Tasting New Mexico
What makes the food so good? Tradition--and those amazing chiles!
We’ve visited Santa Fe and Taos through the years, but it had been a while, so we decided to take a road trip. My husband Jeff wanted to collect material for an upcoming Photowalks episode (coming in early 2022), and I was on the hunt for interesting food experiences—but also wanted to re-experience the rich art, cultural heritage, and natural beauty of this area. We’d heard that September was a better time to visit because fall colors would be on full display, but unfortunately it wasn’t a convenient time for us.
What a welcome surprise then to arrive in Santa Fe (after overnight stops in Flagstaff, AZ and Gallop, NM) to see trees in the central plaza decked out in glorious shades of gold and yellow. Despite brisk winds and morning temperatures hovering around freezing, locals told us that the weather was milder than usual, probably the reason for the abundant autumnal glory.
It’s All About the Chiles!
Everywhere you go in Santa Fe you see ristras—the strings of chile peppers. Usually they’re red, but sometimes mixed green and red. When you sit down for a meal at almost any restaurant or cafe in town, your server will ask you which type of chiles you’d like with your dish or in it—green, red or “Christmas”—a mix of both.
I naively assumed that the red chile was always hotter, but when I talked to Alexandra, a spice monger at Savory Spice Shop, she said you should always check. “Sometimes the green is hotter and sometimes the red.
After re-visiting the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum and several of the Native American vendors in front of the 1610 Palace of the Governors in the plaza, it was time for dinner. A welcoming sign and rustic exterior attracted us to Casa Chimayo Restaurante a few blocks walk from the plaza.
The personable young chef, Joaquin Quintana, informed us that everything was made from scratch and that many of the recipes were from his wife Benina’s grandmother, Stella. He and Benina had just taken over the restaurant from the previous owner after their previous one in Taos, Bella’s Mexican Grill (named for their daughter, now 7) closed during the pandemic in 2020.
After Joaquin described the Blue Corn Huarache in mouthwatering detail, I ordered it, even though the meat that topped the beans and blue corn tortilla was pork, not something I normally eat. In a nod to my kosher-style upbringing, I just pretended the tender chunks of pork were brisket. It was delicious!
A few days later, we returned to interview Joaquin and Benina about the fare—in particular, those red and green chiles.
Vive la Difference!
“You go to Paris for wine. You come to New Mexico for chiles,” Joaquin told us when we asked what was it about the local chiles that made them such a prized ingredient in the cuisine we so enjoyed.
“It’s like the gold of New Mexico.”
The soil in New Mexico is particularly good for growing chiles, and locals are always fighting over who has the best, Benina said. Mexican dishes, such as Chile Verde Enchiladas and Chiles en Nogada (a stuffed poblano pepper in walnut cream sauce that features all the colors of the Mexican flag and is considered by some to be the national dish of Mexico), feature tomatillos and habaneros, she said. Northern New Mexican dishes are usually centered around chiles that are grown locally in a soil that is particularly well adapted to growing chiles, as well as the many wonderful vegetables and grains—like corn, squash and tomatoes—that mix so well with them, she said.
Benina was raised by her grandma, Stella, and much of the food at the restaurant is inspired by her grandma’s cooking. In fact, Stella, whose picture hangs in the entryway, taught Joaquin many of the recipes.
One of 14 children, Stella “grew everything in the garden,” Benina said. “She would roast chiles and make our chile. She would have hot tortillas when we would get home from school with butter.”
But Benina’s Mexican father’s cooking—with its tomatillos, fish soups and other dishes— also influenced her taste, Benina said.
The fare at the restaurant is similar to that which the couple served at their previous eatery in Taos. Although they were forced to close the restaurant, they were unwilling to give up on the food business. They took over Casa Chimayo in early 2021, keeping the name but changing the menu.
“They had good food, but I feel like our food is more indigenous to Northern New Mexico,” Benina said.
“I feel New Mexican (style of cooking) is a more true elegant way of preparing food,” Joaquin added. “It's more simple, there's less complexity, but it's more profoundly deep.”
Joaquin’s experience of working in kitchens with other chefs has informed his understanding of food, cooking and menus, Benina said.
The chiles they use are all local: green chiles from Bernalillo, between Albuquerque and Santa Fe; and red chiles from Chimayo, which is north of Santa Fe en route to Taos.
We loved the food so much we returned a second time for dinner—plus two desserts, including Stella’s signature coconut flan.
We visited several more wonderful restaurants in Santa Fe, including Cafe Pasqual’s, an award-winning establishment of 40-plus years. It’s located in a historic adobe building filled with murals and art from Pasqual’s adjacent gallery. I had a mole-topped chicken enchilada plate with jicama salad, cilantro rice and an amazing cornbread with green chiles and corn that was as sweet as a dessert. The food was so excellent that I had to purchase executive chef/owner/founder Katharine Kagel’s 2006 cookbook, which includes the cornbread recipe. Stay tuned for a post on that in the near future!
I also took a class at the Santa Fe School of Cooking (you can read about it here) and learned more about how to use those wonderful New Mexico chiles in stews and carnitas, plus a recipe for making Biscochitos, considered the New Mexican state cookie.
Of course a road trip is more than just food—the galleries, museums, people and pristine skies at 7,000-plus feet are all part of the attraction. We even witnessed a local hot-air balloon festival in Taos!
I have a lot more to tell you about our foodie adventures in the Land of Enchantment, so I’ll be back with Part 2 shortly, including a recipe or two from the Santa Fe School of Cooking. To make sure you get the newsletter in your in-box, please become a subscriber if you aren’t already!
See you soon!