Cafe Society

Bubba Chinos serves up authentic "Chicano cuisine"

On a Friday night, the vibrant yellow building on Federal Boulevard that houses the original Bubba Chinos is packed. A tented stand in front of the place displays a maze of T-shirts; inside, a woman is hawking pirated DVDs. The adults socializing in the equally yellow, cement-floored lobby and dining room occasionally take a break from their conversations to go through her selections or glance at the blinking TV; meanwhile, their kids pump quarters into arcade games.

Hardly anyone is eating — but they will be soon. Every few minutes, another order is called and someone breaks away from the crowd, grabs a plastic-bagged meal, waves goodbye and disappears out the front door. Although Bubba Chinos does mostly to-go business, I'm eating here tonight, sitting in the middle of the clamor, chasing every last bit of a green-chile-soaked hamburger patty around the Styrofoam container that serves as a plate for every meal, whether a customer is dining in or carrying out. The meat, pounded flat as a newspaper and cooked until gray in the center, has been wrapped in a gummy flour tortilla along with some lard-infused refried beans, then drowned in a lake of chile, thick with pork fat, and topped with orange American cheese. The chile is so spicy that the only way to put out the heat is to take another bite.

This Mexican hamburger is emblematic of the food served here, food that owner Leonard Cordova calls authentic "Chicano cuisine" or "whitewashed Mexican food." The genre has evolved over the last few decades, as second- and third-generation (and sometimes fourth- and even fifth-) Mexican-Americans blend American classics with old family recipes. In Colorado, gravy-like green chile is a hallmark of such cooking. So is using that green chile to smother burritos wrapped in flour tortillas (rather than the corn versions popular in Mexico) and topping them with American cheese. Leonard does all of these dishes Bubba Chinos style — but they carry a taste of Chubby's, one of the town's most legendary Mexican-American spots.

More than forty years ago, Leonard's grandmother, Stella Cordova, took over the Chubby Burger Drive-In on 38th Avenue and started featuring the green chile she'd learned to make when she was a kid growing up in Colorado. That sauce — thick, savory and laced with enough spice to produce a slow, sweat-inducing burn — soon became iconic. Stella passed away two years ago, shortly after her hundredth birthday, but Chubby's lives on, with another grandson operating the place.

Leonard started working in the Chubby's kitchen when he was fourteen, but he soon moved with his mother to Sacramento, where he continued to work on the line while finishing high school. "I just wasn't a college person," he told me over the phone. "I kept falling back into the restaurants." There weren't any green chile joints in northern California, though, so he invited his father, who was working in the kitchen at Chubby's, to come west and help him set one up. Before his father could get out there, though, the plan fell through. "I knew my heart was here," Leonard said, so he returned to Denver, sold his classic car and bought into the family business, partnering with his sister so that they could expand it. In the mid-1990s, they opened a Chubby's on Federal Boulevard — but family relationships proved as fiery as Stella Cordova's chile recipe.

Leonard and his sister fought so much they dissolved their partnership. After that, Leonard tried working with his brother, but they fought, too. Finally, Leonard went into business with his cousin, Julian Cordova, who today is head of Chubby's Inc., a company that controls the trademark but has no claim to the original Chubby's. The cousins worked together in harmony for a few years, opening restaurants all over town. But this partnership eventually went sour, too. "I was never really accepted by the family after I came back from California," Leonard said. "I was exiled."

So in 2005 Leonard decided to go his own way, renaming the Federal restaurant Chubby Bubbachinos after two nephews and in homage to his grandmother — and her original recipes, which he still featured at his restaurant. But the family feuds continued: Julian trademarked the name "Chubby's," and sued Leonard to change his place's name. That case was settled a few years ago, after a mediator told Leonard that with his personality, he could probably sell cardboard boxes and be successful. "It was a boost," he recalled. "I recognized that I was doing something different, and I let it go. I was just done."

