Longform

Smothered: The Saga of the Chubby's Empire

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But those long lines for Chubby's grub didn't go unnoticed, and for some relatives, working with their grandma wasn't enough. They've taken the Chubby's name and run with it, opening up Chubby's restaurants across the Front Range. There are now Chubby's in south Denver. And east Denver. And west Denver, Brighton and Aurora. There's a Chubby's in Arvada, a Chubby's in Northglenn, a Chubby's in Littleton and one in Golden. There are even rumors of a Chubby's that crossed state lines into Salt Lake City, peddling a reasonable facsimile of the fare that Stella made famous (or infamous, depending on your tolerance for the hot stuff) in northwest Denver.

Although Chubby's restaurants, and restaurants that use some version of the Chubby's name or recipes, come and go, there are currently at least fifteen in Colorado. Some of them opened with Stella's approval; most did not. And the difference between the two is indistinct at best. For her part, Stella seems resigned to this fact. She's bothered when customers complain about a bad egg-and-chorizo burrito from a restaurant with the same name, or how they paid too much for their smothered chile relleno. She'll sigh and explain that the others are Chubby's knockoffs. Usually, she'll give that person a freebie to make up for it. She's too old for a court fight, and it's not really in her nature.

But Stella knows she won't be here forever. Her 99th birthday is in April, and though she's is in fine health — save a nagging knee that doctors say isn't worth operating on — she has told some family members that she doesn't think she'll be around to see it. In the meantime, she'd like to see some sort of family order in place.

"It's going to be Danny when I pass on," Stella says. "Because Danny is the one that takes care of me. Just me and Danny are right now in charge, both of us. I wish everyone could work together, but I don't think they do. The brothers and sisters and cousins, they're not acting to help Danny. Some of them are actually hurting everything that we've established with Chubby's."

But it won't be that simple. When Stella does eventually pass, so, too, will the undisputed face of Chubby's, and there are many eager to assume that position.

My biggest problem is that I don't know how to say no," Stella explains, seated at a dining room table in her home, surrounded by eclectic items that seem a testament to that affliction. There are display cases stuffed full of collector dolls, cherubs and plastic flowers, gilded, Greek-style columns crammed into corners, decorative mirrors and photographs, drawings by the dozen. Then there are those "damn cross-eyeded cats" continually seeking affection, a parakeet, and a parrot that inexplicably squawks, "Pervert, pervert!" whenever the mood strikes him.

Stella didn't seek this stuff out so much as she just wasn't able to pass it up. Now, at her advanced age, she's trying to curb the habit. All month long, she's been practicing saying "no."

To everything.

"My great-granddaughter came into Chubby's, and she stood in front of me begging for twenty dollars," Stella explains. "And I said no. She walked out, and I thought, 'I should have said yes.' If I see somebody come over here and ask me for money, and I have money to give and say no, it makes me feel really, really bad. But then my granddaughter told me that it was good I didn't give her daughter the money, because she was just going to go spend it on the weed."

Born in the southern Colorado town of Walsenburg in 1909, Stella grew up working on a farm before moving to Greeley and meeting her husband, Alex, with whom she had five sons and five daughters. In 1951, the couple moved to Denver when Alex took a job as an oil skimmer for Conoco. Since her kids were grown, Stella worked as a maid and a dishwasher before noticing the "Cook Wanted" sign at a burger drive-in at 1231 West 38th, near her home.

She got the job, but business was slow, so the owner eventually decided to call it quits. He asked Stella if she wanted to buy the place, but Stella, who was making 85 cents an hour, didn't have nearly enough cash. Eager to sell, the owner made Stella a deal: $2,000 for the joint, $500 down, the rest to be made in payments. Stella couldn't say no, so she borrowed the down payment from a daughter and agreed to pay $50 a month until the building was paid off. She decided to keep the restaurant's name, Chubby's.

For the next few months, Stella continued to peddle burgers, fries, ice cream and shakes with no increase in customers. So she started serving tacos, burritos and tostadas, prepared the way she was taught by her grandmother back on the farm: with a heavy dose of spicy green chile. The formula worked, Chubby's started to boom, and like that, the 59-year-old Stella Cordova had a bona fide neighborhood institution on her hands — the sole Mexican-American eatery in what was then a predominantly Italian neighborhood.

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Adam Cayton-Holland