Finding quality Mexican food isn’t really a problem in Greeley. Finding a consensus on what determines authentic style and presentation is a little trickier, because when it comes to variety there are plenty of choices.
Are the Greeley offerings Tex-Mex in origin, New Mexican, traditional regional Mexican or a fusion mix of Colorado and California? Hard to say, but it’s clear there’s a diverse offering when it comes to food with Mexican origins.
Many of the recipes used in Greeley restaurants were brought here by past and current generations of restaurateurs from Mexico, Texas and New Mexico with a few modifications obviously made to suit local tastes. That scene also draws flavors unique to Mexico’s states and regions.
For example, the recipes used at The Charro, 2109 9th St., in Greeley, originated with co-owner Louis Chagolla’s grandmother from the Monterrey and San Luis Potosi-area in Mexico.
“Sometimes, other than their clothes, that’s all (immigrants) bring with them, their recipes,” said Kelley Chagolla, Louis’ wife and The Charro’s other owner. “Each (restaurant) probably has a unique dish unto itself and different styles of cooking, depending on where your family came from. If you’re more coastal — which I don’t think a lot of (the restaurateurs) are here — you rely more on the lighter fare with fish and all that.”
Since The Charro opened in 1970, its menu has remained relatively the same, according to Kelley Chagolla.
But, when the Chagollas ran another restaurant in Fort Collins, called Zquila, for the past decade — up until earlier this year — their menu differed greatly from what they offer at The Charro.
According to Chagolla, the type of Mexico food that is becoming increasingly popular in places like Fort Collins, Loveland and Boulder may more closely resemble that of California’s growing reach — fish tacos, avocados, portobello mushrooms, plenty of vegetables, etc.
Restaurant-goers can find a taste of that California-style of Mexican found at Coyote’s Southwestern Grill, 5250 9th St. Drive, which Brenda and her husband Richard Lucio opened in 1999. Since opening the restaurant, the Lucios have identified it more as southwestern food rather than Mexican food, as it brought a bit of a new taste to Greeley — a diversion from the more traditional styling to which Chagolla alluded.
Still, Brenda Lucio has spent most of her life in Greeley. Her husband Richard was born and raised here.
The Lucios know what kind of blue-collar, agricultural type of town Greeley is. And, they recognize, as flavorful as an order of Southwestern Fish ‘N Chips or Top Shelf Enchilada with shrimp and lobster are, there will always be a place in this meat-and-potato town for a savory bowl of menudo or some handmade pork tamales with a side of rice and beans.
For that reason, Brenda and Richard Lucio opened Palomino Mexican Restaurant, 3390 23rd Ave., in Evans, in 2005.
“When people want Mexican food, they’re going in for the nachos, the chile con queso, the burritos, the enchiladas, chimichangas,” Brenda said. “That’s how I dine. If I’m coming here to (Palomino) to eat, we’re going to load up. I go to Coyote’s and I might have a salmon Caeser salad or ancho barbecue salad. There’s a little lighter choice there.”
Tradition is key
Coyote’s aside, unlike nearby towns to the west like Fort Collins, Greeley’s taste in Mexican food remains not quite as light or green. Rather, it’s much more heavily rooted in traditional offerings of Tex-Mex.
Much of Greeley’s Mexican restaurant scene is a direct product of Greeley’s immigration culture.
“(Mexican food) is very basic in its nature here,” Kelley Chagolla said.
It’s also all about the chile
Though the dozens of Mexican restaurants throughout Greeley have their own quirks that make them unique, the menus produced kitchen to kitchen may not differ drastically.
Where these establishments in Greeley set themselves apart is with their green chile. In this sense, Mexican food in Greeley bares many similarities to that found in New Mexico.
“People raised in Colorado, we’re green chile eaters,” Brenda Lucio said. “And, we’re used to having green chile with pork and having some spice to it.”
The Charro cooks up a “redder” green chile that may not punch you in the mouth as much as other local restaurants but packs plenty of flavor and is a bit sweeter.
“Every restaurant has their own version of (green chile),” said Harrison Chagolla, a third generation manager at The Charro. “The green chile here is definitely our bread-and-butter. It comes on 90% of the dishes we’re selling.”
Kelley Chagolla, who is Harrison’s mother, added, “The green chile seems to be what’s set Greeley’s Mexican restaurants apart a little bit.”
That tradition is changing … slowly
When the Chagolla family opened The Charro in 1970, typewriters were considered modern technology, and home computers — much less smartphones — were decades from being more than mere fantasy.
Time’s are changing … and so are Greeley’s tastes in Mexican food, albeit slowly.
By no means does Kelley Chagolla expect to have to redesign The Charro’s menu to mirror that of Zquila any time soon.
But, still, the demand is slowly shifting toward lighter, greener — and perhaps healthier — options in place of the generous offerings of ingredients — meats, cheeses, chiles and sauces — that in many ways define traditional Mexican food in Greeley.
As big as tradition is at The Charro, Kelley Chagolla said making small changes when customers’ needs and tastes change is vital.
Some of the changes are somewhat subtle. For example, The Charro has added items like black beans and smoked corn.
The preparation is even a bit different. The Charro stopped refrying its beans more than 20 years ago, as customers have become increasingly more aware of healthier eating and lifestyle choices.
“When my grandparents started (The Charro), it was really kind of basic Mexican food,” Harrison said. “And, over the years, we’ve had to evolve our food to the genuine tastes of the community. Definitely, having a second and third restaurant in Fort Collins influenced a lot of what we’re doing here (in Greeley), as well.
“We changed some of the recipes — just tweaked them over the years.”
Among the six restaurants Brenda and Richard Lucio own, Blue Agave Grill in Fort Collins and Denver may be the most different from the Palomino restaurants in Greeley and Loveland.
It offers a menu similar to Coyote’s but with perhaps even more seafood, greens and lighter choices.
Though those traditional Mexican and Tex-Mex items served at Palomino, The Charro and dozens of other local restaurants will likely continue to be a staple in Greeley for decades to come, as Greeley’s population continues to rapidly grow, the diversity of its Mexican food will likely grow with it.
“At Coyote’s, we have been able to bring over Blue Agave menu items that have done well,” Brenda Lucio said. “Now we’re starting to cross over. In the beginning, 20 years ago, it was a little more meat-and-potato-oriented around here.”
— Bobby Fernandez covers growth and development for The Greeley Tribune. Reach him at email@example.com, (970) 392-4478 or on Twitter @BobbyDFernandez