Green chile is nearly ubiquitous in this town: It pops up on menus at everything from traditional Mexican restaurants to old-school diners to upscale eateries. In Colorado, there are as many ways to make it as there are traditionalists who argue about which of those ways is right and which is a desecration of the noble, fire-roasted chile that gives the sauce its name. Did I say "sauce"? Of course, I meant stew. Or maybe soup. See what I mean? Finding a standard for even the most basic of comparisons becomes more of a chore than a joy. So rather than focusing on the perfect, I'd rather enjoy what I know I like -- starting with the simple pleasure of the thick and spicy concoction dished out at one of Denver's oldest restaurants, Bonnie Brae Tavern, which has served the surrounding neighborhood since 1934 under the same family name.
It's unlikely that the Bonnie Brae was serving green chile in 1934, but the kitchen's version of the dish is now as well-loved as its pizzas and burgers.
I started a month of searching for great examples of Colorado-style green chile on a Friday night at the Bonnie Brae, looking for something that isn't necessarily Mexican -- or even New Mexican -- but that just tastes good, regardless of notions of authenticity or purity.
The Bonnie Brae is an easy place to like. It wears its history with humility and grace, the way a grandmother displays family photos and memorabilia on the walls of her house, not to impress guests or outdo the neighbors, but only to surround herself with reminders of who she loves and where she's from. There are photos covering almost every vertical surface of the tavern's dining room, giving a glimpse into generations of the Dire family that have kept the place running through decades of changing trends and customers' spending habits.
The menu embraces change at a glacial pace while remaining grounded in tradition. Chile cheese fries are by no means a recent innovation, but they seem almost newfangled compared to other classics like hamburger steak with brown gravy or simple plates of spaghetti with meatballs or sausage. The Pueblo burger, featuring an open-faced double stack smothered in green chile and yellow cheese, could have been added in the last couple of years, after the Pueblo "slopper" enjoyed a brief moment of national media attention, or it might be a long-time special borrowed from that city to the south as a kind of highway-born cultural-exchange program. And the crunchy wonton-wrapped chile rellenos that flabbergast out-of-towners in search of traditional Mexican fare -- well, let's just say they fall somewhere between guilty pleasure and a gust-busting regional anomaly that long-time residents have come to accept, or even expect, as the standard. All of these have one thing in common: a slathering of one of Denver's finer, or at least more regionally "correct," versions of green chile. Colorado green chile can be measured based on four basic categories: color, thickness, heat and meatiness. These measures seem almost ridiculous by the standards of our neighbor to the south, where the stew is just green and spicy, period. But why stop there? The amount of tomatoes -- fresh, sauce or paste -- can give a decidedly orange hue, and the length of time the flour thickener spends on the heat can skew the sauce toward brown. Bonnie Brae's version is on the upper end of both of these scales. It's also moderately spicy, in a way that suggests not too many jalapeños were added to the pot (again, New Mexicans are asking themselves, "What? You put jalapeños where?"). The pork in the sauce is not readily apparent -- there are no visible signs of cubed pork loin, shredded shoulder or ground meat. It could be there, but it's cooked in as a flavoring ingredient rather than as a main source of protein. Keep reading for more on Bonnie Brae Tavern. So what does all this mean? Bonnie Brae's green chile is thick, it's brownish orange, and it clings to everything it touches -- fries, burger patties, deep-fried wonton wrappers, lips and fingertips -- like pungent, tangy spackle. Yes, you can see gems of actual green chiles (Hatch, Anaheim, or otherwise) studding the sauce and lending roasty, vegetal flavor and bright heat, but the roux-like depth of flavor and cooked-down viscosity make it a purely Colorado thing.
The Bonnie Brae has certainly been in business long enough to know its way around good chiles. That's evident in the fresh, vibrant green of the rellenos, even beneath the wonton shells. These weren't pre-packaged, frozen bullets delivered on a truck. They're made to order; I know because the day I ordered mine, a new cook accidentally used powdered sugar instead of cornstarch to seal the wonton edges before deep-frying. A humorous conversation with an at-first incredulous waitress remedied the situation, but it also made me wonder if I hadn't witnessed the birth of some Monte Cristo/chile relleno hybrid -- a sweetened and flash-fried version of an already culturally modified dish.
Bonnie Brae Tavern will continue serving what Denver customers love despite outside influence or notions of authenticity. After all, who has better claim to authenticity than a multi-generational restaurant that has adapted recipes over the years to conform to war-era rationing, the changing availability of raw ingredients, the evolving palates of neighborhood residents and the constant push and pull of nostalgia against modernity? Colorado green chile, as epitomized by the cooks at the Bonnie Brae, isn't supposed to mimic any other style, but has evolved to suit the climate, the ingredients and the tastes of locals. If that's good enough for an eighty-year-old eatery in the heart of one of Denver's most defining neighborhoods, it's good enough for me.
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For more from our tour of Denver's cultural, regional and international restaurant scene, check out our entire Ethniche archive.