Lucero's is the kind of place you have to be looking for to find, which is understandable, since there are no signs on the building, unless you count the black spray-painted scribble of a street gang.
Which most people don't. Instead, most people follow their noses, which lead them along a scented ribbon of fried pork, green chile and tortillas toward a century-old building at the corner of 37th Avenue and Fillmore, where the owner, his wife and his helpers have been known to read minds.
Ask Brian Wages. At least several times a month for the past six years, he and his insurance-office buddies have driven all the way from Lakewood to northeast Denver for one of Fred and Dee Dee Lucero's combination plates.
Smothered in chile.
Extra taco on the side.
As soon as Brian swings back the door, before he has even had a chance to scan the menu, Fred, Dee Dee or their daughter-in-law, Teresa, call out, "Brian Special."
Brian likes that. He also likes the bucket of leftover Halloween candy passed around after lunch and sneaking behind the counter to pour his own soft drinks.
"This is not a real nice neighborhood," Brian says. "I wouldn't come here after 10 p.m., to tell you the truth. But this is just a good, hole-in-the-wall dive. The best Mexican food in Denver. By far. But we really come here for the atmosphere."
The atmosphere. The fluorescent lights. The wood-grain Formica tables. The aroma of chile. The hiss of fried hamburger. The Polaroid of Fred and his trout at the Colorado River. The 1985 softball trophy on the windowsill. The "Man of the Year" plaque from Fred's church. The gallon jars of pickles. The cartons of Caramel Apple Pops. The ever-present John Elway poster. The portraits of Fred and Dee Dee's grandsons. The stack of yesterday's newspapers. The familiar faces.
"When you come in here, you're comfortable," says Louis Cruz, another regular. "They're friendly. Friendly to everyone. It's not like Taco Bell."
It's not like many other restaurants, either. Lucero's, which looks more like a house than a cafe, lies smack in the middle of a neighborhood, a throwback to simpler times. Fred, with his Roman nose, cabbie's cap and sports page, waves from a corner table. Dee Dee, armed with apron and dish towel, smiles from behind the counter. Together they serve up a brand of mom-and-pop charm that has gone the way of milkmen, house calls and penny candy.
"It's nice to have a place where people know your name and know your order before you get out of the car," Brian continues. "You don't see that much anymore."
Fred and Dee Dee first opened their place as a grocery store back in 1962, after Fred quit his job as an assembler for Samsonite. He bought an apron, set up a meat counter and stocked the shelves with everything from milk to postage stamps to work gloves. But the big attraction was the rows of chocolate bars, caramel suckers, cupcakes and Popsicles.
"Kids would be lined up outside," recalls Isadore Lucero, Fred and Dee Dee's nephew. "They came from all over. He only let in five at a time because there were so many."
Fred knew them all. He offered free RC Cola to kids who could chug a whole bottle. He discussed the virtues of bubble gum. He waited patiently while children deliberated between Jawbreakers and Red Hots. And--more important--he redeemed empty pop bottles.
"There were so many, we had a room in the back just for the bottles," Dee Dee recalls.
Fred and Dee Dee also donated food when someone from the neighborhood died, brought out jumper cables when car batteries died, and helped neighbors with yard work.
"He was sort of like a father figure," says the Reverend Leon Kelly, who grew up a few blocks from the store. "He would always ask how our grades were, and if we got a good grade, he'd give us a candy. And if we didn't have a penny, he'd give us a candy anyway. I remember one time, I went in the store and ended up trying to take some candy--being a kid, I thought no one would know. Well, Fred caught me and said, 'You don't have to take it. Just go ahead and have it.' That was the first and last time I did that. It was just the way he handled it. It has stuck in my mind for 36 years. He planted many seeds and many pieces of candy out there."
During football season, Lucero's became a tiny Mile High Stadium, plastered from one end to the other with Broncos clocks, Broncos stickers, Broncos schedules, Broncos posters and Broncos blue-and-orange chairs.
"We've been fans since they started out," Dee Dee says. "We used to get a lot of razzing, too. But they're like your kids. When they have a losing season, you can't get down on them. You have to cheer anyway."
One Sunday in 1968, something happened that would change Lucero's forever: Fred got hungry. Dee Dee decided to fix him a burrito. She made a stack of tortillas in the back kitchenette, fried a pan of potatoes and warmed a little green chile and pork. The aroma carried through the neighborhood, and the customers followed. One time a man walked in for a Coke and stopped in his tracks.
"Wow," he said. "That smells great. Can I have one of those?"
"Sure," Dee Dee said, and passed a burrito over the counter.
