Chiles Everywhere: The Best Things to Eat in New Mexico

It might not be a shocker that New Mexicans love chile peppers, but the dishes that define this state run along an amazing spectrum, from meaty entrees to sweets with a kick. 
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Photo By: Sergio Salvador ©© 2016, Television Food Network, B.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Sergio Salvador ©© 2016, Television Food Network, B.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Sergio Salvador ©© 2016, Television Food Network, B.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Sergio Salvador ©© 2016, Television Food Network, B.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Sergio Salvador ©© 2016, Television Food Network, B.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Sergio Salvador ©© 2016, Television Food Network, B.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Sergio Salvador ©© 2016, Television Food Network, B.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Sergio Salvador ©© 2016, Television Food Network, B.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Sergio Salvador ©© 2016, Television Food Network, B.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Sergio Salvador ©© 2016, Television Food Network, B.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Sergio Salvador ©© 2016, Television Food Network, B.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Sergio Salvador ©© 2016, Television Food Network, B.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Sergio Salvador ©© 2016, Television Food Network, B.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Sergio Salvador ©© 2016, Television Food Network, B.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Sergio Salvador ©© 2016, Television Food Network, B.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Sergio Salvador ©© 2016, Television Food Network, B.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Sergio Salvador ©© 2016, Television Food Network, B.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Sergio Salvador ©© 2016, Television Food Network, B.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Sergio Salvador ©© 2016, Television Food Network, B.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Sergio Salvador ©© 2016, Television Food Network, B.P. All Rights Reserved

Photo By: Sergio Salvador ©© 2016, Television Food Network, B.P. All Rights Reserved

Southwestern Spice

In the southern part of New Mexico, the Mexican influences are obvious, while the north shines a proud light on native ingredients like beans and grains. Running through it all is the chile pepper: red if the pod is ripe, green if it's harvested early. The heat from the peppers can be formidable, but it is always accompanied by layers of flavor that shine through like the high desert sun.

Illustration by Hello Neighbor Designs

Blue Corn Pancakes

Yellow may be corn's dominant color, but New Mexicans look to true blue. Blue corn, long grown in northern New Mexico as a Native American staple crop, is revered for its earthy taste and many nutrients. Don't let the healthy part scare you off. One of the best ways to experience blue corn is in pancakes, slathered with real butter and drizzled with syrup. At Santa Fe's Tecolote Cafe, you'll find these hearty cakes with their deep blueish-gray hue, along with a full menu of amazing diner breakfasts.  

Go to: Tecolote Cafe

Green Chile Cheeseburger

If New Mexico could have one state food, it would be the green chile cheeseburger. It all started in the 1940s at The Owl Bar, an hour south of Albuquerque, in San Antonio. Hungry working scientists requested more than just bar snacks for their evenings off, and with one grill and some local produce, the green chile cheeseburger was born. Have the original, then step across the road for another take of history at the Buckhorn Tavern (pictured). Both are excellent.

Go to: Manny's Buckhorn Tavern

Posole

New Mexican posole is a hominy-studded chile stew that's comforting at any time of year, but it's especially beloved in Santa Fe's chilly winter. Roberto Cordova's family recipes, especially what he calls "the food of our grandmothers," are what driveCasa Chimayo. The red chile posole is some of the best around, fiery red and studded with pork and white hominy. The restaurant's menu goes deep on tradition; their enchiladas and calabacitas are worth an order too.

Go to: Casa Chimayo

Breakfast Burrito

This should be easy: Just make a burrito out of hash browns and eggs, right? Not so fast. At Golden Pride, the formula for delicious starts with a secret recipe for a fluffy flour tortilla that's topped with scrambled eggs, hash browns, cheese and green chile. Wrap it up and you have a hand-held meal that satisfies like no doughnut ever could. The chile is actually hot, the cheese gooey, the eggs fluffy and the hash browns just the right amount of crispy. Additions like bacon are popular, but sometimes the basic recipe is just right.Golden Pride's 8 a.m. drive-thru crowd proves that breakfast burritos are a way of life. 

