Once a sleepy residential community ringed with Section 8 housing and low-rise office buildings, Jefferson Park became one of Denver’s fastest changing neighborhoods over the last decade. Boxed in by Speer Boulevard, Federal and I-25, the neighborhood has been known best for its Mile High Stadium proximity. However, the influx of new Denver residents has created a boom in regions close to downtown – Lower Highlands, Curtis Park, Five Points – and yes, Jefferson Park.
Driving by La Loma Restaurant, a developer can instantly sense the potential - massive parking lots poised on a hill overlooking downtown with limited turn of the century buildings on site. Zoning in what is considered to be a ‘neighborhood in transition’ is generous, enabling multi-story development and allowing for a mix of retail, office and residential building. Along with the number of residents, land values have been steadily increasing. City of Denver property ownership still shows William Brinkerhoff as the owner of record for 2527 W 26th Ave., but the family sold the La Loma building and adjacent parking over a year ago to ‘east coast developers.’
According to plans already filed with the City of Denver, the restaurant will be displaced by a 15-story condominium development, a true sign of the changing landscape of Denver and in particular, of the Northside. Talks with the new owners to become part of the new structure were brief and fruitless, and instead the Brinkerhoff family expedited plans to move the current restaurant and expand to additional locations. La Loma will vacate its current site by around the Easter holiday.
La Loma Mexican Restaurant has been a North Denver fixture since 1973 when it was founded by Savina Mendoza and her family at 2637 W. 26th Avenue, in the building housing Sassafras restaurant, just blocks from the current La Loma location. By 1981, the Brinkerhoff family had purchased the restaurant and moved to a larger spot with ample parking on 26th and Alcott. It is here that La Loma continued to serve Mendoza recipes and developed an increasingly loyal following.
For co-owner Mark Brinkerhoff, in partnership with his father William, the closing of the current La Loma site symbolizes only a transition, with multiple new locations where they hope loyal customers will continue their visits. “This is a story with a really good ending. We’re staying in the neighborhood and expanding elsewhere.”
Brinkerhoff revealed that the restaurant has purchased a site at 7th and Water Street, across from the Aquarium, that will house the new and improved La Loma. While Brinkerhoff looks forward to building from scratch to accommodate modern convenience and layout, he wants to ensure that a bit of history travels with them. Most important, Savina Mendoza’s original recipes will make the journey, as will some of the stained glass, the vaulted ceiling, bar fixtures, and even the painting of Savina Mendoza herself. Fans of fresh La Loma tortillas need not worry, the tortilla making machine will also be reconstructed at one of the restaurants. “We have always wanted to expand and we can’t replicate our restaurant 100 percent but we can maintain the feel,” said Brinkerhoff in an interview. “We want to embrace change and at the same time continue our history.”
For the Brinkerhoff’s, they see the announced closing as revealing the expanse of the La Loma fan base. They have received invitations to open restaurants from as far away as Fort Collins and Brighton. While they will consider future expansion, they will have their hands full to re-establish their brand in the Denver metro area over the next two years.
In addition to the new store on Water Street, La Loma plans to open a location in the Castle Rock Commons Development within the next 18 months and to take over a location in the middle of downtown Denver within the next two months. Brinkerhoff believes the success of La Loma is not only the tradition and recipes but also the staff, citing low employee turnover as the best indicator of a good restaurant environment. “Our employees have been in the loop since we first started talking about changes. As we open new restaurants, most of our employees will be coming with us.”
Brinkerhoff recognizes that one of his objectives over the next few years is to make sure that loyal customers make the transition to the new restaurants as well. Loyal customers like Kevin Kurtz who has been eating at La Loma for so long that he can’t remember his first visit.
The 41-year-old recounts going to the restaurant for over 35 years with his parents. He and wife Susan own a finish carpentry company and don’t do much work in Denver, but when they do, they try to schedule client meetings at the restaurant. Since they met and started dating at Brighton High School, the couple have followed in the Kurtz’ family tradition of La Loma dining for special occasions or just because. One of their first dates was at La Loma and they have made the restaurant part of their life together ever since. “This place has the best green chile, but it’s more than that. The experience here is kind of an understood thing – a comfortable environment with a lot of people that I know. For every Bronco game we park here, we eat here and sometimes come back after the game.”
The Kurtz’ story is not unique. A short stay at the bar will guarantee years-long patrons waxing poetic about their favorite dish or memories made at the restaurant. Brinkerhoff wants to continue serving timeless, classic food from recipes that have been largely unchanged since the early 1980s. He lays out the challenge in La Loma’s moving, “Nothing lasts forever. The question is how you evolve and stay relevant.” Brinkerhoff is not threatened by the massive growth in the restaurant industry in Denver, “There are some great new restaurants here. But there are not many who have been here 35 years.”