plans to expand into the empty grocery store next door, doubling the size of Chubbys, putting ice cream back on the menu, and adding actual seating, so that customers will no longer have to eat their food while sitting in the parking lot.

"When we started, people used to call us the 'hole in the wall,"' she says. "I never expected it would be like this. Never."

For the record, Stella is not Chubby. She's small and wiry, with puffy white hair, large eyeglasses and big hands, a woman you'd expect see in the front row at church. But on this day, she's settled in an overstuffed easy chair at her home near Federal Boulevard and 46th Avenue, hands clasped in her lap, stealing glances at the soap opera on a nearby TV. She's surrounded by gold: gold lamps, gold planters, gold knickknacks. Stella herself sparkles with gold bracelets, gold rings, gold necklaces. And when she smiles, which she does often, a gold cap flashes from a front tooth.

"It's my favorite color," she says. "My husband's was purple."

Stella was born in the railroad village of Walsenburg in 1909, the oldest of four boys and three girls. She never knew her father and was raised by a grandmother and an uncle on a 350-acre farm where they raised beans, corn, cantaloupe and watermelon. When she was only eight, she joined her relatives in the fields.

"We all worked," she says. "And I worked like a man. Sometimes we ate two full meals a day, and sometimes we just had bread and water."

At harvest time, Stella moved into the kitchen, where her grandmother taught her to prepare the foods that would become her trademark.

"My grandma always told me, 'One of these days you're going to get married and you're going to have to cook," she recalls. "I could always cook. It's just something I could do."

In 1922, Stella's family moved to Greeley, where they picked beets, potatoes and beans in the blistering sun. There she met a railroad man with a broad smile and a big heart named Alex Cordova; she married him when she turned twenty. Together they had five boys and five girls.

"In those days, if you were healthy, you had kids," Stella says. "They weren't hard to raise. I had them trained. I was strict. If they didn't obey me, I'd give them a little pinch. And, well, I had a belt."

She also had tortillas. Tortillas the size of pizzas. Tortillas as soft as butter. Tortillas so thick and chewy they could only have come out of an oven.

"I got tired of making all these little ones, so I made four or five of the big ones, cut them into pieces and made a meal," Stella says. "My kids begged for them."

In 1951, Stella's husband took a job as an oil skimmer for Conoco Oil, and the family moved to Denver. As Stella's kids grew up and had kids of their own, she cooked for them, too. When she wasn't baking tortillas, she also worked as a maid for wealthy families, as a maid at St. Anthony's Hospital and as a dishwasher at a restaurant.

"I like work," Stella explains. "I've worked hard all my life. I enjoy myself. I can't stay still."

Stella was 59 years old when she saw the "Cook Wanted" sign in the window of the Chubby Burger Drive-In at 1231 West 38th Avenue, where she'd buy her grandkids the occasional burger and ice cream cone. Stella lived only a few blocks away from Chubbys, and she was tired of taking the bus to St. Anthony's. She applied for the job. The next day, she stepped behind the grill and started collecting 85 cents an hour.

Chubbys was the only burger-and-ice-cream stand for miles around, but even so, business barely trickled in. After a few months, owner Bill Gray turned to Stella.

"Why don't you buy this place?" he asked.

"With what?" she replied. "Eighty-five cents an hour?"

Gray offered Stella a deal: She could have Chubbys for $2,000 if she paid him $500 down and then made payments on the rest. So in 1967, Stella borrowed $500 from her oldest daughter and bought Chubbys, paying Gray $50 a month for several years.

"I never had it in my mind that I would own a business," she says. "I just did it."

For the first few months, Stella continued to offer Gray's menu of burgers and fries. But business didn't get better, so she started featuring a few of her grandmother's specialties.

"I started making burritos and selling them for 25 cents," she recalls. "Then I made tacos, tostadas -- any little thing that was Spanish. Then customers came in and said, 'Why don't you make this?' So I did."

Six months after he'd sold Chubbys, Gray popped in for a visit. The place was packed.

"Stella!" he said. "What did you do?"

"Mexican food," she shrugged. "I made chile."

"Number eleven!"

"What?"

"Two cheeseburgers and a smothered fry with chicharrones..."

"What?"

"Eee! It's hot in here!"

"They should open a window."

"It is open."

"Eee. Forget about it!"

"Number twelve!"

"What?"

"Where's that special?"

"What special?"

This is how it is at Chubbys. The counter crew elbow to elbow, the kitchen crew elbow to elbow, the customers shoulder to shoulder. Meat frying, lard melting, phone ringing, air conditioner blaring, cash register jingling, spatulas clanging, pots banging, cooks swearing.

"Where's that special!!"

"What #&*!! special!!"

