Gray’s Coors Tavern (left), birthplace of the Pueblo slopper; A roaster at the Pueblo Chile and Frijoles Festival
Brad Trone; Andy Cross/The Denver Post/Getty
Gray’s Coors Tavern (left), birthplace of the Pueblo slopper; A roaster at the Pueblo Chile and Frijoles Festival
Gray’s Coors Tavern (left), birthplace of the Pueblo slopper; A roaster at the Pueblo Chile and Frijoles Festival (Photo: Brad Trone; Andy Cross/The Denver Post/Getty)

Why Colorado and New Mexico Are Fighting a Hot War Over Green Chile

For years, these Rocky Mountain states have squared off on a spicy subject: Who grows the best chile peppers, an indispensable ingredient in southwestern cuisine? Our man hit the road to find out.

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There’s nothing like a fight in which different states and regions square off about who’s better at producing a popular food. One of the most energetic rivalries involves barbecue, pitting Tennessee (where pork is the thing) against Texas (land of beef, and brisket in particular). If you’re loyal to North Carolina or Kansas City, please know that I’m aware these places make good barbecue, too. No need to call and scream at me.

This sort of competition turns up all over the place. There’s an old episode of The West Wing in which windbag president Jed Bartlet, a former governor of New Hampshire, is appalled when he sees that Vermont maple syrup is on the menu at an upcoming official breakfast. (“New Hampshire syrup is what we serve in this White House,” he grumbles.) Outside correspondent Tim Neville, who grew up in the heart of Maryland’s blue crab country, swears that Marylanders and Virginians argue about which state’s crabs are better—something surprising to outsiders, since they both swim and crawl in the same briny waters. (Doesn’t matter. Neville’s dad insists that Maryland crabs are “fatter.”) Then there’s the ongoing scrap over the very different burritos made in Southern and Northern California.

“In the North,” Sunset magazine explained years ago, “a burrito is a foil-wrapped behemoth: a tortilla the size of a manhole cover bursting with rice, black beans, and an unending list of ingredients.… [I]t’s unrecognizable to partisans of the austere (and rice-free) parcels of refried beans and cheese found in the South. Allegiances run strong.”

The long, cool interior at Gray’s
The long, cool interior at Gray’s (Brad Trone)

To me, the most compelling of these conflicts is one that has played out for years in my own backyard: the dispute between Colorado and New Mexico about which state grows better green chiles, among the world’s tastiest agricultural commodities. (In both states, the preferred spelling is chile, not chili, which is how they spell it in suspect places like Texas and Cincinnati. On this we stand united.)

New Mexico has built a cultural identity around this crop—the smell of roasting chiles is the official state aroma, you can buy a license plate with chiles on it, and much of the state’s cuisine centers on the perennial question: Red or green? (Red chiles are green chiles that have been left in the field to ripen longer.) But chances are you didn’t even know that Colorado farmers grow green chiles, too.

Well they do, and they’re good at it. While New Mexico is justifiably famous for its chile excellence, there’s a hardworking group of producers, most of Italian-American descent, clustered near the southeastern Colorado city of Pueblo, which has historic connections to coal mining, steelmaking, and agriculture. East of town, on the flat, dry land that’s typical for that part of the state, growers plant several kinds of chiles, including a treasured variety called Mosco developed years ago by Michael Bartolo, an Italian-American crop specialist who grew up in the area and spent much of his career at the Colorado State University research center farm in Rocky Ford.

The most compelling regional food conflict is the dispute between Colorado and New Mexico about which state grows better green chiles, among the world’s tastiest agricultural commodities.

The Mosco chile is a big part of what Colorado boosters have in mind when they brag. On a green chile farm in New Mexico—like the ones in the southern part of the state, around the town of Hatch, the main hub of chile production—the pointy little fruits dangle like Christmas tree ornaments. Moscos grow up toward the sky. (They’re part of a broader chile classification known as mirasol, a Spanish word that means “look to the sun.”) According to the most enthusiastic fans of the Pueblo variety, these chiles are objectively tastier. It’s also said that Moscos have thicker walls, so they hold up better during the all-important roasting process—when bulk chiles are seared by flame inside large rotating drums, which loosens the peel and imparts the charred, smoky flavor that makes green chile so good.

The idea that Pueblo’s chiles are fundamentally superior has always seemed unlikely to me, but some people insist on it, including Jared Polis, Colorado’s current governor. In 2019, Polis referenced a not astonishing business decision by Whole Foods—to start stocking Pueblo green chiles in its stores in Colorado, Kansas, Idaho, and Utah—as a cue to hammer New Mexico on the knees.

