CHILE OUT: Iconic garden center turns up the heat

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AURORA | The sweet smell of earthy spice hangs thick as Burt Gallegos strides around the nursery, jabbering in Spanish to a fellow employee. He smiles as he plucks waxy chilies from canvas-covered bins, walking through the heat spectrum that ranges from relatively benign jalapeños on the right, to the devilish “XX Dynamite” specimens to the left. He shows admiration for each crinkled pepper he picks up, but his eyes offer a disapproving bulge while ogling at the Dynamites.

“Those things are crazy,” he says with a sheepish grin of defeat.

Gallegos is one of the many employees milling about Nick’s Garden Center, the nursery, landscaping and produce Mecca of Aurora for more than 25 years. Workers are preparing for Nick’s fifth annual Chilefest this weekend, a celebration of traditional New Mexican culture, fares and most importantly, Nick’s famous slow-roasted green chilies that have long been the staple of September cookouts across Aurora.

The backbone of the festival, Nick’s gets hundreds of pounds of the chilies from farmers in Pueblo, Brighton and Hatch, New Mexico, in preparation for the thousands that come to the festival to get the essential ingredient for salsas, green chili and countless other New Mexican, ColoMex and TexMex dishes. 

Gallegos says that the festival is intended to share the family’s devotion to New Mexican cooking with the community, as well as honor the storied recipes handed down in the family-run business. 

“People love to cook, and we want to show them the way Nick and his wife did it in their home for their boys,” Gallegos says. “We want to show customers what they can do with the chilies they have purchased and what we do with them.”

Green ChilesGallegos is referring to his uncle, Nick Ortega Jr. who founded Nick’s in 1987 with his two sons Randy and Richard at an abandoned gas station on South Colorado Boulevard. In the nearly two decades since it started, Nick’s has changed locations and slowly become an agricultural epicenter in Aurora. Randy and Richard have taken over as co-owners and say that events like the Chilefest have just been a natural progression in their business and broadening of their rich family tradition.

“Our roots are in truck farming, when we used to grow chilies in the ‘70s and ‘80s,” Richard says. “After starting, we had the farm market we now have here daily, then samples on the weekends, then cooking demos, now the chili cook-off contest. It’s just been an extension of everything over time.”

Now in its fifth year, the festival will boast live music, a bevy of cooking demonstrations and a green chili cook-off where participants bring a pre-prepared green chili to be judged for a top prize of $150.

One host of the cooking demonstrations is Lindita Torres-Winters, owner of her own local line of salsas and a family friend of the Ortega’s. She says that the Chilefest is a great opportunity for chefs and citizens to collaborate at a stalwart, local business.

“It’s something new and challenging that just keeps getting better, and I just want to be a part of that,” Torres-Winters says. “I feel like I’ve grown with them, and I think everybody that goes there feels that way.”

Apart from those customers that have grown with the business, more and more new chile-eaters have managed to find out about the festival each year. Gallegos says that the event has gotten consistently larger since it began five years ago and that the business is expecting to go through about 300 bushels of peppers this weekend, with each bushel containing 16-18 pounds of the roasted fruits. 

Gallegos says that the process of having a customer sample and select the peppers they want, followed by employees washing and roasting them, can sometimes take up to an hour-and-a-half. He says that Nick’s has had to add a fourth roaster and some free incentives to combat the ballooning demand. This year, the event will boast a prize wheel, which chile-buyers can spin for the possibility to win either a reduced-price or free bushel of the goods.

“The lines can get crazy,” Gallegos says. “So we wanted to offer a thank you for putting up with a wait time for our peppers.”

Nick’s ChileFest

2001 S. Chambers Road

10 a.m. – 2 p.m., Saturday Sept. 6

11 a.m. – 2 p.m. Sunday Sept. 7

Free.

To register for the green chili cook-off, call 303-696-6657. Space is limited. The chili cook-off is Saturday only from 1 p.m. – 2:30  p.m.