Michael Herrera grew up in Greeley and Brighton, where the fields were full of chiles, and green chile was often on the table at home. But he didn't know that his future would be very, very green. Instead, he began his career with KFSC, the station started in the early '50s by the late Francisco "Paco" Sanchez, a Mexican entertainer who had trouble getting the word out about his events after he moved to Denver in 1948. Sanchez was the first Mexican to own a radio station in this country; although Herrera was born in Colorado, his parents were from Mexico, and he knew how important it was to communicate with the community.
But as his young family grew, Herrera wanted to find a more stable source of income. So in 1964, he took on a space at 2340 Champa Street, a former Safeway store that had become an automotive shop, and turned it into La Fiesta, a Mexican restaurant, supper club and gathering place. He worked with his cook to create the perfect green chile — a hot, hot mix of those Colorado chiles, onions, tomatoes and pork, of course. Fifty years later, that green chile remains the focus of the menu at La Fiesta, which today is only open for lunch on weekdays (and into the evening on Fridays). Michael Herrera still comes to his restaurant every day, though, watching his offspring serve up that same green chile to everyone from cops to music promoters to members of the Colorado Supreme Court — who've clearly judged his green chile to be very, very authentic.
The Super Bowl is over and better off forgotten — but the Green Chile Bowl continues to simmer. Before the game, Mayor Michael Hancock made a bet with Seattle mayor Ed Murray, promising to send him a snowboard and other swag from Icelantic as well as samples of some of this city's "amazing green chile" if the Broncos lost to the Seahawks. Although La Fiesta's green chile wasn't included in the wager, a few of the versions chosen by Hancock and his staff were almost as venerable. There was green chile from Brewery Bar II, which got its start in the Tivoli long before the old brewery was turned into a student union; from El Taco de Mexico; and from Chubby Burger Drive Inn, the joint on West 38th Avenue that waitress Stella Cordova purchased from her boss back in 1968. Cordova kept the name but added her own homegrown Mexican specialties, including the green chile she'd learned to make as a girl in southern Colorado. Although she passed away a few years ago at the age of 100, her green chile lives on at Chubby's.
Green Chile Bowl
But despite green chile's deep roots in Colorado, Hancock's wager really stirred the pot in New Mexico. "We New Mexicans were stunned this week to read that we have apparently lost our exclusive claim as home of the heavenly substance that makes living here all the more worthwhile," wrote columnist Joline Gutierrez Krueger in the Albuquerque Tribune. "Listen, Denver, you could have easily chosen Rocky Mountain oysters as your local culinary treat. Or elk meat. Or marijuana-laced brownies. Why our green chile?"
Well, for starters, Hancock didn't pick New Mexico's green chile — with the unfortunate exception of green from Little Anita's, an Albuquerque-based chain that specializes in the thin, green-chile-flavored water that's native to that state. The green that evolved from the chiles imported from Mexico centuries ago and planted in our state's soil is much heartier, filled with ingredients that would be considered sacrilege in New Mexico — tomatoes! pork! — and just as hot. And then, it's also hard to imagine a better culinary pick-me-up for sodden Seattle than a big bowl that tastes of earth and sunshine...and pig.
But those nuances were lost on the hotheads in New Mexico, who can only agree with Colorado's culinary community on one thing: You spell green chile with an "e," not an "i." Even as Hancock was shipping the victor the spoils last week, Richard Berry, the mayor of Albuquerque, was sending his own package to Hancock: fresh-frozen Hatch green chiles and Chimayo red chiles. And the taste test doesn't end there: Berry wants to challenge Denver to a chile cookoff.
To which we say: Bring it.
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La Fiesta could be the perfect site for a green chile competition between Albuquerque and Denver; one of the restaurant's cooks, a New Mexico native, says he had to learn how to rethink green chile when he came to Colorado, because there's simply no comparison. And then there are all those learned Colorado Supreme Court justices, just waiting to referee the green chile bowl; they could even invite their colleagues from the bench in New Mexico to lift a spoon — although we have no doubt what the verdict will be.
Mayor Berry will be in Denver in early March for Downtown Denver's Rocky Mountain City Summit; his staff has reached out to Hancock's office to discuss the terms for keeping the rivalry alive with an annual Mile High Chile Challenge.
Yes, Albuquerque — whose elevation is around 5,000 feet — apparently thinks we stole its altitude, too.