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The colorful patio is the lifeblood of the El Noa Noa restaurant. 'If not for the patio,' manager Vidal Banuelos said, 'we’re out of business. It’s that simple.' When the patio is closed down for weather, sales go down 40 percent.

Editor’s note: With so many iconic Denver restaurants going by the boards since the pandemic, in this new series the Denver Gazette is featuring longstanding establishments that are somehow still standing.

After 42 years on Santa Fe Drive, it’s hard to imagine a Denver without El Noa Noa

I’m told there are numerous items on the menu at the El Noa Noa Mexican restaurant at 722 Santa Fe Drive. But, being allergic to both onions and an adventurous food spirit, I have only ever ordered one. But I’ve ordered it a lot. In 2009, I was written up in the Denver Post for having eaten my 500th El Noa Noa bean burrito (smothered with red sauce).

After 42 years on Santa Fe Drive, it’s hard to imagine a Denver without El Noa Noa. But then again, it was hard to imagine a Denver without a Breakfast King, a Denver Diner, an Annie’s Cafe, a Bonnie Brae Tavern or a Racines — and here we are. It could happen.

“The restaurant is not making money,” said manager Vidal Banuelos, whose wife, Leticia, is the daughter of founders Raul and Hortencia Medina. “The future of the business is pretty cloudy.”

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Manager Vidal Banuelos, left, with his wife, Leticia, who is the daughter of El Noa Noa founders Raul and Hortencia Medina.

Almost everything is working against the Banuelos family during this imperfect storm of COVID, supply-chain shortages and inflation. The cost of labor and supplies have gone skyward. The couple don’t have enough staff to stay open every day year-round. With the exploding housing market, “property taxes in Denver have become outrageous,” Banuelos said. And the cost of maintaining property, liability and workman’s comp insurance have all gone up.

“Since the pandemic started, our food prices have gone up an average of 35%. And in that time, we have raised prices 13%,” Banuelos said. “We hate to raise prices, because when people see that, they leave and don’t come back. But it is just so hard to make a profit.”

To make things (much) worse, the city has added what Banuelos calls “a stupid” 5-foot walking buffer along Santa Fe between the sidewalk and the few remaining on-street parking spaces. But the worst part of all, Banuelos said, ”is that the city billed us to do the very work that is hurting our businesses through our taxes.” The point of the city’s street program is to slow vehicular traffic and make pedestrians safer. “But everyone hates them,” Banuelos said. “In my opinion, it is very unfair to the businesses.”

Customers have returned to El Noa Noa, but not to pre-COVID levels. And because of the cost of presenting live music, Banuelos had to suspend his signature live mariachi band in 2019. The three required live-music licenses were costing Banuelos $5,000 annually. For years, the huge band of family players wandered the colorful patio that has become the lifeblood of the business.

“If not for the patio,” Banuelos said, “we’re out of business. It’s that simple. When the patio is closed down for weather, my sales go down 40%.” And because of that, when the winter comes, Banuelos will be closing for two days a week.

El Noa Noa has survived so far, he believes, “because my wife and I have put our heart and soul into this place, and we work entirely, every day, to stay in business. And our people support us. But we are tired.”

The family’s lease is up at the end of 2024, and Banuelos isn’t sure it makes all that much sense to keep struggling. These days, he often finds himself asking the existential question: “What am I even doing here?”

“I am not in this to make a lot of money, but I don’t want to lose a lot of money, either. The struggle is never-ending.”

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El Noa Noa Manager Vidal Bauelos calls the 5-foot walking buffers along Santa Fe Drive 'stupid,' and says, 'property taxes in Denver have become outrageous' – a sentiment currently echoed on the nearby Aztlan Theatre's marquee.

John Moore is the Denver Gazette's Senior Arts Journalist. Email him at john.moore@denvergazette.com