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In the average Mexican restaurant in Denver, the answer would seem to be reddish or orange, maybe even an orange-greenish hue tending toward gray. Some bowls of green chile contain enough jalapeños to speckle them a vivid emerald, no matter the base color. But rarely is the green chile in this town green through and through.
That's not the case in Mexico, where chile verde is indeed green. True Mexican green chile is thin, usually pork-based, and traditionally pumped up with tomatillos and jalapeños. If Mexican cooks add tomatoes to the mix, they automatically call it red chile.
5545 Wadsworth Blvd.
Arvada, CO 80001
Region: Northwest Denver Suburbs
Little Anita's, 1550 South Colorado Boulevard, 303-691-3337. Hours: 7 a.m.-8:30 p.m. Monday-Friday; 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday; 10 a.m.-6 p.m. Sunday.
"Green chile is green, it's not red," says Paola Hernandez, who left Guanajuato, Mexico, a decade ago for California, then moved with her husband, Sergio, to Colorado last year to open Pique. "When we first came here to Denver, a food purveyor told me he had green chile already made up and ready to eat, and when he showed it to me, I was surprised to see that it was red. I told him I don't want anything red for my green chile. If I want to make red chile, I'll make red chile."
In fact, the Hernandezes offer both red and green chile at Pique, their tiny Mexican eatery located in a strip mall at Monaco and Leetsdale. Sergio is from Guadalajara, and he and Paola were doing just fine with their restaurant in Fontana, California, until some friends convinced them there weren't enough Mexican restaurants in Denver. "When we got here, though, we found out there were a lot of Mexican restaurants," Sergio says, laughing. "A lot. But we thought, 'Okay, maybe we'll be doing something different.'"
Their green chile certainly qualifies. Pique's green is a deep green, oily, salty liquid packed with fatty pieces of pork and long strips of jalapeño. By Denver standards it's strongly flavored, with a sharp bite that accumulates on the tongue alongside the tangy, almost apple-like undertone of tomatillos. More a slick broth than a viscous gravy, the chile was more easily sampled on a burrito or tamale than in a bowl, because the base was too thin to scoop up with a flour tortilla (not that we didn't try). Besides, we wouldn't have wanted to miss Pique's tamales, wet and studded with jalapeño bits, or its carne asada burrito, a large wrap filled with thin strips of chile-marinated sirloin steak that had been grilled until char-edged. The big burritos came with Spanish rice -- complete with peas and carrots and a sprinkling of annatto -- and basic refried beans that also benefited from spoonfuls of that mean green.
The rest of Pique's small menu, made entirely from Hernandez family recipes, features authentic versions of the antojitos mexicanos -- literally translated as "Mexican whims" -- that were created when Mexican and Native-American cooking combined. The resulting enchiladas, tacos, quesadillas and tamales today are eaten as main courses by poorer Mexicans, as snacks by Mexico's upper classes -- and by just about anyone at anytime here in Denver. Pique's takes on these dishes were particularly tasty. The tortas came on puffy, floury buns that soaked up every molecule of liquid they came in contact with; the well-stuffed al pastor torta was filled with cumin-rubbed pork layered with lettuce, tomato and Pique's chunky guacamole, which was half avocado and half onion, tomato and jalapeño. The tacos started with small, pan-warmed corn tortillas, then piled on meats, onions and fresh cilantro. The birria tacos featured bits of beef shredded unfathomably small, with an angry-looking red rub providing punch (birria usually involves goat or lamb, but the word actually refers to the barbacoa-style sauce in which the meat is cooked); the carnitas brought deep-fried baubles of tender pork; and the grilled-chicken tacos were all tender, garlic-rubbed bird. All of the tacos came with two dipping sauces: one tomatillo-based and semi-sweet, the other a chipotle-smoked red salsa that bit back.
Pique has no liquor license and little decor: only a few ristras and a blanket here and there to gussy up the place. But the Hernandezes, along with a few helpers (and their daughter on Saturdays), manage to make Pique feel inviting, and a TV atop the juice cooler provides background noise day and night. That's authentically Mexican, too.
The atmosphere is snazzier at Little Anita's. Owner Lawrence Gutierrez grew up in Albuquerque, came to Denver in 1989 to attend Regis College and then went back to New Mexico to work with his father, Larry Gutierrez, who for the past twenty years has owned six Little Anita's (named after Lawrence's little sister) and one Maria Teresa restaurant in Albuquerque, along with a Little Anita's in Santa Fe. (Lawrence's grandmother has a chain of Anita's restaurants in the Washington, D.C., area as well.) "I started out working for my father in high school," Lawrence says. "The only time I wasn't working for my dad was when I went to college, and then I went right back to working for him after that, for the past eight years." But Colorado's call was too strong, and three months ago Lawrence returned to Denver to run his own Little Anita's.