Sunday, May 2, 2010

Cinco de Mayo in Denver With Chili Verde

Cinco de Mayo in Mexico is celebrated about like Flag Day is in the US. Very few people go to bed on May 4th thinking, "How should I celebrate Cinco de Mayo tomorrow?"  It is not a federal holiday. And don't offend your Mexican friends by wishing them a happy independence day; that you can save for September 16th. In fact, if it weren't for the date being spelled out in the name of the holiday itself, it might pass by in most of Mexico as easily as National Boss Day has passed all of us by most of our lives.

It is only in the US (and in Puebla) that on May 5th we honor the battle of Puebla, where in 1862 the Mexicans beat back the occupying French forces for a time. The French eventually ruled Mexico for a few years, but in spite of that, the battle still represents a moment in history when the humble Mexican forces were able to defeat a European superpower. It's an inspiring story of the underdog winning, and it is easy to see why Chicanos likely adopted this proud moment as a holiday to celebrate their Mexican roots. Everyone loves an underdog.

So donning sombreros, pounding Coronas and shooting tequila will not be mirrored with quite the same frenzy by our southern brothers on this day. Nor will it be my modus operandi for the day. Being a working man of some years, drinking late on a Wednesday only means pain and suffering on Thursday, Friday and even possibly Saturday. This year, I chose to celebrate Cinco de Mayo a few days early by searching out some food from the city of Puebla, site of the famous battle and home to some incredible regional cuisine.

When talking about Pueblan, or Poblano, cuisine in Denver, we are lucky to not have to look farther than Chili Verde on 37th and Tejon. This young restaurant is run by a family from Puebla, Mexico, so it has some authority on authenticity. What's more, is that most of the recipes are from mamá y papá, while sons Eder and Hanzel man the front of the house.

Chili Verde itself is a well-lit and simply decorated Mexican restaurant with things like cloth napkins, white tablecloths and a wine list. The menu is relatively simple which is nice to see, but with plenty of variety. Of course there are several plates served with a Poblano sauce, and there is even some rarely seen dishes like chiles en nogada, a traditional independence day dish of a chile relleno covered in a walnut sauce and sprinkled in pomagranate seeds.

While we waited to place our order we were served some chips along with two salsas and a little bowl of refried beans. The chips are delicious. They actually taste like fresh, albeit crispy and fried, corn. We devoured our basket along with the tasty, smoky and spicier of the two salsas, which seemed like it was just smoked and ground dried ancho and guajillo chiles.

What happened in the next 10 minutes was a little overwhelming--but not in a bad way. Our friendly server was quick to offer us another serving of chips, which we accepted, thinking our food that we had just ordered would take at least three minutes to arrive. Not so. No sooner than we had dug into our new chip basket, our ceviche appetizer was in front of us.

The ceviche was excellent. A simple Mexican version of shrimp and fish, it was marinated in lime juice and mixed with minced jalapeño, tomatoes and cilantro. Topped with a few slices of avocado, this is one of the better ceviches I have had in Denver.

As we picked our way through the ceviche, slowly savoring each bite and trying to fight our inner urge to shovel it into our mouths, our entrees were up. Keep in mind, we are still in the ten minute window I alluded to earlier. We struggled to make room on the table for our two entrees while we had our ceviche, chips and all the little plates and bowls that came with them.

Now we had a true feast in front of us. My wife and I were here to eat some Pueblan food, so I had ordered the enchiladas de mole and my wife the crepes with poblano sauce. The mole was delicious. Smoky and bitter, dark and rich, it was a wonderful mole poblano. And authentic. The family brings back a paste that makes the base of the sauces every time they travel to Puebla. It doesn't really get more authentic than that.

The poblano crepes were also fantastic. A creamy sauce with strips of roasted poblano peppers (rajas) and bits of corn over chicken-filled crepes. My wife, in a moment of weakness brought about by the spell of her crepes, let something slip that she would have never said otherwise: "These are better than my mom's." Now, normally I wouldn't be stupid enough to put this into print, but the chances are my mother-in-law, who lives in Mexico City, won't read this; and the rest of the family who do read this would not be brave enough to tell her either. Plus, my wife said it, not me. All I know is that they were delicious, and I choose to remain entirely neutral on the matter. 

I loved the food here. And the simply decorated, well-lit dining room is inviting, homey and even a little elegant. The service is incredibly friendly and efficient as is evidenced by our almost too-fast service. But it comes from a true desire to please, and as the family works out the kinks, it will become even better.

I did have a couple of minor critiques. All the entrées seemed to be served with a side of iceberg lettuce and plain red Spanish rice. Next to the gorgeous and elegant main course, they were bland, forgettable and missing the frijoles. I ended up scooping beans out of the chips and salsa bowl to eat alongside my entrée, so it would be nice to lose the lettuce and throw in some beans. I mean, the battle of Puebla wasn't won to skimp on beans. I also wish they would have spelled "chile" like it is spelled in its mother tongue, Spanish, instead of "chili" like it is when you think of a big pot of red chili from Texas or something. These are minor points, of course, and nothing that will keep me away from this place, where I plan to return soon.

Chili Verde has found itself quite a niche in Denver's crowded Mexican restaurant world. It is nicer and more upscale than many of the classic standbys like El Paraiso, but it is more reasonable (and better in my opinion) than the overpriced Sandoval mega-chains of La Sandia and Tamayo. That being said, the decor and service are quite good, which give it a classy feel. It is in the price range of other "Mexican" restaurants like the Americanized chain places not worth mentioning, but Chili Verde is decidedly authentic, genuine and unique.

The menu is in the process of evolving as well, Eder tells us. In the coming weeks look for a Mexican wine to be added along with some more traditional and less-familiar specialties like pipian, huaraches and carne en salsa de chile morita. Can't wait.
Chili Verde on Urbanspoon


  1. I wanted to try them out, but apparently they are closed and looking for a new location.

    1. Should have updated this already. Yes, they have been closed for a while so not looking good.



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