Jalapeño. Serrano. Poblano. Chipotle.
We’re talking peppers.
And Tess Montaño Forth can tell you all about them. This restaurateur is the owner and operator of Pepperhead, the downtown Cortez, Colorado eatery that has won the hearts and appetites of residents and scores of visitors alike, with its fresh southwest-style food. The menu has deep roots in her family’s culinary tradition, with an up-to-date approach that makes use of abundant, organic, locally sourced meats and produce in Mesa Verde Country.
“When I left Cortez at age 17 for college, I never imagined myself coming back,” she says good-naturedly. “Now I run a restaurant here and I love every minute of it.”
Tess grew up in her grandparents’ restaurant, Francisca’s Fine Mexican Restaurant, the landmark watering hole established in the ‘80s. It sold about twenty years later, and then ceased business in the early 2000s. After a holiday trip home to Colorado in 2009 from Italy, where she was working in academia, a serendipitous event changed her life’s course.
“I missed my flight back to Italy and ended up in a meeting with my dad and a developer who bought an entire downtown Cortez block,” she says. “He was seeking an anchor restaurant.” Tess knew she could run the business side and that her dad would do the food, and Pepperhead was born. The restaurant just celebrated its seventh anniversary.
She explains that her ancestors, immigrants from Spain, landed here around the turn of the 17th century, long before it became the United States. These sheepherders, who settled in the Four Corners region during the historic Spanish Land Grants, perfected the art of cooking hearty meals for hard-working people.
“They used cast iron pots and made slow-roasted meats,” Tess says. “Sauces simmered for a long time over a slow fire.” Pepperhead still uses the recipes that were created by Tess’s great-grandfather, like the Lamb Chile Stew shared below.
Other delectables on the menu? Enchiladas. Carne Adovada. Chimichangas.
“We serve fish tacos every Friday, a strong nod to our Catholic upbringing. And Chicken Mole sauce that wafts out of the kitchen and tortures us out in the front,” she says with a laugh. “We make ice cream. Our most popular flavor is Dark Chocolate Chipotle. Deep and rich and hot. And we’re known for our rellenos. Crispy outside and gooey inside. They’re made from an aged egg batter.”
The family ethos extends to the manager, chef, staff and farmers who supply Pepperhead. A couple of the waitstaff have worked with the Montaños for three generations. Childhood friend Uriah Hubbard is the floor manager. And his brother Luke Hubbard—who started in the kitchen at Francisca’s at age 14—now serves as Pepperhead’s chef.
“Luke’s passion is organic,” Tess says. “He sources local beans and seasonal produce of all kinds. He creates specials that can be sustained for a couple of weeks based on what’s in season.” The Southwest Farm Fresh Cooperative, comprised of seven growers, supplies tomatoes, squash, corn and of course—peppers.
As for their venerable chiles, the Pepperhead team makes an annual fall run to Colorado’s eastern plains for 10,000 pounds of Rocky Ford chiles. They roast them and put them up for future use; a throwback to harvest and preservation techniques of yesteryear.
“We’re doing old food in a new way,” Tess says. “It’s really fun.”
If You Go:
44 W. Main St., Cortez, CO 81321
15 tables. No reservations.
Check out: The huge mural in the front room. It’s a picture of “Calvario” in the Lizardhead Wilderness area, where sheepherding families worshiped. An oral history handed down over generations begged exploration to find this place; in 2008 the Montaño/Forth family discovered this site with its stone cross, altar and cairn.
Lamb with Red Chile
(Make it over a campfire or in your kitchen, your choice. Original recipe courtesy of Pete Montaño; in his own words.)
Start with two pounds of lamb stew meat, diced. Soak in salt water (1/4 cup of salt in a quart of water) for 8 hours; do not stir! Carefully drain and discard water.
Heat a Dutch oven over coals or in a hot oven. Starting hot is important!
Rinse the meat in very cold water, then brown the lamb in the oven. It should sizzle when the meat hits the metal. Keep all the drippings and broth.
Set the meat aside. Make a soft roux with flour and lard, Cook over a medium flame or glowing coals to a medium brown.
Take a 1/2 cup of red chile powder or flakes (Santa Cruz or Chimayo Red being our favorite) and add slowly to the roux. Add garlic (4 to 6 cloves) and onion (one medium).
Add hot water (about 4-5 cups) to the mixture and simmer. Add salt, a bay leaf and a dash of cumin as needed until everything is incorporated. Add the browned lamb. Cover and leave alone for a couple hours, heaping coals on the top of the Dutch oven or in a conventional oven at 350°-375°.
Stir thoroughly, add two potatoes and about four carrots, simmer until tender and serve.