Cafe Society

Curtis Park Creamery serves up Mexican comfort food in endless combinations

In those sultry, late-August days before I started eating for a living, Westword's former Cafe critics offered advice on how I should handle my new position. Kyle Wagner, now travel editor of the Denver Post, suggested I tell people I'm a pet sitter, because otherwise I'll spend every minute of every cocktail party answering this question: "What's your favorite restaurant?" (She was right.) Laura Shunk, my immediate predecessor, offered equally practical advice: Get an opinion on green chile, and get it fast.

Photos: A Closer Look at Curtis Park Creamery

While I'm not going to name my favorite restaurant or the town's best green chile — not now, at least, though I'll certainly divulge those answers at some point — I can promise you this: Curtis Park Creamery, a family-owned Mexican takeout joint in a historic neighborhood just northeast of downtown, won't be topping either list. Still, there are many reasons to join the line of happy customers waiting patiently for their food, and delicious, very well-priced breakfast burritos, enchiladas and rellenos are just three of them.

Back in 1969, Lawrence and Beatrice Rodriguez opened a neighborhood market in the Curtis Park Creamery — they kept the name of the soft-serve shop once operated on site by Lawrence's brother — and sold prepared beans and chile on the side. Demand for the food outpaced demand for groceries, though, and soon the Creamery dropped the market concept altogether. Today the business is run by Rodriguez daughters Loretta Chavez and Deborah Poynter and Deborah's husband, Michael, with Chavez and granddaughter Megan Wells behind the stove. Though other changes have been made along the way — combo plates, shredded chicken and quesadillas were added to the menu after Lawrence Rodriguez stepped down in 1999 — the place remains bare-bones, with walls that look like they haven't seen a fresh coat of paint in years, an amusement park-style metal railing to queue around, and, most conspicuously, no tables.

The menu is posted on the wall, and it has a dizzying array of choices and prices. In the burrito category alone, there are twelve options. We're not talking carnitas, vegetable fajitas and chicken mole. Differences are slight, forcing you to study the menu like one of those puzzles where one picture doesn't quite match the rest. Burrito #0 (I'm not making this up) is bean and cheese; #1 is bean and chile; #1A is bean and cheese, smothered; #1B is bean, cheese and lettuce, smothered; and so on. Newcomers might stand and stare a while, trying to make sense of the options, but that's not a good idea. As in the "Soup Nazi" routine from Seinfeld, dawdling is not encouraged, nor is changing your order, as you'll see by the large green sign warning of any behavior that "slows down the line." During all of my visits, however, I never witnessed anything other than friendly, efficient service; then again, nearly all of the customers seemed to be regulars who knew what they wanted.

If you don't know, don't waste time — and others' patience — by sifting through the options. Instead, skip straight to #4. With old-school, lard-spiked refried beans, spiced ground beef, shredded cheddar, lettuce and red or green chile, the burrito combines everything you want (except chicken; that's extra). Follow a similar more-is-better strategy with the breakfast burritos, which are cooked fresh until 11 a.m. and come in a number of combinations, none so winning as what a pizza place would dub the "meat-lover's combo" — with eggs, potatoes, lettuce, chorizo, ham, sausage and two crispy strips of bacon. Get either burrito smothered for a few extra quarters and leave happy.

Just how happy depends on what kind of chile you order and how particular you are about it. Both the red and green are made in-house and flavored, as is traditional, with pork. But the green version is more reddish-brown than green and somewhat thin in both texture and flavor — which is why it doesn't rate as my answer to Shunk. The red is both hotter and more complex, with such a spicy blend of chiles that you'll want to grab a lime Jarritos from the large cooler of canned and bottled sodas to put out the burn.

Another way to move through the line quickly is to pick one of the seven combo plates. The kitchen makes some 300 rellenos a day, and they come out of the fryer with enough crunchy nubs to stand up to that fiery red smother. Order #17 to get two of them smothered, plus beans and rice. Cheese enchiladas taste the way you've had them before, only better, slathered with a dark-burgundy sauce scratch-made from a blend of California, New Mexico and guajillo chiles. The #15 comes with two, plus beans or rice; both #11 and #12 come with one enchilada plus a burrito and beef taco or tamale. While the Creamery's tacos are nondescript, the tamales (sourced from nearby Tamales by La Casita) are excellent, with moist masa and enough shredded pork or cheese and green chiles so that each bite tastes like a mix of corn and filling, not just corn.

More than half the combos include a bean burrito, which is both good and bad. Good because the smashed pintos are rich in flavor from their pork base, and bad because when the beans are tucked into a white flour tortilla, then smothered, they turn into a gummy mess. To avert this problem, choose a combo with a crisp-bottomed bean tostada instead, or get that loaded #4 (non-combo) burrito, which treats the beans as a condiment rather than a stand-alone filling. Or, since substitutions aren't allowed, plan to pay a little more to assemble your own à la carte combination.

Not available on any combo are the taquito, a refreshingly light option with ground beef and pico de gallo heaped on a soft corn tortilla; the frito pie, an addictively messy mix of beef, cheddar and green chile; shredded chicken in any form; and the crispy, cinnamon-and-sugar-dusted fried tortillas known as cinnamon crisps. And while you can get extra lettuce for 69 cents and more onion for 65 cents, you can't get tomatoes on anything — except when mixed in pico. And there's no guac at all.

As for the lack of tables, don't sweat it. You can eat in your car — or if you're with your kids, you can buy them a yo-yo in the machine by the register and then head to the park across the street to eat and play, as two generations before you have done.

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Gretchen Kurtz has worked as a writer for 25 years; during that time she's stomped grapes in Napa, eaten b'stilla in Fez, and baked with Buddy Valastro, aka the Cake Boss. Her work has appeared in publications including Boulevard (Paris), Diversion, the New York Times and Westword. Our restaurant critic since 2012, she loves helping you decide where to eat and drink tonight.
Contact: Gretchen Kurtz