“About time!” he wrote on Facebook. “Whole Foods Market will soon offer Pueblo Chile, widely acknowledged as the best chile in the world, in Colorado and throughout the Rocky Mountain region.… New Mexico stores will unfortunately not be offering the best chile and will instead keep offering inferior New Mexico chile.”

I’m a longtime resident of Santa Fe, New Mexico’s capital, and I know from experience that when Colorado starts taunting us, reactions range from outrage and derisive laughter to, um, our state’s chief executive taking the bait and responding. This is what happened in 2019, when governor Michelle Lujan Grisham fired back at Polis on Twitter, writing, “If Pueblo chile were any good, it would have been on national shelves before now … Hatch chile is, has always been and will always be the greatest in the world.”

That year also saw some aggro advertising from the New Mexico Tourism Department, which purchased billboards—placed in Colorado well north of the chile pepper DMZ—that said things like 137 MILES TO REAL GREEN CHILE, along with a TV ad that called New Mexico’s product “the only true green chile.” One of the signs in Colorado Springs was defaced by somebody who changed the number to zero and affixed a Colorado flag. A bold countermove indeed.

During such squabbles, people are blinded by loyalties and lose the ability to open their hearts to the other side. But I’m all about love, so I’m going to suggest something that may sound sacrilegious to Colorado and New Mexico hardliners: it’s possible that both states grow exceptional green chile, since it’s a plant, not a Platonic ideal. I’ve eaten a lot of them in my day, and my first reaction to these arguments has always been: Who knows? If I conducted a blind taste test featuring roasted Pueblo and Hatch chiles of equal heat, chopped up and served side by side, I doubt I could even tell the difference.

They have a lot in common, after all. They are members of the same genus (Capsicum) and species (annum). Distinctions occur further down the taxonomy line, where the term cultivar refers to a plant produced through selective breeding. Hatch chiles belong to a varied group of chiles developed in the early 1900s by scientists and students at what would later become New Mexico State University. One famous cultivar that comes from Hatch, created in 1975, is called Big Jim. Bartolo’s Mosco plant, which he developed using seeds he got from a chile-growing uncle, the late Harry Mosco, was commercially released to growers in 2005.

Though both of these are green chile peppers, they’re not the same. Big Jims are large—around ten to twelve inches long—and relatively mild. Moscos are smaller—more like five or six inches—and hotter. Peppers are rated on the Scoville scale, which assigns numerical units based on the total amount of capsaicin, the chemical compound that gives chiles their oomph. Moscos are roughly twice as hot. (Hatch produces hot chiles, too. Big Jims just happen to be mild.)

I assumed from the get-go that all kinds of green chile are worth eating, which is how Bartolo feels about it. When I brought up the chile wars, he amiably said, “People are welcome to like whatever they like, and it’s fine. The arguments are good and playful, and if that gets everybody to eat more chile, more power to them.” He added that his favorite way to eat chile is simple: take a flame-roasted specimen, wrap it in a warm tortilla, and chew.

Downtown Pueblo
Downtown Pueblo (Brad Trone)
A slopper done Gray’s style—no bun on top.
A slopper done Gray’s style—no bun on top. (Christian Murdock/The Gazette)

The master has a point. And last year, when I embarked on a quest to more deeply understand Their Chiles and Ours, my guess was that the real differences lie in what local cooks do with them. On this subject there are clear contrasts, which I learned about from Mark Antonation, a former food and drink editor at Westword, Denver’s alternative weekly, and now the communication manager for the Colorado Restaurant Association and Foundation. Antonation gave me a beginner’s overview of how green chile is used in Pueblo and named a few restaurants I should check out when I was in town.

“There’s one called Musso’s—it’s Italian,” he said. “There’s this sausage sandwich. They make an Italian sausage patty and fry it. They put that on a bun and put green chile on it. It’s really good.”

There’s this sausage sandwich.… His words were like a magic spell, and I felt a strong yearning. Was I being pulled toward an act of green chile treason?

I already knew the basics of how Pueblo-style chile dishes differ from New Mexico’s, because over the years, many people who’ve worked at this magazine—which is now owned by our parent company in Boulder but is still based in Santa Fe—have taken new jobs and moved north, often to Boulder or Denver. Almost without exception, they complain about what Colorado cooks do with their green chiles, and when they come back to visit, they hit local restaurants with the urgency of famished weasels.

Down here the peppers are used generously, because New Mexico’s annual production is larger than Colorado’s. Bartolo says there are only about 15 to 20 Pueblo growers at any given time, along with a handful in other parts of the state, producing a total yield that he estimates to be around 6,000 tons a year. The comparable tonnage figure for New Mexico in 2022 was 53,300.

