The Mexican is coming! Gustavo Arellano found fans around the globe with his "Ask a Mexican" column and went on to write the book on Mexican cuisine in this country: Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. Now he's headed for Denver, to eat Mexican hamburgers and smothered burritos at some of his favorite Den-Mex joints. And tacos, of course, at Tacolandia, Westword's annual celebration of street tacos in Civic Center Park on Sunday, August 19.
Between rounds of tacos, Arellano will be talking with fellow Mexican food lovers: at 4 p.m. in the VIP area, and at 5 p.m. just outside that spot. In advance of his arrival, we caught up with Arellano to talk about what he's learned about Mile High Mexican.
Westword: In Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, you talk about Den-Mex. What surprised you about the evolution of Mexican food in Denver?
Gustavo Arellano: How isolated Den-Mex is from the rest of the United States. Nowhere else do you find the Mexican hamburger, the Denver-style chile, burrito-cooler culture, or chile rellenos wrapped in wontons. Although someone told me Taco Bell is going to try and emulate the Mexican hamburger somehow...
One of Denver's favorite sons, Buffalo Bill, opened the first Mexican restaurant in the country. How did you discover that?
One of the first Mexican restaurants, for sure, in Madison Square Gardens back in the 1880s. He did a pop-up restaurant, and the menu actually sounds more "authentic" than most of what passes for food at a Mexican restaurant today: picadillo and hot chocolate as dessert and even enchiladas. It was so buried in history that even the former curator of the Buffalo Bill Museum in Golden didn't know about it!
How did I discover that? Research, kids: RESEARCH. By all accounts, Buffalo Bill had a smashing success with his spot.
Tell us more about the Mexican hamburger.
Greatest Mexican dish in the United States. Born somewhere off Santa Fe Drive in the 1960s, immortalized by Stella Cordova and her Chubby's empire from the late '60s onward. It's what y'all call a smothered burrito but the rest of the country calls "wet": a burrito drowned in Denver-style chile, some lettuce and cheese. Inside is usually beans and rice and other stuff, but the coup de grace is the hamburger patty in the middle. I always get one when I'm in town, always at the original Chubby's — though I'm sad to see the neighborhood is all gentrified now.
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For another Denver invention, there's the fried greasy taco?
You're talking about the type of tacos they sell at Mexico City Cafe: hard-shell, but covered with melted cheese on the outside. I thought Denver invented it, but it turns out it actually originated in the mining communities around Globe, Arizona. Which makes a bit of sense: Miners are unsung heroes of Mexican food creation. They also probably invented the burrito, and the name for the taco itself! How? Read my book!
Any unique takes on street tacos that you've found in Denver?
No, because all I do is gorge on Den-Mex when I'm in town. But that's why I'm excited to go to Tacolandia and see how Den-Mex cuisine continues to evolve. GIVE ME TACOS!
Do you want tacos, too? General admission tickets to Tacolandia are $35 and get you in to Civic Center Park from 4 to 7 p.m. on August 19 for all the tacos you can eat. With a VIP ticket, $65, you can get into Tacolandia at 3 p.m. and have access to a VIP lounge — with special dishes from Lola — throughout the event. And here's another deal: Buy a four-pack of tickets and have a fiesta with your friends for just $100. Find out more and snag your tickets at westword.tacolandia.com.