Go to: Golden Pride

Chile Rellenos

It's a doughnut. No, it's a vegetable. No, it's something else quite amazing. A chile relleno is a cheese-stuffed chile pepper dipped in batter and fried until crispy and past all claims to healthiness. That's OK, because just one relleno from Perea's will satisfy and cure any cravings for spice and fried things, all in one go. Smother it with Perea's excellent green chile for another level of swoon.

Go to: Perea's New Mexican

Carne Adovada

Slow-cooked pork in red chile sauce, carne adovada is an unassuming dish with impressive depth. There is no better place to experience the luxurious flavor than at Mary & Tito's, north of downtown Albuquerque. Velvety red sauce — consisting of little more than pureed chiles and salt — cloaks chunks of pork in a warm embrace. The pork can barely withstand a nudge from a fork before melting into shreds. This family recipe played a large part in earning the restaurant a James Beard Foundation Award, making this cafe a destination for chile heads.

Go to: Mary & Tito’s Cafe

Red Cheese Enchiladas

Northern New Mexico stacks its enchiladas, but at Chope's in the south's La Mesa, the enchiladas are rolled around a hefty cheese filling, then lined up and sauced with some of the most-vibrant red chile sauce you'll ever see. Chope's whole menu is excellent (rellenos!), but you might never have a better enchilada than this one, made so simply that you taste each component as they meld into a perfect symphony.

Go to: Chope's Bar & Cafe

Frito Pie

Texas and Santa Fe both lay claim to Frito Pie. Each side has its arguments and documentation, but at Española's El Parasol the answer is, "Who cares?" Everyone — even Texans —enjoys the crisp and salty corn chips blanketed in red chile sauce and topped with beans, ground beef, cheese and lettuce. It's messy, filling and decadent. Start with a fork, but switch to a spoon when the chips begin to wilt to fully revel in this so-wrong-it's-right kind of creation.

Go to: El Parasol

Blue Corn Tortillas

Earthy, textured and nutritious, blue corn is a beloved staple crop in northern New Mexico. The best way to show it off is in a simple tortilla, eaten with a meal or wrapped around taco fillings at Santa Fe's The Shed. Each tortilla is inky dark with great chewy texture and enough flavor to make them appealing with simple butter and salt to season them. That would be a blue heaven, indeed.

Go to: The Shed

Red Chile Pork Tamales

To many, tamales are a holiday food: Make them in one epic batch to give out to family and eat while the weather's cool. But at El Modelo, you'll find the biggest and best tamales all year long. The local go-to is the pork tamale smothered in red chile. A combo of three could sate even two of the hungriest friends with ease. Be prepared for a line and only a few tables to dine; El Modelo mostly does takeout and large festive orders.   

Go to: El Modelo

Biscochitos

The state cookie of New Mexico, biscochitos are related to sandies, but they're so much better. At Golden Crown Panaderia near downtown Albuquerque, the recipe starts with flour and shortening (most family recipes traditionally use lard, but few if any restaurants do), then calls for cinnamon, anise and sugar. Chris and Pratt Morales bake tens of thousands of these little treasures every holiday season for their adoring and hungry fans.

Go to: Golden Crown Panaderia

Stacked Blue Corn Enchiladas with Egg

Why roll an enchilada when you can layer the cheesy filling and make tidy stacks? Savor the northern New Mexico way at El Bruno's in Cuba along the 550; it doesn't get better than their recipe, with blue corn tortillas, cheese and a fried egg on top. Not quite a breakfast dish, these enchiladas show off their earthy texture from the blue corn, with chile sauce that softens the whole plate into a fork-friendly meal.

Go to: El Bruno's

Flame-Roasted Green Chiles

In the late New Mexican summer, the aroma of roasting chiles begins to permeate New Mexico's air. The roasting's done in big metal rotating bins fired with propane torches at nearly every grocery store and farm across the state. Once each 30-pound sack is blistered black, the often-still-warm chiles are dumped back into a container for peeling or selling whole to patient customers. Yes, you can buy a sack all for yourself, and it's worth it. Find chiles roasting at places like The Fruit Basket and more.

