Why Denver is home to the best Mexican dish in the United States
Chubby's! The greatest Mexican restaurant in the United States! Slide show: Take the Den-Mex tour!
Tom Tancredo doesn't like Mexicans — no way, no how, no duh. The former Colorado congressman and one-time presidential candidate spent most of his political career railing against a supposed invasion of the United States by Mexico — and while intelligent minds can disagree about the benefits versus detriments caused by unchecked migration to this country, Tancredo flat-out feels that Mexicans and their culture are downright deficient.
"Sadly, corruption is deeply ingrained in Mexican society, from the local police to the government owned utilities," Tancredo once wrote in a column for WorldNetDaily. "It's a way of doing everyday business."
It was a direct dig at me. In November 2010, we debated in Denver about whether Mexicans ever assimilate into American culture in a standoff that made national news. (I maintained we do; Tancredo didn't accept the possibility, yet couldn't explain how I — who only spoke Spanish when enrolled in kindergarten, the child of two Mexican immigrants, one of whom came into this country in the trunk of a Chevy — did it.) The debate was held at Su Teatro, that chingón Chicano theater on Santa Fe Drive in the heart of what was once Denver's Mexican neighborhood,and is now Denver's Art District on Santa Fe. There's no need to get into all the details of the evening (find them in the archives of the Latest Word, por favor), except for one pertinent point: Before lambasting Mexicans and our supposed refusal to join American society, Tom ate a Mexican dinner with me.
We went across the street from Su Teatro to El Noa Noa, a large restaurant that advertises itself as the Mile High City's "best and most authentic Mexican restaurant." At night, art deco-style neon lights flash the restaurant's name, a reference to a legendary nightclub in Ciudad Juárez that was the subject of a famous Mexican song. A party on your plate. The atmosphere isn't obscenely ethnic: no strolling mariachis or women fluttering fans and eyelids. Eaters sit; waiters bring out baskets of chips and bowls of salsa and fetch drinks. People of all ethnicities come in to eat, though the clientele leans more American than Mexican.
Tancredo and I sat down near the middle of the restaurant; Westword editor Patricia Calhoun and a few staffers joined us. Patty, who's known Tom for years, was the one who had long sought to have him and me face off, and figured we should break tortillas beforehand, as she was going to moderate the Su Teatro theatrics. We traded small talk, saving our salvos for the discussion to come — but around us, tables whispered, fingers pointed. Some people came up to our table to greet Tancredo, wish him luck for the evening. A Facebook friend, a woman from Boulder who works with undocumented college students, offered me a pin that said "DREAM ACT" and her appreciation that I was confronting a person she considered a living manifestation of Satan. She wanted to make a scene, but her chile relleno supper was getting cold.
Our plates came. I drank tequila, of course; Tancredo, a dry red wine. He'd ordered the tamale dinner, hold the Spanish rice. Two tamales, slathered (or, as more accurately stated in the Denver lexicon, "smothered") with green chile, absent their corn husks, each as long as a palm, as thick as a copy of a book, sat before him. They glistened with the dabs of lard needed to make a tamale moist and more than mere cornmeal and shredded pork. I stole bites of the same plate from Calhoun: soft, spicy filling. The pork sang sweet notes on my palate; the green chile piqued toward the end. These weren't the tamales of my youth; they were smaller — familiar, yet different from anything I'd ever eaten. The chile — born of the fertile soil of southern Colorado, which Hispanics had tilled before there was a United States — seared differently from the Mexican chiles on which I grew up. It needed no extra salsa, it was so flavorful.
Tancredo thought so as well. He polished off his plate, laughing and talking between each bite, getting himself fueled for a night decrying the very culture that fed him. More than a year later, I can recall just some of the points of our philosophical fisticuffs, but the scene I can't get out of my mind is Tancredo's massive, tamale-induced smile throughout the night. Tom Tancredo may not like Mexicans, but he sure loves his Mexican food — of course he does. And if a pendejo like Tom can learn to love Denver's unique take on Mexican food, then so should the rest of the country.
