Cafe Society

Gustavo Arellano Confirms: Fried Tacos Another Den-Mex Original

Our current cover story, "A Cut Above," is about the Denver steak, certainly a more worthy food namesake for the Mile High City than the icky Denver omelette or the abysmal Denver bulldog. But some culinary marvels created in Denver don’t bear the city’s name, and that’s a shame.

Last week we got confirmation from no less an august Mexican-food expert than Gustavo Arellano that the fried tacos served at several spots here are indeed native to Denver. In fact, Arellano couldn’t think of a single other place in the country that features tacos that are stuffed full of cheese (and other good stuff, like steak or chicken or ground beef), then fried until the cheese spurts out to form delicious little crisps and crusts. To make sure he was eating something unique to Denver, the visiting Arellano helped food fans go through several platters of the “famous fried tacos” at Mexico City Lounge, 2115 Larimer Street, until they could agree that they rightly deserve the “famous” descriptor. 

Those fried tacos aren’t the only “Mexican” dishes that actually got their start here in Denver. As Arellano noted in his book Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, the Mexican hamburger is definitely a Denver creation, one that has reached its apotheosis in the version served at the original Chubby’s at 1231 West 38th Avenue (accept no substitutes) — ideally at 3 a.m. In fact, Arellano told the New York Times that that dish — a hamburger patty pressed into a burrito with beans and crisp pork rinds, then drowned with green-chile sauce — is the single greatest Mexican dish in the United States. That burger/burrito mash-up, he says, is “the dish that best personifies the Mexican-American experience, a monument to mestizaje.”

But Colorado’s culinary creativity doesn’t end there. Arellano has also confirmed that the egg-roll-style chile relleno is a Denver invention. True Mexican chiles rellenos are soft; this version has a crisp crust and contains a molten load of cheesy goo. Unlike the fried taco, crispy chiles rellenos are available at numerous spots around town. Our favorite is La Fiesta, at 2340 Champa Street.

"In my time traveling the U.S. for great Mexican food, I can say that the fried tacos at Mexico City are unique, greasy, delicious things (steak is best!)," Arellano reports. "This dish is just further proof that Den-Mex is a thing, and a glorious thing at that. Now, what dishes HAVEN'T I tried in Denver yet..."

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun