In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard -- south to north -- within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll visit every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...
Luck, according to either an ancient Greek philosopher or an American insurance salesman, is when preparation meets opportunity. In my case, just swap out the preparation for a little procrastination and luck happened to hand me the opportunity to load up on Colorado-style Mexican food just in time for a Broncos home playoff game. With a Santiago's now on every major drag in Denver and peppering the small towns of the Front Range, it would be easy for the average hungry Coloradan to avoid game-day traffic while getting a green chile fix in quieter streets and neighborhoods. But my mission is Federal-based, and my latest stop was the Santiago's within a Hail Mary of Sports Authority Field at Mile High (almost as much a mouthful as one of those foil-wrapped breakfast bombs), so into the fray I went, past early parkers, honking banner wavers, and already tipsy tailgaters to battle for a spot in line at one of Denver's most popular burrito outlets.
The Santiago's at 25th and Federal is recognizable for its now iconic logo of a Kokopelli-like figure either protecting or in the process of hurling (I can never quite figure out which) a bowl of the homegrown chain's signature chile. If you miss the sign, just look for the only restaurant with a Tuff Shed out front.
I've never been a fan of drive-up ordering; I prefer to make eye contact with an actual human and hang out with a soda or an horchata while I wait for my food. Ordering at the counter provided a chance to observe the flow of customers (mostly orange-clad) and bustle of the kitchen as it geared up for a steady onslaught of Sunday diners, whether nursing hangovers or building a base to absorb afternoon beers. I watched in quiet awe as the kitchen staff tore down and rebuilt a mountain of wrapped breakfast burritos over and over in a Sisyphean rhythm of selling and prepping. They must have sold a hundred of the tidy packages in the short time I watched, to customers on foot, in cars, on phones and at tables in the tightly packed dining room.
I made my choices based on the idea of a full day of Santiago's -- breakfast, lunch and dinner -- while enjoying football and growlers of beer with friends at home. A couple of $2 breakfast burritos, stuffed with soft-cooked scrambled eggs, a sprinkle of yellow cheese, and nuggets of mild sausage, started the day -- all punctuated by hot and tangy green chile that melded in with the eggs and cheese.
Lunch was timed to coincide with but not interrupt a moment of the Broncos game. I congratulated myself for the fortuitous orange hue of my meal: a quart of green chile tinted a creamy orange by tomato sauce but still dominated by the vegetal flavor of the New Mexico chiles that give the dish its name; the tamales a more saturated orange from the red chiles and pork fat that slicked the corn masa surfaces. Generous plugs of tender shredded pork dominated the thin masa coating of the tamales, just enough to absorb the green chile without becoming gummy or dense.
My strategy worked: My orange food and growler of Denver-made craft beer were certainly factors in Manning's victory over the troublesome Chargers. Dinner was a celebratory bowl of re-heated chile, clean and smooth in flavor and texture. Santiago's doesn't over-thicken the sauce with flour or corn starch; it's just viscous enough to cling to a spoon but still pours nicely and warms the belly like a good soup, not a gloppy gravy.
I'm neither a creature of habit nor a superstitious nail-biter, but there's something to be said for establishing a ritual for sporting events. It gives each game an air of pageantry, with the memories of each game piling on to the next, building a layer of anticipation and meaning. I'm not going to change the outcome of the game by drinking the same beer or sitting in the same chair for each victory, but who knows? I'm pretty sure the wafting spices and deep flavors of my burritos, green chile and tamales somehow got into the heads of the visiting team, telling them subliminally, but unconditionally, that this is Denver and it's good, and that you can just go back to your fish tacos with cabbage because everything is orange here, even the green. Another week will bring another challenger; if I have any say in the matter I'll be ready with my quart of Santiago's and a spoon.
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For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.