The Green Chile Variations: From Mexico to Denver

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As a longtime resident of Colorado (I came here the same year that John Elway did, if that helps pin me to a specific era), I not only eat more than my share of green chile, I think about it — a lot. I ponder the significance of green chile in the Colorado diet; I discuss the flavors and textures with my friends; I constantly tinker with my own recipe at home. In my travels, I’ve sampled regional variations — in Tulum, Mexico, where I ate pork ribs doused in chile verde at a beach-side outdoor cantina called El Tábano; in Arroyo Seco, New Mexico; on the streets of Pueblo, Colorado, during the city’s annual Chile & Frijoles Festival; and many places in between.

What I’ve learned over the years almost has more to do with the residents of those locations than it does with the sauce itself. People defend their cities’ recipes and ingredients with a fierceness and inflexibility usually reserved for politics and religion. Perfection lies in the types of chiles used, the other ingredients added, and the thickeners — or lack thereof — that give green chile its body. For most, the green chile they grew up with is the only green chile, and all other styles are weak impostors.

Those new to Denver from the East Coast, the Midwest or the American South may not get what all the fuss is about, but you should at least know that there are differences, so keep an open mind as you sample your way through this city’s mean green.
I managed to sidestep green chile single-mindedness because I wasn’t born in a green-chile-producing part of the world. I grew up eating Tex-Mex and never gave much thought to anything other than enchilada sauce until I was sixteen and visited the Armadillo (remember those? There are still a couple around) for the first time and ordered a stuffed and smothered sopaipilla. The memory is hazy, but I remember the restaurant’s green chile as being pale green, chunky and on the mild side. When I was twenty, I tried the green chile at Chubby’s for the first time. My college friends and I hit the iconic joint at 1231 West 38th Avenue as the first stop on a road trip to Moab. Fueling up on the fiery, burnt-orange sludge before a week of camping turned out to be a horrible idea, but for the first fifty miles or so, eating fluffy flour tortillas dipped into a Styrofoam quart of green chile was just the right way to exit Denver and head west.

And so began my exploration of the differences between Colorado and New Mexico green chile — along with its close cousin chile verde, which has its roots south of the border rather than in the American Southwest, where Big Jim, Anaheim, Hatch and other varieties of what started out as the New Mexico chile in the late 1800s are widely grown. Chubby’s makes green chile that Gustavo Arellano, author of Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America, calls one of the cornerstones of what he’s dubbed Den-Mex cuisine. Denver-style green chile is thick like gravy from a liberal use of flour, blazing hot, and generally tinted a vivid shade of orange, often from a slick of pork fat dyed that color by tomatoes or even red-chile powder.

Chubby’s version may be the most recognizable of this style, but other joints do a good job, too. At First Avenue and Broadway, Señor Burritos makes a rich green chile that won a Best of Denver award in 2015 — a controversial choice, but one we stand by because of the little burrito joint’s adherence to the pure flavors of chiles and pork, with just a hint of acidity from tomatoes.
This year, we selected El Tejado’s as the best in town, even if the restaurant makes a green chile that doesn’t much resemble its gloppier Den-Mex relatives. The cantina at 2651 South Broadway makes mild, medium and hot versions of its original recipe (the same one that’s been used since the restaurant opened more than twenty years ago, even though the ownership has changed), and a little flour is used for thickening. But a close inspection of the sauce reveals plenty of green in the mix, with a brownish tint from a fair amount of pork. The hottest level builds slowly so that the first bite doesn’t seem to be much to worry about — but by the end of dinner, you’ll be mopping your forehead.

In Pueblo, the green chile’s appearance doesn’t differ appreciably from that of Denver’s version, ranging from the same greenish-brown as El Tejado’s to a paler tan to even a tomatoey orange. What makes Pueblo’s green chile distinct is the chiles themselves, cultivars that have been developed for the region’s distinct climate and soil conditions. Mirasol, Dynamite and, of course, Pueblo make up the bulk of those.
Tony Terrones and his family operate Mi Ranchito in the southern Colorado city; they previously ran their own chile farm, but today Terrones buys his Pueblo chiles from the Peppers & Petals farm, which provides his restaurants with more than 15,000 pounds’ worth annually. In Denver, you can taste those chiles at Diego’s, just off the mall at 1600 Champa Street, which Terrones also operates. For a taste of something truly Pueblo, order the slopper, a green-chile-smothered burger served open-faced, with equally doused fries on the side. Sloppers — a Pueblo invention — are generally served in a bowl, with the green chile completely drowning the burger. Diego’s take on the dish is a little more civilized; you can actually pick up the burger with your hands and not make too much of a mess. Terrones says his green chile is made with chicken stock (there’s also a vegetarian option), cornstarch and Fresno chiles, as well as the workhorse Pueblo chiles. The hottest level doesn’t quite approach El Tejado’s, but instead has a distinct fruitiness resulting from the thick-walled Pueblo chile.
At 19 East Bayaud Avenue, Socorro’s Street Tacos proudly displays the yellow and red Zia sun symbol of New Mexico’s state flag on its front window. The green chile here is a distinct pale green, with only a few random bits of pork and no tomatoes, onions or other interlopers to be found. The flavor is bright, grassy and vegetal, distinct characteristics of Hatch chiles. A small amount of flour is sometimes used for thickening, an employee explains, but mostly the sauce gets its body from cooked-down chiles. I would not be surprised if Socorro’s sauce spends less time on the burners than Colorado-style green chile; there’s no evidence of a roux or any other form of the browning that often deepens (in color and flavor) our state’s style.

For something that looks more or less like green chile but tastes remarkably different, head to Mariscos El Picudo, a Mexican eatery that took over the Hart’s Corner spot at 5201 West Mississippi Avenue in Lakewood. Although chile verde translates directly to “green chile,” the Mexican sauce gets most of its color and flavor from roasted tomatillos. The tiny, round seeds of the fruit can be spotted in El Picudo’s chile verde, which tops a dish of enchiladas Suizas. Tomatillos are also high in pectin, which helps thicken the sauce and gives it a glossy appearance. Heat comes from added serranos, jalapeños or other smallish chiles, but chile verde is generally milder than Colorado green.
Is there a best? Each style has its charms when properly made. For a smothered Mexican hamburger — a Denver invention — there’s no substituting a spackle-thick green chile. When dipping fresh corn tortillas or eating green chile by the spoonful, New Mexico’s style can’t be beat. And for slow-roasted pork on the bone or cheesy enchiladas, tangy Mexican chile verde is the best for cutting through richness and fat. In the border war of green chile, I choose to remain neutral, enjoying the best of all competitors.

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