Stuffed but not smothered at Jack-n-Grill
In A Federal Case, I'll be eating my way up Federal Boulevard -- south to north -- within Denver city limits. I'll be skipping the national chains and per-scoop Chinese joints, but otherwise I'll report from every vinyl booth, walk-up window and bar stool where food is served. Here's the report on this week's stop...
Jack Russell terriers, Apple Jacks breakfast cereal boxes, Jack Nicholson: These are things you'll find decorating the tortilla-tinted walls of Jack-n-Grill, along with enough framed awards and news clippings to cover every pothole on Federal Boulevard. Everything celebrates either the word "Jack" or the brilliance of the New Mexico-style green chile that you'll have to try hard to keep out of your mouth, as all-smothering as it is on practically every item on the menu.
Jack-n-Grill serves big food, in both size and flavor, big enough to get national recognition from competitive eaters and certainly big enough to earn a spot in the hearts and guts of just about every chile lover in the metro area. On my visit last week, I saw a six-year-old child all but embrace a burger as big as a teddy bear. Her father's choice dwarfed even that: a double patty clamshelled inside a split-open sopapilla.
Mark Antonation The green chile wall of fame.
I happened to be at Jack-n-Grill several years ago when the Travel Channel's Adam Richman rolled in to film an attempt at conquering the seven-pound pile of potatoes, eggs and pain that the menu offers for a mere $22. He didn't even come close; I saw fear in his eyes as the burrito was presented to him and smelled defeat even above the oily aromas of frying sopapillas and grilling burgers wafting from the kitchen.
I'm not a fan of eating challenges, but I knew in my heart that I would clean my plate spotless when our server set down my carne adovada and bean-stuffed sopa. Roughly the size and hue of a manila envelope, the deep-fried dough pocket was still lost beneath a pond of Jack-n-grill's tomato-tinted green chile.
Mark Antonation It's not pretty, but it's pretty good.
Much ink -- and possibly a little blood -- has been spilled debating the differences between New Mexico and Colorado green chile. My best hypothesis, based more on the act of eating than any academic, in-depth research, is that green chile exists more on a spectrum than on opposing poles. Mostly, the New Mexico version isn't thickened (whether with cornstarch or wheat flour) and is often more of a soup than a stew, whereas the most extreme versions of the Colorado concoction cling like country gravy and carry orange or even burnt roux tones, depending on how long the pot is allowed to simmer.
I've been served a brimming pho-sized bowl of green at Jack-n-Grill that wasn't much thicker than chicken soup, but the stuff on my sopapilla had been reduced down to a viscous sauce, the better to coat every millimeter of its vast expanse with slow-building heat. The brick-red sauce on the carne adovada added rich warmth to the toothsome chunks of meat and creamy beans, an addictive mixture that kept my fork moving until every drop of chile, every shred of lettuce and even the bland cubes of winter tomato had disappeared from the plate. And even after that, I scraped at the remains of our guacamole salad -- a simple mash of minimally adulterated avocados with minced and shredded accompaniments to mix in at your desire --with fragments of tortilla chips.
Mark Antonation Guacamole with add-ons.
In case you're a fan of carne adovada but not of elastic waistbands, the menu also offers the marinated and slow-cooked beef naked but for a fried egg over-easy -- a plate plenty big enough that after Amy ate her fill, she still could have toted home a hefty doggy bag. (She was the only witness to confirm or deny accounts that I reached across the table, perhaps more than once, to pilfer the remains on her plate.) I really should have extended my stuffed sopapilla into the next day's breakfast and lunch, too; I'm sure it would have made for tasty leftovers. But something about the diner-like atmosphere of the eatery, the warmth and aromas in the air, and the enticing combination of spicy, savory and tangy flavors compels a little gluttony. I state this with neither pride nor shame, but only with a pleasant memory of belt-straining satisfaction. Big food, certainly not everyday food, but an occasional indulgence to hit -- or more likely, demolish -- the spot.
Mark Antonation A somewhat more reasonable plate of carne adovada with a fried egg.
For more from our culinary trek down Federal, check out our entire A Federal Case archive.