(This feature originally appeared in Colorado AAA EnCompass Magazine: colorado.aaa.com/encompass/current-issue/colorado-first-green-chile-journey/)
By John Lehndorff
Green chile is the addictive substance uniting Colorado’s cultural and geographic expanses by applying flavor jumper cables to nearly every dish. The first head-turning whiff of that smoky, peppery scent tells us it’s time for football, cool nights and foliage drives.
It’s true that New Mexico and California grow most of the green chilies that Coloradans consume, but our state’s chile heritage runs deep through multi-generational farming families in the southern part of Colorado and on the Western Slope.
The loud debate about whose chile verde is more authentic has been going on for eons and includes a spelling problem. For our purposes, “chile” is a green or red pepper pod as well as a sauce and stew. “Chili” refers to a red-hued dish as in Texas chili, Coney Island chili and Cincinnati chili. That said, you’ll find it spelled both ways on signs and menus across the state.
A green chile is actually almost any under-ripe pepper. In Colorado and New Mexico, it refers to the varieties that have long tapered pods including Anaheim, Big Jim, and Colorado’s Mosco chilies, ranging in heat level from mild to blistering.
Sold by the bushel and roasted to order from a roadside stand, the warm chilies are brought home by devotees in a plastic bag to be peeled, seeded, frozen and added to dishes all year.
“September is the best time to buy chilies in Colorado. That’s when the crop is at its peak,” said Anita Edge, a true green chile geek who maintains the denvergreenchili.com website. Chile stands aren’t hard to find in Denver, she said; just look on Federal Boulevard, Santa Fe Drive, and at most farmer’s markets.
Green chile permeates Colorado restaurant menus, but it refers to a tasty confusion of dishes. Roasted green chile strips fill quesadillas and tamales, and top chile cheeseburgers. Whole peeled chilies are stuffed with cheese, chicken or seafood to make chile rellenos.
Sometimes “green chile” is fall-apart chunks of pork in a roasted green chile gravy, and sometimes a broth thick with jalapeños, onions, garlic, cumin, bay leaf and tomatillos. It’s also a sauce or gravy that smothers burritos, nachos, huevos rancheros, pizzas and even barbecue ribs. Vegetarian green chile is commonly available.
EnCompass went looking for clarification and discovered memorable green chile-infused dishes, places to pick and roast chilies, plus festivals, competitions and local chile products. The stops on this hot chile circuit in Colorado (plus one in New Mexico) are mostly unpretentious, affordable and first class in the memorability department.
31 E. Bijou St, Colorado Springs
This downtown diner, across the street from Acacia Park, receives roasted green chiles directly from Milberger Farms in Pueblo and creates its green chile from a carefully guarded recipe that wins rave reviews on social media sites and local news outlets. The chiles emerged from a 1912 fossil strain, and they’re grown on small-acre lots. The green chile is best on a full order of Huevos De King Chef, with a plate-size tortilla, buttered and grilled, and crispy on the edges. Nestled in the middle is a pile of fresh veggies, grilled onions, and made-to-order eggs. For those with a tolerance for heat, add the sausage.
714 Santa Fe Drive, Denver
There is no better place to commence a green chile quest than seated at the counter of this busy, cash-only taqueria. First, there is green chile stew thick with chopped roasted pods and chunks of soft pork that gets gobbled up with warm tortillas. The ultimate item is El Taco’s chile relleno-stuffed burrito smothered with green chile sauce. Grab one on the first Friday night of the month, when the Santa Fe Art District is sparkling.
701 Grant St., Denver
Traditional (and trendy) Japanese ramen takes a sharp Southwestern turn at this tiny chef-run eatery in Denver’s Governor’s Park neighborhood. The best-selling green chile ramen is built around a long-simmered spicy bone broth ladled with braised pork, noodles and toothsome hominy kernels. Crowning the big bowl is a perfectly poached egg, crumbled queso fresco and thinly sliced fresh jalapeno. The result is gentle warmth on the palate and satisfying layers of slurp-worthy flavor and texture.
Amicas Pizza & Microbrewery
136 E. 2nd St., Salida
Many craft breweries in the state brew chile-infused beers, but it’s worth the drive to experience Amicas Green Chile Ale in Salida. This complex golden ale is brewed with fresh jalapenos and serranos, as well as roasted Pueblo chiles, with a captivating nose and a warmth that creeps up on the taste buds by degrees. Equally appealing is the non-alcoholic High Pine Root Beer on tap; have it a la mode as a float. Match it with the Michelangelo, a puffy wood-baked pizza crowded with pesto, chevre, Italian sausage, mozzarella, caramelized onions and lots of roasted green chiles.
