La Loma Chef, Partner on "Mountain Mex," Green Chile and Moving Downtown
Efren Velasquez (center) and his kitchen team at La Loma.
After months in limbo, three weeks ago La Loma finally shuttered its sprawling location in Jefferson Park and moved downtown into the former home of the Trinity Grille. On November 1, when the restaurant reopened in its new location regulars breathed a sigh of relief: La Loma still feels like La Loma, and the menu hasn’t changed (though some presentations have).
The Mendoza family had opened La Loma in the early ’70s at 2637 West 26th Avenue; Savina Mendoza, the matriarch, created some of the recipes that are still used today.“My granddad went to eat there, and he fell in love with the food and got to know the family,” says Mark Brinkerhoff. Sonny Brinkerhoff not only loved La Loma’s food, he got involved in the business, too. “He was in oil and gas, so this was more of a hobby for him. It’s grown and grown into something larger, preserving what he loved about that place,” Mark adds. Sonny and his son, William, wound up owning the restaurant; in 1981, they built a big new home for La Loma out of three Victorian cottages just down the hill at 2527 West 26th, where a liquor license allowed them to add margaritas to the lineup. Mark joined the family business about a decade ago.
Over the years, La Loma has became one of Denver’s most popular restaurants and a leader in what Mark Brinkerhoff calls “Mountain Mex”: the uniquely Colorado style of Mexican food that borrows a bit from the Tex-Mex playbook and adds copious amounts of green chile. We recently sat down with him and Efren Velasquez, who runs the kitchen, to talk about the La Loma legacy, the secret to the restaurant’s green chile, and why a move across town didn’t make anyone nervous.
Grandma Mendoza oversees the new La Loma location, too.
Westword: Mark, your family has owned this business for 35 years, and you came on sometime in the last decade. You’re overseeing a move downtown and an expansion. What do you think about carrying on the legacy of this place while also keeping it fresh within the current dining scene?
Mark Brinkerhoff: La Loma is very personal to me. I grew up there. I don’t want to change anything about what’s made us so successful; it has a place in my heart just like it has a place with our guests. We’re trying to keep as much of that as possible in the new space, including bringing over the jewelry (the art) and stuff like that. I want to preserve it and scale it to make it more accessible for our guests.
And Efren, you’ve been with this restaurant for sixteen years. How did you come to command the kitchen?
Efren Velasquez: I grew up in Mexico and in New Mexico. I went back and forth — I was born in the United States — from Chihuahua to New Mexico. I was always around food; my mom worked in a kitchen in Mexico. I got my first job as a waiter when I was fourteen in New Mexico, and when I moved to Texas, I was a private chef. After I came to Denver, my second job was here at La Loma. I started as a waiter, and then I became a bartender and a front-of-house manager, and then I took over the kitchen. I’d worked with Sonny Brinkerhoff at his house, so he knew how capable I was of cooking. I’ve been in the kitchen for five or six years.
How do you manage a kitchen and menu that has such a long legacy?
Velasquez: I took all the old recipes from the previous chefs and took the original green chile recipe, and I made sure we adhered to it. People have been coming here for years. Why change something that’s good? I would never change the menu.
Inside the new La Loma.
Since it’s a highlight of your menu, tell me a little more about your green chile.
Velasquez: The secret to good green chile is really good Hatch green chiles and good pork. You need good-quality pork in order not to be too porky. It takes us three hours to make a batch, and we do it every day. At the old La Loma, sometimes we made 140 gallons a day.
Brinkerhoff: Coloradans are crazy about green chile. We’ve served the same green chile recipe we’ve had since day one. It’s one of our big selling points, and it’s what makes us so successful. We put a lot of thought into the ingredients and what we’re buying, and we make it for today so it’s as fresh as possible. We make everything from scratch. We don’t buy chips and we don’t buy beans. We’re not cutting corners.
How has La Loma evolved over the years?
