I have loved green chile since a warm summer night when I was 12 years old.
We hadn't even unpacked the moving truck yet, and the long drive from Oregon to our new home in Denver was still weighing on my family's bones. Friends drove us to a hole-in-the-wall a few blocks from their house. The place was badly painted, and none of the tables and chairs matched. I ordered a smothered burrito.
I can remember that first mouthful. The way the Anaheim chiles set my virgin tastebuds ablaze, the warm oil of the stewed pork, the thickness of it on my tongue.
I scraped the plate clean, my eyes watering.
The next morning, I had what I still remember as a terrifying experience in the bathroom. Turns out, green chile is spicy both at the entrance and the exit.
But I guess everyone remembers their first time.
Ten years later, as enamored as ever with "chile verde," I would embark on what my friend Greg and I dubbed "The Great Green Chile Tour" — a weeklong roadtrip through the Southwest in which we consumed the sauce with every meal.
If you're new to the area, you may not have fully digested the regional obsession with green chile. In a way, green chile is something that unites the cultures of the Southwest, as much a part of us as our wild lands, or legends of cowboys.
You find green chile everywhere in Colorado. It's on the menu at greasy spoons, and under the steel lid at the local buffet. But it is served best at mom-and-pop joints where the folks at the counter remember your name.
Places like tiny Salsa Latina (28 E. Rio Grande St., 328-1513), a strip-mall haven run by Danny Aguilar, his wife Carolina and 19-year-old son Isaiah.
Salsa Latina only has a few tables — you're lucky if you can claim one — and at lunch, the line usually runs out the door. Some of the regulars, like Melody Gardner, grew up eating green chile and can't remember life without it. Others, like Stuart Blom, are converts.
"I'm from the Midwest, so when someone says 'chile' to me, I think red chili with beans," he says. "It took a long time for me; I'm a white boy."
But he caught on. He can't stay away from the restaurant these days.
So what is it that's so addictive?
"It's a Spanish tradition," Carolina says, shrugging. "It's in our blood."
Fresh and smoky
Apparently, its contagious.
Every weekday morning, the Aguilars crowd into the tiny restaurant kitchen and make their food from scratch. Isaiah recently took over green-chile duty: peeling the roasted Anaheim chiles that come in from New Mexico or Pueblo, frying the "pork butt," blending the fresh garlic. It takes about an hour and a half to make 20 quarts of green chile.
"The one main ingredient to me is not to use canned chiles," Danny says.
"Or frozen chiles," Carolina adds.
Danny: "You've got to use fresh chiles ..."
Carolina: "... to get that smoky flavor."
Like most green chile recipes, the Aguilars' is a family tradition. Generation after generation of Danny's family lived and died in Colorado's San Luis Valley, handing down their culinary secrets like treasures.
Back in the '60s, Danny's mom and dad moved to the Springs, and in the mid-'70s, they opened El Taco Rey (330 E. Colorado Ave., eltacorey.com), a local favorite that is still going strong. Danny grew up in that restaurant, and worked there most of his life. Then, in 2006, he started his own place nearby, with Carolina.
Carolina grew up in Mexico. She'd never made green chile before she met and married Danny in 1986. Her childhood had its own kitchen secrets, which still come through in her tamales and chile rellenos.
When Carolina's cooking combines with Danny's sauce, the flavor is unique — a little taste of two worlds.
Over the years, I've submerged my tongue in many a happy mouthful of chile. The good news is, you don't have to go far to start a love affair with the region's special sauce. Just follow your nose.