As soon as you open the red curtain that separates La Diabla Pozole and MezcalAs you enter Larimer Street, you’ll be struck by the aromas of roasted chili peppers, slow-roasted cochinita pibil and long-simmered broths. These tasty smells signify essential components of tacos and stews that satisfy our appetites for Latin American flavors. They are so familiar, and yet their creators are often not.
Colorado is known for the type of Mexican cuisine that chef Jose Avila prepares at La Diabla, a year near Coors Field, and at his weekly barbacoa pop-up, El Borrego Negro, in Westwood. Mexican American chefs such as Avila, many of whom have headed the kitchens of well-known restaurants in the city, are an integral part of the local restaurant industry. Additionally, Avila estimates that 80 to 90 percent of the kitchen workers he has cooked with during his 20-year career in Denver are Latinos.
This estimate is diametrically opposed to the fact that people of Latino descent have not been as widely recognized by the media and awards committees – here in Colorado and nationally – as their white counterparts. For example, a recent analysis of the James Beard Foundation Awards, one of the nation’s highest honors in the culinary arts, found that from their inception in 1991 through 2018, only 2.4% of top chefs nominated were Hispanic.
There are changing indications, however. This year, two of the five Best Chef finalists in the Mountain Region category, which includes Colorado, are Mexican: Avila for El Borrego Negro and Dana Rodriguez, originally from Chihuahua, for RiNo’s. work and class.
But before he got the green light from James Beard in March, before he opened the city’s first pozoleria, before he started the tacos and tequila trend at Machete Tequila & Tacos in 2011, and before he made his way to to Elway’s Executive Chef, Avila took out the trash and did the dishes at Chez Jose Mexican Grill in Cherry Creek. After finishing a shift there in the early 2000s, the Mexico City native would cross the street to work as a cashier at Burger King, then go polish the mall floors. “They called me the whore of Cherry Creek, because I worked in all the restaurants there,” says Avila. “I fell in love with the whole industry and restaurant culture. I didn’t know the titles or the James Beard awards or the Michelin stars. I did not care. I just wanted to learn.
Avila says he knows his hard work has helped him achieve his current success. However, he also says he was “lucky to land in good places surrounded by good people” – mostly white restaurateurs who gave him the opportunity to transition from cleaning to cooking and developing recipes. “It’s about who has the money,” says Avila. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked for a Hispanic owner. And all the credit, everythinggoes to the owner.
Hispanics and Latinos make up nearly 22% of Colorado’s population, and, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, 38% of those 1.26 million people work in food and beverage. Yet very few of them rise above the rank of line cook. “It’s much more difficult for Latinos or immigrants,” says Rodriguez, who is the chef-owner of Super Mega Good and Canteen Loca, in addition to Work & Class. “They [sometimes] do not have citizenship; they don’t have family who owned property in the United States. There is not enough help and our people are reluctant to apply for loans. The language barrier, they don’t know how to enter and express what they need.
Rodriguez, known to her peers and customers as Loca, is probably Denver’s most recognized Latina chef. Her story is inspiring: a single mother leaves Mexico City and starts washing dishes at the Panzano in downtown Denver. She ends up running kitchens, opening her own successful restaurants, and earning five nods from James Beard along the way. But accounts rarely include mention of discrimination and the painful experiences she endured to get there, such as cooking under a manager who relentlessly mocked her English and eventually gave Rodriguez his nickname, which means crazy.
“It was the same shit every day,” she says. “I hated my job, but I needed it because I had my three daughters. One Saturday night, it was fucking packed, and he started saying, “I don’t understand you!” Speak English!’ And I said, ‘Fuck you! I hope you understand this. I’m sick of your shit. He said, ‘You’re a loco.’ I said, ‘No, it’s venue.’ ”
Even after Rodriguez launched Work & Class in 2014 to local and national acclaim, she and her co-owners struggled to secure a bank loan to open Super Mega Bien in 2018. The only way to even get a partial loan – for $150,000 of the $1.2 million they needed was by having one of his partner’s parents co-sign. Securing restaurant financing is already tricky because lenders see the industry as volatile, but it’s even harder for people of color: Federal Reserve data shows Latino-owned businesses are half as likely only white-owned businesses to have their loan applications approved.
