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“Mexican” Food

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 fare served in homes and restaurants in Mexico―and, for that matter, different from the “Mexican” food served in Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and California.  (And today, maybe even in Vermont.) 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 venue.  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 looked forward to a steaming dish of bland chow mein awash in added soy sauce in a Chinese restaurant on East Colfax.  During my second summer in the city, 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 with whom I worked 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 at a table.  I was 19; yet I wasn’t carded, and the bartender therefore set me up a glass of cold, high-octane (as opposed to 3.2) Coors.  For my entrée, I chose cheese enchiladas smothered in red chile.  Hearing snow-white Pat Boone singing of “enchiladas in the ice box” in his recording “Speedy Gonzales” years earlier undoubtedly had a subliminal hand in this choice. 

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 ate.  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 a vegetable 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 hot 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.  (And I didn’t know what to make of the single sneeze the meal seemed to trigger.)  Meanwhile, I gradually experienced the deep satisfaction that only a meal prepared with lard and a judicious helping of sodium can provide.  Made with obvious south-of-the-border amor, the meal was simple and unforgettable.

Thus, 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 owned and 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, Las Delicias, and El Rancherito.  In Leadville, I particularly liked the chicken-stuffed sopapillas, smothered in chile verde, 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 history of heartburn, during the 10-hour hustle. 

After parking in the grimy lot containing Chubbys’s white cinder block building, I would 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 and walkers; 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 a young Al Pacino, often took my order.  In a big room behind him, partially visible, an army of men and women ladled chile and stirred huge pots of refritos. (Bubbling refritos, too, have that arresting odor of pure, fresh earth.)  

Soon I was 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 Pape-see to manage the flames and summon the insulin.  Back in my cab, I took a big but careful bite―for Chubby’s never scrimped on the filling: one reckless bite and it was on your shirt or in your lap―then peered 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, the gratings of queso.  Meanwhile, the great satisfaction, the whole point of life.

I had little sense of Linda’s regard for Mexican food while we were still living in Denver.  When we reunited in New Mexico, however, we both went for it full bore.  In 1988 there were scores of Mexican restaurants in Albuquerque; during our first couple of years in the city, we sampled 10 to 20 of them, but eventually patronized two on an almost weekly basis. 

Los Cuates was located next to a barber shop in an old strip mall in East Albuquerque.  Like Chubby’s, it had a tiny waiting room at its entrance.  The relatively small dining area consisted strictly of booths, no tables.  A number of the red vinyl bench seats were lumpy; shift as you might on them, you invariably found one buttock on a precipice, the other in a sinkhole.  The servers were generally full-figured Latinas, an encouraging sign, I concluded, in a Mexican restaurant.  For starters, I ordered a Pape-see, which was served with crushed ice in a large plastic tumbler. 

Heaven began with the arrival of the complementary tortilla chips and salsa.  Los Cuates’s salsa was unlike any I’d ever eaten.  It had bite, of course.  Beyond that, it was thoroughly red, dark red, and smooth, thick, and slightly sweet; indeed, it was the sweetness that set it apart.  The tortilla chips always arrived warm, and sometimes glistening with a breath of oil.  Owing to its unique consistency, the salsa clung reliably to the chip, never bailed to your chest or lap on its way to your watering mouth. 

Then, “This plate’s hot,” the server always warned me as she casually set down my usual order, an oven-fresh platter of cheese enchiladas swimming in chile verde sauce, the sauce bubbling menacingly at the platter’s edges.  I could never fathom how the naked fingers and thumbs of these servers withstood the heat, blistering to most mortals, of the platters during the segue from tray to table.  Like that of Chubby’s, Los Cuates’s chile verde was thick and jewel-like.  The corn tortillas, drooling the fatty yellow cheese, surrendered tenderly to the bite.  If it was a Sunday lunch or brunch, Los Cuates offered a complementary bowl of natillas, a custard of milk, eggs, and cinnamon, for dessert.  This creamy concoction calmed the walls of the mouth and throat, eased one into the blaze of a New Mexico afternoon.

Sadie’s was located north of downtown Albuquerque.  It shared its space with a bowling alley.  A Lebanese woman operated it.  (Lebanese?  Greek?  Who cared, as long as it was good.)  Sadie’s, too, began your meal with a complementary serving of salsa and chips, a veritable mountain of the latter.  Chile verde is what kept us returning to Sadie’s.  The diner was introduced to it immediately, for it was the foundation of the restaurant’s salsa, a dull green-gold concoction flecked with chile seeds that, because they are magnets for capsaicin, exploded like firecrackers in the mouth.  Sadie’s salsa was thinner than that of Los Cuates, so one had to apply it to the chip carefully and minimize gesticulation when delivering it to the mouth. 

As always at Sadie’s, I ordered the enchiladas con queso with chile verde.  Unlike nearly all of the Mexican restaurants Linda and I sampled, Sadie’s offered the diner the choice of “mild” or “hot” green chile on his or her entrée.  For several consecutive visits to the restaurant, I ordered the “hot” sauce, attempting to develop a liking for it.  (On these occasions, the distant sound of clobbered bowling pins seemed to anticipate this decision.)  I failed, however.  During each meal, no amount of ice water could douse the flames issuing from my mouth, and for several hours after the meal residual embers crept uncomfortably up into my chest.  I eventually settled happily for the “mild.”

