The phrase “Den-Mex” may have been coined by out-of-towner Gustavo Arellano in 2012, when the author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America praised Chubby’s on West 38th Avenue for the sheer weirdness of its Mexican hamburger, but those of us who live here already knew what makes this city’s Mexican food special, even if we didn’t have a name for it. As Arellano pointed out, Den-Mex is as distinctive as any other regional cuisine, though it might be a little more obscure outside of Colorado’s borders. In Denver, we all know exactly what to expect when we order a dish smothered in green chile, and it can come as something of a surprise when an outsider points out that the sauce is often closer to orange than green. (You know who you are — and you probably also gain smug satisfaction every time you point out that blueberries aren’t really blue.)
And we know exactly where to go for our Den-Mex favorites, which are so different from the regional Mexican specialties that have added variety (if some confusion) to the city’s menus of late. While most of these dishes started out with the Mexican and New Mexican settlers who came to the area before Colorado was even a state, economics, climate and availability of ingredients have whittled away all but the essential over the years. So, no, our green chile isn’t as green as it is in New Mexico (where Hatch chiles have always been cheap and plentiful). And Denver’s comparatively harsh winters and short growing season mean that light, fresh flavors — like those you’d find in coastal Mexican kitchens or in the tropical swaths of the Yucatán — yielded to heartier fare.
The resulting Den-Mex dishes are that thick, often tomato-hued green chile; the burritos that come smothered in the fiery sauce; and the combo plates of enchiladas, rellenos (crispy, of course) and tamales — equally smothered — that offer subtle variations in texture even as each separate item merges into a cheesy, saucy continuum. And tacos? Den-Mex has never really latched onto the standard Mexican taco, with its petite corn tortillas and multitude of meaty fillings; the taco the town here has been a hard shell filled with ground beef, steak or chicken, or the semi-crunchy fried taco still championed by a few joints around town. (Yes, great taquerias abound in the metro area, but they’re of a different tradition than what has evolved into Denver’s distinctive style.)
But even loyalists and die-hard traditionalists need a change of pace. So when you head to your favorite spot for a signature Den-Mex dish, stop for a moment and contemplate the menu; you might just find a new addiction. Here are a few places that stand out for an iconic Den-Mex offering — along with an alternative you may never have noticed.
1231 West 38th Avenue
Arellano may not have grown up in Denver, but he was perceptive in singling out the fifty-year-old Chubby’s as the epitome of how this city’s Mexican food has evolved. Most of us look no further than the familiar burrito grid at the top of the menu opposite the order counter, arranged with mathematical precision into rows and columns, with choices that even regulars would have a hard time describing. (What’s the difference between the Special and the Deluxe, for example?) The customers lined up inside the cramped waiting room know exactly what they’re ordering, and it almost always involves meat and beans swaddled in a flour tortilla and drowned in thick, clingy green chile. Arellano’s favorite, the Mexican hamburger, is a popular choice, too, but it’s really just a variation on a beef burrito. And late-night sees a distinct uptick in the number of chile cheese fries ordered.
But if you’re just not a Denver green chile fan (it’s okay; we forgive you) or you’re looking for a change of pace, Chubby’s roster hides a few items that aren’t often ordered. The quesadillas, for example: a safe diversion from the burrito, as the ingredients are the same but the configuration is simply flattened from a cylinder to a semi-circle. The folded tortilla is grilled to a crisp and stuffed with your choice of meat; we recommend beef and bean, without green chile, so that the surprisingly spicy and flavorful ground beef will stand out.
For the truly daring, Chubby’s also makes tortas fattened with either chicken or steak. While opting for infrequently ordered menu items can be a little risky (since crucial ingredients like bread may not be at their freshest), the sandwich fillings — meat, guacamole, beans, lettuce and tomato — are the same that go into the burritos, and the bun is at least a locally made traditional bolillo. It’s a monster, so each bite can be a little dense and bready; a great idea, especially after a few drinks on a last-call stop, would be to accompany your torta with a side of green chile for dunking or smothering.
And soon, first-timers won’t need to endure the embarrassment associated with waffling over your order in front of an impatient cashier and a packed room of hungry customers; a new Chubby’s is arising just behind the original that will boast a spacious dining room where you can ponder your options in peace. The new space is expected to open in mid- to late November, at which point the old building will be demolished to make room for more parking.
Santiago’s Mexican Restaurant
2505 Federal Boulevard
(and multiple other locations)
The Den-Mex lineup wouldn’t be complete without the breakfast burrito — especially a foil-wrapped bomb from one of the many Santiago’s around town, which are as much a part of the Front Range landscape as the foothills themselves (though since the homegrown Santiago’s chain is just over a quarter-century old, not quite as ancient). A trip past the drive-up window for a couple of morning burritos is a ritual for kick-starting the day, and many Denverites are as lost without their Santiago’s as without that first jolt of a.m. coffee.
We’re so accustomed to equating Santiago’s with breakfast burritos that it’s easy to forget that many of its outposts — like our favorite, at Federal Boulevard and West 25th Avenue — include full-service dining rooms with a wide variety of plates and combos available. What to do if you somehow missed the wake-up call of tongue-searing green chile and scrambled eggs wrapped for an easy eat-and-drive breakfast? Stop in for a relaxing lunch over a platter of cheese enchiladas, beans and — dare we say it? — a warm blanket of red chile. But since you’re not in your car, don’t forget to save a few bucks for a tip.
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Mexico City Restaurant & Lounge
2115 Larimer Street
The idea of a lounge that closes before dinner most days might be tough to envision, but Mexico City Restaurant & Lounge, with its complete bar, has been serving on Larimer Street since 1967, the same year that Chubby’s opened up the hill from downtown. Although the place now focuses on lunch (with dinner on Fridays and Saturdays only), the specialty of the house remains the fried taco, another Denver invention. While crunchy, hard-shell tacos emerged a century ago in Texas and deep-fried tacos dorados are a street favorite throughout Mexico, the fried tacos at Mexico City are unique because they’re stuffed with gooey yellow cheese at the bottom and fried on a flat top while hot oil is poured over them from a spouted pot. You’ll also find other Den-Mex classics like Mexican hamburgers, crispy chiles rellenos and burritos smothered in a tangy, chunky green chile that actually boasts a touch of green color.
We’ve never been to Mexico City without getting an order of fried tacos for the table (the perfect hors d’oeuvre accompanied by a Bloody Mary), but sometimes a big breakfast is called for, and the kitchen here does a great job with huevos rancheros. After a particularly rough night, a cheap and hefty platter of eggs, beans, green chile and tortillas may not be quite enough, but fortunately — and not surprisingly, given its mastery of the griddle after decades of frying tacos — the restaurant is also adept at pancakes. A short stack of flapjacks, though hardly Den-Mex, is just the right side to soak up last night’s overindulgence.