Then there was Mexican food. (Or, more accurately, New Mexican food, because many long-time New Mexicans, Latino and Anglo alike, will remind you that the food served in nearly all of Albuquerque’s so-called “Mexican” restaurants is decidedly different from the victuals served in homes and restaurants in Mexico―and, for that matter, different from the “Mexican” food served in Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and California. However, for the purposes of this narrative, “Mexican food” refers to any food that obviously has its culinary roots in the United Mexican States.)
When the opportunity to eat at a sit-down restaurant presented itself during my initial years in Colorado, I didn’t automatically consider a Mexican restaurant. During my first summer in Denver, still a Northeasterner at heart, my mouth watered at the prospect of a pasta dish at Fratelli’s or a pizza at Shakey’s. I also greatly anticipated a steaming dish of bland chow mein soaked in added soy sauce in a Chinese restaurant on East Colfax. During my second summer there, however, the seed was planted.
It was quitting time after a hot day of pumping concrete to a lofty story of an apartment complex under construction in Denver’s Capitol Hill. The crew agreed to meet for beer and food at a restaurant and bar on Santa Fe Drive. Upon entering this modest establishment, it hit me immediately, a sensation that I remember to this day: the sweet, earthy odor of masa, the maize dough of the corn tortilla. We all decided to drink and eat at the bar, rather than a table. I was 19; yet I wasn’t carded, and the bartender set me up a glass of cold 5.0 Coors. For my entrée, I chose cheese enchiladas smothered in red chile. (Hearing lily white Pat Boone singing of “enchiladas in the ice box” in his recording “Speedy Gonzales” years earlier undoubtedly had a subliminal hand in this particular selection.)
When the plate, which included sides of rice and refried beans, was set before me, I found its appearance vaguely, yet pleasingly, familiar: the red chile and milk-white cheese, both bubbling vigorously, recalled the cheeses and tomato sauces that covered the countless slices of pizza I’d devoured since childhood on the East Coast.
Then, I began to eat. Like the best pizza crust, the folded corn tortillas, golden and vaguely crystalline, yielded tenderly to my bite. The flavor of the pureed, scarlet chile was unlike anything I’d ever experienced: a sweet-smoky tang with a citrus-y hint. On the heels of the flavor was the chile’s capsaicin, the legendary ball of fire, the source of the chile pepper’s “heat.” It was a vegetable, all right, but from another world, a desert world of fire and blinding light. I was raised on a bland diet: paprika was about the boldest spice on my mother’s shelf. Yet, when introduced at Jersey pizza parlors to crushed red pepper seasoning, I realized my weakness for fiery food, and the chile at that Mexican eatery didn’t disappoint. It opened wide my work-weary eyes and set my nose to watering. However, with regular swallows of the Coors, I managed the flames. Meanwhile, I gradually experienced the deep satisfaction that only a meal prepared with lard and a judicious helping of sodium can provide. The meal was simple and unforgettable.
So, during my subsequent years in Colorado, I became a regular consumer of Mexican food. I enjoyed beef enchiladas at Denver’s Satire Lounge, which every hip newcomer to Denver, it seemed, was advised to visit to eat Mexican food, perhaps for the first time, and drink beer and margaritas. The combination bar-and-restaurant was run by a Greek, although there was little doubt a team of muchachos, faithful to the tradition, was preparing its food. Other Denver Mexican restaurants I favored were The Riviera and Las Delicias. In Leadville, I particularly liked the chicken-stuffed sopapillas served at The Grill, where my Leadvillian friend Johnny swears Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkle, en route between Denver and Aspen, would stop for some authentic.
For atmosphere as well as provender, Denver’s Chubby’s was without equal. When I was a taxi driver in that city, a fellow cabbie recommended the joint, a take-out in a heavily Latino neighborhood just northwest of downtown. A cabbie knows that time is money, and Chubby’s was perfect for a quick and satisfying meal―providing one had good intestinal control and no proclivity for heartburn―during the 10-hour hustle. After parking in the grimy lot behind the white cinder block establishment, I’d join the crush―heavily tattooed vatos with pressed pants, pompadours, and hairnets; beguiling young Latinas under pounds of makeup; grandmothers cradling crying babies; viejos with canes; slumming, nervous gringos―in the tiny waiting room with a few chairs against walls bearing posters for upcoming boxing matches and ranchera concerts. A short, surly guy, his face recalling that of the young Al Pacino, would take my order. In a big room behind him, partially visible, an army of kitchen workers, men as well as women, would ladle chile and stir huge pots of refritos (simmering refritos, too, have that arresting odor of fresh earth). Soon I’d be handed my order, which never varied: two bean-cheese-and-green-chile burritos, each in a small white paper bag and the two of them in a larger white paper bag, and a can of Pepsi to manage the flames and summon the insulin. Back in my cab, I’d take a big but careful bite―for Chubby’s never scrimped on the filling: one careless bite and it was on your shirt or in your lap―then peer gratefully at the burrito’s cross-section, marveling at its construction and bounty: the tender white frame of the flour tortilla, the generous helping of vaguely emerald-green chile layered on the bed of refritos. Meanwhile, the great satisfaction, the whole point of life.