Brinkerhoff: The menu is virtually unchanged since day one. It hasn’t changed since I was a kid, save for a few things that have appeared and disappeared because they weren’t popular with the guests. Some of the cooks who work here now worked here when we opened. Thirty-five years is a really long run for any restaurant. We’re a timeless restaurant.
Velasquez: La Loma was — and still is — a family restaurant. It’s evolved service-wise, but the food is the same. We use better ingredients now. And better systems. We didn’t have a ticket printer at the beginning.
When you realized you needed to move, why did you pick the old Trinity Grille space?
Brinkerhoff: When we found out our lease was up, we didn’t have a lot of time — we thought we were going to be out in March. This space was brought to us by a realtor, and we thought it worked perfectly in a lot of ways. Trinity Grille had also been here a long time. It’s one of the oldest buildings down here. Being across from Brown Palace seemed to be a match.
Do you have any worries about moving away from your original neighborhood?
Brinkerhoff: We’re moving away from something that is so loved and successful and has been an icon. I don’t know if I was worried, but there was definitely uncertainty about how it would be perceived. It was tough letting go and moving out. One big part of the transition, though, was getting our staff to come down and follow us. We’re not anything without them, so we focused on getting their buy-in, keeping them employed and not being down too long.
Velasquez: It didn’t make me nervous. I know what we have, and it’s good Mexican food. There are always going to be hungry people that like this kind of food. Coming downtown is a little bit different, and that was a little nerve-racking because our waiters are used to the Highlands people. It’s a different crowd now — a little more office, a little more proper. But food-wise, no. I wasn’t nervous.
Tell me a little about your expansion plans. Is this the beginning of a La Loma empire?
Brinkerhoff: We have a site that we’re working on in Castle Rock, and we purchased the site across from the aquarium, which is really close to our old place, so it will have the parking and the amenities of the other place. Our guys are pulling the brick and wood in the old store, and we’ll use that in the construction of the new places to preserve the ambience and feel. Our chef here will put programs in place to keep things consistent. We’re family-owned, and we know what the food is supposed to taste like. We’re really blessed to have the opportunity that we have, but it’s one foot in front of another. We have big dreams, but we’ll see.
And you’re also opening a completely new concept, Sierra Grill?
Brinkerhoff: We found that site, and it’s an unbelievable site. It’s called RidgeGate in Lone Tree, and there’s a Cabela’s there; it’s like a little city of its own. We initially wanted to open a La Loma there, but the guys who owned it didn’t want a Mexican restaurant; they wanted more upscale. So we said, “Give us a month, and we’ll put together something dynamic for the area.” That’s how we developed Sierra Grill. They ended up selling us the site, and it was off to the races. There will be hints of our food there, but it’s more American: We have a wood-fired grill and a pizza oven, and we’ll do steaks, seafood, vegetables. We’ll also have our green chile.
What do you order from the La Loma menu?
Brinkerhoff: Tortillas and the green chile. And the fajitas. And the mini-rellenos.
Velasquez: Beans and chile. I also love the fajitas, especially the beef and pork. But I found that I eat that once every two weeks, and every day I eat beans, chile and the flour tortillas. These tortillas, they’re just so good.
The freshly made flour tortillas are definitely a highlight. It’s nice to see them being made in the dining room here.
Velasquez: And it’s the same lady making them. We’ve used the same recipe since I’ve been with the company. We make 3,000 tortillas a day. Eventually we want to do corn tortillas, as well.
Ready for action at La Loma.
What’s your margarita?
Brinkerhoff: I like our Cadillac margarita. It’s fresh lime, Cointreau and Arta reposado — it’s a real, pure margarita. I like it on the rocks with salt.
Velasquez: Scotch. I’m not a margarita guy. But I’ll have a fresh one once in a while on the patio with a guest. I like the Fresca.
La Loma is located at 1801 Broadway (the entrance is on Tremont Place); the hours are 11 a.m. to 10 p.m. Sunday through Thursday, 11 a.m. to 11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. Find out more at 303-433-8300 or go to