Go to: The Fruit Basket

Sopaipillas

They look like pillows; they taste like fry bread. Sopaipillas are something truly New Mexican. To craft them, simple and savory dough batter is dropped into a deep fryer, producing puffed-up creations eaten either with your main course or slathered with honey as the sweet finale. At La Cocina, they are nearly the size of throw pillows and light as clouds. Enjoy them with any or all of the classic New Mexican menu items from this restaurant with a view.

Go to: La Cocina

Huevos Rancheros

Now practically ubiquitous at brunch around the world, huevos rancheros actually originated near the Texas-Mexico border, where locals sauced their eggs and corn tortillas with salsa. Here in New Mexico, the proper sauce choice is chile sauce, red or green. And at Perea's in Albuquerque, green is the only answer worth considering. Perea's green is the stuff of legend, rich and fiery, yet immensely flavorful. Order a half-plate if your morning plans do not involve a happy food coma. 

Go to: Perea's New Mexican

Red Chile Sauce

This sauce is so simple yet so flavorful. Dried red chile pods are soaked until soft, then blended with water to a desired texture, salted and simmered. There is something about the red chile at Cecilia's Cafe in Albuquerque that lures folks back time after time. Perhaps it is the endorphins produced by eating spicy foods. The red chile is served over burritos or breakfast dishes — or just in a bowl with pinto beans. It will make both your toes and the edges of your mouth curl up in pleasure. 

Go to: Cecilia's Cafe

Green Chile on Pizza

Burgers are already an acceptable place for chile, so why not pizza? Dion's is the state's favorite family-friendly pizza joint, and the chefs are happy to liberally cover your pie with zesty chile. The best combination (and most popular) is pepperoni and green chile, though chile goes especially well with the sweetness of a Hawaiian pie too. The heat is tempered by the cheese, but it's still warm enough to make locals smile. 

Go to: Dion's

Green Chile Sauce

Only a few places do green chile sauce that stands alone, with fiery heat and a minimum of sauce thickeners. Chile nirvana can be found northwest of Albuquerque at Sadie's, where the best iteration of the restaurant's many sauces is — interestingly — the vegetarian green chile sauce. The chiles are allowed to blossom into full potency without the richness of meat to distract from them, and the thickened broth base is gluten-free as a bonus.

Go to: Sadie's of New Mexico

Chile in Chocolate

In an unassuming storefront near the freeway are the best handmade chocolates in town. Chocolate Cartel was founded by two brothers who wanted to share awesome chocolate with their home state. The filled chocolates come in various flavors, including espresso and smoked red chile. Those spicy squares are dusted with chile powder to warn your tongue of the warmth ahead. Broaden the sweet experience with spicy chocolate bars and gelato from the case near the door. Find Chocolate Cartel in grocery stores around town too.

Go to: Chocolate Cartel

Calabacitas

Vegetable sides vary across the country: In the Midwest you have frozen peas, corn and carrots. In the South they enjoy corn and lima beans as succotash. Here in the desert Southwest, things get a bit spicier: Zucchini, corn and green chiles combine in a sweet-hot medley called calabacitas. On the Santa Fe plaza, find the Plaza Cafe, which has served generations of locals and tourists alike. When you eat the restaurant's calabacitas, it might just be the first time you finish a vegetable side before the rest of your main course.

Go to: Plaza Cafe

Green Chile Apple Pie

Chile is in all foods in New Mexico, including dessert. Take a lovely drive south of Albuquerque to a hamlet quite literally called Pie Town to experience one of the best local takes. At the Pie-O-Neer, sit at a counter advertising the meatloaf special and dig a fork into a warm slice of Apple Green Chile Pinon pie. The chile is surprisingly mild, adding just a hint of flavor and heat to what is otherwise an American classic. At least three spots in Pie Town serve pie, but Pie-O-Neer is a local favorite.   

Go to: Pie-o-Neer

Green Chile Stew

Warming in the winter, sinus-clearing in the summer: Good and spicy stews can do it all anytime. Green chile stew recipes vary across the state, but many folks hold Frontier's version in high regard. It's sold by the bowl, but most diners first experience this chile nirvana by having it slathered over their burritos and enchiladas. It's genius for the restaurant and convenient for chile fans slowly warming up to a whole bowl.

Go to: Frontier Restaurant

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