As we neared Las Cruces, the Mesilla valley came into view. Here is where the famous Hatch chiles are grown. No journey along I-25 in this area would be complete without a stopover at the “chile capital of the world.” The Hatch chiles are prized for their flavor and heat, a pronouncement that many New Mexicans will defend over what are known as Anaheim chiles elsewhere.
In my trip planning a few months ago, all indications were that the chile harvest would be done by the time we were in the area. So, we made no specific plan to stop here. But, we decided to at the last minute. We were so glad we did because some chile roasting was still in progress while many local stands were assembling colorful ristras.
When we arrived in Hatch, Gilly’s New Mexican Chile Company was the first stand we come upon outside of town. Chile fields lay just to the east. Roasters were still in operation and the divine smell of roasted chiles permeated the air here and in town. You can’t help but be drawn in by the charismatic Gilly, who will talk to you about chiles and the products he makes from them—ristras, dried and ground chiles, salsas, and red enchilada sauce—and will call you Rufus and Penelope, regardless of your actual names. His salsas pack lots of flavor and varying amounts of heat, depending on the cultivar.
Gilly’s roadside operation
Almost all the red chiles in Hatch are dried in the sun on metal roofs. The process takes about three weeks, give or take, depending on rainfall. Other chiles are roasted over an open flame in rotating wire cages, releasing a distinctive chile aroma and particulates that permeate the air. Chile workers frequently get irritated lungs from breathing the fumes. There are several chile operations along I-185 and I-154.
After a day at the balloon fiesta, we were ready for dinner. Close to our hotel was the legendary Mary and Tito’s, purveyor of what many foodies regard as one of the best places to have New Mexican food and a 2010 winner of the James Beard “America’s Classic” award. The accolades don’t stop there as food critics throughout New Mexico have showered heaps of praise.
I ordered the carne adovada, one of M & T’s signature dishes. It was extremely good (☆☆☆½), tender and flavorful chunks of pork, served Christmas-style. Both red and green chile sauces were excellent. There is something unique about the red sauce, spicy and full of chile flavor and glowing an almost unnatural red.
Carne adovada plate
My wife’s chicken flautas were also real good (☆☆☆). Both were served with rice and refried beans. The beans were lardy, the only way to make them.
Chicken flautas plate
The corn tortillas we’ve had in the SW are slightly thinner than what we get in the NW, which also makes everyone’s tortilla chips lighter. Throughout our trip, we’ve noticed that rice seems to be an afterthought. Some of them have been mushy, M & T’s a little undercooked.
|Mary & Tito’s Cafe
2711 4th Street, NW
Albuquerque, NM 87107
Burritos with eggs and chorizo, red and green salsas
Having been disappointed by Café Pascual yesterday morning, we looked for somewhere else to have breakfast. Within a stone’s throw of Pascual was a restaurant that is part of the Hotel St. Francis—Tabla de los Santos. Chef Estevan Garcia has impressed quite a few people with his takes on New Mexican cooking. Our burrito with eggs and chorizo (☆☆☆½), topped with red and green salsas, and the homemade granola (☆☆☆½) with fruit bowl were spot on. Unfussy but carefully prepared grub.
Homemade granola with fruit bowl
The dining room was empty except for one other party. But for the formal atmosphere, we couldn’t see any reason why Tabla doesn’t draw more customers.
|Tabla de los Santos (Hotel St. Francis)
210 Don Gaspar Avenue
Santa Fe, New Mexico 87501
Menus: Breakfast, Lunch, Dinner
We had breakfast at one of the legendary restaurants in Santa Fe, Cafe Pasqual. The portion being large, we split the highly recommended Huevos Motuleños, easy-over eggs on a bed of black beans, topped with feta cheese and served with corn tortillas and sauteed bananas. This was a major disappointment (☆☆). First, the eggs were cooked hard. The black beans lacked flavor and were a bit hard; they could at least have cooked them in salted water. The corn tortillas were dry. And the sautéed bananas really didn’t add anything at all. We always order the salsas on the side so my wife can decide if they’re too spicy or not. What this means is that the dishes we order have to stand on their own. This egg dish didn’t. The overall impression was blandness. About the only thing going for it was that the ingredients were organic (almost all Cafe Pasqual’s ingredients are). The salsas were very good, including a tomatillo salsa (☆☆☆) that had flavors of cilantro and vinegar. I hope that future visits will not disappoint as much as this one did.