Especially a pendejo like me.
I love you, Denver: You've always been beyond supportive of my work, have always sent some of my favorite questions for my ¡Ask a Mexican! column, have always provided one of my biggest fan bases outside of my Southern California home base. I've spoken at three of your universities — University of Denver, Metro State, even Johnson & Wales, for chrissakes — and at your beautiful downtown library; have done three signings at the Tattered Cover; moonlighted as a guest judge for Geeks Who Drink; and been on many of your radio and television stations. Every time I visit, everyone is nice — except that jerk Peter Boyles, who'll never have me on his radio show, for reasons I can't comprehend. (Let's do it, Pete!)
But your Mexican food? The most bizarre in the United States — and I've had tater-tot burritos and Taco Bueno. The least-loved. The most unknown. The most — excuse my English — weird. Outside of Coloradans and expats, no one gives a shit about Denver's Mexican-food traditions, let alone wants to know about them. Your most unique culinary contribution to Mexican food, the Mexican hamburger, is unknown outside of your state, derided by everyone to whom I describe it; they're incredulous that anyone can consider that Mexican food and dismiss it as yet another Denver oddity à la Tim Tebow and, well, Tom Tancredo. Your most famous Mexican restaurant is Casa Bonita in Lakewood, an Oklahoman import immortalized in South Park and called "the world's weirdest Mexican restaurant" by this fine publication.
Your Mexican food never makes the national conversation about America's regional Mexican styles — Tex-Mex, Cal-Mex, Sonoran cuisine, Southwestern food...Den-Mex? Sounds like a cholesterol drug. If the country knows anything about Denver's Mexican grub, it's Chipotle, the wildly successful burrito company started by Steve Ells in a former Dolly Madison shop near the University of Denver — and instead of making your indigenous burritos a national obsession, he instead went with San fucking Francisco. Traitor. When Colorado Mexican finally reached the national spotlight, the Travel Channel's Food Wars decided to focus on Pueblo's Slopper. Sad. Even I, who professes to love Denver, largely ignored your cuisine in my new book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. There's a paragraph about your native food in the chapter about burritos, and that's about it; meanwhile, I devote pages to Ells. Really sad.
But after years of wrestling with the cuisine, of wondering why you wrap wontons around chiles rellenos and put hamburger patties into burritos, of marveling that your green chile is as orange as the jerseys of the Broncos, I have finally learned to love Den-Mex. Your epic Mexican hamburgers, your combo plates slathered — scratch that, smothered — in furious chile. Your street-corner, foil-wrapped burritos steaming with chunks of pork, the late-night runs to Chubby's. (Chubby's! The greatest Mexican restaurant in the United States! More on that in a bit.) When I first came and tasted Den-Mex, I dismissed ustedes as a heresy as dangerous to Mexican culture as the only Mexican thing I knew about Denver at the time: Tom Tancredo.
That's now changed: I'll devote the rest of my life to spreading your gospel, with the fervor of the converted. Let the rest of the nation snicker: Yours is a foodway deserving of love, because your cuisine is the I Corinthians 13 of the grub world — patient, kind, waiting for people to wise up to it, as I eventually did.
I first visited Denver in the summer of 2007, on the tour for the initial release of the book version of ¡Ask a Mexican! It was a whirlwind stay, one that didn't allow me to get a bite until after my book signing at the Tattered Cover — a burger at a bar. I didn't try Denver's Mexican food then, but I do remember street vendors with coolers, handing out burritos to people ranging from blue-collar workers waiting for a bus to men in suits buying them from their cars, windows cracked open just enough for a transaction to occur. It struck me as odd: I'm from California, where we think we invented the burrito, and only eat them from the fast-food drive-thru or a lonchera, so to see a bunch of Denverites carrying around our birthright in a container we use to store beer at the beach seemed silly.
