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“Mexican” Food: Denver

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.

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Discovering the Southwest of La Veta Pass

In April of my twenty-sixth year, I had survived another winter in the brick and concrete of Denver.  I loved Spring in the Rockies, and one April day I headed due south from Denver, hoping to find a landscape similar to my cherished one outside of Buena Vista, where I would spend a night. 

I did.  It was a woodland on the western slope of La Veta Pass in the Sangre de Cristo Mountains of south-central Colorado.  Lush with juniper, it also included another diminutive evergreen, one that bore nuts rather than berries: the pinyon, or, as the Spanish know it, the piñon.  It was part of a vast parcel of private land owned by the fabulously wealthy Malcolm Forbes, although at the time I was unaware of this.  A friendly Colorado State Trooper, of all people, directed me to it.  Today the land is webbed with carefully graded dirt roads and dotted with high-end mountain homes.  Back then, however, at least where I was camped, it was, except for an access road or two, undeveloped.  Beside my parked car, after eating a can of Dinty Moore Beef Stew, I sat on a foam-rubber pad and wrapped myself against the chill of approaching night in my Sears Roebuck sleeping bag.  I watched the relentless Spring winds off La Veta Pass drive the blood-orange flames of my campfire in every direction.  Beneath a gleaming field of stars, I studied the distant lights of Alamosa, Colorado, to the west, unaware that in a quarter-century I would be living there.  I knew I was back in the genuine Southwest, and it was one of the most pleasurable evenings of my life.  From there, in pursuit of more rosey, wind-whipped sunsets, I drove farther south, to camp for the first time in New Mexico, still in the foothills of the Sangres, not far north of the mystical town of Taos.

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12-12-19: I Return to Denver – Briefly

In Denver, over the course of a year, I made new friends and rediscovered the joy of using a large public library, browsing a bookstore, playing a game of pick-up basketball at a public court, watching a first-run movie.  I enjoyed the company of my sister, who left the mountains for the city about the time of my departure. 

And I stepped into the classic Southwest for the first time, visiting New Mexico.  My sister, her friend, and I drove to Santa Fe and lodged in a motel there.  We visited the city’s historic plaza.  We ate Mexican food at its restaurants.  What struck me most about the city was its large Latino population and preponderance of earth-toned “pueblo-revival” architecture, although at the time I was utterly unaware of New Mexico’s various Pueblo Indian tribes that for generations had inspired such architecture.  I vividly remember playing word games in the car while returning to Colorado on I-25 in the high-plains northeastern New Mexico twilight.  I left northern New Mexico with no great desire to return anytime soon.  Denver was still novel and exciting, and thus I was set on establishing a life there. 

Unfortunately, this meant enduring a succession of dull, unchallenging, low-paying jobs.  I settled in Denver with absolutely no career ambitions, no interest in how my bachelor’s degree in English would favor or disfavor me in the Denver job market.  Initially, what I did for a living in Denver did not matter as long as it put a roof over my head.  My interest was in eating, going to bars, smoking the occasional joint, reading, fantasizing about the book I would write, gazing at the mountains, and finding a steady girlfriend for the first time in my life.  After all, though blessed with a partial Ivy League education, Jack Kerouac wasn’t looking for the bottom rung of the corporate ladder when he first landed in Denver; he was content to do heavy lifting in the city’s Denargo Market district during the day and partying and dreaming romantic dreams in the historic mountain town of Central City at night.  

But I found myself discontented with working as a shipping clerk, forklift driver, shag boy for an RV and speed boat dealership, and ditch digger.  I was insulted by the pay these jobs provided.  Yet I had no desire to return to college, get certification as a teacher, and teach the English I presumably loved in a Denver public school.  I had no desire to return to college to get an advanced degree in English or begin the study of law, engineering, or business administration.  I could not sell myself as a humble carpenter, for I’d learned no carpentry skills while working in Breckenridge.  And I was certainly above learning a trade such as plumbing or car repair.  Meanwhile, I was still without a girlfriend.  Now, I simply wanted to make more money with the knowledge and physical strength I possessed, and one day in 1975 I was offered that opportunity.

