From Mexico with love
By Marty Meitus
Rocky Mountain News Food Editor
When Norma and Nabor Nuñez opened La Cueva, 9742 E. Colfax Ave., in Aurora, in 1974 the restaurant had six booths, 13 stools and a unisex bathroom.
Today, the restaurant seats 80 to 100, bathrooms have become genderized and the crowds line up on Friday nights for a chance to eat the homemade tortillas, salsas and other Mexican foods. “When we bought this place, it was my luck,” says Norma Nuñez. “I am a very lucky person. The street was torn up and people had to come in through the dirt road in the back … The big stores like Joslin’s and Sears moved out of the neighborhood but still here we were. Norma Nuñez is the people-person in the restaurant. Nabor Nuñez is the cook. He rises early to mix the tortilla dough and prepare the fillings and salsa in the small kitchen restaurant that has held off the onslaught of mall Mexican food all these many years. “People know the difference between fast chains and those like us,” says Norma. “… Our beans are washed and cooked with love.”
Best Chips and Salsa (1992)
9742 E. Colfax Ave.
Alfonso Nuñez proudly prepares everything from scratch at his fluorescent Aurora cantina, and the chips and salsa are no exception. Fried in-house in perfectly clean oil, the chips are thin and brittle, yet have the heft of coarsely ground corn that make them fantastic to crunch. The salsa is a dark, intriguing purée of fresh tomato enlivened by sweet grated onion and roasted Mexican oregano. More than a stomach-filling freebie, these chips and salsa provide and incredibly appetizing starting point from which to experience Nuñez’s fresh, lively
You’ll love La Cueva’s made-from-scratch Mexican food
Address: 9742 E. Colfax Ave.
By Alan Katz
Denver Post Staff Writer
Which is Denver’s best Mexican restaurant? I cast my ballot for La Cueva in downtown Aurora.
The food here is so fresh, the chile rellenos so light, the baked goods so flaky, the service so friendly that I plan to make this a personal hangout.
La Cueva (‘the cave’) is a brightly colored 75-seat restaurant owned and operated by chef Nabor Nuñez of Guanajuato, Mexico, and his wife, Norma. For some mysterious reason, La Cueva is rarely mentioned when local foodies swap tips on their favorite restaurants. But take my word for it: This place is the real McCoy.
Although most of the standard Mexican items are listed on the menu, there is nothing standard about their preparation. Nabor Nuñez takes no short cuts and used no canned goods in his recipes. He arrives at work each morning at 5am to cook his sauces, his spicy tamales, his fragrant red and green chile. Even the refried beans are made from scratch.
This labor-intensive method is really the only way to make first-rate Mexican food, which is why we encounter it so seldom.
When La Cueva opened in 1974, it was a neighborhood dive with 13 stools. Five years ago, ‘PM Magazine’ on Channel 4 touted its exceptional food, which led to an expansion into the storefront next door.
Last year, one of the Nuñez children, a graduate of the Colorado Institute of Art, remodeled the dining room with startling turquoise banquettes, hanging piñatas, tacky silk flowers and bright green neon.
Now, the place is clean, contemporary, cheerful and somewhat noisy, with Latin vocalists emoting over the loudspeakers. It is heavily patronized by families, many with small children. Don’t come here for a tete-á-tete.
Do bring a hanky and an ice pack. The green chile is the hottest I’ve eaten. It is so hot that I experienced the following symptoms: heavy perspiration, numbing of the mouth, hair loss, constriction of the esophagus, acid indigestion, heartburn and a burning discomfort the next day.
It hurt so bad, but it felt so-o-o-o good.
We had the chorizo con huevo ($4.95), a delicious sausage-and-eggs concoction accompanied by refried beans and the notorious green chile. The tamales ($1.75 each) had green chile inside of them and were hotter than I could bear.
But I loved the chile rellenos ($2.65 each), which I ordered unsmothered, with a side dish of red chile. They were pancake-shaped and stuffed with a fresh Anaheim pepper and mild cheddar cheese.
