How do you find the best fire-roasted chile stands in Denver? Short of driving up and down Federal Boulevard, sampling chiles 'til your mouth burns, trying to guess if they're fresh, there isn't an easy answer.
So we've taken the heat for you and hunted down the top places to buy roasted green chiles this season. Last week we told you how to avoid getting roasted by scams from unscrupulous vendors, but these six businesses get high marks for the freshness of their chiles, refrigeration, cleanliness, excellent roasting and good customer service. With the first frosts hitting Hatch, New Mexico and Pueblo, Colorado, stands will be gone by November. Hurry and check 'em out to stock up on fire-roasted green chile for use throughout the winter.
1. The Chili Guys
5501 Federal Boulevard
With more than 25 varieties of fresh chiles and twenty years of experience, owner Aeron Caulkins is Denver's go-to chile guy. In addition to owning The Chili Guys and Lulu's Farm in Brighton, Caulkins supplies many vendors on Denver's street corners with fresh chiles. The Chili Guys use a streamlined process to work with farmers in Pueblo and Hatch to pick, wash, refrigerate and ship fresh chiles to Denver on demand. They're refrigerated two hours after they're picked — which is how he can get the "freshest chile you can possibly buy" in Denver.
The Chile Guys is open year-round, but Caulkins warns customers to only buy fresh roasted Pueblo and Hatch chiles between August and the end of October, when they're in season. Any other time and you're getting roasted by a scam.
These chile guys love to match the perfect heat level for each customer. Making chiles rellenos? Go with a Big Jim. Want the best pork green chile? Try Hatch. Need to accurately predict how much your mouth will flame? Anaheim comes in mild, medium, hot and extra-hot. But, the Mosco chile's addicting, tangy heat is always cranked up. These chile guys say there's no such thing as "Mosco mild."
2. D&D Produce
3421 South Federal Boulevard
Look for the big yellow and white striped tent on South Federal Boulevard, adorned with pumpkins and baskets of chiles, and you'll find D&D Produce, owned by Dennis Deden for thirty years.
So what's the difference between the various heat levels of Hatch Valley chiles? "Mild is no heat whatsoever; it's just for flavor," explains D&D's Sheree Samora. "Medium is family-friendly and not too warm to make you uncomfortable. Hot, you will feel that kick when you take a bite. Extra-hot you have to be daring to try."
All chiles are stored in refrigeration, even at night, and checked for freshness. Compared to some vendors that store chiles in metal containers or on palates at night, D&D has the gold standard in chile freshness.
Since the City and County of Denver does not conduct inspections for roasting and retailing vendors, it's important to check for cleanliness, like at D&D Produce — where there's a hand-washing station for chile handlers.
3. Hatch New Mexico Roasted Chili
8th Avenue and Federal Boulevard
Jessy Moreno knows Denverites love their green chile. Every week, he hauls 800 forty-pound sacks of chiles from his family's farm in Hatch to Denver for distribution and sale. He can sell 3,200 pounds of chile in a week on Federal Boulevard and to other stands at wholesale prices.
With a shirt that says "Chile Fanatic," Moreno knows this business is a way of life. He lives in Denver for three months every year to operate with his brother, Joel, who runs a stand on 47th Avenue and Federal Boulevard.
"Customers come to me for big chiles. We don't like them if they are too small. They are more work for peeling," says Moreno, who sells Anaheim, Mirasol, Big Jim and Sandia chiles.
Keep reading for more top-rated chile stands...
4. King Pepper Chile Products LLC
4181 West 120th Avenue, Broomfield
Five years ago, owners Irene Lopez and Ron Morales Sr. saw a business opportunity. The chile business was on fire, with more Coloradans wanting fresh chile, but there was a lack of vendors in the northern suburbs. So with Irene's experience owning Mexican restaurants, like the Old Town Mexican Cafe in Denver, and the Morales family in the chile business, they opened King Pepper and started delivering fresh Hatch chiles to Broomfield.
"We represent Hatch chile 100 percent" says Lopez, who also sells salsas, dips, chile powder, honeys and syrups from Hatch. "It is fresh, fresh, fresh.... We contract with a farmer in Hatch who picks the chile, and it goes in a refrigerated trailer immediately."