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Southwest Lite: Denver 1969

Of course, the Southwest is Latinos.  I doubt there were any among my peers in my overwhelmingly Anglo Jersey hometown.  Any surname identifying my high school classmates that ended in “a” or “o” was likely Italian.  The school did include a foreign language instructor named Gomez, although, curiously, he was not the advisor to the school’s Spanish Club; an instructor named Kelly had that responsibility.

My introduction to more palpable elements of the Southwest occurred following my graduation from prep school―a one-year remedial interlude following my graduation from a public high school―when for the first time I traveled west of the Mississippi, specifically to Denver, Colorado.  It was 1969 and my sister had the previous year moved to the city from Boston.  I was to spend the summer working in Denver and sharing her apartment in the heart of the city.  When on an afternoon in mid-June I exited Denver’s air-conditioned Stapleton Airport to hail a cab to deliver me to my sister’s address, I expected, however subliminally, to be coated once again in the same humid heat I’d experienced the previous day in Ridgewood, New Jersey.  But in a matter of minutes, while waiting in the sunshine on the terminal sidewalk, I realized this was not going to be the case.  Denver was nearly as hot as the Garden State that day, but the city’s relative humidity approached, at best, about sixty per cent of New Jersey’s, so the air around me seemed to crackle, seemed to crisp and lighten my slacks, socks, and polo shirt.  (Those were still the days when one was expected to dress smartly to fly.)  I felt the arid high-plains heat of Denver wicking eighteen years of turbid Northeast atmosphere―humidity and haze―off of me.  Less clouded with humidity, there was a fierceness to the Denver sunlight that bit into the exposed skin of my arms and hands.  Riding west in a cab to my sister’s apartment, I not only thrilled to the sight of the Rocky Mountains, I was astonished by their clarity.  They seemed to enter the very city, chunks of mountainsides vying with cars and trucks for room on Denver’s east/west thoroughfares.

The Southwest became personal to me quickly that summer.  The United States Census of 1970 tallied, among Denver County’s 515,000 residents, 85,000 individuals with “Spanish Surnames.”  In the summer of ’69, I very possibly met two of those tallied.  Shortly after joining my sister in her attic apartment, I ran into a tee-shirted young man who occupied the other apartment on the floor.  He looked about my age.  His face, arms, and hands were uniformly brown, although not, I sensed, the brown of a Jersey-shore tan.  His face was very smooth, very nearly free of a beard that I was now developing, and his arms were similarly devoid of hair.  When I shook his right hand, I noticed in the hollow between the thumb and index finger of his left a crude tattoo of blue dots in the shape of a crucifix.  The name of this friendly fellow was Eddie Espinosa.  I liked the freshness of his last name: the froth of its syllables; the peaks, plateaus, and valleys of its vowels.

Soon, my sister introduced me to one of her friends, Josie Mares.  I was immediately struck by Josie’s exotic looks.  Like Eddie, she had a dusky complexion.  She was slender, petite, and quiet, with dark eyes and dark, curly hair.  I assumed she was about my sister’s age and thus some five years older than I.  I was terribly shy around her.  Yet how I enjoyed stealing glances at her on summer afternoons, when my sister, her friends, and I would sit cross-legged in a circle on a worn Persian rug, drinking chianti, laughing, and listening to the Chambers Brothers in the high-ceilinged living room of one of Denver’s many great old houses converted to apartments.  When one day, for clarification, I asked my sister to spell Josie’s last name, my three dull years of high school Latin finally became of some use as I recalled “maris,” the plural of the Latin word for “sea.”  And from then on Josie became, in my romantic imagination, Jo by the Two Seas. 

I met more people with Spanish surnames in Denver that summer, mainly as a result of working the graveyard shift in the mill room of the massive factory that made Gates Tires.  I was fairly certain that all of the Latinos I’d met at Gates had ties to the place, now closer than ever to me yet still barely imaginable, called Mexico.