Things to Do

Denver's Most Iconic Breakfast Burrito Has a Hatch History

Santiago's green chile is great by the quart or in a breakfast burrito.
Santiago's green chile is great by the quart or in a breakfast burrito. Mark Antonation
With snow on the ground and a chill in the air, green chile season is upon us. Like the turning of the leaves and the emptiness of Coors Field, another marker of fall is becoming predictable in Denver: Breakfast Burrito Day. The tradition began three years ago with a proclamation from Mayor Michael Hancock, but this year Governor Jared Polis added his seal of approval, making this Saturday, October 12, Breakfast Burrito Day statewide.

All summer, the governors of Colorado and New Mexico have been trading barbs over which state grows a better green chile, but many cooks following time-honored recipes and kitchen traditions realize that there's a common thread uniting all the pots of green chile simmering on stove tops from Las Cruces to Greeley.

Green chile, then, is a continuum, with unadulterated chiles fire-roasted, chopped, seasoned and sizzled on one end, and on the other, Chubby's-style spackle that threatens to burn down the joint even though individual bits of chile are barely visible. We've encountered sauces in the heart of Hatch country that would pass for homemade in Lakewood or Longmont taverns, so appearances don't always indicate provenance.

Unless your green chile bears a distinct Broncos-orange glow, that is. And then you'll know you're eating in Denver — and you're probably indulging in something smothered from Santiago's, founded by Carmen Morales in 1991. Morales's son-in-law, Eric Casados, one of many family members working for the Front Range chain, says that tomato sauce is one of the telltale signs of Denver-style green chile, rather than a more southerly counterpart. But Morales's parents were born in New Mexico, and her family's green chile recipe was born there, too, even if it evolved a little before becoming the inspiration for Santiago's famous sauce. One thing you can be certain of, though: Santiago's doesn't skimp on the chiles; each spoonful is loaded with deep-green gems, and the burn is unmistakable.

click to enlarge Get this bad boy for just $1.25 on Saturday. - SANTIAGO'S MEXICAN RESTAURANTS
Get this bad boy for just $1.25 on Saturday.
Santiago's Mexican Restaurants
Santiago's churns through more than a million pounds of green chiles each year, Casados says, and the company has been working with farmers near Hatch and Salem, New Mexico, for the better part of three decades, contacting them in the spring to talk about the coming growing season and the business's needs. The farming co-op picks and roasts its chiles out in the field before peeling, seeding and freezing them in twenty-pound boxes.

Using New Mexico chiles is no slight on Colorado's, Casados adds: "Pueblo chile is a good chile — a great chile. I just bought some myself for cooking at home."

But right now Pueblo's production is a mere fraction of New Mexico's, and what Santiago's needs is volume and consistency. So when you're eating the company's Denver-style green chile, what you're getting is a recipe from a New Mexico family made with New Mexico chiles. Even the flour-based roux used as a thickener is part of the family's heritage. So if it's just the orange tint you can't get past, close your eyes and inhale the roasty, earthy aroma and pretend you're in the Land of Enchantment.

Santiago's breakfast burritos are doused with the company's thick and spicy green chile, and on October 12 you can score one (up to five per person) for just $1.25, the original price back when Morales first launched the business. And 3 percent of the day's breakfast burrito sales at all 28 Santiago's locations will go toward Santiago's Charities. If you want to have a late breakfast with Governor Polis, he'll be reading his proclamation at the Santiago's at 6365 East Hampden Avenue at 12:30 p.m.

Looking for more options to keep you warm this weekend? Here's our list of the ten best places in Denver for green chile.
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Mark Antonation is the former Westword Food & Drink Editor. In 2018, he was named Outstanding Media Professional by the Colorado Restaurant Association; he's now with the Colorado Restaurant Foundation.
Contact: Mark Antonation