Dana Rodriguez, known to those in Denver’s food industry as Loca, sits across from me at a high table near the bar of Work & Class, her hot RiNo restaurant. “Loca” is Spanish for “crazy,” and Rodriguez has promised to share with me the story of how she got the nickname. As a former chef at Duo Restaurant and a longtime member of Denver’s restaurant community, I’ve known Rodriguez in passing for a few years; she’s always radiated self-mastery and good cheer, so I figured Loca was one of those tongue-in-cheek nicknames, like everybody calling the big guy Tiny.
The way Rodriguez tells it, with the fervor and insistence of someone relating a creation myth, there’s a part of her that really is loca. When she started working as a sous chef at Panzano, an upscale northern Italian restaurant on 17th Street downtown, Rodriguez recalls that one of the managers was pretending not to understand her then less-than-perfect English. “Fuck you,” Rodriguez said confidently. “Do you understand that?” Rodriguez says the manager responded, “You are loca!” “Yes,” she said, “I am.”
Work & Class, a bustling American-Latin comfort food spot situated on the corner of 25th and Larimer streets, opened in January 2014 and has been packed ever since. Denver chefs and restaurant owners have spoken with awe and envy about the restaurant for two years now.
It’s in a converted shipping container!
They don’t take reservations!
The food isn’t even presented!
Details that could easily be seen as weak points for a new restaurant count as strengths for Work & Class. Co-owner and general manager Tony Maciag wanted to create a place that reflected his no-fuss, working-class roots: no elaborately plated food, minimal decor, no breakable dishes, professional but informal service. There’s an oversize board at the entrance of the restaurant that lists the House Rules, like something you might find in a boxing gym or pool hall. (Number 6: Wait times are estimates, not prophecies.)
As Rodriguez and I spoke that day near the bar, she kept one eye trained on her staff as the crew prepped for another crushing dinner service. Every inch of the shoebox kitchen was in use, so Vincente Sosa, Rodriguez’s fiancé and Work & Class’ sous chef, had set up a table in the middle of the dining room at which he fluidly broke Alaskan halibut into filets. Later, he’d dice the fish for a Mexican-style, tomato-juice-based ceviche.
Rodriguez took me back to the kitchen, which hummed with frugal efficiency. There was a big pot of mole on the stove with a heavy slick of red fat shimmering on its surface. A yard-sale-quality griddle plugged into a ceiling outlet was set up on a prep table next to a press, which a cook used to crank out tortillas. I noticed that the ticket rail on the line was held in place with C-clamps. In any other kitchen this size, the cooks would be at each other’s throats. Not this crew. Rodriguez treats her staff well: She matches a portion of everyone’s 401(k) contributions, and her two head line cooks are some of the highest paid in Denver. More important, each member of the staff has been with Rodriguez for the past 17 years. Back then, she didn’t have much kitchen experience—until a well-known Denver chef gave Rodriguez her first big opportunity.
Four decades before becoming head chef at one of the hottest restaurants in the Mile High City, Rodriguez was born in the Northern Mexico state of Chihuahua, one of the most violent regions in the country. She grew up on a small farm where her family cultivated beans, corn, chard, and grains; she later lived in the capital city of Juarez. Her family decided to leave the area when, as Rodriguez says, “the cartels started taking the young girls off the street to harvest their organs.”
Rodriguez, who is an only child, eventually moved with her parents southeast toward the Atlantic coastline and settled in Monterrey, Mexico. She had married and had three children, but by the late ’90s, her marriage was faltering. Then in her early 20s, she decided to move to the United States with her children; years earlier, she’d vacationed with her family in Denver and recalled seeing a lot of signs advertising jobs.
After arriving in the Mile High City, Rodriguez began to look for work. She wandered around LoDo, thinking to herself, If I don’t find a job today, I’m going back to Mexico. Although she’d never worked in a restaurant—her food experience consisted of helping on the family farm and a single class on how to make pastries and wedding cakes—she applied for a job at Panzano.
She started as a dishwasher but quickly outgrew the position and moved on to prep. She baked, cranked out fresh pasta, and worked the line. (To support her children, she also picked up second and third jobs at Tamayo and the Cheesecake Factory.) Impressed with Rodriguez, Jennifer Jasinski, Panzano’s chef at the time and a rising talent in the Denver culinary scene, offered Rodriguez a job as sous chef three times. Rodriguez declined the first two, claiming she wasn’t ready. “She was nervous,” Jasinski says. “She didn’t tell anybody what to do for a while.”
Beth Gruitch, a close friend of Rodriguez’s who was then the general manager at Panzano, says about Rodriguez’s reluctance to take a more senior position: “It’s a tough thing for a Hispanic woman to manage Hispanic males. But she learned to teach and to develop people and to do it with a sense of silliness and a sense of fun.” Gruitch first noticed Rodriguez’s extraordinary touch in the care she put into staff meals. “Most people cut corners and put a roux in their green chile,” Gruitch says. “She would take the time to cook it down.”
When Gruitch and Jasinski left Panzano in 2004 to open Rioja, a fine-dining spot with Mediterranean influences on Larimer Square, Rodriguez eventually followed—and not just as an employee, but as a fellow owner. Rodriguez stayed at Rioja for seven years. In 2011, the chef at Bistro Vendôme, a French-style restaurant acquired by Gruitch and Jasinski, left, and Rodriguez took over as executive chef. “I had no experience with French food,” Rodriguez says. “But in every job I take, I look for something new to learn.”
After more than a decade working in high-end restaurants, Rodriguez envisioned being part of a simpler, more humble concept. In 2013, Rodriguez left Bistro Vendôme to help Maciag, whom she’d met at Panzano, and Delores Tronco, who had worked front-of-the-house at Jasinski’s Euclid Hall, to open Work & Class.
Maciag took Rodriguez on a dining tour of restaurants around the country that would inspire and inform Work & Class. He remembers her saying, “I can do all of these things, but I can do them better.” Doing them better has meant drawing on her roots, which has resulted in lesser-known dishes like roasted goat and a no-bake dessert—the Mexican equivalent of banana pudding—made with Maria cookies, a staple of the Mexican pantry. “Her food is worker-bee food; it’s just warming and comforting,” says restaurant consultant John Imbergamo, who has known Rodriguez since her Panzano days. And yet, this blue-collar food netted Rodriguez a nomination in 2015 for Best Chef Southwest from the prestigious New York City–based James Beard Foundation.
The success of Work & Class has also led to new opportunities. This spring, Rodriguez, along with partners Maciag and Tronco, will announce a new restaurant called Super Mega Bien. Conceived with the spirit of Work & Class in mind, the new Pan-Latin concept will include dishes that draw on flavors from all over Latin America. Super Mega Bien will open in mid-2017 in RiNo; the restaurant will be situated in a small space of about 2,100 square feet. “What we’ve done at Work & Class has been amazing—more than we ever thought,” Rodriguez says. “I’m really excited about what the next chapter holds.”
—Photos courtesy of Dana Rodriguez