When Dana Rodriguez moved to Denver from Mexico in the late 1990s, she applied to work at the iconic Lakewood restaurant Casa Bonita. The management said she wasn’t qualified. Fast-forward to today, and the award-winning restaurateur and chef behind Work & Class, Super Mega Bien, and the new Mexican street food–inspired Cantina Loca is getting ready to relaunch the kitschy Colorado eatery and entertainment venue as its new executive chef and culinary partner. Her aim: to keep the quirkiness (and cliff-diving) intact, but update the menu with authentic, flavorful dishes from Mexico.

It’s no surprise, then, that Rodriguez cherishes her molcajete (her mother’s original mortar and pestle) and chocolate whisk. Having grown up on a farm in Chihuahua, Mexico, with no running water or electricity, she learned early on what simple, genuine hospitality looks like. “My mother was always giving, giving, giving,” she says, adding that her mother used the molcajete to make salsa and the whisk for whipping up drinking chocolate. “She managed to feed a lot of people with so little. Those memories you have with certain people—you can carry them with you forever.”