PUEBLO, Colo. - In some respects, Pueblo is like a pint-sized Rust Belt city. It's a steel town that was once more prominent than it is today with strong ties to the Old World -- something that's still obvious when you visit Pueblo's Italian and Slovenian bakeries and markets.
The town's Arkansas River served as the U.S.-Mexico border in the mid-1800s, and Pueblo was a prime Colorado business center before the decline of the American steel industry in the 1970s and '80s resulted in tough economic times.
With that sort of rise and fall, it's easy to see parallels to the Rust Belt's past. But those similarities evaporate when you consider Pueblo's most famous food item -- the Pueblo green chile pepper.
Lonnie Campbell, a truck driver, didn't know anything about green chiles when he moved west from Pennsylvania 25 years ago. Pueblo mirasol green chiles grow up toward the sun, rather than hanging down from the plant like Anaheim and jalapeno chiles do. The locals use these peppers to make green chile, a Mexican dish that's more gravy-like than traditional red chili. Pueblo-style chile features pork, rather than ground beef, and comes in varying degrees of spiciness depending on the chef.
(So, about that spelling: When you're in Pueblo, you'll see it spelled "chile," the Spanish spelling, and occasionally "chili." But locals say when talking about the green stuff, it should be "chile"; it's only "chili" if the red, beefy variety is on the menu.)
"I didn't like it," Campbell said of his first experience with green chile. "But after a little while, it grows on you and then you have to have it hotter and hotter."
Like many aficionados, Campbell said he buys his chiles during the harvest in September and freezes them so he has a stockpile for the next year.
The roasting is the thing to see and smell at Pueblo's Chile & Frijoles Festival, held every September and named the No. 2 best food festival nationwide by Livability.com. In 2010, the website named Pueblo the No. 10 "foodie city" in the country for its festival and year-round unique green-chile offerings.
The highlight of the festival comes after nightfall, when chile roasters light up the street as jets of fire blacken the chiles. Farms outside of town truck in thousands of bushels of green chiles and roast them in homemade, spinning barrels that throw off heat you can feel standing 10 feet away.
In addition to the Chile Fest -- the 18th edition is scheduled for Sept. 21-23 -- Pueblo has attempted urban redevelopment with the Historic Arkansas Riverwalk, a project that began in the mid-1990s. Civic planners' goal was to return a channel of the Arkansas River to the heart of downtown Pueblo; the river was relocated following 1920s-era flooding.
Today restaurants and bars dot the banks of the Riverwalk, which is home to gondolas and excursion boats during the summer months.
But let's be honest: The real reason to visit Pueblo is to eat. With the Chile Fest and all the family-owned restaurants that serve chile-infused meals year-round, Pueblo's best bet for attracting visitors is its embrace of culinary tourism.
Even the town's gourmet-burger joint, Bingo Burger, serves up burgers with Pueblo green chiles ground with the beef. "We feed chiles to the cows," joked owner Richard Warner about how the chiles get in the meat.
Mauro Farms Bakery, about 20 minutes by car east of downtown Pueblo, offers homemade Italian cookies, pizzelles and potica (aka "nut roll"), standard Italian bakery fare. With perhaps one exception: Jalapeno brittle.
"We had a customer come in four years ago and ask if we'd make it," said Judy Mauro on a break from the baking kitchen. "My daughter said, 'You're crazy,' but she kept thinking about it and happened to have our candy-maker here that day and we tried it and we've been making it ever since."
This recipe won second place (non-commercial recipe) in the 2011 chile contest at Pueblo's Chile & Frijoles Festival.
DAN'S GOURMET PUEBLO GREEN CHILE
1 pound sirloin pork cubed
2 tablespoons olive oil
11-1/2 cups water
8 Pueblo chiles (roasted, peeled and diced)
5 cloves garlic
1/2 teaspoon onion salt
1/4 teaspoon garlic salt
1/4 teaspoon pepper
5 tablespoons flour
1 14-ounce can chopped and peeled tomatoes
1 can (16 ounces) chicken broth
1 teaspoon chicken base
Lightly brown pork in oil until glazed. Add 1/4 cup water, chiles, garlic, onion salt, garlic salt and pepper and heat through. In a blender, combine 1-1/2 cups of water with flour, blending until smooth. In 8-quart saucepan, add pork mixture, tomatoes, 10 cups of water, chicken broth and chicken base (for a less watery consistency, cut the water to 8 cups). Bring to a boil. Slowly add flour mixture until desired consistency. Let simmer for 25-30 minutes.
If you go to the Pueblo Chile Fest ...
Getting there: Pueblo is about two hours by car south of Denver International Airport or about 45 minutes from the Colorado Springs airport. You can also fly into Pueblo's small airport via connecting flights from Denver on Great Lakes Airlines, which code shares with United, or from Las Vegas on Allegiant Air.
When to go: The annual Chile & Frijoles Festival is held every September with the 18th edition slated for Sept. 21-23. Details: http://pueblochilefestivalinfo.com/.
Where to eat:How many meals can you squeeze in? Pueblo is full of tempting restaurants, from green chile to Italian.
Chile and sloppers: Gray's Coors Tavern in downtown, 515 W. Fourth St., offers chile and sloppers (719-544-0455) as does the Sunset Inn, 2808 Thatcher Ave. (719-564-9841).
Fast(ish) food: Bingo Burger, 101 Central Plaza (719-225-8363) offers burgers with green chiles ground with the meat.
Pizza: Do Drop Inn, 1201 S. Santa Fe Ave., features excellent pizza with a sweet, thick crust (719-542-0818).
Italian: LaTronica's, 1143 E. Abriendo Ave. (719-542-1113), has served Italian fare in Pueblo's Bessemer neighborhood since 1943.
What to see:
Union Avenue Historic Commercial District, listed on the National Register of Historic Places, includes several large antique shops, coffee houses, Hopscotch Bakery and a small public market.
The Historic Arkansas Riverwalk(http://www.puebloharp.com/) features several restaurants, excursion boat rides and is home to Center of American Values (http://americanvaluescenter.org/), which has free admission.
The Steelworks Museum of the Bessemer Historical Society(http://www.steelworks.us/) displays exhibits on the history of mining, railroads and steel production. Open 10 a.m.-4 p.m. Monday through Saturday. Admission: $5 adults, $3 children 4-12.
Markets out in "the county," as Pueblo residents call the unincorporated area east of town on Route 50, include Musso Farms produce stand (719-948-3581) and Mauro Farms (www.maurofarms.com), which also operates an Italian bakery.