The thought of a cooler burrito did pique my palate, though, so I vowed to buy one the next time I was in Denver — for the fall 2008 book tour for my Orange County: A Personal History. I returned to the Tattered Cover that September, but another whirlwind PR tour prevented me from trying the cooler burrito. Thankfully, editor Calhoun intervened. I was due to leave Denver right after appearing on Jay Marvin's old show. (Strange but true: Jay Marvin is a native of Orange County, so he always had me on his show when I was in town, for hours at a time; it's a tragedy he had to give it up for health reasons.) Right before a car was supposed to pick me up at 9 a.m., she met me in the lobby of Denver's Clear Channel operations and gave me a burrito. It initially seemed like any other burrito: wrapped in foil, in a flour tortilla, and big. Big deal. But then I took a bite. The beans were wonderful, the rice fluffy, the chorizo magnificent, the eggs silken. Then the spice hit: not the salsas I've known for so long, but something better, something fragrant, fleshy and with a kick like Jason Elam. It was spectacular, and taught me more was out there.
It was only later that I realized the importance of that particular burrito maker: Santiago's, which many of you deem the best Mexican food in Denver. Then, I just knew the brilliance of this burrito, so I happily obliged when Calhoun asked for a quote describing my experience.
"The breakfast burrito at Santiago's," I wrote, "is everything I love about Denver — humble, not ostentatious, the perfect size, and resolutely Mexican at its heart, even as the whiteys that were the eggs and potato tried to supersede the green chile and chorizo for taste, with each bite provoking desires for more. In other words: muy bueno."
I finally tried a cooler burrito on another 2008 trip; it was wonderful. On the trip back home, I had a chance to read Westword's 2005 masterpiece on the phenomenon ("Word of Mouth," Adam Cayton-Holland, January 27, 2005) and started realizing there was something unique about your Mexican food.
Oh, was I to be proven right.
It was in early 2009 when I told Westword I was researching for a book on the history of Mexican food in the United States. "You know Colorado has its own Mexican food, right?" Calhoun told me. Why, no.
I'm sorry to say this, Denver, but I didn't even know Colorado had its own Mexicans. Oh, I knew about Corky Gonzalez — or thought I did. At the time, I didn't know about the proud Chicanos of this city, the long relationship with the manito culture of New Mexico, the unique trends, vocabulary, mores and traditions that resulted from a migration that predated Colorado's entry into the United States. Denver's Chicanos have never gotten a fair shake in Chicano Studies because, well, you're Denver. John Elway, Tancredo, now Peyton Manning — you have some of the most gabacho gabachos in the United States, and coming from a native of Orange County, California, that's saying a lot.
Denver has its own Mexican food? I needed to research, to see what abominations you could possibly create. Burritos are one thing; anything that veered from that? ¡Vendidos!
The next time I visited, for a 2009 lecture at an art center in Boulder, the Westword crew took me to lunch at a restaurant called La Fiesta; the sons of the family that owns it are fans of my column. I asked which dish was most uniquely Colorado Mexican, and the answer was unanimous: La Fiesta's chiles rellenos.
Huh? What spin could Denver possibly give to chiles rellenos, a dish I had never had in any other way than a pasilla or Anaheim chile stuffed with cheese (maybe with ground beef), coated in egg batter, then fried? The answer came with my order: mini-size it with a Chinese spin. Out came something that looked like an egg roll, drowned in a sickly gravy that seemed more paste than food. The table explained it was a Colorado chile stuffed with "premium" cheese, then wrapped in a wonton wrapper and fried. Yes: a wonton wrapper. And all that yuck surrounding it? Chile. Not "chili," as in the ground-beef explosion created in San Antonio; not a salsa, but chile. What's chile? No one bothered to explain it; instead, they looked at me like the clueless pendejo I was. Oh, and the chile relleno wasn't drowned in chile, it was "smothered."
I dug in. Gooey, crunchy, spicy, but really gooey, like concentrated nachos thrown in a fryer, then covered with the most sumptuous sauce I've ever tasted: deceptive, flecked with pork, but deathly spicy. I wanted to ask for Tapatío, but none was necessary. It was bizarre, but it was delicious. I didn't find it "authentic" at all, but I figured I'd do at least a shout-out to this plate in Taco USA, out of my respect for Denver. I picked up another street-cooler burrito for the flight home.
