Smothered: The Saga of the Chubby's Empire

It's an early Saturday evening, and the tiny front room of Chubby's Burger Drive-In is absolutely popping with patrons, all waiting to gorge.

There are no tables here, no seats for dining, so customers place their order at the busy counter, then jockey for space to await their Chubby's infusion, delivered with remarkable efficiency courtesy of an assembly-line kitchen staff that churns out the beef, pork, chile, beans, tortillas, eggs and fries night after night, day after day. The sizzling smells wafting from the back kitchen make that interval all the more unbearable.

In one corner, four women, market researchers up from Colorado Springs, munch on chicharrones and discuss whether the lack of a receipt is going to mess up their per diem. One used to live in Denver, and tonight she's showing her co-workers her favorite takeout joint. Next to them, a Hispanic man with diamond earrings the size of baby fists sends out text messages and waits for his number to be called. He's been coming here since before he could talk, and like most Chubby's customers who have been reared on the restaurant's green chile, he'll pit Chubby's fare against any in the city.

Over the course of the evening, through dinner and beyond, the line at the counter will never dwindle and at times will reach a near breaking point. But things never spin out of control, and no one complains about the cramped quarters.

Watching over the entire scene, dressed in her Sunday best, is Stella Cordova, Chubby's matriarch. At 98, she still works four nights a week. But she's not in the kitchen anymore. Nor is she behind the register duping would-be robbers, like the time she quickly hid all the twenty-dollar bills and handed a masked burglar a paper bag full of ones. Now she sits and "keeps company," as she likes to say, watching her grandson Danny Cordova at the helm, grinning at the hubbub she first brought to life in 1967 here at the corner of 38th Avenue and Lipan Street.

"This is nothing. You ought to have seen the place last night," Danny says, uttering a line that is true almost any day at Chubby's. Wearing a gold chain and a white tank top under his black button-up short-sleeved shirt, Danny gives off the vibe of the guy from the block. He's been in and around Chubby's most of his 42 years. "These bikers came in. Big dudes in leather, with Harleys. And one guy picked up his girlfriend so she was upside down. Her feet were practically touching the ceiling. And then another biker dude started kissing on her! I thought we were going to have to call the cops."

He smiles at the thought, then hands a hundred-dollar bill to Stella, seated on a stool to the side of the register beneath a sign that reads "Too Blessed to Be Stressed."

"Here you go, banker," he says.

"These hoochies from the bar, they try to kiss Danny," Stella says with a they-ought-to-know-better smile, sliding the C-note into a gray lockbox by her knees. "Sometimes they try to jump over the counter to do it!"

In the wee hours of the morning, after the post-bar nighthawks have gotten their fill and the back-door beggars have worn out their welcome, Stella will catch a ride from someone working the kitchen to a nearby Village Inn and wind down the last hours of dark chatting with the waitstaff, munching on an egg sandwich or oatmeal with cinnamon, sipping on coffee and tea. As the sun rises, she'll be dropped back off at her home on Federal Boulevard. But even then she won't sleep. Danny, who lives in the basement, is accustomed to hearing his grandmother putter around for hours, the sound of her walker clanking like old pipes through the ceiling. She never stops, he says.

Danny, who co-manages the restaurant with her, is the heir to the throne at this Chubby's, but not to the Chubby's empire. That title may depend on the outcome of a recently opened legal battle between two of Stella's other grandchildren and on the abilities of the sprawling Cordova clan to figure out a way to get along.

Stella and her husband, Alex Cordova (who died in 1996), had ten children, and those children had children. And their children had children. Now the Cordova family tree is more like a forest (with a membership estimated to be anywhere from 170 to 230 people), and almost everyone has spent time at Stella's restaurant.

"Chubby's was my first job ever," says Angelo DeHerrera, Stella's great-grandson, whose father, Albert, still mans the register most weekdays. "I was working with my dad, literally, since before I could even reach the counters in the kitchen. I have done pretty much every job there is to be done at that place, like all of my family has."

KEEP WESTWORD FREE... Since we started Westword, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Denver, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
Adam Cayton-Holland