Calhoun: Wake-Up Call

Chile Today, Hot Tomorrow

You don't find green chile in Mexico — but here in Denver, it's the signature dish at most Mexican restaurants, a sauce/soup/stew of green chiles (always) and tomatoes (sometimes) and onions (sometimes) and pork (sometimes). Order green chile in Puerto Vallarta, or Phoenix, or Cheyenne, and you get a side of cut-up chiles (canned ones, in Wyoming). But in Denver, you get this city's version of hot, haute cuisine.

The green chile trail starts in New Mexico, in Hatch country, where smoked, chopped green chiles are considered a delicacy, just the thing to top a burger at the Owl Cafe in San Antonio or top an open-face enchilada in Albuquerque. As the chiles move north, cooks start adding more ingredients to the mix, by the time you cross the border into Colorado, green chile has become a meal in itself.

The green chile trail ends in Denver, where the families that opened Mexican restaurants back in the �60s and �70s made their names, and their livelihoods, with green chile. For these businesses, Monday's immigration rally presented a particular dilemma.

The homegrown Las Delicias chain -- which brews up a great, gravy-like green chile stuffed with pork -- solved the problem by simply putting a sign on the door notifying customers that the restaurants were closed for the day, so that the family could throw a thirtieth-anniversary employee picnic. (At Civic Center Park?) On Federal, almost every taqueria was closed -- but El Taco de Mexico, which was serving up giant burritos while Steve Ells was still dreaming about Chipotle in his playpen, had the grill on high. And up at the rapidly gentrifying neighborhood around 24th and Champa (just beyond the hour-long traffic jam that snarled downtown), La Fiesta was open for business, just as it has been every weekday lunch for more than three decades, turning out some of the hottest green chile anywhere. The place was packed with regulars, who wanted to mark the day by celebrating the very particular taste that Denver cooks of Mexican heritage have added to this city's melting pot.

As for the family that's run the place for decades, "Where else would we be?" asked one salsa-serving son. "We're here for you."

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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