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La Fiesta

There was a time when my favorite Korean restaurant was the one housed in the shell of a former McDonald's on Parker Road in Aurora — a massive place that still had uncomfortable plastic McDonaldland seats in the dining room and big Ms embossed on things like the napkin dispensers and door handles. That joint (which, I believe, was just called "Korean Restaurant") is now long gone, but I will always have a weakness for good restaurants that open draped across the bones of some awful (or weird) operation that came before. And so one of my standby Mexican lunch favorites will always be La Fiesta, which opened four decades ago in a former Safeway grocery store and has been serving the Denver faithful ever since.

There are those who knock La Fiesta — calling it an excellent example of the worst of Colorado-style Mexi-merican cuisine — but I will fight any man out there who says such a thing in my presence, because La Fiesta is not that at all. As a matter of fact, the best of the menu bears little, if any, resemblance to anything done, in Colorado or elsewhere, under the heading of Mexican. Here the burritos are smothered under a green chile that's a category unto itself — a medium-thick, medium-hot mess of roasted chiles, pork and thickening agents that sticks like napalm to anything it touches. The rellenos are done egg-roll style — wrapped in wonton skins and stuffed with bright-yellow cheese product. And the red chile comes as close as any in town to the real chile rojo done in New Mexico for the tourists who have not yet become accustomed to a daily infusion of green chile on everything.

On my last meal there, the red chile was put to good use on a plate of chile caribe — a special that basically comprises pork, potatoes, red chile and nothing else, and is my hands-down favorite on the long menu — which I ate while knocking back Coronas and watching brothers Ron and Robert Herrera work the huge floor during a busy lunch rush: taking orders, clearing tables and riding herd on a dozen staffers tromping the vast, bunkerish space. Although La Fiesta may not serve the most authentic Mexican food in town, it offers a vital and valid version of Colorado Mexican that, though a bit dated (and therefore downright historic, in my opinion), comes with the option of sopapillas and honey for dessert, which I love so much I can forgive almost anything.

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