Sharif Villa Cruz knows this all too well. He cooked in Colorado for 20 years, from assembling drive-thru orders at Taco Bell in Frisco to ordering the kitchen at the now-closed Lola Coastal Mexican, with stints at TAG, Mercantile Dining & Provision and Boulder’s L ‘Workshop between the two. He certainly has the experience and culinary skills to open his own restaurant, but because he only has a work permit and is still in the process of obtaining US citizenship, which took 12 years and older, the banks told him he wouldn’t. able to get a loan. “A lot of chefs and cooks in Denver are going through the same thing,” he says. “I know a lot of people here who want to buy a food truck. Either they give up all their savings or they don’t.
While he waits for his citizenship, Villa Cruz cooks private meals in clients’ homes and offices through Migrante Concepts, a catering company he co-founded last year that allows him to do the kind of dishes – dishes made from vegetables, moles and soups – he grew up eating in Mexico City. “I see it as a good opportunity to meet people and network,” says Villa Cruz. “Hopefully one of these days we meet a guy with a lot of money, and he throws money at us.”
Based in Colorado Hispanic Restaurant Association (HRA), founded in early 2021 by Selene Nestor and John Jaramillo, aims to make it easier for Hispanics to open their own food businesses. In addition to mentoring local high school and college students interested in culinary careers, the HRA connects those in need of financial assistance with grants and loans through the Minority Business Office of Colorado. The HRA also offers guidance on how to navigate city permits and rental agreements. “The resources are there; they’re just not used because people don’t know about them,” says Nestor, who moved to the United States from Mexico when he was 13. “A lot of our chefs started out as dishwashers, and they want to open their own restaurants, they just don’t have the tools.
Without support, loans or investors, Avila saved for years to open El Borrego Negro and La Diabla, outfitting its spaces with thrift store finds and $10 chairs from Lowe’s. He hopes that greater recognition of the critical roles chefs like him play in the restaurant industry will help increase opportunities for Latino chefs. Even if that happens, there’s still a perception problem to overcome: Foods from Mexico and other Latin American countries are generally seen as inexpensive and easy to produce, making the restaurants that serve them seemingly less worthy. praise, special occasion restaurant status, and higher menu prices than other cuisines, such as Italian and French, produce. This misconception is at least partly driven by the ubiquity of Tex Mex-style restaurants that use mass-produced masa and cheese sauce on everything – and that’s why chefs like Villa Cruz are on a mission to show how complex the dishes of their country of origin are. perhaps. “That’s what Mexican chefs should be pushing for,” says Villa Cruz, “so people can understand how much work goes into this kitchen.”
Take La Diabla’s four types of pozole, which simmer overnight in the restaurant’s kitchen to marry the flavors of chilies, garlic and cumin and sweeten the hominy. Chunks of cabeza de cerdo (pig’s head) are slowly cooked separately for customers to add to any of the soups. Or consider the barbacoa of El Borrego Negro: First, Avila slaughters a sheep he raised on a small plot in Wellington and starts a fire in a three-foot-deep brick-lined pit he dug at the non-profit urban farm Re:Vision in Westwood. . Then he buries the animal, covers the hole with mud, and lets the meat steam for up to 4 p.m. while the fat and juices drip into a giant pot of cloudy broth placed under the animal. The resulting protein is sold there, at Avila’s pop-up food stand, by the pound – alongside pints of consomé, tortillas and salsas – on Sundays from 9 a.m. until it’s sold.
“The first smell, all the steam that comes out of it that’s been trapped for hours, there’s nothing like it,” Avila says of the barbacoa discovery. “It’s the food I love.” Whether he’s called to the stage later this month at the James Beard Awards in Chicago or not, Avila says he’s happy to cook what he knows and wants, and to do so in their own restaurants and on their own terms. But now maybe more people will know his name.
(Read more: Behind the remarkable rise of Raquelitas tortillas)