"I have to talk to you about something," he said.
I panicked. During the pandemic, La Fiesta — with a wide-open dining room where it's easy to social-distance and sense-searing green chile that could kill any virus — has been my home away from home, at least during weekday lunches, the only time the restaurant is open (except for a Friday afternoon happy hour). Michael Herrera had passed away at the start of the year, though, and La Fiesta, which transformed an old Safeway into a nightclub 55 years ago, occupies a very prime piece of property in Curtis Park, complete with parking.
Had the family members who've been running La Fiesta for decades decided to sell? Could this be the end?
Turns out it's only the beginning. Having gotten buy-in from his staff (relatives and non-relatives alike), Robert is now opening La Fiesta on Saturdays, too, from 4 to 9 p.m. The new hours debut on August 29.
"As you know," Robert says, "the COVID-19 virus has been hard on almost every business, especially restaurants. My family wants to continue my father's legacy more than anything, and this is probably the best way to do so. ... Customers have asked us for years when we are going to open weekends, so we feel it would be right to do so."
Right, and a welcome comeback for a Denver institution. Michael Herrera, a native Coloradan born on February 10, 1924, was an amateur boxing champion in the Air Force, then attended the University of Denver, graduating with bachelor’s, master’s and law degrees. But his external activities were what brought him fame, fortune...and lots of fans of Mexican food. He was a broadcaster for Colorado’s first Spanish-language radio station, KFSC-AM, and started the El Papa Gallo Night Club and other businesses in the neighborhood, along with La Fiesta.
When La Fiesta opened in 1964, it was a nightclub as well as a restaurant, filled with folks who wanted to dine, drink and dance, as evidenced by the DJ booth and acoustic-tile drop ceiling that remain today. Maybe with any luck, that DJ booth will see some action one Saturday soon.
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If not, the food alone is noteworthy, and everyone from cops to Colorado Supreme Court justices are lunchtime regulars. La Fiesta was one of the first joints in town, maybe the first joint, to serve a relleno fried in a giant wonton wrapper, a style that Mexican food expert Gustavo Arellano, author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, swears is native to Denver. “I’ve had chiles rellenos stuffed with cream cheese in Arizona copper country, with ground meat in Oaxacan dives, with quinoa in hippie places,” he told us after we introduced the Orange County native (and creator of “Ask a Mexican”) to Mexican food Denver style. “But in my travels across the U.S., the only place I’ve ever found them wrapped in wonton paper is in Denver. Next to the Mexican hamburger, Den-Mex at its finest!”
Of course, La Fiesta serves a Mexican hamburger, too, though that dish was invented at another Mexican joint, Joe’s Buffet on Santa Fe. Joe’s is long gone, but La Fiesta remains on that list of rare Mexican restaurants that have made it past fifty. (Among the others: La Popular, Mexico City Restaurant & Lounge, Chubby’s, Rosita’s, Pete’s Satire Restaurant & Lounge, Taco House, Blue Bonnet Mexican Cafe, Lucero’s and Brewery Bar II.)
Both the Mexican hamburger and the rellenos will be available on Saturdays, as well as all the other longtime La Fiesta favorites. "We are not offering any specials, as we feel that we want to ease gradually into Saturday dinner and build it up gradually," Robert says. "It has been a challenge to staff for the one day, but we will be ready."
As will we.