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Mr. Lee, former owner of the old Barricuda’s in Cap Hill, was a good man (Local Tips & Reviews)

By Vic Vela, CPR News

As a former heavy drinker and drug user, the measure of a successful night out for me often was simply not getting kicked out of a bar.

I was once booted out of the Fox Theatre in Boulder for mouthing off to a bouncer the size of the Michelin tire man. I was tossed out of the original Oskar Blues in Lyons after causing a ruckus on a night where I was flying on LSD. And I was once “escorted” out of the Lancer Lounge in Denver after getting into a fight and loudly proclaiming on my way out the door, “I’ve been kicked out of nicer places than this!”

But I was 86’d from Barricuda’s in Denver’s Capitol Hill Neighborhood only a couple of times over the course of 20 years. So, I easily covered the spread there.

Even though my life was often a hot mess back in those days, Barricuda’s (yes, that’s how they spelled it) took care of me at a time when I couldn’t take care of myself; the people of Barricuda’s took care of me. And that was especially true of the man who owned the bar for 25 years, Jin Lee, who passed away Thursday after a short battle with lung cancer. Mr. Lee was a very good man. And I’m gonna miss him.

Lee bought the bar in 1994. And now that he’s gone, it’s brought up all kinds of memories of the early days of Barricuda’s: the bar regulars I loved and lost, and what Denver used to look like back in the day.

CPR News host Vic Vela (left) and Jin Lee, former owner of the now-closed Barricuda's.
Courtesy Vic Vela

In 1995, I moved to Denver from Longmont, where I was born and raised, to attend college at Metro State, now known as MSU Denver. The city was a lot different then. It was the inaugural year of Coors Field in LoDo, which was only starting to emerge as the sports bar and microbrewery mecca it would become known for. The Pepsi Center, now Ball Arena, was still a few years from being built. The Broncos hadn’t won a Super Bowl yet. College students weren’t walking and texting because no one had a cell phone. And I paid $400 a month for a one bedroom apartment on Cap Hill – $400!

I was only 18 and wasn’t legally allowed to drink, but I had a fake ID of some random dude from Needham, Massachusetts that got me into most places. One of them was a dive bar in a strip mall at 11th and Ogden called Barricuda’s. It had the cheapest drinks and the best cheap food in town. You could walk in with $10 and that’d be plenty for a generously-stuffed veggie burrito and a couple of heavy-poured cocktails.

But the best part about that joint was the people. 

Let me provide a little perspective around that part. You see, I didn’t have a lot of options when it came to colleges. I was kicked out of class a lot in high school (Are you noticing a trend here?). I didn’t have very good grades and my family wasn’t well-educated either; and they certainly couldn’t afford to send me off to school. So, it was actually pretty convenient that no universities wanted me because I couldn’t afford it anyway. But Metro State did. They liked the fact that I was a first-generation Chicano college student. And while many of my friends went to places like Fort Collins or Boulder for school, I needed a city. I was a closeted gay kid looking to leave small town Colorado for the Mile High City, where I could be myself, open and unapologetically. And when I first stepped foot inside Barricuda’s, it was representative of Capitol Hill at that time: There were gays and drag queens, blacks and whites, lawyers and ex-cons, punks and hippies. It was the melting pot of all melting pots in a bar owned by a Korean immigrant.

And boy howdy did I have some great times there! I used to mess with Mr. Lee in a loving way. He often slept in his office (the guy worked so hard). One night, I snuck in while he was napping and wrote a note that said, “Remember: Vic drinks free today.” When he woke up he shouted, “Did you do this!” I nearly fell off my bar stool laughing. On the night I turned 21, I was on my third gin and tonic when Lee asked how old I was.

“I’m 21 today!” I said with a big smile.

Mr. Lee got so mad because I had already been drinking there for a few years. Whoops.

Then there was the time where I was juggling two boyfriends at the same time – oh to be young, good lookin’ and stupid again! I got my plans confused and they both showed up to the bar at the same time. Mr. Lee stood in the doorway laughing at me as my entire love life blew up at his bar.

Good times, indeed.

But there were bad times, too. I’ve lost several friends I used to drink with there to addictions they just couldn’t overcome. I spent many days there drinking and smoking cigarettes from open to close. I don’t drink or do drugs anymore. I’ve been sober for more than eight years now and I’m grateful for that. But even though I don’t miss drinking, I do miss the people who frequented the gin joints of this great old city.

I often speak romantically of old Denver because I’m an old Denver dude who misses the days before the city went from being the best kept secret in America to one of the fastest growing cities in the country. I often think back to the days of meeting a tattooed guy at the Snake Pit and writing my landline number on a cocktail napkin, wondering if he was actually gonna call me. I miss the food and margaritas at Benny’s. And I’ll never forget the first gay bar I stepped foot in when I was a nervous 18-year-old kid, a place called The Compound on Broadway, where an Italian restaurant now stands.

Don’t get me wrong. There’s still plenty of Old Denver left in this city. From Pete’s Kitchen on East Colfax to Charlie Brown’s on Cap Hill. But there’s no more Barricuda’s, which closed in November 2019 — a new bar, Three Kilts Tavern, now stands in its place, with many of the old Barricuda’s regulars still holding down the fort.

But it’s not Barricuda’s. And there’s no more Mr. Lee. And that makes me sad.

But as the old saying goes: Don’t cry that it’s over. Smile that it happened. And now, I’m thinking back to that day in 1995, when I pulled my 1970 Chevy Nova into the Barricuda’s parking lot, blasting the Grateful Dead’s “Scarlet Begonias” from my cassette deck.

“Once in a while you get shown the light in the strangest of places, if you look at it right,” as the Dead would say.

That strange little bar with the strange name with all those strange people who were about to become my friends.

I’m glad I walked into Mr Lee’s Barricuda’s 28 years ago. I walked out a better man because of it.

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