It was a fruitful trip. I returned to California and told friends about Denver's strange-ass chiles rellenos; they all laughed. I told them about the street-cooler burritos; they laughed again. And then a friend who used to live in Denver uttered the magical words: "Have you gone to Chubby's? That place is CRAZY."
Chubby's. When I posted on my Facebook fan page that I was thinking about a trip to Chubby's on my next visit to Denver, a war of the words broke out. One person said I had to eat there, then someone else chimed in to slam Chubby's. Then someone else slammed that person, and someone else said that everyone was attacking the wrong Chubby's. Finally, someone mentioned a "Mexican hamburger" — and all hell broke loose yet again, while I read on in bewilderment.
Trying to act like the all-knowing Mexican I am, I never admitted that I didn't have a clue about their conversation, not to mention their quibbles. Finally, I did my research in the Westword archives and discovered the amazing story of the Cordovas, starting with the late Stella Cordova, who was working at the Chubby Burger Drive-Inn in the late '60s when the owner decided to sell it. She bought it, kept the name, added her own green chile recipe to the menu, and kept working there for the next forty years. Easily another sidebar for Taco USA, I thought. I needed to try this Mexican hamburger, and to try Chubby's. The only problem: My book was due by the fall of 2010, and I had no scheduled trips to Denver. But like angels knowing that a wretch needs salvation, the Department of Chicano Studies at Metro State contacted me in the spring of 2010, wondering if I would accept an offer to participate in its Richard T. Castro Distinguished Lecture series, which takes place every fall. At the time, I had no idea who Castro was (now I do, of course — what an amazing man. You need to promote him on a national scale, Denver), but accepted under one condition: that my handlers take me to Chubby's.
It didn't happen. The trip was packed with everything from student lectures to public lectures to dinners and the Tancredo debate. I ate burritos, I ate hotel food, but I couldn't sneak away to Chubby's. Finally, a helpful gal took me to Bubba Chino's on Federal, part of a chain run by Leonard Cordova, one of Stella Cordova's grandsons. I finally tasted the Mexican hamburger, and enjoyed it immensely. Leonard was a gentleman, bringing me other dishes he was trying out. (Only later did I find out how loathed he is in some Denver circles; that's your fight, cabrones, but Leonard was nice and his food was good.) Still, it wasn't the original Chubby's.
I panicked. I thought I'd have to fly out to Denver on my own, just to visit this much-mythologized restaurant. I couldn't finish the book without a Chubby's mention — but I was already half a year late with the Taco USA manuscript.
Fate intervened with yet another Denver trip — this one in the spring of 2011, for a University of Denver speech. DU kindly catered the event with Chipotle burritos. By then, I was savvy enough about Den-Mex to crack a joke before the appreciative audience that I needed the burrito smothered. After the speech, I insisted that my hosts take me to Chubby's. They wondered out loud why I'd want to visit a place like that instead of a nice sit-down restaurant.
I had already learned that, according to Denver legend, the Mexican hamburger was created at Joe's Buffet, a long-gone eatery just up the street from Su Teatro. It was first advertised as a blackboard special in the late 1960s as "Linda's Mexican Hamburger," named after a waitress. From there, the Mexican hamburger spread across Denver — but only across Denver, much to the surprise of Mile High City denizens I talked to, who'd always assumed that their dish, like the local NFL squad, had a national reach. Maybe it didn't go further because it's so straightforward: Putting a hamburger patty inside a burrito? How truly revolutionary is that? More likely because you just don't get a fair shake from the rest of America, Denver. Yet that's what made the Mexican hamburger so brilliant: its simplicity, its utterly unremarkable nature, the effortless mixing of traditions. Mexican. American. Den-Mex. And at Chubby's, I finally discovered that the Mexican hamburger reaches every overblown food cliché one can imagine.
