When in New Mexico, why not eat like the New Mexicans?
Sure, every Mexican fast-food restaurant in the country sells tacos, burritos and enchiladas, but not every place serves them smothered in green or red chile.
When’s the last time you looked at a menu with delectable choices such as chile rellenos (stuffed chiles in a batter), posole (hominy stew), green chile stew, or carne asada (beef marinated with a spice rub, then slow roasted)?
There is a huge variety of local options when it comes to dining in Albuquerque, where Mexican, Spanish and Native American cooking have melded into a unique New Mexico cuisine.
“Red or green?” is the question locally, referring, of course, to your chile preference. It’s not only the official state question (really!), but also perfectly logical considering that chile is king around these parts.
Visitors from points afar may be lucky enough to catch the tail end of the chile harvest. Look for the big roasters at grocery store parking lots and outdoor fruit markets — it’s a process to blister and roast the green chile that New Mexicans pack away by the bushels in freezers to get through the winter to come. Count on your nose to lead the way to roasting activities.
Green chile sauce, made from roasted, peeled and chopped fresh chile peppers, is added liberally to everything around here — from beef stews and cheeseburgers to burritos and turkey sandwiches. It was only a while ago that the Buckhorn Tavern in San Antonio, N.M., took down celebrity chef Bobby Flay on national TV in his challenge to create the best green chile cheeseburger.
Turn up the heat
Red chile, in turn, is a smooth sauce made from cooked red chile pods (the green pods in the field turn red if not picked early). The dried red pods compose the beautiful ristras you may see hanging at fruit stands around the city.
Chile is not to be confused with chili, a spicy stew beloved by Midwesterners who may have never even heard of green chile.
The color of the chile doesn’t necessarily determine its heat factor, but rest assured that both are spicy in comparison to the bland tomato-like sauce that passes for Mexican food in many parts of the country.
“Green chile generally has a fresher, sharper taste,” says New Mexico author and cooking school director Jane Butel, who has written 19 cookbooks on the subject. “Red chile, in which the starches have turned to sugar, tends to be a little more mellow.”
Most restaurants are willing to serve the chile “on the side” if you don’t want the full dose all at once.
Whichever the color, don’t confuse New Mexican cuisine with “Tex Mex,” which comes from our neighbor to the east.
Tex Mex tends to emphasize meaty recipes, says Butel, a theory she bases on the preponderance of cattle in Texas. New Mexico dishes, in turn, are more rooted in vegetarian fare — the all-important chile, plus blue corn, squash and beans. The Spanish did introduce pork to the region several centuries ago, which makes its way into stews, posole and a local favorite known as carne adovada, which is lean cubes of pork marinated in red chile sauce and slow roasted to serve on rice or in burritos or enchiladas.
Butel goes so far as to speculate, along with some support from historians and archaeologists, that New Mexico is a birthplace of this native cuisine, one of the earliest in the Americas.
There are local restaurants galore that specialize in this stuff — from upscale dining to favorite holes-inthe-wall.
Here is a mere handful of popular local eateries — there are so many, we can’t possibly list them all:
El Pinto, 10500 Fourth NW: It’s big. It’s popular. And it roasts and peels its own Hatch, N.M.,-grown green chile — to the tune of 590 tons in 2008.
This is where then-President George W. Bush stopped off for his Cinco de Mayo fix and the testimonials of celebrities line the wall. The restaurant’s salsas and other products can be found in grocery stores in all 50 states.
El Pinto features huge, shaded outdoor patio dining, as well as indoor dining halls featuring cascading waterfalls.
The best-selling dish, according to director of operations Jim Garcia, is green chile chicken enchiladas made with blue corn tortillas, although he thinks the house enchiladas with chile con carne (pork) topped with an egg and sour cream are as “good as it gets.”
El Pinto opens each morning at 11 (10:30 on Sundays) and is open till 9 p.m. Mondays through Thursdays, and 10 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays.
Frontier Restaurant, 2400 Central SE: If you love funky and you love John Wayne, you’ll love the Frontier on Central Avenue across from the University of New Mexico. Since 1971, this sprawling institution has served up everything from enchiladas to huevos rancheros to breakfast burritos and giant cinnamon rolls in art-filled rooms that pay homage to the king of western movies.
Order at the counter when you see the flashing green light — and take home a pack of the freshly made flour tortillas while you’re at it.
The Frontier is open from 5 a.m. to 1 a.m. daily, so it’s a great late-night place for a green chile fix.
Pueblo Harvest Café at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, 2401 12th NW, also has the advantage of having a museum and gift shop on the premises.
The newly renovated and upscale restaurant specializes in native fusion cuisine such as a Southwestern chile chicken wrap rolled in a spinach tortilla with chipotle mayo and jicama slaw. The cafe is open daily from 8 a.m. to 8:30 p.m., except Sundays when it closes at 4 p.m.
A few more local favorites, in no particular order: Los Cuates, Barelas Coffee House, Little Anitas, Casa de Benavidez, El Patio, Monroes, Padilla’s, Cervantes, Garduños, Loyola’s, La Hacienda, La Placita, El Norteño, Garcia’s Kitchen, Sadie’s, and the list goes on and on.