The smell of this corn mash is intoxicating and sweet, with a rich, grainy note and a hint of booze. Cows love the stuff, according to Jose Gonzalez, owner of the Mestizos food truck and one of the founders of DenCo Meats & Custom Cuts, a meat-processing facility in Deer Trail. Gonzalez has plans for the spent mash, still hot from the distillery at Mile High Spirits. The sloshing, 275-gallon plastic tote in the back of his pickup is destined for VW Farms near Watkins, where it will be dried, mixed with hay and fed to steers as part of a finishing diet before the animals are sent to the slaughterhouse.
Gonzalez now owns that slaughterhouse, making his business one of the most complete farm-to-table operations in Colorado.
The story of how a food-truck owner, boxer and Denver kid with roots in Mexico got to this point begins with a trip abroad. “I’ve always been interested in food,” Gonzalez explains, “and my family owned a couple of restaurants. But I took a trip to China with a friend when I was twenty. The food, the flavors and the cooking styles all hit me hard.”
When he returned from China, Gonzales moved to Flagstaff, Arizona, to work in a family restaurant for a year. Then, seven years ago, he bought a food truck from his uncle. He named the truck Mestizos, even though he realized that the word didn’t mean much to many of the white customers who line up for food-truck tacos and other culinary creations less grounded in tradition. “People say that I’m Mexican, but I’m also mestizo — mixed,” the 28-year-old explains. “Mestizos is a fusion of cultures and flavors and ideas.”
Gonzalez took what he had learned in China and blended it with his family’s history to come up with a menu for the food truck. Four years ago, he brought on Cynthia Sanchez, a graduate of the hospitality program at Metropolitan State University of Denver who also came to a love of cooking through family and travel. Sanchez remembers that the only time she ever got in trouble as a kid was when she cooked: “My mom would come home to find me cooking alone and get so mad at me — a nine-year-old with a pot of hot oil on the stove making french fries.”
After completing the hospitality program, Sanchez took off for Spain, ostensibly to study Spanish, but while there, she learned far more about food: how to cook perfect patatas bravas, how to prep and cure jamón, how to appreciate raw ingredients. “The food is simple, with few ingredients, but everything comes together,” she recalls.
And so between Gonzalez and Sanchez, the food coming out of Mestizos became as much about the ingredients as about the recipes. Gonzalez grew interested in buying meat from local farmers and ranchers and started making trips an hour east on Interstate 70 to Deer Trail to purchase meat from Deer Trail Lockers. Two years ago, friends and customers started asking him when he was going to open his own restaurant, but he wasn’t sure if the idea appealed to him. “Every food truck that gets popular opens a restaurant,” he notes.
What appealed to him more was the idea of controlling the food chain and ensuring that the result was something good on his customers’ plates. He began spending all of his spare time learning the meat-processing trade — everything from slaughtering to breaking down a carcass into usable cuts — from Tim Mullins, then the owner of Deer Trail Lockers. After six months, Gonzalez scraped together enough money with longtime friend Carlos Chaparro to lease the business, which had operated in the small town on the eastern plains since 1948. They changed the name to DenCo Meats & Custom Cuts and hired a butcher with thirty years of experience to help bring their vision to reality.
Gonzalez was also working with Travis and Deborah Vallin, owners of VW Farms, to source cattle that would meet his needs for his food truck’s menu. With the help of the Vallins, Gonzalez purchased the meat-processing facility, closing on the deal the first week of September.
“Now there’s no in-between, no middleman,” Gonzalez says. He’s business partners with the family that raises the cattle (some 250 head of red Angus on what Deborah calls a “hobby ranch”), and he runs the slaughterhouse and processing plant where the steers are humanely dispatched in small enough numbers that the company can keep track of each animal, what it ate and what cuts each one produces. All of that information goes onto labels when Gonzalez sells meat — an eighth of a cow and up — to individual customers. DenCo also processes pork, lamb and wild game.
“There’s definitely respect behind it — respect while the animal is alive — and passion and art,” the new business owner says of his trade. Customers aren’t just buying meat, he explains; they’re buying a share of a living cow.
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That living cow is what brings Gonzalez to Mile High Spirits twice a week to pick up those totes filled with spent mash, usually two at a time. Deborah Vallin says that she and her husband also pick up spent grain from Dry Dock Brewing in Aurora to feed to their herd. “We have it tested so we know exactly what’s in it,” she adds. That doesn’t include alcohol (which evaporates out when the grain is dried), but does include some residual sugar and plenty of protein.
The partnership with Mile High Spirits goes beyond just helping to feed the cattle; the Mestizos food truck is about to become the primary option for guests of the distillery’s taproom who want food along with their booze. The truck is currently in the shop being up-graded, but by late September it will sport a new name, Mestizos Mile High Eats, and will serve dinner seven nights a week outside the distillery at 2201 Lawrence Street, with lunches on the weekends. The new menu by Sanchez and Gonzalez will offer smoked meats and include a brisket burnt-end sandwich, burgers, carne asada fries, and tacos filled with meats from DenCo. Gonzalez says he also wants to serve Fireside Whiskey steaks, named for one of the distillery’s brands, because “we want our customers to distinguish the flavor of a whiskey-fed cow.”
For both Sanchez and Gonzalez, good food and community are tied together. Gonzalez met business partner Chaparro while training at the Denver Red Shield Community Center’s boxing facility when the two were still teenagers; Sanchez volunteers there in the summer, cooking healthy meals for kids who come in angry that they have to eat cauliflower but leave with an appreciation for fresh food. “We’re teaching kids how to eat not just healthy, but clean food,” Gonzalez says.
And boxing is still part of his life. He uses training “as an outlet to improve my life,” he says, adding that boxing is about more than just hitting; it’s a lesson on how to live life. “I get hit back occasionally,” he explains. “I’ve taken some blows — but that’s how you learn.”