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Green Streets

All in la familia: Lawrence Gutierrez shares his New Mexican heritage at Little Anita's.

What color is green chile supposed to be?

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.

"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.

The Gutierrez family also owns New Mexico Food Distributors, and an arm of that company, Foods of New Mexico, makes all of the red and green chiles and salsas served in the Little Anita's restaurants. "The recipes came from my family, mostly my great-grandmother, Rose, who just passed away," Lawrence explains. "My family isn't from Mexico. We're from New Mexico, and we've always been there, and we've always cooked things the way New Mexicans do. I know that here in Denver, we'll get lumped in more with Mexican restaurants, but the truth is, this is New Mexican food."

Although the sauces are made in advance and shipped from New Mexico -- Lawrence says the company business makes about 2,000 gallons at a time, and he receives his Cryovac packages once a week -- they travel well. While Denverites will find Little Anita's green chile more familiar than Pique's -- it's thicker, with lots of tomatoes and fork-tender hunks of pork -- it boasts some distinctive differences, too, including a heavy emphasis on garlic and cumin. And Little Anita's red is even better, a brick-red fiery gravy that carries a faint smokiness and the kind of grainy texture that signifies fresh-ground chiles.

Aside from those sauces, everything is made fresh at Little Anita's -- and it shows. Lawrence considers the carne adovada to be his eatery's signature dish, and one bite was enough to convince us that he was right. The pork had been coated in adobo, a seasoning paste made from ground chiles, vinegar and garlic, then grilled until the paste formed thin crusts on the outside and the meat inside took on the garlicky goodness of it all. The carne adovada enchilada plate came loaded with juicy meats and red chile, along with homemade refried beans -- more whole bean than mush -- and Spanish rice that was too dry, our one complaint about our meals at Little Anita's. In true New Mexico fashion, all of the enchiladas there are made with blue corn tortillas, and three cheese-filled, stacked enchiladas, covered with red, made for a filling bargain of a meal. It didn't hurt that sopaipillas, thought to have originated in Albuquerque 200 years ago, came as sides with most entrees (grab a bottle of honey from the counter).

The Special New Mexican Combination Plate proved an ideal way to get a big taste of Little Anita's fare. Our order brought a red-smothered cheese enchilada; a spicy, beef-filled tamale; a beef taco (done the American way, sadly, with a crisp corn tortilla shell); a fat, white-cheese-oozing, soft-style chile relleno; and a mound of guacamole, hand-mashed and lime-tart. Little Anita's also did well by a simple burrito, a large rolled-and-wrapped bundle filled with sweet, juicy shredded beef and refried beans.

Like Pique, Little Anita's has no liquor license. You order your food at the counter, and while many people take it to go, it's much better eaten in, savored in the fun setting created by Lawrence and his friends and family. The faux vegas, real stucco work and charming New Mexican furniture make this an appealing place for a sit-down meal, even if you have to serve yourself.

For authentic Mexican and New Mexican fare, color me pleased with both Pique and Little Anita's.

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Little Anita's

5545 Wadsworth Blvd.
Arvada, CO 80001

720-974-3200

www.littleanitas.com


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