We pulled into Pueblo, Colorado, at high noon on a Sunday. We were on the hunt for something called a slopper. Which is a food, you dirty perv.
When you think of Colorado, you might think of alpine villages, fresh-from-the-factory Range Rovers, and cocaine-fueled fondue parties. Or maybe an eternally young but sun-wizened hippie driving his Subaru from a brunch of CBD-infused microgreens and granola in Boulder to a climbing competition on the Flatirons.
Pueblo is none of these things. Just over 100 miles south of Denver, it’s a dusty working-class city squatting on the Arkansas River, its streets blessedly free from hordes of tourists. Pueblo doesn’t offer ski slopes or sweeping views from every street in town.
But Pueblo has given the world the slopper. What a slopper isn’t: a chili cheeseburger. What a slopper is: a cheeseburger placed into a bowl and completely covered with green chili, more cheese, then raw white onions.
When I first heard about the slopper, I was low-key disgusted.
I’m a bit of hamburger purist, so this struck me as akin to drowning a good steak in some sort of creamy seafood sauce. Some folks might think that sort of thing is extra fancy, but it’s a bad thing to do to good beef. But even J. Kenji López-Alt, Mr. Hamburger Purist himself, went through a whole lot of trouble to engineer a slopper and declared it a winner. (Though he didn’t classify it as a burger, but rather a “goop-on-bread” dish.)
I had to try one. I’ve flown across the country and driven through entire states to eat barbecue. I could definitely drive two hours through the mountains to sample a slopper and then brag about it to all the poor saps who’ve never had one.
So my wife and I piled into the Subaru and set off to Pueblo. Target destination: Gray’s Coors Tavern, home of the original slopper. We were half expecting to pull up to a run-down bar, empty except for one or two locals who didn’t take kindly to strangers. But at noon on a Sunday, the place was so packed we had to settle for seats at the bar.
Some would describe Gray’s Coors Tavern as a dive bar. It’s not. It’s a bar-bar, with a long mirror-backed bar on one side of the room, old-school wooden booths with coat hooks on the other, and a smattering of tables closer to the front. Sports memorabilia, primarily for high-school football, lines the walls. There’s also a small collection of Elvis figurines high above the bar, one of them headless. Our waitress wore a shirt that read “Covering our buns in chile [sic] since 1950.”
“The 1950’s,” according to the unassailable historical document that is Gray’s Coors Tavern menu, is when a regular came in one day and requested a hamburger smothered in red chili, adding, “We call that a ‘Slopper’ in my house.” (Like all old-timey bar menus, the Gray’s Coors Tavern menu is a great read.)
Gray’s offers four slopper sizes: Half Slopper (1 patty), Regular (2 patties), Double (4 patties), Triple (6 patties). Fries on top are optional.
Aside from size, the biggest decision a diner has to make is green or red chili. The red, I was told, is a standard beef-based chili. But you don’t come to Pueblo for red. You come to Pueblo for green. Because Pueblo not only has its own green chili recipe(s), it has its own green chile varietal and has been trash-talking Hatch, New Mexico, about the superiority of the Pueblo chile for years now.
We ordered two Coors Banquets and a regular slopper. Soon enough, a bowl was plopped down in front of us, a bowl of green chili and cheese, topped with raw white onions and a scattering of fries. Somewhere under there was a hamburger.
We took our first bite and… holy shit. It was a revelation. I’m not being hyperbolic. It is literally one of the best things I’ve ever put in my face. A slopper is happy food. It’s heartwarming food. (I also assume it’s the perfect hangover food.)
The biggest shock was the chili. I’d argue that most people living outside of New Mexico and Colorado hear “green chili” and think “green salsa,” heavy on tomatillos, which have that tart, acidic, almost fruity flavor that tends to dominate. I’ve been in Colorado for a year and a half now and have had Colorado green folded into various dishes (mostly breakfast) but still couldn’t get past my conception of green chili as something that was going to make my mouth pucker. And I’m too old for puckering.
The green chiles in the green chili in New Mexico and Colorado have a much milder flavor, but can still pack a bit of a kick—not too much to make you sweat, but just enough to remind you that you’re eating peppers. The combination of peppers and pork is good enough to eat by the bowlful. And people do. Pour it over a cheeseburger and it’s magic.
The buns absorbed just enough of the chili to make a nice textural counterpoint to the patties. The patties had a bit of char on them, a note that complemented the smoky flavors of the pork and chili. The cheese tied it all together both in flavor and composition. (If you don’t get a secret thrill from watching strands of melted cheese escaping the gravitational pull of a dish, then you probably hate puppies.) And the raw onions provided a clean bite that countered all that ooey-gooey goodness. Did I just say “ooey-gooey goodness”? Yes. I was having a moment. We both were.
And we wanted more moments! But instead of ordering another, we headed over to the Sunset Inn. In 2010, Gray’s faced off against the Sunset Inn on the Travel Channel’s Food Wars. I can tell you that the Sunset Inn “won” the Travel Channel contest and that its slopper is a three-quarter-pound closed-faced burger drowned in chili. But I can’t tell you how I’d rate it, because the Sunset Inn’s kitchen is closed on Sundays. Another Pueblo hot spot for the slopper is the Star Bar, but while the bar is open every day at 7 a.m., their kitchen is also closed on Sunday. (But the Coors is $2.75 a bottle and I don’t think I’ve had a bar beer that cheap in 30 years.) So we ended up at The Hangar, a small airplane-themed restaurant and bar snug against an off-ramp to I-25. Its sloppers, which are much bigger than Gray’s, are open-faced burgers served on a plate rather than in a bowl. The chili is a little milder and a little thicker than Gray’s, the patties a bit more charred. Different, but delicious.
In one Sunday afternoon, we went from being reluctant travelers to Pueblo to planning return trips to hit all the slopper establishments we missed out on. The slopper is a culinary creation that deserves a cult, one that I’ll now gladly join with all the zealotry of a convert. My wife will, too. And if we have babies, they’ll be raised on sloppers.