Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Chile Today

At this time of year, in this part of the country, heated arguments break out at the drop of a spoon. No, not over the election, but over green chile. On street corners around town, the last of the chiles -- the genuine article from Hatch, New Mexico; the counterfeits not from Hatch, New Mexico; the hot peppers from the farm just up the road -- are being roasted, then bagged for a winter's worth of Denver's greatest, and perhaps only, true local cuisine.

Yes, there's a monument to the cheeseburger over on Speer Boulevard, where it was allegedly invented, but other cities have staked a claim to the augmented burger. And while you'll find chili con carne in Texas and a green chile that's just chopped green chiles in New Mexico, only in Colorado -- and specifically, Denver -- will you find green chile elevated to an object worthy of worship, a heady brew almost as hot as the debates it inspires.

You can trace Denver's history through its restaurants. Through the big-splash restaurants named after athletes that have come and gone -- Lyle Alzado's, Dante Bichette's, Elway's (you know you're in a sports-crazy town when you have to take your photo ID to the invite-only opening of a restaurant) -- and the more sophisticated spots involved in Westword's Menu Affair this Thursday night, but especially through the Mexican restaurants that have colonized this neighborhood and that. The Las Delicias chain that started at 19th Avenue and Pennsylvania Street thirty years ago and now stretches across town. Benny's Restaurant & Cantina (and maybe Tequila Bar), which got its start back when owner Benny Armas was a cook at the old Oak Alley Inn. Rosa Linda's Mexican Cafe, which started as a little storefront window and now occupies half a block at 33rd Avenue and Tejon. Casa Bonita (if you must), which just marked its thirtieth anniversary of making Lakewood safe for bland refried beans. You can trace Denver's history, and you can trace your own.

When I first stumbled into the Bamboo Hut one Sunday morning, The Silence of the Lambs was on TV, and my anal friend was irritated both by my vague directions and the fact that the place wasn't listed in the phone book. But one bite of that mean green was enough to make him forgive both me and the Hut.

J.R. Perez bought the hole-in-the-wall bar at 2449 Larimer Street 25 years ago, and while he didn't bother to change the name, he did bring in some of the peppers that the Perez family grew, and still grow, on their farm in Commerce City. (Too bad John Edwards didn't stop there after his town hall meeting on Tuesday.) Junie Garcia, J.R.'s niece, started cooking at the Hut soon after, coming in early every morning to make enchiladas and tacos and that addictive green chile. But then, it was in the blood: Her mother, J.R.'s sister, was an owner of the Mexico City Lounge, a few blocks farther down Larimer, and somehow El Toro on Colorado Boulevard figures into this food family tree, too.

While this block of Larimer looks like the land gentrification forgot, there are now pricey loft projects, artists' studios and coffeehouses nearby. And change has even come to the Hut. Two years ago, Junie's son, Phil, took over Our Place, a bar at 35th and Larimer that he renamed Phil's Place, painting a giant Broncos logo on the side of the building and constructing a kitchen for his mom inside. A few months ago, Junie moved over, bringing her green chile recipe with her, and she now cooks here twelve hours a day, six days a week ("breakfast burritos $2, free coffee," reads the scrawled message on a piece of cardboard propped up against a car out front), turning out food that tastes just like it used to at the Bamboo Hut, even if everything is served in takeout containers.

For the past few months, a group of folks in the restaurant and hospitality industries have been meeting to brainstorm Eat Denver, a program to push this city's cuisine into the national consciousness. "The way we think of Boise is how they think of Denver," says Rich Grant, the Denver Metro Convention & Visitors Bureau spokesman who's also pitching Eat Denver. And according to research on what prompts convention-site decisions, "the single most important thing is restaurants." To convince the rest of the country -- and everyone who's already here -- that Denver's restaurants are worthy, Eat Denver will be pushing a "Restaurant Week" at the end of February, when eateries around town will offer special deals. So far, there are no plans to offer a guided tour of this town's homegrown green chile trail.

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Patricia Calhoun co-founded Westword in 1977; she’s been the editor ever since. She’s a regular on the weekly CPT12 roundtable Colorado Inside Out, played a real journalist in John Sayles’s Silver City, once interviewed President Bill Clinton while wearing flip-flops, and has been honored with numerous national awards for her columns and feature-writing.
Contact: Patricia Calhoun