Dante Alighieri’s classic poem “A Divine Comedy” recounts a spiritual journey in which the author was guided by ancient Roman poet Virgil through hell, purgatory, and paradise. Their path takes them through the nine circles of Hell where they witness the punishments suffered for all eternity by the souls of deceased sinners. The deepest circle of Hell, where Satan resides, is reserved for history’s worst traitors–Judas Iscariot, Brutus, Cassius…and maybe a certain New Mexico food blogger who not only admits there is wonderful green chile to be found outside the paradise that is the Land of Enchantment; he believes it’s possibly just as good, even better than some New Mexico chile. That chile, from Pueblo, Colorado isn’t just an “it’ll do” substitute, but a bona fide equal (or superior) to much of the green chile grown in Hatch, Chimayo, Lemitar, Deming, Jarales and any number of other purveyors of chile fecundity across New Mexico.
“Gasp! Heresy!” you lash out. “Next you’re going to tell us the Denver Broncos, not the Dallas Cowboys, are America’s team. Before you condemn me to an eternity of wailing, gnashing of teeth and non-stop watching of The View, hear me out. My “heretical declaration” is based on two factors. First is a very small sample size of Pueblo chile–two items at one restaurant. I certainly haven’t tried nearly as much green chile in Colorado as I have in New Mexico. Second, it’s been my experience over the past several years that New Mexico’s green chile doesn’t always have all three elements I consider essential to enjoyment of chile: piquancy, a fire-roasted flavor and sweet, fruity notes. You’ll often find chile with two of the three elements, usually piquancy and a fire-roasted flavor, but sometimes the chile is so innocuous you have to wonder if it’s “wussified” so as not to offend anyone.
I had fully expected to dismiss Pueblo green chile as a vile pretender…a parody of brown glop to be taken as seriously as salsa made in New York City. I figured Colorado Governor Jared Polis’s recent contention that Pueblo chile is “the best in the world” and declaring New Mexico chile “inferior” was just political posturing and bluster laced with bovine-excrement. My friend Captain Escalante Tuttle, a very discerning diner, warned me about jumping to conclusions: “At the risk of being flogged on this blog, I actually like Pueblo Chile. I prefer Lemitar and other NM locations, but Pueblo Chile can certainly hold its own in the piquancy and flavor departments.” Another friend, renowned author David Wagner who once called Placitas home for nearly two decades, told me Pueblo chile is actually sweeter than New Mexican chile.
Could Pueblo chile actually have the three elements I consider essential to enjoyment of chile: piquancy, a fire-roasted flavor and sweet, fruity notes? Could it actually compete chile to chile with what New Mexico Governor Michelle Lujan Grisham insists “is, has been and always be the greatest in the world?” My answer to the former is most assuredly YES! Pueblo chile is for real! It not only surprised me, it blew me away. As to whether Pueblo chile can compete chile to chile with chile from New Mexico, it will take more than my very small sample size of the former to know for sure, but if my inaugural sampling is any indication, there may actually be a legitimate dispute as to what state’s chile reigns supreme.
By Scoville Heat Unit (SHU) standards which measure a chile’s “heat,” at its extreme range Pueblo chile isn’t quite as piquant as the pride of the Hatch valley, but it does start out with more heat. Pueblo chile’s Scoville range is between 2,500 to 5,000 SHUs while Hatch green chile can range from 500 to 10,000 SHUs. Technically, Pueblo chile is of the Mirasol variety, so named because it grows pointing up facing the sun. Pueblo chile isn’t quite as elongated as New Mexico’s Big Jim chiles (10″ to 12″), typically ranging from three- to five-inches in length. Both New Mexico chile and the Mirasol are technically spicy fruits which come from the plant Capsicum from the nightshade family, Solanaceae. The Mirasol’s sweet, fruity flavor is much more pronounced than it is on Hatch chile…just the way this blogger loves it.
Aside from its green chile, Pueblo’s most colossal culinary claim to fame is something with the unappetizing name “slopper.” Fittingly, a slopper is a vehicle for Pueblo’s chile: two grilled burger patties, American cheese served open-faced on a bun in a bowl then smothered (slopped might be more appropriate) with either housemade green chile, red chile or both with the option of French fries and onions on top. Atlas Obscura describes it as “part cheeseburger, part enchilada, and smothered in a Pueblo, Colorado specialty,” but to Duke City diners, that description of a slopper probably evokes images of the K&I Diner’s world-famous Travis, especially with the fries and onions.
As with the Travis, the origin of the slopper is steeped in legend. It’s almost universally accepted that it was first served at Gray’s Coors Tavern almost half a century ago, but credit for its invention is in some dispute. Ostensibly, when a regular patron grew weary of having a hamburger every day, he asked the Tavern owner to put a plain cheeseburger in a bowl and smother it with green chile topped with a handful of oyster crackers. Oyster crackers certainly aren’t the only surprise about the slopper. That some patrons can devour double, or triple meal portion sizes is a bigger surprise considering the regular slopper will satisfy most hearty appetites…including mine.
My first slopper had all three of the aforementioned elements this blogger appreciates in a quality green chile, especially that one element most often lacking in New Mexico’s green chile: that distinctive fruity sweetness that pairs oh-so-well with its vegetal qualities. Pueblo chile may not have had enough piquancy to erode the enamel on my teeth, but its heat was discernible. Ditto for its freshly roasted qualities. New Mexicans often joke that Colorado’s green chile should be called “brown chile” for its gravy-like appearance. True, it doesn’t have the neon green properties of New Mexico chile, but the most egregious thing about it is the Gray’s Coors Tavern’s spelling it “chili.” If there’s a fourth desirable element in green chile, it would be that it’s spelled correctly!
Preceding the slopper as our first taste of Pueblo chile was a chili (my spellchecker is screaming at me for that orthographical error) bean dip, an appetizer so good we excused the misspelled term. Served with housemade flour tortilla and corn chips is a bowl of beans that are more souped-up than they are soupy. Their souped-up quality comes from that pleasantly piquant, fruity sweet Pueblo chile. Shredded Cheddar cheese provides a salty foil.
Some of you reading this review are probably using the three-letter abbreviation “S.O.B.” to describe me for all the nice things I’ve written about Pueblo chile. S.O.B. means something else entirely to my Kim It stands for “Sausage on Bun” or more specifically Runyan’s S.O.B, a housemade Italian sausage served on a fresh hoagie bun (Schuster’s Bakery) with mayo, BBQ sauce, fried peppers and onions and American cheese. Italian sausage sandwiches are another of Pueblo’s culinary claims to fame. If others across Pueblo are nearly this good, we’ve got to be back to explore the Italian sausage trail and take back a few loaves of Schuster’s Bakery buns. They’re the perfect canvas for a great sandwich…and that Italian sausage with its fennel-kissed notes is Chicago good.
The heated debate between Colorado and New Mexico over chile supremacy probably will probably never be settled. There’s too much state pride and partiality for denizens of both states to admit much merit in the other state’s chile, but here’s one blogger not too proud to declare the green chile at Gray’s Coors Tavern to have made a fan out of me.
Gray’s Coors Tavern
515 West 4th Street
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LATEST VISIT: 31 August 2019
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: The Slopper, the SOB, Chili Bean Dip