2524 Federal Blvd., Denver
This New Mexico-style eatery started as a fall chile-roasting stand outside the Martinez home. Eventually the family moved out to accommodate fans of the smoky hot pork green chile and now they are dishing in Westminster and Littleton, too. Jack-n-Grill’s heat-ranked green chile sauces smother everything or can have it Christmas-style, half green chile sauce, half red chile sauce. The pods are also filled for soft chile rellenos and layered with cheese for griddled and gooey quesadillas.
57 Edwards Access Rd., Edwards
Edwards tends to get overshadowed by its glitzier neighbors: Vail, Beaver Creek and Cordillera, but it is home to a wide range of affordable ethnic eateries. Open since 1989, Fiesta’s features roasted green chilies in a roster of dishes including batter-fried, shrimp-stuffed chile rellenos and huevos Marquez, over-easy eggs smothered in green chile. The star of the menu is a mash-up between Route 66 road food and New Mexican cuisine: thinly pounded chicken-fried steak puddled with “green” instead of gravy, and fresh flour tortillas subbing for mashers.
25450 Road M, Cortez
You can pick your own peppers in season at this charming farm that also grows blackberries, corn, cucumbers, flowers and pumpkins, and sells honey from the hive. The farm also hosts a family friendly PumpkinFest in October. While you’re in the neighborhood stop at The Pepperhead (44 W. Main St. 970-565-3303) in Cortez for a Torta Ahogada, a pressed sandwich with meats and cheese smothered with red or green chile or both.
Mission at the Bell
134 W. Main St., Trinidad
Hidden on the lower level of an inconspicuous historic building, Mission at the Bell is not the kind of place you stumble across, but it has been a local’s institution for 18 years. What it lacks in ambience, the eatery makes up for in satisfying fare. The kitchen fills almost foot-long green chilies with cheddar and fries them in a light batter for rellenos. Five chile sauces dotted with chewy tidbits of fried pork at various heat levels are available and dished with warm flour tortillas. Heed the waiter’s warning that the habanero-spiked “extra hot” sauce would “hurt.” This is the rare Mexican eatery that serves classic fideo, thin vermicelli noodles cooked in a spicy tomato sauce, as a side dish. To digest well, take an after-dinner stroll through Trinidad’s brick-paved streets and on the Riverwalk trails along the Purgatoire River. Trinidad’s Italian heritage remains strong at Cimino Downtown Park’s lighted bocce ball court.
Town Park, Pagosa Springs
Most of your officially sanctioned chile competitions insist on including categories for “chili.” At the annual Patty Aragon Green Chile Cookoff, attendees are asked to sample all of the chilies and vote for the best. Have a cool beverage handy as some of the amateur and professional cooks may try to impress judges by amping up the heat quotient. Many of the dishes feature Big Jims, a green chile variety which grows well around Grand Junction. The small town Mountain Chile Cha Cha festival also includes trail races and live music.
Pueblo remains Colorado’s epicenter of chile culture, especially when up to 100,000 heat-seekers arrive for the Chile & Frijoles Festival. It’s a beautiful sight to see pallets piled with sacks of Mosco, Mirasol, Big Jim and dozens of other chile varieties, each with its own flavor profile. Nearby are banks of roasters—perforated metal drums rotated over a roaring blowtorch. The signs read “Mild,” “Hot” and “Extra Hot” but that hotness appraisal is subjective and “surprise” crops of fiery “mild” pods slip through.
Keep an eye out for the homegrown star, the Pueblo or Mosco chile, that stands with Palisade peaches, Rocky Ford melons and Olathe sweet corn as one of Colorado‘s produce icons. Moscos are an easy-to-peel pepper with a bright, fruity flavor coming in at a modest 4,000 to 5,000 Scoville units—the measure of heat in chilies. By comparison, habanero peppers can be 150,000 and much higher.
Rows of booths at the festival offer chile-tasting adventures from hot dogs to jam. The event’s signature dish is two small tortillas sprinkled with cheese and centered with a whole peeled roasted chile and griddled until melted. The simplicity of the quesadilla showcases the chile’s smoke, sweetness and vegetable goodness. Wrapped in foil it’s the perfect walking food while taking in the live music and other entertainment.
