In the Thick of It: Colorado Green Chile at Tacos Jalisco

In the Thick of It: Colorado Green Chile at Tacos Jalisco
Mark Antonation

When I first moved to Denver and began visiting this city's Mexican restaurants, I paid more attention to places like Tacos Jalisco than to what I thought of at the time as Americanized Mexican food. I was searching for that most ambiguous and hollow of food finds: authenticity. My quest was for cuisine as it is prepared and served in Mexico, specifically in the state of Jalisco. But since I'd never been to Jalisco, I didn't really know what that was. My goal now is both easier to define and easier to find: Colorado-style green chile. And if a place that supposedly serves the cuisine of Jalisco seems like the wrong place to look, the truth is that most Mexican restaurants that have survived in Denver for more than a few years have absorbed influences that have been here for decades. The kitchen at Tacos Jalisco happens to turn out a pretty decent batch of green chile, even if you'll never find anything like it in the restaurants of Puerto Vallarta or Guadalajara. See also: Bonnie Brae Tavern's Green Chile Defines the Colorado Style

Salsas in more colors than the Mexican flag.
Salsas in more colors than the Mexican flag.
Mark Antonation

The decor inside Tacos Jalisco is as much a mishmash of styles and decades as the menu itself. Mostly it just seems cobbled together from inexpensive furnishings over a long period of time. There's a main dining room with a bar and a second narrow seating area that's usually open only on busier nights. It's probably wiser to avoid this section, as it tends to be a waitstaff-free zone. If the place is filling up, a spot at the bar is a good bet.

But even if service is a little slow, an array of four different salsas will show up almost immediately, ranging from a mild and oregano-laced tomato sauce to a searing, flame-orange blend with a distinct flavor of oil-toasted chiles. The menu is big, but I ignore most of it in favor of a simple bowl of green chile with flour tortillas. There's a tempting enchilada dish with green chile, but the picture on the restaurant's website shows a thin, bright green sauce that doesn't look like what I'm after.

Amy, perhaps goaded by my talk of local and regional American influences on Mexican cooking, orders a shredded beef chimichanga (which may have originated in Arizona), also smothered in green chile. I'm not disappointed when my bowl arrives: The stew is thick, glossy and mid-tan -- with just a hint of orange -- in color. The texture comes in somewhere between country gravy and New England clam chowder. There's plenty of pork, mostly in small, cooked-down bits, but with a few larger shreds, too. Flour tortillas are a necessity when eating green chile; corn tortillas don't work well for tearing into small pieces and forming little cups for scooping up the stew.

The heat level is deceptive; at first it seems mild, but steadily grows as the chiles penetrate through the flour-thickened liquid. As green chile goes, the consistency is a little too close to gravy -- that glossy sheen comes from a good amount of fat emulsified into the chile -- to be great on its own. But as a sauce for, say, a chimichanga, it works well, clinging to the deep-fried burrito without becoming pasty.

Tacos Jalisco has been around long enough to have picked up, and probably even in turn influenced, the regional quirks of Denver Mexican. Cooks move from kitchen to kitchen and share techniques, ingredients and recipes. Tacos Jalisco may have begun its life serving dishes in the style of that region, but the menu's a little more mixed up now and tradition has come to mean the traditions of many different cooks, all simmered down into one viscous bowl. And then topped with a little orange cheese, because that's just the way it's done around here.

A bowl of Colorado gravy.
A bowl of Colorado gravy.
Mark Antonation
Arizona meets Colorado: a chimichanga smothered in green chile.
Arizona meets Colorado: a chimichanga smothered in green chile.
Mark Antonation
For those who have always wondered, that's Popocatapetl and Iztaccihuatl.
For those who have always wondered, that's Popocatapetl and Iztaccihuatl.
Mark Antonation

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