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A small-town eatery with big-city standards

For many New Mexicans, summer means traveling north, heading for El Vado or Heron Lake or the Colorado high country. In other words, up U.S. 84 through Chama, or U.S. 285 through Tres Piedras.

A small eatery in a former dance hall in Tres Piedras is one of the best places in the rural north to stop for a bite. Green chile cheeseburgers play a starring role at the Chile Line Depot. Founded late for New Mexico, in the 1870s, Tres Piedras was and to some extent still is these days a lumber and ranching village become something of a refuge for eccentrics – not the least reason we love to stop at the Depot.

The Chile Line Depot in Tres Piedras is one the best roadside stops in northern New Mexico. (Karen Peterson/For Journal North)

Named after the now defunct Chile Line narrow gauge train, which ran between Santa Fe and Antonito, Colo., the Depot is the only place for miles around to get a meal or just a cup of coffee, and a leisurely stop here offers just about the best people-watching we’ve ever experienced.

I can report that the Chile Line’s green chile cheeseburger ($8.75) is up to big-city standards. The burger was thick, it was cooked medium-rare as ordered and served on a sturdier-than-supermarket fresh bun. It had all the standard trimmings, plus excellent green chile: a layer of diced green, with flecks of late-harvest red, that was redolent of northern New Mexico’s smoke-laden air during the roasting season. It was just hot enough, but mainly, it was flavorful beyond the heat – the real test of an excellent green.

Among the choice of sides was potato salad. The Depot’s version may be home-made – purple onions, fresh potatoes – but standard enough in flavor to please just about anybody. There was a lot of it, too.

My guest ordered the Tres Piedras breakfast ($6.50): eggs over easy, bacon and home fries, with a side of toast and, on request, a serving of real apricot jam instead of those little foil packets of tasteless sweet. It made all the difference on that toast!

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The eggs were perfect, with solidly cooked whites and runny, but not underdone, yolks – another sign that a first-class cook was at work in the kitchen. Everything else was about perfect too, including the coffee.

Dessert of the day was apple-green-chile-piñon pie ($3.50). This odd combination works, in some strange way. Apple dominates the flavor, as it should, given that it’s dessert. The chile adds heat, very nice with apple, as it turns out, and an oddly wonderful complement to the cinnamon and other apple-pie spices. Better yet, the chile adds an elusive and, in this context, unidentifiable flavor that ends up making apple pie deeply mysterious. The piñon nuts added crunch, obviously, and another a salute to local ingredients.

The Chile Line Depot is a family-run place. Owner Deb Graves is behind the stove, and she makes lofty, sinful cinnamon rolls and the pies. Another plus: You can eat inside or on the porch or a small, flower-surrounded patio.

The Chile Line is a B&B, as well; you can rent a room, breakfast included, and then explore the upper reaches of the Carson National Forest or the Rio Grande Gorge. Come back for dinner and enjoy a meal plus live music. Nightlife in Tres Piedras? Who knew?

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