Looked round in the morning and what piles of wagons, oxen and Mexicans. Not one word of English can they speak…These Mexicans are small, thin, dark, dirty, ragged, and generally ugly looking beings...Dined at 11 o’clock on coffee, cakes and fresh meat, cooked in a deep frying pan; each got some coffee in a tin cap and all hands sat round the frying pan and dipped their bread in the pan among the gravy, or rather water and red pepper, and picked the pieces of meat out with their not overclean hands.
Charming, isn't it? No wonder Robert Autobee -- another food historian I spoke with, whose family arrived here from Mexico in 1833 -- had trouble tracing the early history of Mexican-owned restaurants in Denver for a paper titled “No Plato Like Home: Denver’s Slow-Burning Romance With Mexican Cuisine.”
That history starts with chile parlors, which abounded on Larimer St at the turn of the century. According to Autobee, who quotes a 1902 newspaper article, the chile parlors' specialty was not the pork green chile we've come to love, but “a kind of soup, made from beef, beans and chile peppers” -- Tex-Mex-style chili with an “i”. Miller’s documents show it popping up in mountain towns like Telluride, too, where enchiladas, “hot tamales,” and more were being served. But here’s the thing... they were all run by people with names like Dunn and Fitzgerald and Walz. Autobee points to an ad by one Svensk Lunch that proudly proclaims itself “The White People’s Restaurant.” As far as English speakers were concerned, Mexican-run restaurants were “hiding in plain sight,” he says. “They had no phones, they weren’t listed in city directories. Advertising wasn’t in these people’s lives.” This proved to be a smart move, since, by the 1930s, the state government was actively trying to deport them. In other words, in “an era when many Mexican families would quickly replace tortillas with white bread if someone knocked on the door at dinnertime,” per Autobee, Anglos were running the show.