As soon as you part the red curtain that separates La Diabla Pozole y Mezcal’s entrance from Larimer Street, you’re hit with the scents of toasted chiles, slow-roasted cochinita pibil, and long-simmered broths. These savory smells signify essential components of the tacos and stews that satisfy our appetites for Latin American flavors. They’re so familiar, and yet their creators often are not.

Colorado is known for the sort of Mexican food that chef Jose Avila makes at year-old La Diabla 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 run the kitchens of well-known eateries in town—are an integral part of the local restaurant industry. Plus, Avila estimates that 80 to 90 percent of the kitchen workers he’s cooked with over his 20-year career in Denver have been Latino.

Jose Avila. Photo by Joni Schrantz

That guesstimate stands diametrically opposed to the fact that those of Latin American descent haven’t been as widely recognized by 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 country’s highest honors in the culinary arts, found that from their inception in 1991 through 2018, just 2.4 percent of best chef nominees have been Hispanic.

There are indications that is changing, though. This year, two of the five finalists for best chef in the Mountain Region category, which includes Colorado, are Mexican: Avila for El Borrego Negro and Chihuahua native Dana Rodriguez for RiNo’s Work & Class.

But before he got the James Beard nod in March, before he opened the city’s first pozoleria, before he kicked off the taco and tequila trend at Machete Tequila & Tacos in 2011, and before he worked his way up to executive chef at Elway’s, Avila took out the trash and washed dishes at Chez Jose Mexican Grill in Cherry Creek. After finishing a shift there in the early 2000s, the Mexico City native would walk across the street to work as a cashier at Burger King, and then he’d go polish the floors at the mall. “They called me the Cherry Creek whore, because I worked in every single restaurant there,” Avila says. “I fell in love with the whole culture of the industry and the restaurants. I didn’t know about titles or James Beard Awards or Michelin stars. I didn’t care. I just wanted to learn.”

Avila says he knows his hard work helped him achieve his current success. However, he also says he was “fortunate enough to land in good spots surrounded by good people”—mostly white restaurant owners who gave him opportunities to transition from cleaning to cooking to developing recipes. “It’s about who has the money,” Avila says. “I don’t think I’ve ever worked for a Hispanic owner. And all the credit, everything, goes to the owner.”

Hispanics and Latinos make up nearly 22 percent of Colorado’s population, and, according to the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey, 38 percent 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 a lot harder for Latinos or immigrants,” says Rodriguez, who is the chef-owner of Super Mega Bien and Cantina Loca, in addition to Work & Class. “They [sometimes] don’t have the citizenship; they don’t have family that owned properties in the States. There’s not enough help, and our people are shy to go in for loans. The language barrier—they don’t know how to go in and express what they need.”

Rodriguez, known to her peers and patrons as Loca, is probably Denver’s most recognized Latina chef. Her story is inspirational: A single mother leaves Mexico City and gets her start washing dishes at downtown Denver’s Panzano. She eventually runs kitchens, opens her own successful restaurants, and earns five James Beard nods along the way. But retellings rarely include mention of the discrimination and painful experiences she endured to get there, such as cooking under a manager who relentlessly mocked her English and ultimately gave Rodriguez her nickname, which means crazy.

Dana Rodriguez. Photo by Joni Schrantz

“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 again, ‘I can’t understand you! Speak English!’ And I said, ‘Fuck you! I hope you understand that. I’m sick of your shit.’ He said, ‘You’re loco.’ I said, ‘No, it’s loca.’ ”

Even after Rodriguez debuted Work & Class in 2014 and earned local and national acclaim, she and her co-owners struggled to get a bank loan to open Super Mega Bien in 2018. The only way they could get even a partial loan—for $150,000 of the $1.2 million they needed—was by having one of her partner’s parents co-sign. Securing financing for restaurants is already tricky because lenders see the industry as volatile, but it’s even more difficult for people of color: Federal Reserve data show that Latino-owned businesses are less than half as likely as white-owned companies to have their loan applications approved.

