In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard -- south to north -- within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...
The now-closed Bubba Chinos on South Federal Boulevard was supposed to be the first stop of my Federal Case series, but circumstances and doubt prevented me from getting a meal there. It turns out that the place was one of many poorly run franchised links in the Bubba Chinos chain, a problem that owner Leonard Cordova has since publicly addressed (if not corrected). The flagship burrito bunker, however, is still going strong on a stretch of Federal that seems more in keeping with the style that Bubba Chinos projects: hip-hop-inspired, garish and bold in design, and completely comfortable adding its cacophony to the bright greens of neighboring MMJ shops, the hand-painted retread tire and transmission signs, and the general chaos of a newly widened street with crazy, offset intersections and raised medians that make the infamous Federal left turn daunting, though not entirely abandoned.
The cinderblock shack has been stripped down to bare floors and walls and then bedecked with a haphazard sampling of retro ornaments, sports memorabilia, and Little League trophies and photos. Slogans implore patrons to "taste the heat," which is exactly what I planned to do. The wall-mounted menu presents a nearly indecipherable grid of options, but it basically comes down to: What do you want in your burrito and what do you want on your burrito? And since smothered, oversized burritos are nothing if not a study in excess, I answered yes to all questions and ended up with a double Mexican hamburger rising like a newly formed volcanic island in a sea of chili (as spelled on the menu) as well as French fries equally awash. It is notable that the menu mostly avoids the use of the modifier "green" to describe its sauce; the word appears only once -- and then just to set it apart from the red chili also listed.
The green chili at Bubba Chinos certainly contains chiles, whether from Hatch or Pueblo or a tin can; bits of color are clearly visible, though muted, in the salmon-pink base, and a long-lasting esophageal burn results from a combination of the appropriate volume of chiles and a texture not too far removed from spackle. Colorado green chile is famous -- or perhaps infamous -- for its similarity to gravy from the use of flour as a thickener. Bubba Chinos' chili is at the extreme end of this style; although the heat (which can be kicked up upon request) is evident, most of the flavors are muted and muddied by the flour slurry that turns the condiment from a hearty stew into a La Brea tar pit for french fries -- more closely resembling queso dip in color and consistency.
My friend Shane -- a true connoisseur of Colorado's working-class fare whose job takes him to every hamlet and burg peppering this state -- and I wolfed our burritos (served in styrofoam, even if you're eating in) at one of the few tables in the joint before heading to a sports bar, stopping only briefly to admire towering spray-painted monuments to fallen rappers that loom in the rear parking lot. Processed cheese dominated his chorizo-and-egg burrito, but the twin patties in my Mexican hamburger were the perfect base in the junk-food pyramid. And the fries didn't stand a chance, losing what little crunch they had gained from a quick dip in the fryer and becoming a tangled mass of limp potato strands. A glorious tangled mass, that is, especially under the circumstances -- a quick lunch wedged between recovery from America's largest beer festival and a marathon of afternoon football games. All questions of quality and authenticity quickly melt away when presented with a searing, starchy, cheesy, meaty mess of Den Mex at its not-so-finest.
I would never consider showcasing Bubba Chinos burritos as the pinnacle of Denver's culinary achievements, or even as a shining example of regional cooking; most home cooks worth their tomatillos can whip up a batch of the green that will highlight local ingredients and techniques to better effect. But as a hangover cure, or as a solid base to a day of quaffing beers while getting loud with fellow Broncos fans, well -- the thicker, the sloppier, the fattier, the better. The only thing I felt the next day was a slight tingle somewhere behind my tonsils, maybe from residual scarring, maybe from a sliver of chile permanently glued to the back of my throat.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.