How I Came to Terms With Denver's Green Chile Obsession
"I'm not trying that." I used to say that a lot, especially when I moved here around 11 years ago and was introduced to the state's unofficial favorite food: green chile. I myself am not a Colorado native. But I did arrive here long before the most popular topics of conversation were weed, traffic problems, and all the transplants fucking everything up.
That said, I still wasn’t riding the chile train. In fact, I was avoiding it at all costs. And before I’m attacked by an angry horde of Colorado locals wielding green chile-stained utensils, please allow me to rewind a bit. I spent my childhood in Southern Vermont, where I refused to eat almost anything that wasn't Annie's Shells & White Cheddar or blueberry pancakes. Later, when I was in middle school, my family packed up and moved to Florida. There, my school offered a small selection of pre-packaged Taco Bell products as a lunch option, as well as the “cafeteria special” (chicken patty sandwiches). From what I remember, the Taco Bell options were chips served alongside plastic cups filled with glorious nacho cheese or, my personal favorite, the chili cheese burrito. Which, I suppose, was a burrito. I mean, it was some mysteriously saucy beef and flavorless shredded orange cheese wrapped in a tortilla. At this time in history, literally no one was thinking about the children.
A pizza place that served a strange tortilla-wrapped burger covered in a goopy-looking sauce called "green chile?" C'mon.
This was my culinary acumen. Years passed. Then, possessing the profound knowledge of blueberry pancakes and “burritos,” I moved to Colorado. I was still a relatively picky eater in general, refusing mushrooms, seafood, beans, spinach... you get the idea. But that all changed when I met a guy -- an actual Colorado native, who I’d later fall in love with. It wasn't long before he dragged me to Mama Mia's, a pizza place in a small shopping center, for something called a Mexican hamburger. My reaction was skeptical, to say the least. A pizza place that served Mexican? Maybe. A pizza place that served a strange tortilla-wrapped burger covered in a goopy-looking sauce called "green chile?" C'mon. Just what in the hell is going on here?
This was the first time I was face-to-face with green chile (I did not eat it), and subsequently, where my story picks up. My boyfriend would order it whenever he could -- in a bowl with tortillas on the side, smothered sloppily atop burritos, on fries... and on those damn Mexican hamburgers. His infatuation bordered on addiction, and the chile seemed to be on the menu everywhere we went, taunting me to give in. "Just try it. It's not weird, it's delicious," he'd assure me.
And then, naturally, I gave in. I tried it. I was at his family’s house and everyone else was voraciously slurping up spoonfuls. I piled on a heap of cheese and sour cream and went for it. And even with my pathetic attempt to camouflage the actual green chili flavor, my tongue felt like it was battling an army that only enlisted flamethrowers (I clearly had no business eating spicy food at this point in my life). But I forged on, and actually found myself enjoying the tender bits of pork, as well as the intangible comforting feeling that only comes once the heat dies down, when my tongue’s backup troops arrive to cool it off and extinguish the flames.
Eventually, after my initial foray into this world, I decided it was time to try my own hand at making a bowl. Hey, at least then I'd know exactly what was going in it. I was off to the one place I'd seen actual green chiles before -- Walmart's frozen food section -- where I picked up a rock-solid bag filled with "mild" chopped chiles along with the other ingredients listed in the recipe printed on the side of the bag. About an hour later, I had a pot full of bland broth, tough, semi-unchewable chunks of pork, and slimy chiles. I had no idea what the hell I was doing. So I did the only logical thing I could. I went back to maintaining a healthy disdain for the stuff.
What finally sent me flying over the edge was a hungover trip to Sam's No. 3 in Aurora. We'd been there plenty of times before, but I'd always stuck with burgers and salads. That day, my boyfriend ordered the Tex-Mex chili -- ½ that familiar beefy red chili, and ½ the still-mysterious pork green chile topped with chopped white onions and shredded cheese. Maybe it was the tequila the night before, or the giant mimosa in front of me, but I was feeling brave, ravenous, and slightly disoriented, so I asked for a bite. And another, and... "Next time, you have to order your own," he told me.
I inhaled deeply and instantly regretted all that time I spent resisting these little charred wonders.
I stuck with the safety of the half-and-half combo at Sam's for a while, until I agreed to share a bowl of green chile at La Fogata in DTC with a co-worker. It was mildly spicy and served with a big chunk of tender roasted pork in the middle of the bowl. The meat was, without a shred of doubt, the star in this version of the dish. At Santigo's, that mouth-scorching heat returned as soon as I bit into the breakfast burrito, but I ate the whole thing anyway. And when we stopped at a farm on the Eastern Plains, and I smelled fresh green chiles roasting as they turned over and over in a big metal drum, I inhaled deeply and instantly regretted all that time I spent resisting these little charred wonders.
Today, I'll take green chile any way I can get it. I still love the version at Sam's No. 3, especially when it's poured all over a big plate of fries. At El Taco De Mexico I slurp their simple but addictive version out of a bowl so I can get those big pieces of pork that aren't scooped up when you get it over your burrito. At North County, I order it alongside the carne asada fries (so worth the up-charge). It doesn't matter if it's Colorado- or New Mexican-style; mild or make-you-sweat spicy; made with or without tomatoes; thick as a stew, or thinner and more sauce-like. Whether it's green, tan, brown, or even red-hued, it's all good with me (as long as it's, you know, actually good).
Colorado, please accept my apology. I’m sorry my young, naive self ever doubted you. My stubborn pickiness almost kept me away from what's now one of my favorite comfort foods. Consider this a wake-up call to anyone resisting the pull of this Mile High favorite. This is not a suspension of disbelief. Green chile is one of Denver’s best dishes for a reason. It's not weird, it's simply fucking delicious.
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