Sharif Villa Cruz knows this all too well. He has cooked in Colorado for 20 years, from assembling drive-thru orders at Taco Bell in Frisco to commanding the kitchen at now-closed Lola Coastal Mexican, with stints at TAG, Mercantile Dining & Provision, and Boulder’s L’Atelier in between. He certainly has the experience and the culinary chops to open his own restaurant, but because he only has a work permit and is still in the process of gaining American citizenship, which has taken 12 years and counting, banks have told him he wouldn’t be able to get a loan. “A lot of chefs and cooks in Denver go through the same thing,” he says. “I know plenty of people here who want to buy a food truck. They either give up all their savings, or they don’t do it.”

While he waits on his citizenship, Villa Cruz is cooking private meals in customers’ homes and offices via Migrante Concepts, a catering company he co-founded last year that allows him to make the kind of fare—vegetable-heavy dishes, moles, and soups—he grew up eating in Mexico City. “I see it as a good opportunity to meet people and network,” Villa Cruz says. “Hopefully, one of these days we run into a guy with a lot of money, and he throws money at us.”

The Colorado-based 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 being utilized because people don’t know about them,” says Nestor, who moved to the United States from Mexico when she was 13. “A lot of our chefs started as dishwashers, and they want to open their own restaurants—they just don’t have the tools.”

Sharif Villa Cruz. Photo by Joni Schrantz

Without support, loans, or investors, Avila saved up for years to open El Borrego Negro and La Diabla, outfitting his spaces with thrift store finds and $10 chairs from Lowe’s. He hopes wider recognition of the critical roles chefs like himself play in the restaurant industry will help increase opportunities for chefs of Latin American descent. Even if that happens, though, there’s still a perception problem to overcome: Mexican and other Latin American foods are commonly thought of as inexpensive and easy to produce, making the restaurants that serve them seemingly less deserving of acclaim, special-occasion dining status, and higher menu prices than those producing other cuisines, such as Italian and French. This misconception is at least partly driven by the ubiquity of Tex Mex–style eateries that use mass-produced masa and dump cheese sauce on everything—and it’s why chefs such as Villa Cruz are on a mission to showcase how complex the dishes of their homelands can be. “That’s what Mexican chefs should be pushing for,” Villa Cruz says, “so people can understand how much labor goes into this cuisine.”

Take La Diabla’s four types of pozole, which simmer all night long in the restaurant’s kitchen to meld the flavors of chiles, garlic, and cumin and to soften the hominy. Chunks of cabeza de cerdo (pig head) are slow-cooked separately for patrons to add to any of the soups. Or consider El Borrego Negro’s barbacoa: First, Avila slaughters a sheep he’s raised on a tiny piece of land in Wellington and builds a fire in a three-foot-deep, brick-lined pit he dug at nonprofit Re:Vision’s urban farm in Westwood. Then, he buries the animal, covers the hole with mud, and lets the meat steam for up to 16 hours as the fat and juices drip into a giant pot of cloudy broth set below the animal. The resulting protein is sold there, at Avila’s pop-up food stand, by the pound—alongside quarts of consomé, tortillas, and salsas—on Sundays from 9 a.m. until it sells out.

“The first smell of it, all of the steam coming out that’s been trapped for hours, there’s nothing like it,” Avila says of uncovering the barbacoa. “It’s the food that I just love.” Whether he’s called onstage later this month at the James Beard Award ceremony in Chicago or not, Avila says he’s glad to be cooking what he knows and craves—and to be doing it in his own restaurants and on his own terms. But now, maybe, more people will know his name.

(Read More: Behind the Remarkable Rise of Raquelitas Tortillas)

This article was originally published in 5280 June 2022.
Allyson Reedy
Allyson Reedy
Allyson Reedy is a freelance writer and ice cream fanatic living in Broomfield.