, Denver’s only Colombian restaurant, would be easy to miss if not for the bright blue, yellow and red school bus parked in front of its East Colfax Avenue storefront. For owner Joaquin Contreras, the bus is a warm reminder of home, where similar buses, called chivas, were used for transportation between Colombian mountain towns.
Joaquin remembers seeing the modified school buses roll by in his native Bogotá when he was a kid. A decade or so ago, however, chivas were banned as methods of transportation because of safety concerns. Roof racks would overflow with luggage, goods and livestock, and the passenger sections would be packed with people. The routes were often dangerous, and the buses had trouble with the terrain; injuries were common. It looked like chivas had reached the end of the line, but then they reappeared in Colombian cities as party buses. The seats in back were moved to the exterior to create a dance floor; lights were installed and speakers hooked up. The chiva lived on, becoming even more ingrained in Colombian culture.
When Joaquin opened Los Parceros in 2013, he knew he had to bring a chiva to Denver. “That was like a dream,” he says. “Since the first day we opened, I wanted to have a chiva.”
Joaquin grew up in Colombia; his father still has a restaurant in Bogotá, Casa Don Juaco. Joaquin lived in Los Angeles and Mexico City before moving to Denver in 1999 with his wife, Evelyn, and three kids. While Evelyn opened a salon in Aurora, he worked as a restaurant manager. But after ten years in the food industry, he was ready to open a place of his own.
A friend tipped him off that a small Cuban sandwich shop was giving up its space on Colfax. Joaquin bought the place and began planning Los Parceros, with a chiva always in the back of his mind. But first he had to get over a few bumps along the way. Los Parceros was closed for nine months while he looked for someone who could install a new ventilation system in the kitchen. Then, just as the restaurant was ready to reopen, Joaquin found a short yellow school bus for sale in Chicago. He hopped on a plane and crossed his fingers.
“I was nervous, because I didn’t know if it was going to make it,” he says of the bus, which came with just over 100,000 miles on it and no guarantees.
He started the bus in Chicago and headed for the Mile High City. He made a late-night stop for gas, and when he went to leave, his worst fear was realized: The engine wouldn’t turn over.
“That was 3 a.m.,” he remembers. “I had to call a mechanic. He started it for me and said, ‘Okay, don’t turn it off until you get to Denver.’”
Joaquin rolled out of the gas station and reached Denver ten hours later. Then he and a friend, a Colombian mechanic who lives here, got to work turning the bus into a chiva. The hardest part was rearranging the seats. They had to grind them off their supports and re-weld them to the sides of the bus. The entire exterior was repainted the colors of the Colombian flag: blue, yellow and red. A roof rack was installed to hold luggage, burlap sacks of produce and suitcases, most of which were purchased at Goodwill. The transformation took two months to complete.
“That was a good project,” Joaquin says. “It was fun.”
Joaquin named the chiva La Parcera, the singular form of Los Parceros, which translates loosely to “partners in crime” in English. He placed a sign with an old Colombian adage in the windshield: “No traiga machete que aquí le damos.
“The sign means, ‘Don’t bring your machete, because we have one here,’” Joaquin says. “In Colombia, they used to fight with machetes when they were arguing. ‘Don’t bring trouble, because we’re going to give you trouble.’”
When Joaquin announced the chiva’s arrival on Facebook, chiva fever ensued. “All the Colombians went crazy,” he recalls. “Univision came here to do an interview right away, the day I brought it here.”
Joaquin entered his chiva in the 2015 Saint Patrick’s Day Parade; a procession of South American dancers followed the bus down the street while music blared and Joaquin shook hands with spectators. The chiva won first place in the Best Dancers/Marchers category.
Soon people were calling to rent the chiva for private parties. Joaquin agreed, but on two conditions: He does the driving, and while the chiva is BYOB, no pot is allowed.
One night Joaquin noticed a group of partiers smoking in the back. He started to tell them that marijuana was banned from the chiva — but before the words could leave his mouth, two policemen on motorcycles flashed their lights and pulled the bus over. Everyone held their breath.
It turned out that one of the policemen had Colombian relatives and couldn’t believe that a chiva was driving around Denver. Joaquin gave him directions to the restaurant, and the cop said he’d visit. Then he told the tokers in the back that they would be arrested if they didn’t stop smoking.
Joaquin says that he will drive anywhere within reason for a private party. La Parcera is a unique way to get to a Red Rocks show, he notes; the chiva can fit up to 25 people in the back. More often than not, the bus becomes a party’s main attraction. “There are times when they go into the club and they’d rather just go back into the chiva and dance in there and drive around,” says Kenny Contreras, who works in his father’s restaurant.
An all-inclusive chiva night is in the works, too. “We’re trying to do a whole package where you come eat, we take you on this bus ride, and we bring you back and we can party here, so you’re not just getting a bus, you’re getting a place to party,” Kenny explains.
But you don’t need to rent the chiva to sample traditional Colombian cuisine at Los Parceros. Joaquin based the menu on his grandmother’s recipes, which are also used in his father’s restaurant. The most popular dish is bandeja paisa, a plate of Colombian samplers, including beans, rice, chorizo and a thick slab of pork. Ajiaco is a traditional Colombian soup made with chicken, corn, potatoes and guasca, an herb that gives the soup its unique flavor. And Los Parceros is also the only place in town where you can buy Aguila, one of Colombia’s most popular beers. “We actually had people calling from Nevada asking if they can come pick some up,” says Kenny.
The restaurant is open from 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day but Tuesday. On Saturdays, Joaquin can be found on the front patio, cooking carne llanera, using an open-flame meat-grilling technique that’s traditional in Colombia. He’ll likely be wearing his trademark Bogotá cap and his permanent grin, and might offer you a meat sample or even a free chiva tour.
Just leave your machete and your marijuana at home.
Los Parceros Colombian Restaurant, 5922 East Colfax Avenue, 720-379-3808.