In 2008, Chubby Bubbachinos officially became Bubba Chinos. Its only link to Chubby's is the green chile recipe: Stella's original formula, he told me, claiming that Chubby's itself is using a different version. "I lost people when I dropped the Chubby's name," he said. "But I've also gained a lot in the last two years." In particular, he's gained more restaurants: Leonard just opened his ninth location, at 38th and Stuart, with another outpost coming soon on East Colfax Avenue. All of the Bubba Chinos outposts feature brightly painted metal wainscoting decorated with graffiti tags, photos of Leonard and various celebrities and old Broncos gear, reflecting his Denver roots as well as his time in northern California.

The Federal location, in particular, serves as a community gathering spot as much as an eatery. "I like to help people succeed," Leonard explained. "I inherited the spirit of my grandparents."

One night, as I ate a red-chile-smothered cheese enchilada, I listened to a group of men talking about classic cars. The enchilada was a classic, too: The corn tortilla was stuffed full of day-glo orange cheese, the gooey, Velveeta-like blob exploding out into the earthy, hot chile and lessening the intensity of its kick. I loved the way this unhealthy, melted-food science project tasted. The flavors of the red chile, made from another old family recipe, were intricately layered, reflecting generations of experimentation.

Another night, I eavesdropped on a teenage girl's loud cell-phone conversation as I battled a massive burrito filled with what seemed like pounds of savory braised beef, as well as refried beans. You can order just about any of the burritos on the Bubba Chinos menu in foil-wrapped, hand-held form — but then you don't get to have that burrito smothered. Although I remain a zealous fan of the green chile at Chubby's, I love Bubba Chinos' thick, gravy-like green, heavy with jalapeños and studded with chunks of the pepper and bits of pork. It's not quite as salty or spicy as the original — though the kitchen will make it spicier upon request — but it's hearty and intense, and I never miss a chance to eat it. So I not only order my burrito smothered, but I ask for a little inside the tortilla, too. I'd buy it by the jar, too (it's for sale at the restaurant), if Leonard hadn't changed the recipe for better preservation, subtracting the meat but keeping the lard. He also plans to offer a vegan version in the future. I even order my burritos smothered when I'm taking an order to go, which can lead to a terrifying trip along Federal as I open that styrofoam square and start devouring forkfuls of food, praying for a red light so that I can scoop up some scalding green chile without risking inflicting a third-degree burn on my lap.

My love for that green chile explains my dislike for such menu items as the tostada, which is topped with synthetic-flavored packaged guacamole and shredded American cheese. As much as I like that processed dairy product in its molten form, I hate it when it just adds salt and a weird plastic texture to a dish. I've found the hard-shell beef tacos just as disappointing; although the grilled beef boasts a satisfyingly spicy marinade, it's topped with watery shredded iceberg and speckled with that same cheese, and no amount of housemade tomato-based salsa will help.

I've learned that lesson by this busy Friday night, when I order a plate of chile-cheese fries to go with my Mexican hamburger. The fries are of the frozen-and-bagged variety: uniformly cut pieces of pale-yellow potato. Once fried, though, they're an ideal vehicle for more of that thick, spicy chile and more of that orange, gooey cheese. The dish isn't heart-healthy or Michael Pollan-approved, but it's damn good. Especially after a night of drinking, which you must do before you come to Bubba Chinos, because it does not have a liquor license. But it does have expansive hours: On Fridays and Saturdays, the place stays open until 3 a.m.

Leonard Cordova may have lost the Chubby's name, but he hasn't lost the Chubby's flavor — or entrepreneurial spirit. "Next time, you have to try the Mexican hamburger Bubba Chinos style," Leonard said at the end of our conversation. "We put chicharrones in it."

The only thing that might possibly be better than Bubba Chinos' green chile? That green chile poured over fried pork skin.

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Laura Shunk was Westword's restaurant critic from 2010 to 2012; she's also been food editor at the Village Voice and a dining columnist in Beijing. Her toughest assignment had her drinking ten martinis and eating ten Caesar salads over the course of 48 hours. She still drinks martinis, but remains lukewarm on Caesar salads.
Contact: Laura Shunk