Restaurant News & Reviews

Johnson’s Chile Fest will offer bushels of smoky greenness

August is a good month for people who love green chiles.

It’s when the famous peppers are harvested in New Mexico, and it’s when dedicated local green chile enthusiast Marty Johnson – owner of the three Johnson’s Garden Centers in town – travels hundreds of miles to bring back bushels and bushels for his Wichita customers.

This weekend is Johnson’s 12th annual Chile Fest, during which customers at all three locations can stock up on green chiles from Hatch, N.M., watch them being roasted and sample dishes prepared by employees using the peppers.

On Saturday, Johnson’s West at 2707 W. 13th St. is putting on a new event called the Food Truck Iron ChileHead Cookoff. It’s from 11 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. and will feature local food trucks vying for a green chile trophy by preparing two to three recipes each using the chiles. The panel of judges, made up of me plus local foodies Joe Stumpe and Guy Bower, will choose winners based on flavor, presentation, uniqueness of use and chile flavor. Bower also will broadcast his radio show, “The Good Life,” live from the event on Saturday. It’ll air from noon to 1 p.m. on Newsradio 1330 AM KNSS.

The food trucks in the competition also will stick around and stay open for lunch.

Johnson became one of Wichita’s main Hatch green chile dealers in the late 1990s after he and his son, Jeremy, visited a garden center in Colorado that sold Colorado green chiles to its customers. Johnson had been a fan of jalapenos and other peppers since his grandmother had introduced him to them as a child, and he liked the idea of selling them at his stores, too.

The first year, he traveled to Albuquerque and bought 50 bags of green chiles and a rotating, wire roaster that blisters the chiles over an open flame, tenderizing them and making them taste smoky.

Wichitans took immediate notice.

“There were enough people familiar with green chiles, even early on,” he said. “We went back and bought two more roasters.”

Johnson also started making trips to Hatch, a town in southeastern New Mexico that grows green chiles regarded as superior. Because of ideal weather and good irrigation, Hatch produces peppers with thick, meaty walls and good flavor. Hatch is home to a big chile festival every Labor Day weekend.

As Johnson’s August event grew more and more popular over the year, he found himself making three or four trips to Hatch every summer – a trip that’s 14 hours one way by truck. Five years ago, he found a supplier in Colorado Springs, and now he drives there three or four times a summer. He just returned from there Wednesday and planned to go back one more time before this weekend’s festival.

During a typical August, he’ll haul back about 1,000 bushels. The supply lasts at least through mid-September and the store also freezes some peppers, which are available deep into the winter.

Johnson has been selling the chiles for almost two weeks now, and they’re available about 20 to a plastic bag for $7.99. Customers can get them either roasted or unroasted, and they’re available in larger quantities as well. The peppers can be turned into dishes such as chile verde, chile rellenos, salsa verde and more.

The garden centers also are working with three local breweries to create Hatch green chile beers. Wichita Brewing Co. and Pizzeria, River City Brewing Co. and Walnut River Brewing out of El Dorado all are formulating a beer using Johnson’s green chiles and will compete with them at the Midwest Beerfest in September.