At first glance, It may seem strange that almost the only, and certainly one of the best, Puerto Rican food suppliers in town can be found in the Denver Elks Club kitchen. Keigh Crespo – owner and operator of Dos Abuelas – would be the first to admit the obvious quirk of a Bronx lesbian Latina cook who prepares her cuisine in a place where the average age of a generally Caucasian crowd has only recently dropped to a year comparatively sparkling 55 years. The walls of the club are littered with the grumpy faces of old white men from yesteryear. Nearly 150 years of local artifacts link the club to some of the greatest players in Denver history. A massive, stuffed elk head hangs imposingly near the entrance.
But just behind the door, a rush of garlic and fried plantains blows as if carried by an island breeze and cuts conspicuously through the accumulated remains of the odd 60 years in which the moose made the place their home. The two are undoubtedly a strange couple. While the superficial differences are removed, the partnership not only makes sense, but actually reveals some of the best qualities of all involved.
Crespo opened Dos Abuelas for the first time in the summer of 2017 as a food truck in the courtyard of Finn’s Manor. After moving from Philadelphia, where she honed her culinary repertoire at a number of hotels and restaurants, including a stint at Jose Garces’ Rosa Blanca, Crespo was eager to set up her own business. While Dos Abuelas would shine in any market, Crespo immediately noticed Colorado’s shortage of Caribbean foods.
“There’s a Cuban, Puerto Rican, or Dominican place on every corner in New York,” she said. In Philly, she met Morgan Revell, her “Sous, Brother, Best Friend, Everything”, who moved to Colorado in 2018 to take her into the kitchen.
Dos Abuelas cuisine has always been a personal ode to Crespo’s family traditions, indigenous Taino culture and the Cocina Criolla cuisine of Puerto Rico. It wasn’t long before she developed a loyal following at Finn who would keep coming back to the hearty plates, all made with mostly local ingredients and having a seemingly endless love for the community and for the food itself. Crespo closed the truck in February 2020 and was ready to switch to the brick and mortar she had long imagined. Right before the window closed, Crespo saw a surge in popularity after he was on Zoe Saldana’s integrative media platform Bese. “Everyone who came to the window was like I’d seen your video,” smiled the cook. All of this after the Denver Hispanic Chamber of Commerce named Dos Abuelas Company of the Year in both 2018 and 2019.
But 2020 wouldn’t be the year for completing plans or fully pursuing dreams. Dos Abuelas stayed closed until August and Crespo became increasingly discouraged ever to reopen. That summer, Crespo’s friend Bex Paz, who founded the Spanish Learning Network, had a brilliant idea. “This is a gringa that speaks better Spanish than I do,” laughed Crespo. Paz had briefed one of the Elche’s board members, who said the place had a large and largely unused kitchen space. After Crespo held a pop-up with a salsa band and a securely detached dance area in the lodge parking lot in July, he took over the kitchen in August.
While a ghost kitchen – and Dos Abeulas’ current setup certainly is – implies a degree of invisibility, an unexpected integration has begun in the revered space. The Elks Bar, which is open to non-members, has started making mojitos and coquitos to go with the meal. Puerto Rican beer is expected to be introduced in the coming months. But the connection goes deeper than just the specialty drinks.
The moose appear to be experiencing a renaissance as the place goes through a series of massive overhauls to appeal to a younger audience. In its current form, the room looks charmingly dated after it was last extensively renovated over 20 years ago. Minor repairs are now being complemented by plans to set up a beer garden in the parking lot, with multiple golf simulators being installed – partly to provide practice space for the North High School team. “It’s like our adult tree house,” grinned event coordinator Lauren Wolf. In the past four years, the membership at the Denver location has almost doubled. The only requirement is that the applicant is 21 years old, an American citizen and of good character.
Beyond the general trend towards the hip, both Dos Abuelas and The Elks have deep dedication to charity. This weekend, the site will host a fundraiser for the Latina Safe House, collecting softly used clothing 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 the Gaunica earthquake victims. Crespo hopes to eventually expand the project into an ongoing non-profit organization. “We only exist for charity and for non-profit purposes,” said Wolf, noting the enduring commitment of the decidedly apolitical and irreligious organization to veterans.
With a fully equipped kitchen, Crespo has added to their already impressive list of nutritious comfort foods. Classics including the Triple Rican ($ 13) – a pressed sandwich with a healthy portion of pork, Swiss cheese, ham, sirloin steak, garlic aioli, lettuce, pickled red onions and plantain chips – and that Grandma’s Plate ($ 12) – with rice, sofrito, plantains and a choice of chicken, vegetables, pork or steak – are all better than ever. New dishes are those Mofongo ($ 13) – a Puerto Rican staple made from mashed plantains, an assortment of egg whites, broth and garlic mojo – and the Guava BBQ Sandwich ($ 11) – A heaping portion of pork or chicken, homemade guava barbecue sauce and red cabbage coleslaw on freshly baked bread. “That’s how I get people to try Puerto Rican food,” Crespo winked.
Love is easy to spot with some food. Dos Abuelas continues to serve the kind of cuisine where you can feel not only Crespo’s efforts, but the helping hands of the generations that shaped every bite. “She seems to know everyone she shares her meal with, except the Doordash drivers,” said Wolf. Crespo is still planning to open a brick and mortar once the pandemic is over. “It has to be great. I worked for this grand opening, ”she said, noting that Big Lights and Bad Bunny had to be playing loudly. In the meantime, the venue can act as a unifying force, with everyone benefiting from the unexpected mélange. “I still cook the same thing, all the same amount of love.”
Dos Abuelas is located at the Denver Elks Lodge at 2475 West 26th Ave., Denver. It is open from Wednesday to Friday from 12 p.m. to 7 p.m. and Saturday from 2 p.m. to 7 p.m. The kitchen can be picked up on site, delivered or consumed at a safe distance.
All photographs by Alden Bonecutter.