From a hillside overlooking downtown Denver, La Loma has been slinging green chile for more than four decades. That green chile is from a recipe created by Grandma Savina Mendoza, and it became the focal point of the modest Mexican restaurant that the Mendoza family opened in 1973 in a historic Victorian bungalow at 2637 West 26th Avenue (the current home of Sassafras). La Loma became so popular that in 1981 it was able to move to a much bigger place, complete with a large parking lot just a block down the hill, at 2527 West 26th Avenue.
They had new partners there: Sonny Brinkerhoff, a longtime fan of the restaurant, and his son, William. "We were impressed by the food, the cleanliness," William remembers. "We partnered with the Mendoza family, and the result of that partnership was the reconfigured La Loma." For the new La Loma, the Brinkerhoffs built a 7,500-square-foot restaurant out of three tiny Victorian miners' houses with an add-on in the back; you can still see the walls of those houses inside La Loma today. And the restaurant itself quickly became a familiar sight in Denver, perched on a hill overlooking downtown, in a part of town that was far from the hot spot it is today.
In addition to many more seats and a bigger kitchen, the new location had another bonus: a bar with a liquor license, which hadn't been allowed in the previous spot because it was too close to the Denver Public Schools' Career Education Center.
They had some “hard years early on,” William remembers, but "things jelled quickly and the rest is kind of history. People came for weddings, anniversaries, birthdays, and for so many memories associated with La Loma."
The Mendozas left the business a few years after the move, but the Brinkerhoffs stayed. So did Grandma Mendoza's green chile recipe, as well as her portrait, which hangs in one of the dining rooms. In fact, much of the menu at La Loma is "virtually unchanged" since the early days, says Mark Brinkerhoff, now a partner with his father, William, who bought out his other partners around 2000; Mark is the third generation of the family to work at La Loma. The chiles rellenos, fajitas and homemade tortillas — and the green chile, of course — are still the most popular dishes, Mark notes, although the kitchen has added fish tacos and a few other items over the years.
But now there are more changes in the works. "We are moving downtown in the near future," says Mark, who can't name the spot where they're going yet because it's not quite a done deal. But it's done enough for him to know that in a couple of months, they'll close the current La Loma for good, ideally reopening the next day in the new location downtown — an area hungry for good Mexican food. "That's what we're trying to do," Mark says, admitting that there might actually be a gap of a week or so when people will have to go without La Loma's green chile.
The Brinkerhoffs told their employees — many of whom have worked there for decades (one was at the original La Loma), and all of whom will switch to the new spot, Mark says — about the impending move before Christmas. So it didn't come as a shock to them when the word broke this week that the property where La Loma stands has been sold (the family no longer owned it, and La Loma had been operating as a tenant, William says); the building will be knocked down and reportedly replaced with a fifteen-story tower with 713 units. But the news definitely shook up the Jefferson Park neighborhood, where things are changing faster than La Loma can whip up one of its birdbath-sized margaritas.
Mark Brinkerhoff has seen those changes. "I grew up eating here," he says, although he didn't join the family business until five or six years ago, after working in other restaurants.
The new space downtown will be about twenty seats smaller than this La Loma, which seats about 180 people inside and another forty outside. And while they can't take the miner's cabins with them, Mark says they'll use similar materials and incorporate as many pieces of the current place as they can, including the popular bar. But after more than thirty years of use, the place is simply "worn out," Mark says.
"Then this opportunity came along," William adds. "We're very excited about it." (The downtown location should be announced in a week or so.)
The changes won't end with the move downtown, either. The Brinkerhoffs will build another La Loma on a one-acre property they own by the Denver Aquarium; they've already drawn up design plans to submit to the city. "It's really awesome, with great character and charm," Mark says. "We wanted to offer a newer thing." The target date for opening that restaurant — which will have a rooftop deck with a great view of downtown as well as a hundred or more seats, plenty of parking and maybe even the original La Loma fireplace — is spring 2017.
"We're hoping to be here another 35 years," William says of the Platte Valley location, just down the hill from the current La Loma. "Ultimately it will be a better site. Hopefully the downtown will be permanent as well."
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And that's not all: The Brinkerhoffs also have a site in Castle Rock where they will build another La Loma.
Judging by the crowds that regularly spill into La Loma's parking lot, they'll have no problem filling any of their spots. "Most of our clientele has grown up coming here with their families," says Carlen Daniels, La Loma's director of operations. "Even if they’ve moved out of this part of town, they make the trip here." Now, though, there may be a La Loma even closer to home.
“It’s just really important that people understand we’re the same people, the same company, with the same green chile they've had for thirty years,” says Mark Brinkerhoff. "We're even staying in the neighborhood." And, yes, when that new spot in the Platte Valley opens, they'll be running the regular Broncos shuttle.
And Grandma Mendoza's portrait will oversee all the action.