Extra! Extra! Read All About It: One order, three plates. As the server set each one down on the table, she kept eyeballing me for a reaction. And she got it. "Okay, that's a heck of a lot of food," I said, and she chuckled.
"I was wondering if you knew what you had gotten yourself into," she replied.
What I'd gotten myself into was the Extra Extra Large Combination Platter at Chavez Mexican Foods (4835 West 38th Avenue), one of northwest Denver's longest-running Mexican eateries and, like El Ranchito (see review above), one of those places I'd driven by a million times but had never checked out. Better late then never, I guess; because when I finally did drop in, it turned out that I ordered one of the last Extra Extra Large Combination Platters that Chavez would ever sell. But I didn't know that at the time; I just knew that the food at Chavez was so good that the place was worthy of a review.
Three days after my last visit, though, the Chavez family sold the building to an undisclosed buyer. The restaurant itself may close as early as this week. In the end, the 26-year-old Chavez was done in by the double whammy of Elitch's move from almost across the street to the Platte Valley and an influx of new Mexican restaurants.
Charlie and Dolores Chavez are the madre y padre who started the restaurant back in 1974, and they'd continued to check up on things from their retirement. "I don't want to brag or anything," son Tony Chavez bragged last week. "But when you eat at Las Delicias or one of those other popular Mexican restaurants, chances are we trained the person cooking your food. Things like the Spanish rice and the smothered burrito, those are things we were doing before most of these other places." And before they were introduced at Chavez, they were served in the Chavez household -- the recipes all came from Dolores. "These are still the same dishes she made for us when we were little," Tony says. All eight of the Chavez children helped out at their parents' restaurant, and five of them were still running the place up until the sale: Tony, Lewis, Rudy, Jake and Mario. (The other three -- Charlie Jr., Patricia and Jerry -- had pitched in on the holidays.)
Now, back to that Extra Extra Large Combination Platter, which now lives on only in my memory. At $19.95, it was the most expensive combo I'd ever seen on a Mexican menu -- but I'd pay all that, and more, for just one of the items included in the massive order: the sour cream burrito. This burrito was Chavez's signature dish and quite a surprising one, because American sour cream is scorned south of the border. In Mexico, sour cream is called "thick cream," and it's often homemade: a rich, slightly sour liquid that results when unpasteurized cream is allowed to sit around until it develops some natural-culturing bacteria -- which would never be allowed in this paranoid country. It's as different from our ultra-pasteurized sour blobs as domestic cow's milk mozzarella is from mozzarella di bufala, with the same pungency differential. In fact, because real Mexican crema has such a bold flavor, it's used sparingly in that country's cuisine, and then usually in dishes that involve poblanos or other full-flavored peppers that leach their vegetable essences into the cream. To approximate those flavors, the Chavez kitchen paired sour cream with Swiss cheese to bring about the nutty, ripe taste of crema. It worked: Both dairy products combined into one creamy, melty mess inside a corn tortilla, with the gooey richness balanced by green chile. Chavez's green was thin, with little more than big pieces of diced tomatoes and jalapenos added to the sweet, rather than spicy, base; still, it packed enough punch to hold my interest.
While the sour cream burrito was my favorite, I was plenty interested in everything else beneath the green-chile blanket covering the Extra Extra Large Combination Platter. The rather large tamale boasted a stuffing of red-chile-seasoned shredded beef, as well as a super-soft, not-too-sweet, corn-intensive exterior. The taco featured more quality beef, this time ground, spicy and juicy; the guacamole slathered over the tostada had a just-mashed chunky quality and a sharp lime tang. The enchilada -- which oozed onion-flavored cheddar cheese -- and the bean burrito were both tasty and substantial. Even the chile relleno, which suffered from a too-chewy, over-fried wonton wrapper, was redeemed by a molten mass of cheese inside the poblano, which also had a nice kick.
No matter what you ordered at Chavez, it was delivered by one of the family members -- a hard-working bunch who always delivered a heart-felt "thank you" as you exited the restaurant. And with any luck, Denver may still get a chance to thank Chavez for its years of service: The Chavez sons hope to open a new Chavez Mexican Foods in another location someday.
"We didn't sell the name or anything," Lewis explains. "And chances are, it'll resurface. I mean, who wants to hire an old-man waiter like me? This is what we know, what me and my brother and sister have done since we were kids, and so down the road some of us are thinking we'll do something. Meanwhile, does Hawaii sound like a good place to do some thinking?"
Here's looking at you, squid: Reader John Coniff points out that one week I was cranky about the number of restaurants serving calamari ("Dream On," December 28, 2000), and the next week I discussed the version served at Rose's Cafe ("A Rose Is a Rose Is a Rose?" January 4). "You say, 'If everyone would please stop serving calamari for a couple of weeks, squid sphincters everywhere could relax,'" Coniff writes. "If you're bored of what everyone is doing, why do you order the same thing in every restaurant?"
I do have an explanation -- two of them, actually. First, I'm supposed to review restaurants for the readers, not for myself, so I have to order things that people want to hear about. And based on the letters I receive from readers asking where to get great calamari, diners are interested in squid; otherwise, of course, restaurants would drop this particular item from their menus in a heartbeat. And second, when I take guests along, I let them pick what they would normally order so as not to skew the review toward my own preferences. On one visit to Rose's, I was accompanied by three other women -- and all of them wanted calamari. So that dish was already a done deal by the time I made my pick. For the record, I always order last, so in case no one else at the table has ordered the restaurant's specialty, I still can. That way, I don't get a call from the chef at Chez Escargot wondering why I never tasted the snails.
And believe me, the only way you'll catch me ordering calamari is if no one else in my party steps up to that particular plate at The Squid Cafe.