A toast to Tony Hillerman, and a taste of New Mexico at Jack-n-Grill

Tony Hillerman captured the flavor of the Southwest.
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I discovered Tony Hillerman's books the same year I moved to Colorado, introduced to them by the late Alan Dumas, who'd taken classes from the author when he taught journalism at the University of New Mexico. Hillerman's The Fly on the Wall is one of the greatest journalism books ever written, but he gained his fame -- and loyal fans -- with the mysteries that followed Lieutenant Joe Leaphorn and Sergeant Jim Chee of the Navajo Tribal Police. From 1970's The Blessing Way through The Shape Shifter, published in 2006, Hillerman wrote eighteen of these books, each flavored with the people and places of the Southwest.

Tony Hillerman died on Sunday, and longing for a taste of the New Mexico I'd found through his writing, the next evening I grabbed a fellow fan and headed for Jack-n-Grill.

Born in New Mexico, Jack Martinez would come to Colorado to sell roasted chiles each fall. Business was so good that he opened a chile store on Federal Boulevard, which gave way to Jack-n-Grill, the restaurant he opened almost a decade ago at 2524 Federal. Even as the place has grown, so has Martinez's family; they're all featured on the menu, and several members are always working at the restaurant. Monday night was no exception.

We grabbed a table and ordered a big bowl of green chile -- as authentic a New Mexican green as you'll find in town (unless you add pork, as we did), and a regular Best Green Chile winner in the Best of Denver (a nod to Jason Sheehan's time in Albuquerque). And in honor of Hillerman's home town, an Albuquerque burger: a big beef patty covered with cheese, chopped green chiles, lettuce, tomato, onions and mustard and ketchup. And lots of beers, to fuel our long discussion of our favorite Hillerman books.

During lulls in the action, I looked around the small dining room. After a few failed expansion plans (including a restaurant in Arvada and a franchise out by DIA), Martinez is focusing his efforts on the original restaurant. He's moved the entrance to the bar area added a few years ago, and the decor, which had primarily consisted of plaques and awards won by Jack-n-Grill, now includes photos and mementos of famous Jacks -- Nicholson, Sparrow, in the Box. The menu has been redesigned, too, but it still offers a lot of food for relatively little money.

And whether for health or financial reasons, the giant breakfast burrito -- if you eat one in a sitting, you get your picture on the wall -- has been reduced from seven pounds to five, but it's still a bargain at $12.

I thought about returning the next morning to see if anyone was tackling a five-pounder, but by then I was busy rereading The Fly on the Wall, feeding my hunger for Hillerman another way. -- Patricia Calhoun

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