At first glance, it might seem strange that nearly the only, and certainly one of the best, purveyors of Puerto Rican food in the city can be found nestled away in the kitchen of the Denver Elks Club. Keigh Crespo — owner and operator of Dos Abuelas — would be the first to admit the apparent peculiarity of a lesbian, Latina chef from The Bronx crafting her cuisine at a location where the median age of a generally caucasian crowd has only just recently dipped to a comparatively spry 55 years. The walls of the club are littered with the dour faces of old white guys of yore, with nearly 150 years of local artifacts connecting the club to some of the biggest players in Denver’s storied history. A massive stuffed elk head hangs imposingly near the entrance.
But just inside the door, a rush of garlic and fried plantains wafts as if carried by an island breeze, cutting conspicuously through whiffs of the accumulated remnants of the 60 odd years the Elks have made the location their home. The two are no doubt an odd couple. Though once stripped of the superficial differences, the partnership starts to not only make sense but actually reveals some of the best characteristics of everyone involved.
Crespo first opened Dos Abuelas as a food truck in the courtyard of Finn’s Manor in the summer of 2017. Having relocated from Philidelphia — where she spent time honing her culinary repertoire across a series of hotels and restaurants, including a stint at Jose Garces’ Rosa Blanca — Crespo arrived eager to strike out on her own. While Dos Abuelas would shine in any market, Crespo noted becoming immediately aware of the overall lack of Caribbean food in Colorado.
“In New York, there’s a Cuban, Puerto Rican or Dominican spot on every corner,” she said. It was in Philly that she met Morgan Revell, her “sous, brother, best friend, everything” who moved to Colorado in 2018 to join her in the kitchen.
Dos Abuelas’ cuisine has always been a personal ode to Crespo’s family traditions, indigenous Taino culture and the cocina criolla cooking of Puerto Rico. It didn’t take long for her to develop a devoted following at Finn’s, who would continue to come back for the hearty plates, all made with mostly local ingredients and a seemingly endless well of love for both the community and the food itself. Crespo closed the truck in February 2020, fully prepared to transition towards the brick and mortar she had long been envisioning. Shortly prior to shutting the window, Crespo experienced a surge in popularity after being featured on Zoe Saldana’s inclusive media platform Bese. “Everyone who came to the window was like I saw your video,” smiled the chef. All this after the Denver Hispanic Chamber of Commerce recognized Dos Abuelas as Business of the Year in both 2018 and 2019.
But 2020 would not be anyone’s year for finalizing plans or wholly following dreams. Dos Abuelas remained closed through August, with Crespo growing more and more discouraged that it would ever reopen. Over the summer, Crespo’s girlfriend Bex Paz — who founded the Spanish Learning Network — had a brilliant idea. “This is a gringa who speaks Spanish better than me,” laughed Crespo. Paz had been teaching one of the Elks’ board members, who imparted that the place had a large and largely unused kitchen space. After hosting a pop-up in the lodge’s parking lot in July — complete with a salsa band and safely-distanced dancing area — Crespo took over the kitchen in August.
While a ghost kitchen — and Dos Abeulas’ current setup is certainly that — implies a certain amount of invisibility, an unexpected integration has started to emerge in the venerated space. The Elks bar — which is open to non-members — has commenced crafting mojitos and coquitos to go with the food, with plans to bring in Puerto Rican beer in the coming months. But the connection runs deeper than just the drink specials.
The Elks seems to be undergoing something of a renaissance, with the place experiencing a series of massive overhauls in the interest of appealing to a younger audience. In its current form, the space looks charmingly dated, having last undergone any kind of major renovation over 20 years ago. Smaller touchups are now being joined by plans to create a beer garden in the parking lot, with multiple golf simulators being installed — partially to provide practice space for the North High School team. “It’s like our adult treehouse,” grinned events coordinator Lauren Wolf. In the past four years, the Denver location has nearly doubled membership — requiring only that applicants be 21 years old, American citizens and of good character.
Beyond the general trend towards the hip, both Dos Abuelas and The Elks have a deep commitment to charity. This weekend the location will hold a fundraiser for the Latina Safe House — gathering gently used clothes for women and children, diapers and a $2,000 donation. In 2019, Crespo initiated the Light of Puerto Rico — which sent solar-powered lights to Gaunica’s earthquake victims. Crespo hopes to eventually extend the project into an ongoing nonprofit. “We exist purely for charity and community service,” said Wolf, noting the decidedly apolitical and irreligious organization’s lasting commitment to veterans.
With a full kitchen at her disposal, Crespo has expanded her already impressive roster of nourishing comfort food. Classics including the Triple Rican ($13) — a pressed sandwich with a robust helping of shredded pork, Swiss cheese, ham, sirloin steak, garlic aioli, lettuce, pickled red onions and plantain chips — and the Grandma’s Plate ($12) — with rice, sofrito, plantains and a choice of chicken, vegetables, pork or steak — are all better than ever. New dishes include the mofongo ($13) — a Puerto Rican staple of mashed plantains, a choice of protein, broth and garlic mojo — and the Guava BBQ Sandwich ($11) — a heaping portion of pork or chicken, house-made guava barbecue sauce and red cabbage slaw on fresh-baked bread. “That’s how I get people to try Puerto Rican food,” winked Crespo.
With some food, the love is readily apparent. Dos Abuelas continues to serve the kind of cuisine where you can not only feel Crespo’s efforts but the helping hands of the generations that shaped each bite. “She seems to know everyone she shares her food with except for the Doordash drivers,” said Wolf. Crespo still plans to open a brick and mortar once the pandemic is over. “It has to be grand. I worked for that grand opening,” she said, noting the necessity of big lights and Bad Bunny playing loud. In the meanwhile, the venue may act as a unifying force, with everyone benefiting from the unexpected melange. “I still cook the same, all the same amount of love.”
Dos Abuelas is located in the Denver Elks Lodge at 2475 West 26th Ave., Denver. It is open Wednesday – Friday from 12 p.m. – 7 p.m., and Saturday from 2 p.m. – 7 p.m. The cuisine is available for pickup, delivery or safely-distanced consumption on-site.
All photography by Alden Bonecutter.