Linda and I didn’t limit our consumption of Mexican food to Albuquerque.  In Las Vegas, New Mexico, I took a liking to the red chile at Johnny’s, a restaurant whose beams were hung with frontier Americana and walls were covered with photographs of celebrities―well, regional celebrities―that bore their scribbled testimonials.  Nearby, a restaurant on Las Vegas’s plaza offered chicharrones.  If there is such a thing as “Mexican soul food,” chicharrones are probably it.  They are deep-fired pork rinds smothered in a red chile sauce, reputed to be an authentic Mexicanas in the United Mexican Statesfood.  Very funky.  Linda, often adventurous when dining, ordered them.  She liked the sauce, but abstained from the fundamentally fatty pork after several bites.  Although an informed diner, to this day I’m not certain she knew exactly what she was ordering that evening. 

West across the mountains, the El Seville in Questa, New Mexico, not only served exceptional Mexican entrées, their sopapillas―light, balloon-like pastries deep-fried to a golden brown, dusted with cinnamon, and to die for when drizzled with honey―were our favorite in the entire state. 

Monroe’s, Tiny’s, Garduño’s, Barelas Coffeehouse, Anthony’s at the Delta, Padilla’s, La Posada, Cervantes, the Sanitary Tortilla Factory (yes, its actual name), El Bruno’s in Cuba, Paul’s Place, Casa de Benevidez, Little Anita’s, The Owl Café in San Antonio, Mac’s La Sierra, El Norteño: the number of Mexican restaurants Linda and I visited, individually and together, multiplied rapidly in just a matter of months in New Mexico.  We just couldn’t get enough of that heavenly chile.  It held us hostage, booden-schnotzened some heretofore unknown receptor in our brains.  We took to it like a child takes to ice cream, like a mountaintop takes to a bolt of lightning, like the desert takes to sand and space.   

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Discovering the Southwest of La Veta Pass

In April of my 26th year, I had survived another winter in the brick and concrete of Denver.  I loved springtime 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”Blood of Christ”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 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, showed me precisely where to access it.  Today the woodland is webbed with carefully graded dirt roads and dotted with pricey homes.  Back then, however, at least where I was camped, it was undeveloped. 

Beside my parked car, after heating and eating a can of Dinty Moore Beef Stew (the 1970’s novice car-camper’s default banquet), I sat on a foam-rubber pad and wrapped myself against the chill of approaching night in my Sears Roebuck cloth sleeping bag.  I watched the wild and relentless spring winds off La Veta Pass drive the blood-orange flames of my campfire in every direction, the spice of the burning juniper barely detectable amid the thieving winds. 

Beneath a gleaming field of stars, I studied the distant lights of Alamosa, Colorado, to the west, never imagining I would one day live there.  I was back in the spacious “desert” landscape I loved, and it was one of the most pleasurable evenings of my life.  From there, in pursuit of more rosy, 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 Taos, a town still little-known to me.

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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 (actually, New 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.  Yet 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 had 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.  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, gazing at the mountains, and finding a steady girlfriend for the first time in my life.  After all, though he could claim at least a partial Ivy League education (Columbia), Jack Kerouac wasn’t looking for the bottom rung of the corporate ladder when he first landed in Denver in the 1940’s; he was content to do manual labor in the city’s Denargo Market district during the day and party and dream romantic dreams on Denver’s Colfax Avenue and in the historic Colorado 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 in a Denver public school the English I presumably loved; no desire to get an advanced degree in English or begin the study of law, engineering, or business administration.  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, and one day in 1975 I was offered that opportunity.

 

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Southwest Lite: Denver 1969

The Southwest is Latinos.[1]  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.

But speaking of Latinos, 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 a big converted house 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 sticky heat I’d experienced the previous day in Ridgewood, New Jersey.  However, 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 was likely some 35 percent, as opposed to New Jersey’s 60 percent, so the air around me seemed to crackle, 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 18 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 the 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 1969, 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 cheap wine, laughing, and listening to the Chambers Brothers in the high-ceilinged living room of yet another great old Denver house 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 that place, now closer than ever to me yet still barely imaginable, called Mexico. 


[1] For the purposes of this narrative, I use the word “Latino” to identify a person who traces his or her origin or descent to Mexico, Central America, or South America.  I assume a “Latino” resident of the United States, Central America, Mexico, or South America has some Spanish blood.  I also assume that same resident may have a percentage, perhaps a considerable percentage, of “Indian” blood.  By “Indian” I refer to the people who, at least 23,000 years ago, entered, from Asia via the Bering Strait, what today we know as the Americas, becoming the Americas’ first human inhabitants.  (Human footprints discovered at New Mexico’s White Sands National Park have been carbon-dated to that figure.) This narrative also refers to Indians as “Native Americans,” or by their tribal or nation names.  For the purposes of this narrative, I use the word “Anglo” to describe a person who traces his or her origin or descent to northern Europe.