Lopez's infectious smile and welcoming personality greets every customer as they pull up to the chile stand, which operates in the parking lot of Shelly's Garden Country Nursery. "I thrive on my neighborhood," says Lopez. "We have wonderful people here and return visitors. We get a lot of people who don't know anything about our chiles. The first thing I say to them is, 'Where are you from?'"
Lopez laughs and educates customers on chile. Like the braided chile wreaths they sell, ristras, that festively decorate metal roofs in Hatch and can be used for red chile or tamales.
If you're near Arvada or the Berkeley neighborhood, visit Morales Family Chile at 52nd and Sheridan, which uses the same Hatch farms and is run by Ron Morales Jr. and his wife, Kathy.
1720 South Santa Fe
For owner Peter Elliot Jr., this chile stand is a tradition for seasonal products — from chiles to peaches to fireworks — started by his father thirty years ago. "Dad was amazing. He was like Superman." says Elliot. "Papa Frank is what everyone called him. He wasn't a farmer where he grew the food, but he was definitely a true farmer at heart, because everywhere he went, he was in suspenders and a straw hat."
A full-time supervisor at the Safeway warehouse, hardworking Papa Frank always had seasonal businesses as well. "It's a soft spot," says Elliot, tearing up. "We lost him a few years back. This is what he did, and he died going to his chile stand." Peter carries on the family business selling only the highest-quality chiles.
Elliot and Scott Young, who has worked for the family for twenty years, are a wealth of knowledge for roasting chiles. They encourage customers to inspect and try the chiles. All chiles are refrigerated and kept out of the sun on tables. Their high-powered flame roaster chars chiles to perfection. After roasting, the skin peels easily, and they are still fully intact and meaty, instead of a soupy mess.
Now, late in the season, come for the red Mosco chiles, with an addicting heat and sweet flavor that make them legendary in Colorado. "We have people who come in here and buy twenty baskets at a time," says Elliot, who texts a countdown-to-closing message to loyalists. "You have to be quite the procrastinator not to get chile from us."
6. A Taste of Questa
323 South Broadway
For Marilyn Manchego, her chile and catering business, A Taste of Questa, is an homage to her grandmother, Sophie Manchego, who hails from Questa, New Mexico. Using her Grandma Sophie's recipes, Marilyn has catered weddings with as many as 350 people.
So what type of pepper is best for each dish? "For a regular, authentic pot of green chile, I would use Hatch," says Manchego. "Chicken enchilada casserole is best with the red and the sweetness of a Mirasol pepper."
Visit Marilyn at her location in the Albertson's parking lot for another two weeks, before she's gone. After five years at this location, Marilyn is searching for a new spot to relocate her chile stand in 2017. In September, A Taste of Questa was told to shut down because of the Albertson's-Safeway merger, and "Safeway's corporate did not want any vendors in the parking lot," says Manchego. Marilyn and her loyal customers fought to uphold her prior agreement with the Albertson's store director, and she will be allowed to sell until November 15.
Finding a new spot is a harsh reality in the competitive chile industry. “Five years ago, there wasn’t half as many stands as there are now," says Manchego, who offers customers a coupon to call her next season and see where she will be selling roasted chiles.
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Miss out on chile season?
Palombo Farms Market in Henderson (just northeast of Denver) also receives top marks on our list because it grows all of its own chiles and roasts them on site — but the market is now closed for the season. It will reopen after Thanksgiving to sell Christmas trees and will have frozen green chiles for sale — and that's the next best thing to fresh.
Wondering about other green chile stands? For the past ten years, Anita Edge has been helping consumers navigate the Denver chile scene after her favorite stand disappeared and her co-workers told her to drive up and down Federal Boulevard to find a new one. She noticed a problem: "They aren't in the yellow pages. They aren't on the Internet." Armed with a notebook and a camera, she started DenverGreenChili.com, which features a directory of every seasonal chile stand, along with restaurant reviews and chile recipes.
"Find a vendor you like and just stick with them," Edge recommends. "Don't nickel-and-dime about cost. Make it your yearly ritual and just enjoy it." Her honorable mentions? “Hilltop Gardens in Thornton and Nick’s Garden Center in Aurora are great, too. They are nice people with a wonderful place to visit."