For the first time in years, La Fiesta was not serving lunch last Thursday. That’s because patriarch Michael Herrera, who’d founded the restaurant at 2340 Champa Street more than fifty years before, was being laid to rest at Fort Logan Cemetery on February 13.
Herrera, who passed away on January 30, just shy of his 96th birthday, hadn’t rested much during his long career. Born February 10, 1924, the native Coloradan went straight from high school to World War II, where he was a sergeant as well as an amateur boxing champion in the Air Force. Back in Colorado, he attended the University of Denver, graduating with bachelor’s, master’s and law degrees, then went to work in the assessor’s office for the City and County of Denver.
But his external activities were what brought him fame, fortune...and lots of fans of Mexican food. He was a broadcaster for Colorado’s first Spanish-speaking radio station, KFSC-AM. In addition to opening La Fiesta in an old Safeway on the edge of Curtis Park, then a neighborhood just starting to hit the skids, he started the El Papa Gallo Night Club, the Casa Herrera grocery store and La Botella liquor store, all in the neighborhood. And he had a slew of children and grandchildren and even great-grandchildren to help in this business empire, including Robert Herrera, who still runs La Fiesta along with other relatives.
With the exception of last Thursday, La Fiesta is open for lunch only on weekdays, and until 9 p.m. on Fridays. The hours used to be far more expansive: When the place opened in 1964, it was a nightclub as well as a restaurant, filled with folks who wanted to dine, drink and dance, as evidenced by the DJ booth and acoustic-tile drop ceiling that remain today. Rosa Linda and Virgil Aguirre, who went on to open their own Mexican restaurant in Denver, met at at a dance there one night. By the late ’70s, though, it had solidified its reputation as a lunchtime gathering place, attracting everyone from cops to lawyers to Colorado Supreme Court justices to Michael Herrera himself, who came in to eat lunch just about every weekday until his passing.
The hot, hot green chile has always been a favorite, particularly when it’s smothering a chile relleno stuffed with molten, “premium” cheese. La Fiesta was one of the first joints in town, maybe the first joint, to serve a relleno fried in a giant wonton wrapper, a style that Mexican food expert Gustavo Arellano, author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, swears is native to Denver.
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“I’ve had chiles rellenos stuffed with cream cheese in Arizona copper country, with ground meat in Oaxacan dives, with quinoa in hippie places,” he told us after we introduced the Orange County native (and creator of “Ask a Mexican”) to Mexican food, Denver style. “But in my travels across the U.S., the only place I’ve ever found them wrapped in wonton paper is in Denver. Next to the Mexican hamburger, Den-Mex at its finest!”
Of course, La Fiesta serves a Mexican hamburger, too, though that dish was invented at another Mexican joint, Joe’s Buffet on Santa Fe. Joe’s is long gone, but La Fiesta remains on that list of rare Mexican restaurants that have made it past fifty and are still going strong. (Among the others: La Popular, Mexico City Restaurant & Lounge, Chubby’s, Rosita’s, Pete’s Satire Restaurant & Lounge, Taco House, Blue Bonnet Mexican Cafe, Lucero’s and Brewery Bar II.)
Come for lunch, come for the Friday happy hour (deals start at 3 p.m.), but come: What was once a sketchy area on the edge of Curtis Park has become a very hot property (complete with plenty of free parking!), surrounded by pricey apartments and just down the street from Liberati Restaurant & Brewery.
For now, the family says that nothing is going to change at La Fiesta, so there’s no better time to come in and raise a glass to Michael Herrera, who gave Denver so much of its flavor.