The term “family restaurant” can have fairly broad connotations. Family-owned establishments can vary widely in the scope of the kin’s involvement — the degree to which any member is hands-on is entirely up to the ownership. But Frijoles Colorado is a family restaurant in the truest sense: Three generations of the Negrin clan, natives of Cuba and Miami, are in the building each day making the wheels turn. The love is palpable — for the food, the customers and for one another. The father Sergio greets patrons with “come in my man.” Many a “my brother” peppers his interactions. He openly flirts with his wife Roxanne — the culinary backbone — frequently referring to her as “mi amor” and speaking of her with unconcealed admiration. “Mama cooks just like she’s cooking for me at home, but for a lot of people. It really is home cooking,” he beamed.
The scene is inviting. The warmth shared by the Negrins translates into their customer service to the point where the meal feels more like a family barbecue than one held in a restaurant. Most of the recipes come from the great grandma’s cookbook — the valuable tome apparently still being intact. The walls are lined with Cuban memorabilia and canvases displaying vivid depictions of Havana nights. A particularly devoted frequenter brought back one of the pieces — an image of La Bodeguita, a bar famous for its claim of having invented the mojito. The kind of dedication the place ignites in its regulars is neither mistakable nor surprising.
The decision to open the restaurant seven years ago comes from what twin brother Jonathan describes as a “family midlife crisis.” Both he and his brother Anthony were born with a rare form of bone marrow cancer that eventually took Anthony’s life. According to him, Jonathan is the second person in the United States to live with the disease past the age of eight. He doesn’t do chemo, he lives with it — citing a relentlessly positive attitude and healthy eating for keeping him alive. Notably, he says his family’s food has played a big role.
Needing a change of pace, the Negrins literally spun a globe — hoping that chance would bring them to greener pastures. A finger serendipitously landed on Colorado. Anthony had previously expressed interest in moving here, knowing that the state’s cash-crop helped people with cancer. Since opening, they have been able to convince Jonathan’s twin Jordan, and their grandma — a 17 year resident of Puerto Rico — to come out and join the cause. Everything is preservative free, the healthy fare honoring the tragedy and celebrating the miracle that sparked the place.
In May, the Negrins bought a 40-acre farm from an apparent doomsday prepper that they have since been fixing up. They hope to eventually raise animals and grow produce to supply the restaurant with fresh ingredients. Everyone involved plainly believes in the power of good, clean eating. “That’ll be the way to end the war. Put down the AK. Have a little pork,” quipped Sergio with a smile as he loaded a plate of the daily special.
The food is as striking as the service. The menu is filled with no-frills Cuban classics — hearty plates of meats, beans and rice, dense sandwiches, and sides including the absolutely essential fried plantains. The lechon, moro y yuca ($11.95) is succulent marinated pork, beans and rice, and yuca with caramelized onions. The cubano ($9.75) is your standard Cuban sandwich — ham, swiss, mustard and pickles on house-made bread — but the inclusion of the same marinated pork described above turns the already delightful meal into something sublime. The daily specials are always prepared bearing in mind the availability of ingredients and the weather. The cold days call for paella, warmer times for meals like diced skirt steak in a tomato and wine sauce served with fried plantains and saffron rice. Meals are robust and well-considered.
To find such an impressive place hidden in a strip mall in Lakewood is a testament to the power of great cuisine. Even as Denver’s food culture shifts more and more towards the trendy, Frijoles Colorado proves that all the expensive interior design in the world can’t outshine a meal made with palpable integrity and imbued with unmistakable love.
Frijoles Colorado is located at 12095 West Alameda Pkwy., Lakewood. It is open Tuesday – Saturday 10:30 a.m. – 6 p.m. and Sunday 11 a.m. – 4 p.m. It is closed on Monday.
All photography by Alden Bonecutter.