Nine green-chile legends. Seven long shots. And one single criterion for ranking them: deliciousness. That means zero debates about the Colorado vs. the New Mexico style -- because who gives a flying frijole? Thick, thin, smooth, chunky, five ingredients or twenty-five... ultimately, all that matters is whether or not these bowls deserve a place in your facehole. Here’s our verdict on 16 Denver-area green chile contenders, from meh to magnífico. Have a favorite spot we should add? Leave it in the comments.
Twin Lakes Color: Tan Consistency: Viscous Heat level: Mild In a word: No bueno Given all the accolades for this family-run fixture, we can only assume that its namesake auntie has an evil twin, and that she’s the one who’s lately been dishing out a lukewarm, practically chile-free "chile" that’s somehow both syrupy and watery, weirdly sweetish, and yet flavorless. Que bummer, because there’s otherwise a lot to like about the cooking here. But in a town where the competition is cutthroat, you can only be as good as your last batch of green.
Jefferson Park Color: Green Consistency: Starchy Heat level: Low In a word: Gringo Cozy charm and cheesy comfort: that’s what this long-timer located in a quaint old house is all about. If the Mexican food here ever had any bite, it lost its teeth some time ago, and the green chile exemplifies the kitchen’s mild style: thickened to the point of velvetiness and enriched with tender shredded pork, it tastes of broth and garlic more than actual capsicum. In other words, it’s soothing -- and soothing green chile is paradoxically unsettling.
Bonnie Brae Color: Red-orange Consistency: Sturdy Heat level: Moderate In a word: Confusing This stuff is as thick as chili with an "i." The bits of pork are so small they seem almost ground, just like the beef in your average chili. The tang of tomato sauce or paste and chili-type seasoning dominates. It’s one thing to push the boundaries of the Colorado style; it’s another thing to shove them halfway to Texas. Apples and oranges, amigos -- and while Bonnie Brae’s apple tastes okay (especially as a buffer between melted cheese and fries), it’s just not an orange.
Lowry Color: Tan Consistency: Smooth Heat level: Mild In a word: Promising Occupying a shiny, airbrushed space in Hangar 2, this newly arrived peddler of squeaky-clean Baja cuisine has no right to be turning out an even halfway-decent green chile. But it’s doing just that. Accompanied by a nifty house-made flour tortilla, North County’s smoke-laced version comes glossy with masa and smartly garnished with shredded cheese and scallions to enhance the overall juiciness deriving from goodly scraps of pork -- many of which, unfortunately, turn out to be inedible as pure fat. But hey, that’s an easy fix: it’s called a slotted spoon, and all the kitchen has to do is use one next time.
Capitol Hill Color: Ochre Consistency: Gravylike Heat level: Medium-strong In a word: Homey A mainstay on Upper Colfax, this little cuchara grasienta (that’s "greasy spoon," we think) hawks the humble stuff that busts your gut: huevos, tacos, tortas, and, of course, burritos coated in a thickened, blended chile verde -- which you can order separately off-menu, but it would sort of be like asking for a dish of marinara with a spoon at a red-sauce parlor. Still, if you’re gonna guzzle a condiment, it might as well be this one, as intriguingly sour as it is throat-coatingly spicy.
Multiple locations Color: Reddish Consistency: Thin Heat level: Half-and-half! In a word: Reliable For more than two decades, Santiago’s has been building an empire on the foundation of its green chile, which comes in mild or hot -- but everybody knows the only way to go is half-and-half. A simple, tomatoey broth chock-full of diced peppers, it tastes the way it looks -- electric red and green. And though the presence of pork registers more clearly when it’s ordered à la carte, this is workhorse stuff that really performs best as a sauce, lighting up the nooks and crannies of an expertly rolled burrito.
Berkeley Color: Moss Consistency: Puréed Heat level: Medium In a word: Radiant Take a close look: the seeds studding this mod cantina’s green chile clearly come from peppers other than Hatch or Pueblo. Now take a careful taste: the flavor, while heady, is also clear and bright, pointing to the presence of tomatillos. Nice, right? Right, although refinement isn’t really a quality the dish requires; you might just as soon stick with the cocktails and comida that do benefit from El Chingon’s chef-driven approach.