The man took a bite, walked outside, swallowed his burrito and walked back in.
"That's the best burrito I've ever had," he said. "Can I have another one?"
Before she knew it, Dee Dee was cranking out burritos by the dozens. Then she added tamales. Word spread. Customers started dropping by just for food. So she started charging 35 cents per burrito. Then a city inspector asked, "Do you have a license?"
Fred looked at Dee Dee. "Maybe we should get one."
They did, and they never looked back.
In 1983, in the wake of a family tragedy, Fred sold the store. But he went stir-crazy at home and bought it back, after which the Luceros transformed their market into a full-time restaurant. They now serve not only burritos and tamales, but combination plates, menudo and a specialty called a Mexican hamburger, which is like a regular hamburger but wrapped in a tortilla and smothered with chile, cheese, tomatoes, lettuce and onion.
"We're here at 6:30 in the morning and we have people at the door," Dee Dee says.
Phillip Carter is among them. Every morning after his graveyard shift at King Soopers, he settles into a corner table with his Mexican hamburger and tostada.
"I've been coming here since I was eight years old," he says. "Fred even calls me 'son.' There aren't too many places that have home-cooked food like this. It gets you hooked. I brought my girlfriend in here a while ago, and she got an attitude like she didn't want to eat here. But now she says, 'When are we going back?'"
"I think it's the way Fred does the chile," Dee offers.
"I think it's the beans," Fred says.
"His chile is hot."
"But the beans have to be refried."
"People come from all over for the chile."
"One girl came in and told me she didn't want any chile. Just beans."
"I think it's his patience when he cooks."
"There's no secret to it."
"We just make it like we do at home."
Fred and Dee Dee sort pinto beans from a fifty-pound sack and clean them by hand. They buy pork from the butcher and trim it themselves. They simmer jalapenos, onions, tomatoes and garlic salt until it tastes just like the chile Fred's mom used to make.
"You know how a pork chop tastes better when it's fried instead of baked?" Dee Dee asks. "Well, that's what Fred does. He fries his meat. He also mashes the [cooked] beans. Most people won't take the time. Most people put them in a mixer. But he doesn't do that. He mashes them by hand. Then he refries them."
The recipe has worked so well, the two Lucero sons have opened another restaurant at 52nd and Pecos. Fred and Dee Dee have fielded offers to expand, but they always decline.
"If they opened downtown, they'd be huge," Cruz says. "But that's not their style. They like the neighborhood."
Which has its good side and its bad side. The good side are the neighbors. But taggers have hit the store dozens of times, causing Fred to paint one wall Broncos blue and orange and add a multi-cultural mural. The taggers spray-paint the store anyway.
Lucero's has also been the target of shoplifting, a problem Fred solved with a single stroke of genius.
"I got rid of the cigarettes," he says.
In 1979 the store was even robbed. The robber had come in that morning several times to buy chewing gum. Just before lunch he returned with a shotgun.
Dee Dee handed over the cash and noticed the robber's trembling hands. "Don't get nervous!" she said. The robber got nervous anyway and ordered the customers to stand up from the counter.
The customer followed the bandit around the block, memorized the car description, then returned to the counter and finished his meal.
"I'll never forget that," Dee Dee says. "He must have been hungry."
But the criminal encounters have been few and far between, Fred and Dee Dee say. And they have had their advantages. Like free advertising.
Not long ago, another customer waltzed into the store after a stint in the county jail. While inside, the man and his cellmates began talking about their favorite restaurants.
"Guess what?" the former inmate asked. "You're number one. Everyone in jail knows you."
Dee Dee and Fred blinked.
"We didn't know how to take it," Dee Dee remembers. "He thought he was giving us a compliment."
There are a dozen stories. Like the time Fred, Dee Dee and their family had a pie fight at the store. And the time the man next door "borrowed" a few cans of white paint from the shelves.
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"It's certainly a landmark," Kelly says. "He's been there through thick and thin. For us, when times were hard, we were able to run a tab and get milk and bread, and he never exploited the prices. In those days the neighborhood was predominantly black. And for him to have that type of caring spirit allowed him to remain. Even times when the major stores were there, they didn't stand and he endured. When you start talking about giving back and helping, that store was there."
Athough the Luceros have made a modest living from the grocery store and restaurant, it's not a full cash register that keeps them unlocking the door each day. It's people like Phillip Carter, Brian Wages and the new generation of neighborhood kids who still straggle to the front counter for bottles of soda, dill pickles and Blow Pops.
"We won't move from here," Fred says. "The only place to move is home. To stay home. But I don't think I'll ever quit. I'll always come back. We like it here.