Commentary: La Cocina Inn reluctant to change its menu

Readers of this column will be shocked, no doubt, to learn that its author spent quite a few formative years in Longmont.

What? Someone so urbane, so cosmopolitan, so hip and with it actually spent the better part of his elementary and secondary education in a small town? Oh, yes. Dad relocated us from Denver in 1970 when I was but a squirming third grader.

One of our first out-of-house dining experiences after we moved was to a small Mexican-food restaurant located in a turn-of-the century building on Main Street (isn’t it just too cool that I grew up in a town with a Main Street?).

It was called La Cocina Inn, and for all I knew back then, La Cocina Inn invented Mexican food. There were things on the menu that might as well have come from another planet. I had perhaps experienced a taco or two prior to La Cocina, but enchiladas, green chile and guacamole were new and wholly exotic.

However, the international food of children — sugar — was well-represented at the end of the meal. We had Mexican hot chocolate, sopapillas and caramel encrusted pineapple slices with whipped cream.

These items made it an easy sell whenever mom and dad told us they wanted to go there for an evening. They got to have their margaritas (with four fighting children, God knows they probably needed a couple), and we had our tacos and dessert. Everyone was happy.

La Cocina Inn opened its doors in August 1968. The owners then and now are Nick and Jean McChesney, and the restaurant is a first-rate small-town success story – the kind of thing that warms the heart and adds credence to those “you can do anything if you set your mind to it” parables we were all taught growing up.

Nick and Jean met in high school in southeast Colorado and were married soon afterward. After several jobs left him dissatisfied, he decided he wanted to start a restaurant. He scouted the Front Range and found the location at Third and Main streets by sheer chance. He said Longmont was only about 17,500 people strong at the time and didn’t have any Mexican food to speak of. He moved his family into the basement of the restaurant and opened the doors.

“Those first years were pretty lean” he told me. After they received their extended liquor license, Nick thought it was time to open a bar and add a few more tables. He moved the family out and remodeled downstairs to accommodate the growing number of guests that were forced to wait for a table.

A few years later, it was time to open a second location — La Cocina South. Finding it difficult to manage two separate spots at the same time, Nick and Jean decided to consolidate both places into a new, larger facility.

They had a building erected at 451 S. Pratt Parkway and closed the other two spots. While Nick put the finishing touches on the design and decoration, there was no La Cocina in operation from December 1977 until February 1978. Truthfully, I don’t know how the town survived. You might as well have turned off all the electricity and torn up all the roads.

Shortly thereafter, the City Council passed legislation prohibiting La Cocina Inn from closing for more than 48 hours at a time (OK, I’m kidding here).

I went away to college and then moved to California for five years or so. When I moved home, I was a little anxious about La Cocina. Would it still be fun? Would they still have Enchiladas Exceptionales? Would they still have that weird and wonderful salad dressing? The obligatory quick visit quieted those anxieties.

Now, I’m the first person to turn up my nose at a restaurant that refuses to change its menu, evolve or grow. But the stability of La Cocina is probably its greatest selling point. When I went in for dinner, it had been about eight years since I’d been there. I recognized a waitress (Marlene Barella) and asked her how long she’d been working there.

“Oh, since you were about THIS high” she said, putting her hand level with her waist.

The menu has scarcely changed over the years. I asked Nick about this, and he told me that they were fairly reluctant to introduce new menu items. About the only thing I could see on their menu that I would classify as “trendy” were fajitas.

Several of the dishes have been there since I was sitting in a booster chair. The recipes came from a close friend of the McChesneys in Las Animas — Joe Masias Sr. His family came up from Aguascalientes in Mexico to work the beet fields in Colorado.

The collision of these recipes from Old Mexico with the spices from close-by New Mexico yielded some wonderful results.

Another component of the restaurant’s success is the town of Longmont itself, Nick told me. Slow, stable growth and a diverse economic base has helped keep customers in the mood to go out. And when times are a little lean, La Cocina’s low prices keep it an attractive destination. Also, Longmont folks are friendly and loyal, Nick said.

“It’s been a lot of fun to watch the families come in and watch them grow over the years,” he said.

I told him that I felt like I owed him a thank-you for always being there and providing the good food for us. He said, “A lot of kids have grown up on our food. It makes us proud.”

Nick and Jean give back to the community by donating countless gift certificates, food for Meals On Wheels and coordinating drivers for cancer patients. The McChesneys are planning to go into semi-retirement soon, and the ownership will pass to their son, Kevin, and his wife, Kristi. Nick says he’ll stay busy mixing spices for wholesale and helping out at La Cocina Inn.

When we were in for dinner last week, I watched my young nephews launch out of their booster chairs after inhaling their tacos and run around the place looking at the same stuffed and mounted striped marlin I used to marvel at as a child. They then scrambled back to their seats for some sopapillas and carameled pineapple. I felt deeply contented.