How Buffalo Bill Opened New York's First-Ever Mexican Restaurant--And Invented Celebrity Mexican Food

Buffalo Bill, won't you come out tonight...
Buffalo Bill, won't you come out tonight...

Among the many crazy facts I discovered for my 2012 book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, none were crazier than the discovery of Buffalo Bill getting into the Mexican-restaurant game. It happened only once, in 1886 at Madison Square Garden as part of his Wild West Show, but still: what the hell was the American West's most famous showman doing offering Mexican food in the 1880s, a time where virtually no one in los Estados Unidos outside of the American Southwest knew what a tortilla was?

That question led me last week to Denver, to an amazing evening of lectures and food hosted by Kevin Grossi of Lola Mexican Fish House. The young chef set out to modernize the dishes that Buffalo Bill offered in his pop-up, not just because Grossi cooks Mexican food and is a fan of Buffalo Bill, but also because the building that Lola occupies used to be a mortuary in which Bill's body was kept--CRAZY!!!

Menu for the event
Menu for the event
Photos by The Mexican

One of the sponsors of the event was Steve Friesen, director of the Buffalo Bill Museum and Grave, and a man that can connect Bill to rock 'n' roll (try him!). He lectured on Bill's story and how he ended up in Denver. I lectured briefly about how was it that Bill had his pop-up restaurant (hint: no one knows for sure. Even Friesen wasn't aware of the restaurant until my book, and his best speculation is that Bill wanted to give people a taste of the West but also didn't want to do it in the West--hence, holding it as far away as possible. Madison Square Garden was also the only known time Buffalo Bill's Mexican restaurant was ever held.). I also made the point that not only did he open the first-ever Mexican restaurant in NYC (a city with a complex about its Mexican offerings), not only was he the first celebrity to endorse Mexican food, but that Buffalo Bill was the original hipster foodie, ending his dinner with mezcal--a point that flew over most of the crowd, as mezcal has yet to become a hipster thing in Denver.

(Then again, the rest of America still doesn't know what a Mexican hamburger is)

But we tried to keep our comments short; the real star was Grossi's meal--great alta cocina dishes any other day of the year, but downright historic that night.

Excuse the increasing blurriness due to my increasing borracheando-ness
Excuse the increasing blurriness due to my increasing borracheando-ness

Even better, almost all of the food was locally sourced, from the meat to the cheese to the vegetables and mores. A young, bearded rancher spoke about the ingredients used that night to the sold-out crowd of about 60.

And better yet?  

The prettiest chile relleno you ever did see...
The prettiest chile relleno you ever did see...

Grossi just might do it again next year, because he only scratched the surface of Buffalo Bill's menu.

Until then, enjoy these pictures and marvel at how Mexican food--yep!--conquered America.

Awesome chile con carne
Awesome chile con carne
Who knew Buffalo Bill was a hipster?
Who knew Buffalo Bill was a hipster?

Email: garellano@ocweekly.com. Twitter: @gustavoarellano.

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