People coming, people going. People with hard hats. People with silk ties. People with miniskirts. People with polo shirts. People with rodeo boots, zoot suits, diaper bags, beer bellies, eyebrow rings, bald spots, buzz cuts, golden crucifixes and Our Lady of Guadalupe tattoos.

All of them hungry.

John Swedensky, egg-and-potato burrito, raps his knuckles on the counter at 6 a.m. sharp, right when Chubbys officially opens seven days a week: "There's a bunch of us at the railroad who've been coming here for thirty years. We come in here at least three times a week. It helps in the mornings. It gets you going."

Mike Fuentes, Mexican hamburger with chicharrones, clutches his receipt as if it were a lottery ticket: "I grew up in this place. My two daughters were raised on this chile. Best in Denver. I spend $150 a week in here, at least."

Tony and Eugene, smothered specials, pick up trash in the back parking lot under the mid-morning sun, then wait at the back door for a free meal.

Tony: "When I first came here, Stella said, 'You don't have to do any work. Just have some food"

Eugene: "And it's not just us. She'll never turn anyone away. You don't find people doing things like that anymore. They really help."

Jack Weber, egg-and-bean special, leaning on the counter at dinnertime: "I've been coming here like, shit, forever. Twenty years, easy. I work construction, and every day I make this a routine stop, no matter where the job is. My girlfriend can't get over it. And you wouldn't believe how many times I come in here for a burrito and see all my friends. You just get addicted to it."

Troy Williams, bean burrito, wearing crisp white shirt, tie and pressed slacks, standing in the 10:30 p.m. Friday crowd of cut-off jeans, rodeo belt buckles and spiked heels: "It's the best. And you know why? The cheese. It's amazing. I don't know why, but it's freaky, it's so damn good."

A generalization about food: If it tastes good, it will probably kill you.

At Chubbys, it's death by lard. There's lard in the beans, the chile, the tamales, the burritos, the enchiladas, the tostadas, the Mexican hamburgers, the smothered fries, the aprons, the air.

"We use all the fattening stuff," Stella grins. "In big white buckets."

The French can't cook without butter, the Italians can't cook without olive oil, and the Cordovas can't cook without lard.

For authentic Mexican food, accept no substitute. Say the words: Pig fat.

Albert De Herrera, Stella's grandson, was working behind the counter one evening when his stomach rumbled. So he went into the kitchen, scooped up a plate of fries, drowned them in chile and that cheese, and then took his snack out front. Two Japanese guys were standing before the counter, scanning the menu.

"What are you going to get?" one of them asked.

"I don't know," said the other. "What are you going to get?"

"I don't know."

The Japanese guys had been coming in every Thursday evening after playing basketball. Albert didn't know their names; he just knew them as the two Japanese guys who came in every Thursday.

"What are you going to get?"

"I don't know. What are you going to get?"

"I don't know."

Albert shoveled in his fries.

The Japanese guys watched.

"What are you eating?"

"Fries. Chile. Cheese," he offered.

"Is it good?"

"Yeah."

"Okay. Give me one of those."

"Me, too."

So Albert gave the Japanese guys a plate of fries smothered with green chile and cheese. The next Thursday, they asked for the fries again. And the Thursday after that. Pretty soon word spread, one thing led to another, and smothered fries became the hottest item in Chubbys' history -- and quite possibly the first chile fries in Denver.

"And I invented it," Albert says.

No, says Albert's mom, Dorothy Dominguez. It was not a Thursday. There were no Japanese guys. There wasn't even Albert. There was just Dorothy, working behind the counter when a customer ordered a potato burrito.

"We're out of potatoes," Dorothy said. "How about fries with chile and cheese?"

"Is it good?"

"I think so."

"Well. I'll try it."

A few days later, the guy came back and ordered the fries again. Pretty soon word spread, one thing led to another, and smothered fries became the hottest item in Chubbys' history -- and quite possibly the first chile fries in Denver.

"It was my idea," Dorothy says.

"Is that what she said?" Albert asks, when told his mother's version. "Well, okay. But the smothered onion rings? I'm not even saying."

Stella knows exactly how many Chubbys specialties evolved: Like the Mexican hamburger, they just happened.

One day Stella was grilling a hamburger when she decided to cut the patty in half, place it in a tortilla, add beans, chile and cheese, roll the whole thing up and serve it. "People liked it, so I kept it," Stella says.

Another time, she took a plate of leftover pork trimmings and dumped them in the deep fryer, then served up the bite-sized bits of smoky meat as Chubbys' chicharrones. "Now we can't make enough of them," Stella says. "If we don't have them, people will turn around and walk out. I have to have five cases of chicharrones a day so we have them steady. And they want chicharrones on everything: hamburgers, burritos, fries -- everything."

