Cafe Society

Mexican Standoff

I asked the Mexican what he wanted to eat during his visit to Denver.

In addition to being the author of Ask a Mexican, a weekly column now published in 31 papers, Gustavo Arellano is the food editor at our sibling paper, OC Weekly, in Southern California. So finding the perfect lunch spot before his appearance at Belmar earlier this month took some thinking. At first, we thought taking the Mexican to eat what passes for Mexican food in this town might be the equivalent of taking coals to Newcastle (or vice versa), but Gustavo said he was eager to sample Colorado’s unique take on Mexican food.

So then we simply had to do was choose from the dozens of great Mexican restaurants in this city.

In most of the Southwest, when you ask for green chile, you get chopped green chiles. In New Mexico you get something like a sauce -- usually a thin broth with plenty of spice and bits of roasted green chiles -- but it’s still nothing like the green chile that is Colorado’s most liquid asset, served in infinite varieties. In this town, you’ll find green chile that’s very close to what’s served in Albuquerque, but you’ll also find green chile variations that added ingredients and flavors with every mile on the move north: versions that are like stew, like gravy; some that are sweet, some savory; some with tomatoes and some without; some with pork and some without; some that are hot and some that are really, really hot. Each style has its fans. There’s the true, New Mexican green at Jack ‘n’ Grill. La Casa de Manuel’s soup-like green chile that’s so thin its burritos come “wet” rather than smothered. The flavorful brown gravy at Las Delicias. The liquid fire at Benny’s. The classic green perfected by Junie at the Bamboo Hut, and now served at Phil's Place.

But for a classic Colorado green chile, it’s hard to beat the mean green at La Fiesta.

And so we settled on La Fiesta for our Ask a Mexican luncheon. Because not only is the green chile emblematic of the kind of elixir you can only find in Colorado, but La Fiesta itself is an only-in-Colorado creation. The Herrera family bought an old Safeway at 2340 Champa more than forty years ago, turning it into what looks like a giant supper club -- except that La Fiesta is only open for lunch, and only on weekdays (exception to the rule: since this summer, La Fiesta has been open until 9 p.m. on Fridays). The Herrera family still runs the joint -- sons Ron and Robert are always on hand -- and the kitchen quickly turns out plate after plate for regulars who come here once, twice, sometimes three times a week.

And not just plates of green chile. The chile rellenos are another specialty. They’re crispy -- but not the crispy or the batter-fried relleno you’d find in New Mexico. No, La Fiesta has made an art of the eggroll-style relleno that’s another Colorado invention: a chile stuffed with yellow, Velveeta-like cheese that turns molten when the chile is wrapped in a wonton wrapper and fried, hard, then smothered in green (or red, if you’re a wimp).

Gustavo had sampled green chile, knew of the eggroll-style relleno, but had never even heard of a stuffed sopapilla. So that’s what he ordered as his first course, before sampling some of La Fiesta’s Wednesday special (chile caribe), then moving on to a relleno smothered in green, and finally some dessert sopapillas. A couple of hours and many laughs later, our lunch finally ended.

And did the Mexican like Colorado Mexican?

No question.-- Patricia Calhoun