101 Central Plaza, Pueblo
What’s better than a burger crowned with green chile or a patty doing the backstroke in a green chile pond? The signature Bingo Burger has chopped, locally grown roasted Mosco chiles mixed with the fresh beef so the flavor gently infuses every bite. When you top your burger with more green chile you find out that Bingo’s green chile is actually red. Owner Richard Warner said he liked the sweeter flavor of the Moscos that had ripened so now he orders them all red. However, they are no less potent. Warner also ships Mosco chilies to a Wisconsin creamery to be mixed into the farmhouse cheddar that can be melted on the Bingo burgers. In 2014, Warner opened a second Bingo Burger in downtown Colorado Springs.
Gray’s Coors Tavern
515 W. 4th St., Pueblo
Welcome to one of Colorado’s most iconic hometown taverns with memorabilia and hundreds of donated baseball gloves covering every square centimeter of the walls. About 40 years ago a cook drowned two open-face cheeseburgers with pork green chile and it was dubbed “The Slopper,” Pueblo’s contribution to blue collar comfort food. You’ll find variations on The Slopper on dozens of local menus authentically covered with onions, cheese, chips and/or saltines. The tavern’s name resulted from a historic relationship with Golden’s Coors Brewing Company.
Pantaleo Farms and Pueblo Chili Company
39651 South Rd., Vineland
Think of Pantaleo’s as a one-stop shop for your chile needs. Freshly picked peppers including Mosco (also called Pueblo chilies) are roasted to order. The company‘s website notes that “Pueblo chile is prized by locals of all backgrounds, races, religions and creeds.” For added fun and aroma, request that your chilies be roasted with pungent garlic heads. Pick up some of their housemade chile sausage for your next pasta meal.
1012 S. 2nd St., Raton, N.M.
As a nod to our culinary relatives to the south, we crossed the border into New Mexico to visit El Matador, drawn by the promise of fresh warm four tortillas. In fact, 13 to 15 dozen fresh tortillas are made every morning at this Raton institution. The tortillas are irregular and a little thicker and chewier. The best thing is that when you order the green chile plate, you get two tortillas, one of which can be fried to enjoy as a sopapilla drenched in honey for dessert. The green chile has a pink tinge, a full-bodied roasted chile flavor, and tender bits of pork. Roasted peppers also brighten a bowl of posole, as well as a hot dog cousin of The Slopper drenching it in green chile, hot French fries and cheese.
John Lehndorff is a veteran Colorado food writer, and the former dining critic of the Rocky Mountain News. Read his food and music blog at johnlehndorff.wordpress.com.
Readers: What’s your favorite Colorado green chile?
Let us know about memorable green chile dishes, farms, roasters and events across the state at: email@example.com
Colorado pepper primer
Green chile sauce
Ex-Broncos player Mark Schlereth’s Stinkin’ Good Green Chile is vegetarian, gluten-free and loaded with roasted chilies, beans and veggies. It’s sold frozen at supermarkets. stinkingood.com.
Karami Japanese Salsa
In Boulder, an old Colorado farm family recipe is being bottled as Karami Japanese Salsa, a spicy, sweet and salty relish and dip. Immigrant farmers replaced seaweed with Pueblo green chilies in a traditional steamed rice condiment. Karami translates as “beautiful heat.” Available at natural foods and ethnic markets. karamisalsa.com.
Green chile powder
Powdered roasted green chile is an essential addition to stews, gravies, soups, dressings, stir fry and meatloaf and available at many spice stores including Colorado-born Savory Spice Shops. savoryspiceshop.com.
Cooling the chile inferno
Research suggests that milk, yogurt, malty ale and lemonade are the most effective oral fire extinguishers to use after consuming extra hot chilies. Slushy frozen drinks work but may progress painfully to brain freeze. The capsaicin that makes chilies hot can cause serious irritation in the eyes, hands and other delicate places even if you just pick up a chile. To be sure, wash hands well with soap, and wear plastic gloves when handling and peeling peppers.
Colorado farm food finder
The 2015 Colorado Farm Fresh Directory lists other U-pick farms, farmers markets, harvest festivals and chile roasters across the state. Download at colorado.gov.