Some customers don't stop with the chicharrones; they mix and match orders to create their own meals. "People come in and ask us to make them things that aren't even on the menu," Dorothy says. "They want cheeseburgers smothered in chile or whatever. But we'll make it. Whatever they want."

What they want most is chile. Seven days a week, all year long, during holidays, after hours.

"If I close, they call me on the phone and knock on my door," Stella says. "When we remodeled the store years ago, I had a crew from the post office come because they couldn't stand it. So I had to make them a bucket of chile."

Even dogs like Albert's Doberman, Malo, get addicted to Stella's chile. After a long day at Chubbys, Albert would go home and settle back with a smothered burrito. And there would be Malo, begging for the scraps. After a while, Albert started bringing home a beef-and-bean special just for Malo. One of Stella's dogs liked her chile, too.

Customers from New York, Alaska and California have asked Stella for their own special doggie bags, for her to ship them a few pints of chile through overnight delivery, freeze a quart or two for the plane ride home, scribble down the recipe so they can make it from scratch. Stella will do the former, but not the latter. "People always ask me for the recipe to my chile, but I can't give it to them," she says. "And you know why? Because I don't have one. It's in my head."

For this part, Albert has to count on his fingers.

There are several generations of Cordovas working at Chubbys in one capacity or another, he says. Start at the top: Stella (la jefe), Aunt Margie (food sacker), Aunt Stella (counter clerk), Dorothy (former manager), Aunt Louisa (weekend manager), Uncle Ernie (morning chile cook), Uncle Tony (day manager), Uncle Chano (head cook), cousin Carl (counter man), cousin Kathy (counter woman), cousin Buddha (counter man) and brother Danny (night manager). There are also a few cooks who aren't related to la familia. And, of course, there's Albert himself (day manager).

"It's family owned and operated," he says. "People come in and make offers, but Grandma won't sell. That's the way she wants it. Family only. I don't know why. That's just the way she is."

"It's to help them out, really," Stella explains. "Instead of paying outsiders, why not keep the money in the family? But sometimes, they're a pain in the neck."

"Boy, are they a pain in the neck," echoes Dorothy. "They call up my mom all the time saying, 'So-and-so doesn't want to do this.' She has to settle everything. And they hate it when she goes over, because she's always correcting them. When someone says, 'Here comes Grandma,' boy, they get up and start cleaning. She's the boss, and they know it. Her chile is keeping this family alive."

It's also inspiring imposters.

Run a finger through the phone book and you'll find different Chubbys with different spellings: Chubby's, Demi's Chubby's, El Chubby's.

Although no one is sure who the original Chubby was -- Stella thinks it was a black guy who owned the 38th Avenue stand decades ago -- this much is clear: There was no apostrophe in the name then, and there is no apostrophe in the name now.

"No," Stella says. "Never."

There wasn't even an "S" until Stella's customers unofficially added it.

"It's Chubby Burger Drive-In," Stella says. "None of the other Chubbys have nothing to do with this one."

Except that three Chubby's -- at 4460 Morrison Road, 160 Federal and 7310 Federal -- are owned by two of Stella's grandsons and one of her granddaughters. "Some things are different, like some have rellenos and others have steak burritos," explains Demi Cordova, owner of Demi's Chubbys. "But it's pretty much the same basic Chubbys food."

The source of the real confusion was a business deal in which one of Stella's daughters, Dolores, opened a Chubbys satellite with a friend named Norman Campbell. The two had worked at the original store, and they thought they knew everything about the business, including the right chile recipe. So Stella gave them her blessing and permission to use the official Chubby name. For a while, things were going well -- so well that a few more satellites spun off. But for reasons the Cordova family doesn't want to get into, the partnership dissolved, and Delores walked away. The restaurants, however, remained open under Campbell's ownership and a new name, El Chubby's.

Although all ties have since been severed between Campbell and the one-and-only Chubbys, some of Stella's specialties still appear on the El Chubby's menus: Mexican hamburgers, smothered burritos, even chicharrones. And although there are subtle differences in the menu (El Chubby's serves sopaipilla sundaes, Chubby Burger does not), unknowing customers can sometimes confuse the clones with the original.

Campbell doesn't want to talk about it.

"It's just two people with two different opinions," he says.

The owners of other Chubby's stores don't want to say much, either.

"Everyone does things a little differently," says Susie Czarnek, owner of Chubby's in Littleton. "I don't know anything about the other ones. I don't even have their phone numbers."

"They try to make my chile, but they can't," Stella says. "It's not the same."

And she's not the only one who recognizes that.

"People know the difference," Stella says. "When it first happened, people used to bring me plates of food from other places and say, 'This isn't the same. I want my money back.' But all I could say was, 'Sorry. It's not mine.'"