Multiple locations Color: Mottled Consistency: Stewy Heat level: Mid-high In a word: Solid The local reputation of this mini-franchise has slid in inverse proportion to its appearances on national TV, but damn if the green chile isn’t as respectable as it ever was. Flecked rather than loaded with pork and tomato, it delivers a one-two punch of fruit and spice, its burn lingering but not lacerating.
Multiple locations Color: Mottled Consistency: Moderately thick Heat level: Adequate In a word: Balanced Think of Sam’s green chile as Goldilocks’s porridge: just right. Chiles, onions, tomatoes, pork -- the key ingredients are all uniformly chopped and carry equal weight; the meat is neither too lean nor too fatty, the heat turned neither too low nor scorchingly high. If you’re looking for a place to introduce out-of-town guests with mixed tastes to the wonders of green chile, this old-school diner is basically your three bears’ house.
Sunnyside Color: Not seen in nature Consistency: Gelatinous Heat level: High In a word: Inimitable It’s an impossible shade of orange, creamy if not downright gloppy, invisibly yet intensely porky, and muy picante. It’s the inevitable edible end to every weekend bender, a homegrown addiction, a food group all its own. It’s Chubby’s green chile, and there’s simply nothing like it -- nor should there be. Because (and we say this with love) we’re pretty sure it contains more than one secret ingredient that, like war, is not healthy for children and other living things.
LoHi Color: Green Consistency: Saucy Heat level: Moderate In a word: Wholesome Not 10 blocks from Chubby’s is its polar opposite: a sunny, genial little cafe whose chile you can trust to cure whatever ails you. Tender tidbits of pork and a touch of garlic bring just the right amount of warmth to what is otherwise a refreshingly cool-toned concoction -- grassy, tart, and plenty peppery by turns.
Berkeley Color: Green Consistency: Soupy Heat level: Mid-high In a word: Psychedelic This place is your brain on drugs. In one direction, some old weightlifting equipment; in another, mismatched card tables and chairs surrounded by random ceramics for sale; above the order counter, two menus -- one listing Mexican eats, the other barbecue. And the green chile will scramble your brain even further: by what law of physics can it soak through a solid layer of refried beans and the Styrofoam beneath while barely moistening the fluffy rice? With just a few specks of crumbled pork here and there, how can it taste so meaty? And why does it blast your lips off yet barely tickle your throat? Mouth happy, belly full... mind blown.
Twin Lakes, Southeast Denver Color: Reddish Consistency: Soupy Heat level: Moderate In a word: Complex The first bite is suffused with the warmth of tomatoes, onions, and peppers, akin in proportion to Spanish sofrito. With the second, you notice a citrusy tang: probably tomatillos, maybe even lime juice? The third has you wondering if the small bits of meat are salt pork and whether that’s a dash of oregano you detect. But by the time you think you’ve got it figured out, it’s gone. Guess you’d better order some more, just to be sure.
Lincoln Park Color: Brick-red Consistency: Stewy Heat level: From zesty to insane in the sinus membrane In a word: Robust So you’re a sideshow freak who swallows swords for a living? Then by all means order this old dive’s green chile hot. You can write off that bowl of razor blades as a research expense. For the rest of us, the mild version will do just fine: the kick it delivers isn’t anywhere near so swift that you can’t appreciate its essence first, at once fruity and vegetal, earthy and meaty. (Note that there are branches in Lone Tree and Aurora, but this is the one to beat.)
Multiple locations Color: Green and brown Consistency: Chunky Heat level: Pungent In a word: Exhilarating With just a hint of tomato and other seasonings, Efrain’s brilliant bowl of green presents a nearly 50/50 mix of diced chiles and pork pieces the size of gold nuggets; the flavor is roasty, mighty, and intoxicatingly pure. A damn close second.
Santa Fe Art District Color: Brown-green Consistency: Thin but rich Heat level: Fairly mellow In a word: Bliss Were you really expecting anyplace else? After all, the ladies who’ve been running this beloved taqueria like drill sergeants for years mean so much serious business: you can see it in their eyes, hear it in the thwack of their cleavers, and taste it in everything they make -- green chile included. Their garlic-tinged, tomatoless rendition is smooth as glass and glistening with the fat of meltingly tender pork that you’ll only actually encounter if you order it à la carte rather than as a sauce atop your burrito; either way, though, what you’ll taste is deeply savory, wonderfully smoky, beautifully seasoned and, well, just about perfect.
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