Pueblo-style green chile is the key component in a Colorado comfort-grub favorite, the Pueblo slopper—an open-faced hamburger smothered in green chile and melted cheese, usually with fries nearby or on top.

In Colorado, cooks often use Pueblo green chiles to make a recipe called—drumroll—green chile, a versatile concoction that can be eaten straight out of a bowl as a stew or poured over other foods as a sauce. Its main ingredients are green chile, pork, onion, garlic, oil, flour, chicken broth, tomato (sometimes), and salt, and it’s the key component in another comfort-grub favorite Antonation mentioned, the Pueblo slopper—an open-faced hamburger smothered in green chile and melted cheese, with garnishes that vary but can include raw onion and oyster crackers, usually with fries nearby or right on top.

As I noticed time and again, the New Mexico–to-Colorado transplants didn’t like this green chile recipe, describing it to me as a vague goop containing very little actual green chile. They’re not alone in their criticisms. A Westword food writer, pulling no punches, once described it as “not unlike the Velveeta + ground beef + salsa dish of dubious origin often referred to as ‘barf dip.’ ”

Make no mistake, though: Coloradans are very loyal to their green chile, both the plant and the stew. Dianne Archuleta, a Pueblo native and director of the city’s excellent El Pueblo History Museum, has enjoyed it since she was a child. For as long as she can remember, she told me, it was a family tradition to go out in the fall and buy a couple of bushels of green chiles, get them roasted, and use them throughout the year.

“I have to ask,” I said. “Whose green chile is better?”

“I think ours is,” she said with a laugh. “I may be biased about that, because I have used it all my life.” There was no Jared Polis–style bombast in this statement. It came straight from the soul.

Last September, hungry to know more, I aimed my car at Colorado’s biggest, boldest celebration of the crop: the Pueblo Chile and Frijoles Festival, held annually around harvest time. I drove up on a blue-sky Saturday, and I was psyched, partly because the day’s agenda would involve me eating four times in a six-hour period. But I also have a soft spot for Pueblo, an industrial-looking city that tends to get snubbed by people angling for pristine Colorado beauty.

Pueblo earned its gritty vibe the hard way. It was home to a major steel mill (one of its nicknames is Steel City) owned by John D. Rockefeller’s Colorado Fuel and Iron Company, which was founded in the 1880s and exists today—much changed, and now run by a Russian company called Evraz. Rockefeller’s ruthless management style helped spur a grim event in U.S. labor history. Approaching Pueblo from the south on I-25, near Trinidad, you pass a monument to the Ludlow Massacre, a notorious 1914 outbreak of violence in which National Guardsmen hired by the company killed an estimated 25 miners, women, and children during a strikebreaking conflict called the Colorado Coalfield War. Guerrilla retaliation by the strikers, it’s believed, led to dozens of additional deaths.

On a more positive note, Pueblo has a rich heritage of diversity, which began in the mid-1800s when a mining boom attracted job seekers from many European countries, including Italy, Greece, and Croatia. Pueblo’s Italian-American heritage shows up in the Pueblo Chile Growers Association, a group that’s featured in the festival. Look at the current membership, and you’ll see many Italian names, including Musso, Mauro, DiTomaso, DiSanti, and Genova.

On my big day last September, I caught the opening minutes of a college football game (the CSU Pueblo ThunderWolves versus the Colorado School of Mines Orediggers!) as I hit Pueblo’s city limits, got off the interstate, and zigzagged west into town, where I parked and walked a few blocks to the event site. The festival happened inside a large rectangle, plus a long section of Union Avenue, set up in the heart of downtown, near a scenic, historic river walk on the banks of the Arkansas River.

I spent about a half-hour legging it around to get a sense of the offerings, which combined a few chile-roasting operations, various food and drink venues, three spaces for live music—awesomest band name I saw: Mixxed Nutz—along with 180 booths showcasing local businesses.

After my walkabout, I stopped in at a tent belonging to one of the more prominent roasting companies in Pueblo: Milberger Farms, a 400-acre produce operation located in what’s called the St. Charles Mesa, an agricultural area east of the city fed by irrigation water brought by ditch from the Arkansas. To the left of a large tent, several roasters were flaming chiles to order—prices can vary, but a typical tab for Pueblo’s finest was $50 a bushel—and it was a hot day, so stoking those beasts must have felt like outdoor blacksmithing. In front of the tent, there was a cutout for shooting photos: a tall, comical green chile with a crown, holding a scepter, with an oval for your face.

Inside this tent and another like it, I noticed that the growers around here don’t just raise Moscos, a.k.a. Pueblos. I also saw Big Jims for sale, along with chiles carrying labels that included poblano, Fresno, Santa Fe Grande, Anaheim, and Dynomite (described as “extra, extra hot”). I bought a few bags of Milberger Pueblos and went off to find some food I could eat now rather than later.