Because even Denver doesn't realize the significance of the Mexican hamburger, Chubby's is most famous for its chile, still made according to Stella Cordova's original recipe, which smothers everything there — burritos, fries, cheeseburgers. A hearty condiment for a hardy city where you need all the comfort you can get. It works best, though, smothering a Mexican hamburger, the greatest Mexican dish in the United States. This is how I describe it in Taco USA:
Brace yourselves, folks: underneath that Syracuse Orangeman-hued chile 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. On top of this is the chile: flecked with pork, spicier than the competition, smothered completely over the burrito until it's little more than a beached whale over a viscous, spicy sea. The flour tortilla itself is cooked well until it becomes firm, almost crispy, so you can slice off a chunk of Mexican hamburger and it won't flop around on your fork as it enters your mouth. The patty sits in the center, well-done, its beefiness absorbing the pork fat of the chicharrones and the lard of the refried beans. When you order one, the Chubby's staff serves it on a cardboard plate, then puts another plate on top and staples them together, to ensure not a drop of the ambrosia spills and wastes.
I've had puffy tacos in San Antonio that produced visions of grandeur, glorious bowls of the green in Hatch, fabulous taco pizzas in Minnesota, and gargantuan Mission burritos in San Francisco, but the Mexican hamburger is the dish that best personifies the Mexican-American experience, a monument to mestizaje. The tortilla is wholly indigenous; its flour version, the legacy of Spain. The focus on green chile places the Mexican hamburger firmly in the Southwest; its gravy, the legacy of Tex-Mex. The hamburger patty, of course, is wholly American—but even that has a German past. This fugue is pure rascuache, the Mexican concept of creating beauty from seeming crap. And the taste? Heavy, thick, yet Chubby's Mexican hamburger at its best retains all the flavors of its distinct parts. No added salsa is necessary—amazingly, underneath all that heartiness, the chile comes through and zaps every cell of your body into attention.
Let the Baylessistas scream—this is a dish as Mexican as the Templo Mayor, as American as the Washington Monument, as Chicano as George Lopez.
I ate that Mexican hamburger sitting at a picnic table outside of Chubby's, since there's nowhere to eat inside the original Chubby Burger Drive-Inn. And I took a to-go menu, the one with a portrait of Stella and Alex Cordova, another grandson, with the blared warning at the bottom "NOT AFFILIATED WITH ANY OTHER CHUBBYS." It has a hallowed spot at my office, where it serves as reminder of everything wonderful about Denver, a reminder that I need to return again and spread your glory.
I'm still insulting you, Denver. The initial run of my Taco USA book tour takes me from San Diego to San Francisco, then across the American Southwest, from Tuscon to El Paso to Albuquerque to Santa Fe to Flagstaff to Phoenix to Tucson and a plane trip back home to Orange County...but no Denver. No drive up I-25 to ustedes. Couldn't convince my publisher to fly me out to the Mile High City. Again, Denver loses in the Aztlán sweepstakes.
We'll have a Denver book-signing this year, I promise — maybe at the Tattered Cover, maybe at Su Teatro (maybe at Su Teatro, sponsored by the Tattered Cover?), maybe on a street corner surrounded by burrito coolers. In the meantime, when people pick up this book, they will learn that Chubby's serves the best Mexican dish in this country. When they read about Chipotle, they will see a shout-out to your indigenous burrito tradition. When they devour the introduction, there will be El Noa Noa, the dinner with Tancredo, La Fiesta's fine, if odd, chile relleno. Den-Mex is an amazing Mexican regional tradition, one deserving of further examination — and an acolyte with a national platform, such as the one I'll soon assume in the promotion for Taco USA.
I am an imperfect adopted son, Denver, and I still have much to learn, and much to make up for my transgressions. But I promise to sing your gospel, to proclaim the glories of your Mexican hamburgers and smothered burritos wherever and whenever I go for the rest of my years.
Now, can someone FedEx me some Chubby's green chile in one of those freeze-dried TSA-approved bags? I'm getting homesick.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.