Gustavo Arellano on Chubby's, Tom Tancredo and Den-Mex

Gustavo Arellano, author of Ask a Mexican, returned to the Su Teatro stage last night, where eighteen months ago he'd discussed immigration with Tom Tancredo. Before that debate, Tancredo and Arellano had met across the street for dinner at El Noa Noa. And no matter how he feels about Mexicans, "Tancredo likes those tamales," Arellano told the crowd.

But then, who doesn't? For his third book -- the first was a compilation of his columns, the second a personal history of Orange County, where he grew up and is now the editor of the OC Weekly -- Arellano researched Mexican food across the country, chronicling how it spread throughout all fifty states. The result? Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, which was released last month to rave reviews.

And now Arellano was back in Denver to talk not immigration, but Mexican food -- and the contributions that Coloradans made to that cuisine's conquest. In 1886, for example, Buffalo Bill Cody introduced the first Mexican restaurant outside of the Southwest: a pop-up place at Madison Square Gardens, where his Wild West Show was performing. A century later, Steve Ells started another very big show when he opened his first Chipotle in a former Dolly Madison store on East Evans.

But Denver's biggest contribution may be its homegrown version of Mexican food, which Arellano dubbed "Den-Mex": fiery green chile (as orange as a Bronco jersey) that smothers everything, including chile rellenos and that creation unique to Colorado, the Mexican hamburger. Arellano loves Den-Mex so much that he penned a special essay for Westword, "Mexican Hamburger Helper," devoted to it. And during the day and a half he was in Denver for this book-signing, he managed to eat at La Fiesta (chile rellenos), Jack-N-Grill (chile relleno hamburger), Santiago's (which catered last night's event) and, of course, Chubby's.

Taco USA lists the five greatest Mexican dishes in the United States -- and the very best, Arellano says, is the Mexican hamburger at the original Chubby's, which Stella Cordova took over in the late '60s, turning what had been a burger joint into what Arellano now deems the top Mexican restaurant in the country. (Accept no substitutes: References to Cordova's grandson, Leonard Cordova, who started Bubba Chino's, earned boos from the crowd, as did mentions of Rick Bayless and Casa Bonita.) The Mexican hamburger at Chubby's is "the dish that best personifies the Mexican-American experience, a monument to mestizaje," Arellano proclaims.

Cordova is gone, but Chubby's lives on. And the next time Arellano comes to town, he promises to hold a signing there at 1 a.m.

Even Tancredo is invited.

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