Nearby, at a stand called Paulicious, I ordered a green chile wrap—a yummy snack similar to what Bartolo had described, consisting of one green chile and a splotch of melted cheese with garlic salt inside a slightly toasted, folded tortilla. Dang it was good. Score one for Steel City.

Then, at a different stand, came the long-awaited moment: my first helping of Pueblo-style green chile, the stew/sauce, served in a white foam cup. Carefully walking my treasure to a patch of street-corner sidewalk, I set up shop for analysis. Step one was to mount my camera on a tripod and use a timer to shoot high-resolution pictures, a process apparently amusing to people sitting nearby, since they looked at me funny. (Too bad, I thought. I’m doing science over here.) As I clicked, I found myself wondering about its color.

It was a light reddish-brown, not the rich, gravy-like look I was expecting. I tried a spoonful and wasn’t exactly wowed. It was viscous and shiny—the result, I guessed, of using either flour or cornstarch as a thickener—and the primary flavor coming through was chicken broth, with a wee bit of heat underneath. There was visible green chile in there, but it was speck-size. Peering closely, I surmised that the sauce also contained oil, onion, and tomato, which is what gave it that color.

All in all, not a triumph for Pueblo, but no big deal. Maybe this was just a festival-food lapse. I had more promising stops on my list.

Route 50 Business, which runs through the heart of a major chile-growing area
Route 50 Business, which runs through the heart of a major chile-growing area (Brad Trone)
Chile pepper researcher Michael Bartolo standing in the chile field at Musso Farms
Chile pepper researcher Michael Bartolo standing in the chile field at Musso Farms (Brad Trone)

I spent the rest of that afternoon driving around in search of Truth. After buying an ice chest for the Pueblos, I rolled up and down I-25, at one point stumbling onto a highway called U.S. Route 50 Business, heading east.

This was lucky, because everything a person could want was on that road: produce stands, cannabis shops, a strange Stephen King–ish junkyard and home with a hand-painted sign out front that read, I HAVE CORN, and Musso’s, where I bought the sausage sandwich. It was delicious, and put Pueblo food back in the win column.

Everything a person could want is on U.S. Route 50 Business: produce stands, cannabis shops, and a strange Stephen King–ish junkyard and home with a hand-painted sign out front that read, I HAVE CORN.

I rounded out my day with a quick visit to Vigil Farms, run by a Hispanic family that grows several varieties of chiles—including Pueblos and Big Jims—and were kind enough to let me walk around in their fields while they got ready to attend a wedding. Then I went back into town and hit another place Antonation had recommended: Gray’s Coors Tavern, a bar with a lot of neon, inside and out, and a retro look that dates all the way back to 1934, when Adolph Coors purchased an existing tavern, teamed up with a couple of brothers, and called it Johnnie’s Coors Tavern. (It was renamed after it changed hands in the 1980s.)

Gray’s is the birthplace of the Pueblo slopper. I’ve seen two different accounts of how and why the slopper was invented, so let’s just say that sometime in the 1950s, a cook decided it would be a good idea to drown a hamburger with green chile. Sloppers are now made all over town, and Gray’s has a big rivalry with a restaurant called the Sunset Inn, which serves its slopper using a bun on top. In 2010, the Travel Channel aired a Food Wars episode that featured a slop-off between Gray’s and Sunset, which won in a squeaker. One key difference: Sunset uses Pueblo chiles exclusively, while Gray’s cooks with a mix. Hmmm.

I had a great time visiting Gray’s—it’s a classic old place with a friendly staff—but I’m sorry to say that, yet again, the green chile was a disappointment, for a simple reason: there just wasn’t enough in there. Pueblo green chiles as a product seem competitive, but this formula, compared to a typical bowl of New Mexico green chile stew, takes an L. Sorry, Colorado. I don’t make the rules. I merely enforce them.

Do not get me wrong, though: I still have positive feelings about Pueblo green chile (the plant and the sauce). When I got home, I started making things with the Moscos I’d bought, and the little guys passed every test: chopped up as a garnish, cooked into New Mexico–style sauce, and used in our green chile stew. I spent an entire weekend attempting to make the Pueblo-style sauce for use in a slopper. I failed, using too much tomato and arriving at something more like Texas chili. It was good—but wrong.

Fortunately, Dianne Archuleta recently sent me her secret family recipe. Armed with this, and a few ideas I have about the entire assemblage, I shall press on, and my goal is still to achieve a perfect batch of her kind of green chile. By the time you read this, the Santa Fe slopper will be ready for its close-up.

From September/October 2023 Lead Photo: Brad Trone; Andy Cross/The Denver Post/Getty