Over the years, Chubbys has had problems not just with imitators using apostrophes, but also with the sort of riffraff that comes along with its 38th Avenue location. That's why there are bars on the windows, a surveillance camera at the entry, and a security guard on weekend nights. But for the most part, Stella says, there hasn't been too much trouble. Many of her customers live in the neighborhood, and they watch her back. Even the gang members do.

"These gang members have been coming here since they were three and four years old," Stella says. "They say, 'You don't have to worry, Mrs. Cordova. No one will get your place. If anything happens, let us know. We'll protect you.'"

But Stella's pretty good at protecting herself. A while back, she was hunched over the sink, up to her elbows in dirty pots, when a skinny man with yellow trim on his T-shirt disappeared from the front of the store. A moment later, he was standing at the back door with a plastic bag over his head, peering through peepholes.

"This is a stickup!"

"Okay," Stella said. "Go right ahead."

"This is a fucking stickup!"

Stella looked up from her pot.

"I want the money!" the robber said, hand in his pocket as if he were holding a gun.

"You wait a minute!" Stella barked. "Let me finish my pot."

The gunman blinked.

Stella finished her pot.

After a few minutes, she dried her hands and shuffled through the kitchen toward the front counter. The gunman started to follow, but Stella said, "No. You go around the other way."

The gunman went around the other way.

As he did, Stella opened the cash register, took a stack of $20 bills in one hand and stuck them in her pocket. Then she took the fives and the ones and stuffed them in a sack.

"Here."

The bandit, shaking like a leaf, snatched the loot and bolted, spilling half of the cash on the floor. As he fled, Stella's counter man yelled, "Hey! You want a burrito?"

Chubbys is packed -- again -- and the crew is scrambling. Suddenly a woman rushes up to Stella, who is settled behind the counter on a stool.

"Hi, Gram! How are you?"

"Oh, fine. And you?"

"Fine. I didn't expect to see you here today," the woman says. "You're looking great! Like a spring chicken. All ready to go out dancing!"

"Well, I'll try," Stella offers.

The woman beams.

Stella beams back.

"Okay, then," the woman says. "Just wanted to say hi. Haven't seen you in a while, and I just wanted to make sure you were doing okay. Now, you take care of yourself, you hear?"

"Okay."

"We'll see you later, then."

"Okay."

As the woman leaves, Stella watches her go.

"Who was she?"

"You know," says Tony. "She used to go out with what's his name."

"Yeah," adds Albert. "She used to live by you. Remember?"

"Oh, yes," Stella nods. "No. I don't know who she is."

This happens a lot: After 33 years, the faces begin to blur.

"There are too many," Stella says. "They've been coming in here since they were kids, and now I don't know who they are. But they all know me. Everywhere I go, it's 'Hi Gram' this and 'Hi Gram' that.' I must be grandma to the whole world. I don't even know who they are!"

"She's like a celebrity," Albert adds. "We can't even go to Kmart without people saying, 'Where's my burrito?'"

"One time Ernie went to Disneyland and heard someone yelling, 'Hey, Chubbys!'" Dorothy concurs. "Another time two officers came in and said, 'We just stopped your grandson but let him go because he was related to you.' We asked them which one, but we'd never heard of him before."

"Happens all the time," Tony nods.

"Remember those people from Hawaii?" Dorothy continues.

"Oh, yes," Stella says.

"You know. They sent us those pineapples. Remember?"

"Oh yes," Stella says. "No. I don't know who they were..."

Stella squeaks through the back door of Chubbys and closes it with a BANG!

Heads turn.

"Hi, Gram," mumbles one cook.

"Hello," mumbles another.

It's the dinner rush, and the kitchen is a banging, clanging, spattering cacophony of pots, pans, spatulas and spoons. A dishwasher nearly collides with the counter girl, and a cook nearly collides with the night manager.

"Excuse me."

"Coming through!"

Stella, wearing a bright purple dress, shuffles through the chaos, oblivious to it all. She stops at the steam table and watches a cook roll two Mexican hamburgers.

"This needs water," Stella says, pointing to one container.

"And this should be covered," she says, pointing to another.

The cook smiles meekly.

As Stella gets older, her inspections come fewer and farther between. She still tries to visit Chubbys a few nights a week, but there are times when she'd rather plunk a few quarters into the slot machines at Central City. Still, she's not ready to retire just yet. Someone has to keep an eye on those cauldrons on the back burner.

And Stella approaches them like a lion stalking a gazelle.

The cook watches.

"Pretty good," she says, stirring the sauce. "Pretty good."

The cook nods and returns to her hamburgers.

A moment later, Stella whispers: "Needs more garlic."