Perhaps the highlight of our meal was lomo de cerdo ($7.50) shredded pork with fried onions, refried beans and rice, picante sauce and a perfect guacamole made of avocados, fresh tomatoes, onions and salt no cilantro and no sour cream.
The chicken fajitas ($7.50) did not arrive on a sizzling platter and they didn’t splatter grease on my shirt. The plump and juicy chicken chunks came with good flour tortillas, refried beans, fresh lettuce and fluffy light brown rice with a picante sauce for dipping.
For dessert, we ordered sopapillas with honey ($2.85). Until I ate these, I hadn’t understood why sopapillas are so popular. Lightly flavored with cinnamon, they were nearly greaseless.
But my favorite dessert was the empanaditas (a bargain at 95 cents) little pies with fruit fillings and flaky crusts. Mrs. Nuñez confided that the secret ingredient in the crust is beer.
I found the service somewhat slow, in part because each dish was cooked to order. But I didn’t mind waiting for food of such consistently high quality.
All in La Familia
By John Kessler
Norma and Nabor Nuñez, owners of La Cueva, have reached an age and a level of success where they afford to look at options. They could, for instance, move: After nearly twenty years in downtown Aurora, on a pawnshop-ridden stretch of East Colfax that time forgot, they might profit by taking their talents closer to north Denver’s Mexican community or to a spot with more foot traffic. They could expand again: The two small rooms of La Cueva fill up quickly, and the Nuñezes could serve twice the number of customers if they had the space. They could even take a long and well-deserved vacation, leaving the restaurant to their children and employees. But on any given day you can find Norma sitting in the back booth going over the books and Nabor in the kitchen cooking.
It’s been a long, slow ride for the Nuñezes. They met in 1957 at La Bonita, one of Denver’s original Mexican restaurants; he was a chef, she the head waitress. It wasn’t until 1974 that they decided to get their own place, opening La Cueva at 9742 East Colfax. Seating was originally limited to four booths and a counter. Before long, people were lining up outside to try Nabor’s homemade tortillas and oh-so-spicy green chile. In 1987 they bought the building next door, knocked out part of the wall and hired daughter Molly, a designer to come up with a new look. Taking the name (which means ‘the cave’) literally, she turned the place into a mod adobe grotto offset with neon wall signs and coral and sea-green table appointments.
The menu, however, hasn’t gotten an update. Nabor Nuñez still cooks the kind of modest, flavorful homemade food he grew up with in Mexico. Everything tastes absolutely fresh and, occasionally, remarkable. Most remarkable is Nuñez’s green chile, a disarningly simple concoction of roasted jalapeños, tomatoes and meaty minicubes of pork, each individually browned and stewed. You just want to keep spooning it onto his thick, chewy, right-off-the-griddle homemade flour tortillas and pray you never get full. Next time I go I may just get a bowl or six of green chile and sit intently in the corner.
Before I visit I try it poured over the La Cueva combination plate ($8.75), a good introduction to the flavors of this kitchen. The beef taco holds shredded beef, exquisitely seasoned and perfectly lean, in a crisp shell. Guacamole is chunky with ripe avocado, and the chile relleno filled with cheddar cheese is lightly battered and quite thoroughly soaked, like some sort of ethereal sponge. Otherwise, there’s a typical cheese enchilada and unremarkable bean tostada. And everything on the combination plate beats á la carte tamal ($1.95) that’s rubbery and crumbly like a worn tire.
There are also a number of house specialties that come with rice, beans, guacamole and tortillas. The two we try are tasty, if not memorable. Pollo a la ranchera ($7.95) brings a standard-issue chicken breast in a watery but flavorful ranchero sauce. It’s similar to the green chile, bolstered with plenty of tomato and onion. Lomo de Cerdo ($8.25) offers shredded and somewhat stringy roast adobo pork in a quick sauté with onion, tomato and jalapeño ringlets.
Maybe the most outstanding aspect of the cooking at La Cueva is how well it sits. A typical meal contains little cheese, hardly any discernible grease and no sour cream whatsoever. You don’t walk out gasping for breath. And none of it tastes packaged, processed or overly seasoned. After twenty years, it’s still home cooking. I can see why it caught on.