Lorenzo Nunez, owner of El Chingon Mexican Bistro at 4326 Tennyson Street, says it took about a year after the restaurant's opening in 2013 for Berkeley neighbors to catch on to what he and chef David Lopez (Nunez's nephew) were trying to do. Many assumed the place (whose moniker is Spanish for "badass") was just another taqueria or Tex-Mex joint, but eventually the food proved otherwise.
"We try to represent our culture's food the way it is in Mexico," the owner explains. And now that the initial battle has been won and El Chingon regularly sees full houses, Nunez is ready to expand in other directions. He recently locked down a lease for a restaurant space at the corner of West 16th Avenue and Raleigh Street in the former St. Anthony's Hospital complex (in the same apartment building as Sloan's Lake Tap & Burger).
Chef David Lopez and Lorenzo Nunez at their casa-turned-restaurant El Chingon.
The Sloan's Lake project, which will be called Cultura, won't be a replica of El Chingon, though; instead, it will serve small plates from a variety of Latin regions, including Spain and the countries of Central and South America. One of the reasons for the departure from Mexican cuisine is Lopez himself, who attended culinary school in Paris, and has already been exhibiting his creative skills to El Chingon guests. "We're excited because it will not only be our second restaurant, but will be an opportunity to show chef David's capabilities," Nunez says.
Lopez has only just begun developing menu ideas, but the two explain that Cultura's kitchen will rotate through three to five Latin cuisines at a time, with about 20 to 25 dishes on the menu for several months before moving on to new regions. There will also be a heavy emphasis on the bar and wine program. "It's going to be a sexy place — but we want to be price-conscious as well," Nunez notes.
Cultura is now in the architectural-planning phase, and Nunez hopes to have the place open "maybe by the beginning of summer, give or take a month."
"It's all at that hurry-up-and-wait stage right now," Lopez adds. "I'm just excited to get into the kitchen and start cooking."
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Once their new spot is open, Nunez, Lopez and current beverage director Valentina Panic will split time between the two restaurants to make sure that a steady management presence is felt at both. "We don't want to get to the point where we lose touch with what brought us here," Nunez says.
He and Lopez grew up in the neighborhood and both attended Colfax Elementary School, just around the corner from where Cultura will be. El Chingon originally began with Lopez and his grandmother in the kitchen at a tiny Arvada spot before relocating to the Berkeley neighborhood; with Cultura, the family returns even closer to its Denver roots.
And their plans don't end with one new restaurant. Nunez says he's working on a lease for an undisclosed downtown address that will turn his restaurant group into a trio. That sounds like a pretty badass deal for Denver.