There are certain things Coloradans know that others don't — like how Lookout Mountain turns a sixer of Fat Tire into enough beer for six people, how to walk in heels in downtown Denver in three feet of snow and not break your effin' ankle, and, most important, which restaurants have the best green chile.
The best Colorado green chile.
Santiago's Mexican Restaurant is a homegrown chain that sprouted from a single store in Brighton, where in 1990 Carmen Morales used her mother Rachel's recipe to create Santiago's now-famous "Authentic Green Chile Sauce with Pork." Today there are twenty full-service dining spots and four limited-service or "Express" locations stretching from Frederick and Fort Morgan to Englewood and Golden; all of them are owned and operated by either members of the Morales family or close friends. I would not want to do business with family, as the old adage goes, but apparently the Morales clan defies the odds while cooking up gallons upon gallons of green chile sauce. Maybe the feisty relatives get scullery duty when they get mouthy. Scullery duty at the Commerce City location.
5230 East 72nd Avenue, Commerce City
Hours: 6 a.m.-8 p.m. Monday-Friday, 8 a.m.-8 p.m. Saturday, 8 a.m.-2 p.m. Sunday
Also read: Santiago's founder Carmen Morales talks to Cafe Society
Santiago's Mexican Restaurant
Large combo $10
Chile relleno dinner $6.50
At first glance, this spot seems like the last place in the world you'd want to put a full-service restaurant, since the surrounding neighborhood — full of hulking industrial buildings and expanses of mostly empty parking lots — resembles a deserted, post-apocalyptic wasteland in the evening. The patio was deserted when I dropped by at 7 p.m., but the small dining room was almost full of people either eating or waiting at the counter for their bags and boxes of food to go. I sat myself and ordered an orange soda in a large plastic cup (no liquor at any Santiago's) from my friendly server, who asked what I wanted before I'd even seen a menu. That's a positive signal that a place has repeat business — a lot of repeat business. The server grinned, grabbed a menu for me and left me to peruse the possibilities.
The menu is simple and pretty much the same in all the locations, though a few also offer a "Sopapilla Sundae" that sounds like a jolly treat. (This one didn't.) There are standard appetizers like nachos, taquitos and chips and salsa; Indian tacos, tostadas, burritos, tacos, enchiladas and all kinds of combinations of these; a children's menu with mini-portions; and a category labeled "American Food" with only two items: a hamburger and a cheeseburger. I ordered a large combo (taco, tostada, cheese enchilada, smothered bean burrito, tamale, beans and rice) and a chile relleno dinner (two smothered chiles rellenos, soft or crispy, with beans, rice and tortillas), as well as a side of guacamole.
Peering out at the drab, dreary scenes beyond the window was the opposite of stimulating, and the sparsely furnished dining room was not much to look at, either, so I got lucky when the gentleman at the next table, a regular, started up a conversation with me. He told me the place was a nuthouse at lunch. "Everyone from the factories comes in, and you're lucky to get a seat," he said.
Which explains why Morales chose to plop down a store in the middle of Bartertown. On a lunch break, who wouldn't want a hot, sit-down meal you don't have to unwrap rather than grabbing grub at a drive-thru at one of the usual fast-food suspects? (Some Santiago's have drive-thrus, too.) Especially when a meal here is a real deal. I got a metric fuckton of food: The large combo filled three plates, the rellenos an oval platter — and the ramekin of guac was the size of a teacup.
The first thing I tasted was the green chile, the true measure of any Mexican restaurant in this part of the world. I spent five fun, green chile-soaked years living in Albuquerque, and natives there discuss the comparative merits of different restaurants' green chile like people in Paris discuss who makes the best bread. There are as many styles of green chile sauce as there are preferences: Some folks like their sauce thin, some thicker, others want more pork — or less — and still others judge the amount of chile versus seeds. My personal preference is medium consistency, with a solid, fruity flavor, medium heat, less pork than chiles — so it's not too weighty — and those chiles extra-roasted: "autumn-roast" style, if possible. As far as I can see, besides New Mexicans calling it "sauce," the biggest difference between green chile sauce there and green chile in Colorado is that New Mexicans prefer autumn-roast chiles with extra char on the skins, giving the sauce a deeper, more wood-smoky flavor profile. Coloradans seem to fancy their green with cleaner, less-roasted chiles for a more direct, young, vegetal profile.
But Coloradans bicker their blowholes off just as much as New Mexicans do about their favorites.
Santiago's gives customers a choice of hot, mild and half & half: medium. I'd ordered half & half with sides of hot and mild to try. The sauce was medium-thick, a bright orange-y color, with just enough fat to give it a light sheen but no grease pools; it was dotted with meaty chunks of pork and swimming with vivid green bits of chile and only a pinch of seeds. I raised a spoonful to my mouth, and...holy Christ on a crack pipe: It was the best green chile I'd eaten since leaving New Mexico, which is about the highest compliment I can give, since that is the green chile capital of Planet Earth.
The Santiago's sauce was smooth, warm like an electric tongue-blanket, and those pork nuggets fell apart when they saw a spoon. The mild was devoid of heat but flavorful, the half & half had a pleasant, creeping warmth, and the hot was enough to gas-light you up, but not enough to make the snot drip from your nose — unless you're a wuss. I could understand why Santiago's chile has such street cred, and why grocery stores like King Soopers, Albertsons, Walmart and City Market carry the stuff.
My next logical grab from the combo was the taco, which was hard-shell and stuffed with delicious, well-seasoned ground beef, the top merely garnished with shredded lettuce, cheese and diced tomatoes. A squeeze bottle on the table produced a good, thick red chile sauce with a mild heat that dressed my taco nicely. From there I moved to the tamale, which was perfect: not too dry or too moist, with a generous stuffing of shredded pork.
The first chile relleno I tried in Colorado was a thin, sickly pepper with a scrap of cheese inside, rolled up in a flour tortilla and deep-fried. Santiago's avoided that sin. These rellenos were plump with gobs of melty, white cheese, coated in a light, crisp batter, and blanketed in green chile sauce. Under more green chile sauce, the bean burrito was heavy with a few scoops of refried beans that were under-seasoned and actually crunchy with what I hoped was a bean crust from too much sitting-in-the-pan time. The rice was dry and flavorless, too, obviously an afterthought to the main dishes. The guacamole brightened up the lackluster sides; it was cool, had a good balance between chunky and smooth, a fresh, bright color indicating freshness — and not much flavor. But freshly made foods aren't always going to hit the mark, and I appreciated how much effort went into making everything at Santiago's from scratch, everything to order.
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With all of their stores, Carmen Morales and her family have plenty of restaurant business on their plates — but the growth of Santiago's also shows that they have the drive to keep pushing the brand until they've conquered the world.
There are certain things Coloradans know that others don't — and the success of Santiago's in this state is proof of that.
Jenn Wohletz covers the fast-food industry in Jenn in Chains on our Cafe Society blog; e-mail her at firstname.lastname@example.org.