How Green was my Chile?

Bonfire restaurant

When I was in Denver recently to witness a niece's wedding, I spent my spare time canvassing the area for green chile. This plainish dish of puréed peppers—midway between a soup and a stew—is the quintessential product of Sonoran Desert cuisine, native to northwestern Mexico and parts of New Mexico, Arizona, and Colorado. American diners will associate it with its most famous raw material: the incendiary green chiles of Hatch, New Mexico. Denver is on the extreme northern verge of the culinary region, but nearly every restaurant, diner, and café that serves Mexican food has green chile on the menu in some form. If it's not offered as a plain stew served with flour tortillas, it can be found smothering burritos and enchiladas, or incorporated into quesadillas. But rather than being a verdant purée, the version found in Denver tends to be a pale pork gravy with flecks of chile—perhaps reflecting the distance from the locale where the chiles are cultivated. I'd tried mediocre versions in a working-class Mexican bar and grill in Wheat Ridge, in a touristy margarita mill in Lakewood, and just north of downtown in a skid row jazz bar within sight of Coors stadium. None could compare with the wonderful evocations of the dish I'd enjoyed in Santa Fe and Tucson. Then, as I was driving into Golden, Colorado, somewhat embarrassingly headed for a tour of a gigantic local brewery that makes the blandest beer imaginable, I spotted it: a ramshackle, goldenrod-colored trailer that stood in a gravel parking lot just off the road, with a couple of tables pushed out front. The trailer was called Bonfire, and a banner on top trumpeted breakfast burritos. In addition to those, the small menu offered pork and vegetarian tamales, quesadillas, tacos, and beef, pork, or chicken burritos. You could get anything smothered in green chile for an extra 50 cents. I ponied up $4 for the pork burrito, which turned out to be a massive affair of rice, red beans, and braised meat artfully folded into a flour tortilla, with a slick of melted yellow cheese on top. It came inundated in beige sauce with big splotches of green chile. While it wasn't fiery, it did leave a lingering burn on my lips and tongue, and it was definitely the best green chile I was going to get in Denver.

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