In the beginning, there was the taco...and it was good. Very good. So good that a century after the first recipe for tacos appeared in an American cookbook, sixty years after the first Taco Bell rang in California, tacos are still providing plenty of culinary inspiration in this country, for everyone from lowly taqueros to lofty celebrity chefs.
But leave it to Denver to come up with a unique variation. In his book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, Gustavo Arellano credited the Mile High City with inventing the Mexican hamburger. Later, he determined that the egg-roll-style chile relleno got its start here, too. And now the cuisine that Arellano dubbed “Den-Mex” may be able to claim another delicious, if greasy, creation: fried tacos, glued together with simple American cheese.
“Cheese-fried tacos, I’ve yet to try,” says Arellano. “I must return to Denver post-haste and determine if it’s yet another Mile High Mexi innovation, à la the Mexican hamburger, or a Denver retread, like Peyton Manning.”
We’re sitting in the Mexico City Lounge at 2115 Larimer Street, marveling at how much the Ballpark neighborhood has changed over the past two decades while Mexico City’s fried tacos have not, when we learn that the story of those tacos stretches even further back than we realized — to long before the time when Dave Muniz’s parents bought the place from his grandmother, Esther Garcia, after her husband, Willie Garcia, passed away.
“My grandpa started them across the street at the Juarez,” says Dave Muniz, handing over a platter of fried steak tacos and pointing across the street to a building that’s now home to hipster hangout El Charrito. “According to my mom, he and my grandma started making those tacos because they were looking for a quicker way to make them. They came up with that American cheese because it melts so good, and they put it with beef, and it just kind of took off.”
The couple brought the tacos with them when they took over Mexico City in the late ’60s. The restaurant has been in the extended family ever since — and so has the formula for fried tacos. “They had a lot of kids, and they all helped to run it,” Dave says. “But Willie was the backbone who kept everything together.”
After Willie died, other children and grandchildren helped Esther with Mexico City. Dave was a student at Metro and working at Mexico City part-time when he heard that Esther had decided it was time to get out of the business. “They’re selling it; we should try to buy that place,” he remembers telling his father, Robert Muniz.
They did, and later Robert wound up buying out his wife. Today Dave, his sister Linda and Robert Muniz run Mexico City. When they first took over a dozen years ago, even though Coors Field was well established, “we were blocks off the beaten path,” Dave says. “Then those blocks started getting fixed up; it happened quick.”
These days, a whole new crew of transplants join the longtime regulars coming to Mexico City for its steak tacos. “We used to do steak just on Wednesday,” Dave says, “but I pushed to make it every day. We sell more steak tacos than anything. In one day, I’ll make seven or eight trays — seventy tacos in one tray.”
And that’s just for lunch, the only meal that Mexico City used to serve. Lately it’s been open on Fridays and Saturdays for dinner, though, and now Dave’s trying to talk his father and sister into doing dinners Tuesday through Saturday. “We’re well on our way to that,” he says. “We’re trying to catch up.”
But with those fried steak tacos, Mexico City is already ahead of the crowd.
Dave was at a Garcia family reunion last week — “a small one, kind of like forty people,” he says. “It wasn’t that crazy.” But it’s crazy how many of those family members are cooking Mexican food around town — and serving their own version of the fried-taco story.
Gary Garcia is Dave’s cousin. Here’s the story that his grandmother, Esther, told Gary about how Willie got into the restaurant business: Back in the ’50s, Willie was eighteen or nineteen and working as a bartender at Max’s Tavern, a long-gone downtown watering hole, and “he told my grandmother one day that they had a little kitchen in back,” Gary says. Esther started making chile and beans and selling them at Max’s. Willie wanted to expand the menu, and decided to figure out how to make a taco without having to watch it so he could run back and forth to the bar while the tacos cooked on the grill.
That’s when he started frying tacos, and when Willie moved over to the Juarez, “my sister and mother were all in the kitchen,” Gary remembers. “They would all fry the tacos.”
They started making burgers, too. “Everyone wanted chile on their hamburger,” Gary says. “We might have been the ones who invented the Mexican hamburger, too.” Currently, the credit for that invention goes to Joe’s Buffet on Santa Fe Drive — but by the time Linda’s Special was introduced on that menu, the Garcia family was heading across the street to Mexico City, taking their tacos and hamburgers with them.
Gary started working at the Juarez when he was twelve years old, as a busboy. He picked up dishes, washed dishes. “He made you work,” Gary says of his grandfather.
Gary worked for a while at Mexico City, and today he works at Phil’s Place, a bar at 3463 Larimer that his son, Phil Garcia, took over from another family member in 2002. The neighborhood was rough back then — the term “RiNo” was still years away — but Mexican-food fans started coming when Phil created a kitchen for his mother, Junie, who had nearly 25 years of cooking expertise from the Bamboo Hut under her flower-print apron. Today Junie and Gary run Phil’s Place together. Although there are certainly tacos on the menu, even fried tacos, Junie has her own specialties that are worth a trip to this increasingly gentrified part of town.
When he learns that we’ve been talking to a few of his relatives about the history of the fried taco, Eddie Garcia says this: “They don’t know nothing.” Mid-afternoon on Friday, El Toro, at 4957 Colorado Boulevard, is about to close for the day. A few folks are grabbing last beers at the bar, and a few others are diving into final orders of steak tacos. It goes without saying that they’re fried.
In ambience, El Toro falls somewhere between the friendly, comfortable Phil’s Place and the increasingly upscale Mexico City Lounge, which installed slate floors and taverna-rustic decor a few years ago. The linoleum is clean, the chairs are new, and the black-velvet collection on the wall includes a pair of paintings that show a bandito from the front and the back.
Eddie was 21 years old when he went to work for his father, Willie Garcia, at the Juarez in the early ’60s.
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There was an old Mexican man living upstairs, Eddie remembers, and he came down and taught Eddie how to make steak tacos, frying the meat up in chunks, cooking it until it was tender, letting it cool overnight, then putting a handful in a tortilla with American cheese, folding the tortilla over and laying it in a tray, then sending the tray to the cooler overnight. The next day, he’d pull the tacos out of the tray and fry them on the grill in lard. He’d let one side brown until the cheese melted, then flip the taco and do the same. “That’s the way,” Eddie says.
When Willie took over Mexico City, Eddie went there, too. “Gary used to work with me,” he remembers. He moved on to El Toro almost two decades ago, taking the fried-taco recipe with him.
Between stints at Mexican restaurants, Eddie served in the Marines and traveled to many states, where he ate many tacos. But he never found any like the ones that Willie served at the Juarez, then Mexico City, or like the tacos that Eddie serves at El Toro. The tacos at Joe’s in Oceanside, California, came close, but the cheese was put in after the tortillas were grilled. And that makes all the difference.
The cheese has to go in first to hold everything together, the way that families across Denver have stuck to their culinary traditions for decades. “Once you see the cheese melt, you know it’s pretty much good to go,” Eddie concludes.