On 303 Day, Celebrate the Five Best Dishes Invented in Denver

The Mexican hamburger that enchanted the Mexican.
The Mexican hamburger that enchanted the Mexican.
Gustavo Arellano

Happy 303 day! On March 3, we're celebrating the city identified by that area code, a city full of natural beauty as well as many manmade marvels. Everything from Jolly Rancher candies to Coors beer to some of the country's best craft brews has spilled out of this state's culinary creativity. Here, in honor of the 303, are our five favorite Denver food inventions.

The Fool's Gold Loaf at Nick's Cafe
The Fool's Gold Loaf at Nick's Cafe

5. Fool's Gold Loaf
In the 2014 film What If, two twentysomething hipsters in Toronto start talking about a sandwich that was created in Denver almost forty years ago, when the Colorado Mine Company was the hottest restaurant in Glendale, beloved by athletes, cops...and Elvis. According to legend, the gargantuan Fool's Gold Loaf was cooked up one night in 1976 when the King was in town for a concert and hungry; he'd later send his plane in to pick up an order. You can still get the Fool's Gold Loaf at Nick's Cafe; owner Nick Andurlakis worked at the Colorado Mine Company as a teen.

If you want to recreate this indelicate delicacy at home, it's basically a peanut butter and jelly sandwich with bacon, made with two tablespoons of margarine, one loaf of French bread, one pound of bacon, one jar of peanut butter and one jar of grape jelly. You you take the bread, bathe it in butter on all sides, bake it, gut it and then fill the inside with peanut butter and jelly — and bacon, sans grease, which you absorb by placing it between two paper towels.  

On 303 Day, Celebrate the Five Best Dishes Invented in Denver
Photo courtesy of Pretty Girl Food on Tumblr

4. Root Beer Float
There are several stories about the invention of the root-beer float floating around, but most people credit Frank Wisner with the creation of the popular ice cream drink. He was looking out of his window at Colorado's Cow Mountain, and decided that the snow on top looked like ice cream floating in a dark drink. Yes, that's all it took: The next day he dropped a scoop of ice cream in some root beer, and the famous concoction was born.

On 303 Day, Celebrate the Five Best Dishes Invented in Denver (4)
Courtesy of Post Shredded Wheat Facebook page

3. Shredded Wheat
As you start your morning right with a bowl of shredded wheat, you can thank Henry Perkins. He's the Denver man who developed a method of processing wheat into strips, which made the cereal possible. 2.

Birthplace of the cheeseburger -- in north Denver, Colorado.
Birthplace of the cheeseburger -- in north Denver, Colorado.

2. Cheeseburger
Although numerous cooks have claimed credit for being the first to put cheese on a burger, Louis Ballast was awarded the "cheeseburger" trademark in 1935. Today a monument stands at 2755 Speer Boulevard, where he once flipped burgers — and then added cheese — at his Humpty-Dumpty Drive-In.

The Chubby's counter is a popular late-night destination.
The Chubby's counter is a popular late-night destination.

1. Mexican Hamburger
You can find a Mexican hamburger on the menu of just about every Mexican restaurant in Denver — and a lot of restaurants where the dish is the kitchen's only claim to anything Mexican. But as it turns out, there's nothing Mexican to this hamburger: It was invented at Joe's Buffet, a classic dive on Santa Fe Drive in the late '60s, and from there the dish spread across town.

Gustavo Arellano, author of Ask a Mexican, wrote the book on Mexican food in this country — Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America — and proclaimed Denver's Mexican hamburger "the Holy Grail of Mexican-American cookery," and lauds its "cheesy, mixed-up glory."  Here's his description of the dish:

Brace yourselves, folks: underneath that Syracuse Orangeman-hued goop lies the structure of a burrito—a flour tortilla containing refried beans, your choice of meat, and a grilled hamburger patty, almost extant in shape. This version is smothered, which means Colorado's classic take on green chile (flecked with pork, and prepared as a gravy) drowns the burrito burger with its viscous, spicy glory. The flour tortilla itself is cooked well until it becomes firm, until you can slice off a chunk and it won't flop around on your fork as it enters your mouth.

I've had puffy tacos in San Antonio, glorious bowls of the green in Albuquerque, the Mexican hot dog of El Paso, and gargantuan Mission burritos in San Francisco, but the Mexican hamburger—found only in Denver, much to the surprise of the Mile High City's residents, who always thought their dish, like the Broncos, had a national reach—is the dish that best personifies the Mexican-American experience. The tortilla is wholly indigenous; its flour rendition, the legacy of Spain. The focus on green chile places it firmly in the Southwest; its gravy presentation, the legacy of Tex-Mex. The hamburger patty, of course, is wholly American—but even that has a German past. The combination of all is pure rascuache. And the taste? Heavy, thick, yet the Mexican hamburger at its best retains all the flavors of its distinct parts. I only ate half of this, having to stop myself because I had just eaten a sandwich, a taco, and another burrito.

Let the Baylessistas scream—this is a dish as Mexican as the Templo Mayor, as American as the Washington Monument, as Chicano as SanTana. And few dishes have as juicy a back story: its most-famous seller is Chubby's, a legendary chain run by matriarch Stella Cordova until she was nearing the century mark. But the one above comes from Bubba Chino's, run by her grandson Leonard, who is unfortunately strained from most of his relatives, who ripped off their abuelita's name before she had even passed on, much to Stella's disapproval.

Ah, Mexicans, always fighting among ourselves—but there you have it, folks: the Mexican hamburger, the meal of mestizaje at its tastiest.

Although Joe's Buffet closed decades ago (the space is again for sale) and Stella Cordova has passed on, the original Chubby's still serves Denver's best Mexican hamburger.
Have one on 303 Day!

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