When I moved to Denver nine years ago, I didn't realize that there were regional variations to green chile, much less recognize all of their nuances. The sophisticated interplay of heat and flavor found in the New Mexican chile served at Jack-n-Grill, for example, would have been lost on me (see review, previous page).
The first green chile I tried was far less subtle: A kitchen colleague turned me on to the chiles rellenos at the Campus Lounge (701 South University Boulevard), a must-have item smothered in green. I have no idea where the fellow is today (his first name was Tom, and if you know him, tell him I still have his 10th Mountain Division hut-to-hut guidebook), but I definitely owe him. In addition to making me a list of other places where I should try the green chile (I've now hit them all), he also turned me on to the beauty of snowshoeing with a wine-filled backpack and the amazing burgers at the Bucksnort Saloon outside of Pine. I keep thinking I'll run into him at the Campus one of these days, sitting in a corner with a Bud and a plate of rellenos. And maybe an extra side of green, since he loved it so much.
I didn't -- at least, not at first. I remember pulling the wonton-wrapped chile away from the fiery sauce so that I could enjoy the cheese-filled poblanos on their own. When I asked Tom why the Campus had to make the green chile so hot, he looked at me as if I were insane. I was. Many, many bowls of green chile later, I get it. I'm hooked, suffering from an addiction so acute that I now crave different types of green chile depending on my mood.
For instance, some days I need a bowl of wet, soupy green that I can dip many, many tortillas into. A few years ago, I could still get my fix at La Casa de Manuel, back when it was in its original, delightfully divey digs at 2010 Larimer Street. La Casa made an addictive, sloppy green that was filled with pork, carried a strong but not overpowering chile bite and had an unusually watery base. It was good on its own, and it was great smothering a "wet" shredded-beef burrito.
But then, after forty years, La Casa de Manuel lost its month-to-month lease on that old storefront (which is now a parking lot) and moved to 3158 Larimer. The green chile seems to have lost something in the process. When I stopped in for lunch last week, I found it more watery than ever, but lacking its earlier oomph. Sadly, the rest of the meal was pretty lame, too. The guacamole had been stretched with sour cream, the three shredded-beef tacos came with a few thin strands of lettuce and some pathetic pieces of tomato, and an enchilada tasted like plastic. At one point, owner Manuel Silva wandered tiredly out of the kitchen, looked around at the three occupied tables, and moaned loudly before shuffling back inside. I wanted to weep. The place is so run-down it makes the old location look upscale, and while the lack of a liquor license never seemed to hurt Manuel's business before, my lunch sure could have used a beer.
Meanwhile, another one of my regular stops for green is gone altogether. Don Quijote, which had served wonderful Spanish-influenced Mexican food at 35 Federal Boulevard since 1968, wasn't quite as old as La Casa de Manuel, but it was as much a classic as the bullfighting posters that adorned its walls. Today a sign on the outside of the building says the place is closed for remodeling; when the door reopens, it will lead to an eatery called Tia Maria II. I hope the Calvo family that ran Don Quijote for so many years left behind the recipe for that killer charcoal-broiled lamb, as well as the onion-heavy, medium-spicy green chile.
In my search for good green chile, I've had to get used to the fact that it often isn't very green. Most of the time it's a pale gray-green, with a lot of red from the tomatoes that some Mexicans think cooks in this country added to the mix in order to cut down on the heat. Paola Hernandez is one of them; a native of Guanajuato, Mexico, she and her husband, Sergio, own Pique (6603 Leetsdale Drive), which serves one of the few green-colored green chiles in town. "I don't know why they call it green chile here," she says. "Once you put tomatoes in it, it's red chile, plain and simple." Pique's undeniably green chile 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; it's more of a slick broth than a viscous gravy, and it's heaven scooped up in a warm tortilla.
Some green chiles, like Pique's, are best enjoyed by themselves, so that their full flavor can be appreciated. Others, like the greasy, hot-hot version at Benny's Restaurant y Cantina (301 East Seventh Avenue), work better smothering something else, like the drop-dead-delicious sirloin burrito at this popular Mexican eatery. And while the green at La Cueva (9742 East Colfax Avenue, Aurora) falls into the tomato-packed category, the Nuñez family cooks up a very tasty brew using nothing more than chopped tomatoes, fresh jalapeños, garlic, salt and a big old pork butt. Only La Cueva's refried beans come close to matching this chile's home-cooked appeal.
Also in Aurora is La Cocina de Marcos (2680 South Havana Street), which serves another of my favorite greens. The green chile at this family-run joint is what I call "clean," meaning it lacks greasiness and tastes like it was made fifteen minutes before you order it; the red is pretty special, too. When at La Loma ( 2527 West 26th Avenue), I go green all the way. For nearly thirty years, La Loma has been offering grandma Savina Mendoza's original recipe, which she shared with her partners and the current owners, the Brinkerhoffs. This verde is more elaborate than most: medium-thick, tomatillo-chunky, jalapeño-spiked, studded with large chunks of juicy pork and seasoned with cumin and oregano.
But you don't have to be Mexican -- or even call yourself a Mexican restaurant -- to make a commendable green chile. Consider, for instance, the gringo green at CityGrille (321 East Colfax Avenue), where chef David Minty makes a gravy-thick, pork-packed concoction with a firm chile kick and no grease. Even more unusual is the green at the Brewery Bar II (150 Kalamath Street), which combines red and green chiles in one eye-tearing concoction.
My old buddy Tom would approve.
Get the Food & Drink Newsletter
Our weekly guide to Denver dining includes food news and reviews, as well as dining events and interviews with chefs and restaurant owners.