Doc Martin’s sits inside the Historic Taos Inn. It is a well regarded restaurant in Taos, having been in business for over twenty years. Two nights ago, we scarfed down margaritas and chips in Taos Inn’s bar area, Adobe Room. This morning, we decided to do brunch here, served only on the weekends, before heading out of town. We split the Kit Carson (☆☆☆½)—poached eggs over yam biscuits—and fruit plate. The eggs are a sort of meatless Southwestern version of eggs Benedict but for the substitutions of yam biscuits for English muffins and a cheesy sauce for Hollandaise. The biscuits were tender and good, the eggs perfectly poached. The red chile sauce served on the side added flavor and bite.
Like Doc Martin’s, the Adobe Room is part of the Taos Inn, a bar where you can also order snacks. Since we weren’t too hungry, we just decided on a basket of tortilla chips and margaritas. The salsa (☆☆☆) was pretty good, thick, tomatoey and spicy. The chips also came with a side of nice guacamolé. There were many margaritas from which to choose. We went all-out with the Grand Reserve (☆☆☆½) made with Cuervo Reserva Familia, Grand Marnier, agave nectar and lime juice—a bracing, potent and delicious cocktail, pricey enough to seem like we paid for dinner.
Grand Reserve margarita
Chips with salsa and guar
Michael’s Kitchen is a very popular restaurant with the locals. One big reason is that it serves all kinds of food besides New Mexican, a diner that appeals to many tastes. Today being Saturday, patrons (including families with children) were out in force. There was a wait for us to get seated.
It’s a testament to the omnipresence of Mexican food that enchiladas are thought of as rolled tortillas with fillings. Yet, here in New Mexico, enchiladas are instead stacked, called enchiladas montadas, typically made with fried corn tortillas laid flat, alternately layered with onions, shredded cheese and red or green sauce. Anxious to try one, we ordered chicken enchilada (☆☆½) for lunch. The chopped chicken pieces were somewhat dry, combined with shredded romaine lettuce, chopped tomatoes, red onion and cheese. Red and green chile sauces were ordered on the side. Theirs is likely not the best interpretation of the dish, but it satisfied our curiosity.
304 C N Pueblo Rd.
Taos, New Mexico 87571
Menus: Breakfast, lunch, dinner
Carne adovada plate
Having just left Chaco, where the night before all we had to eat was freeze-dried food and this morning, coffee and nut bars, we were ready for some real food. Luckily for us, one of the legendary restaurants in New Mexico happened to be in Cuba, less than 2 hours away, and on the way to our next destination, Taos.
Cuba is a small town at the intersection of Hwys 126 and 550. El Bruno’s is almost at that junction. It has steadily gained quite a reputation for serving some of the best Mexican/Southwestern food in all of New Mexico. Success has been such that a branch has opened in Albuquerque, which no doubt pleases the restaurant’s fans who live there.
One of the most admired dishes at El Bruno is the carne adovada. I ordered it for lunch and it was great, just great (☆☆☆☆). Not only did it have a deep taste of dried red chiles but it also had the tang of lime juice. It was the first adovada on our trip. The Mexican rice was not as impressive, being on the mushy side.
Sopaipilla stuffed with beef and vegies
A cold Modelo Especial in a salt-rimmed glass really hit the spot. The salsa (☆☆☆☆) served with the chips was extraordinary. It was thick, tomatoey and spicy, had great chile flavor. It was so good I purchased a jar of it on the way out.
Chips and salsa (and what a salsa!)
El Bruno is a great restaurant in a small town. Outside seating has a lot of atmosphere and should be the dining spot of choice.
6453 Highway 550 Main St.
Cuba, NM 87013
We dreaded eating yet another motel continental breakfast (in this case, Red Roof Inn in Gallup). Although it’s economical to have something to eat included in the room rate, the stuff does get old after a while. Here we were on historic Route 66, so what better way to have breakfast than at a highly regarded diner, Plaza Café. With some anticipation, we looked forward to our first Southwestern meal on this road trip, and we were not disappointed.
We ordered today’s specials of chorizo and eggs and huevos rancheros, both of which were satisfying. What stood out though were the freshly made flour tortillas (there were brown griddle spots) and the green and red chile sauces. The sauces were surprisingly savory from the bits of ground pork in them and had enough heat to make them interesting. The red sauce was so good, in fact, that I ate it as a dip with a whole rolled-up tortilla.
Other Southwestern items on the breakfast menu included:
Omelets with green chile, green chile & cheese and chorizo & cheese
FBI – tortillas with hash browns and red or green chile
Burritos with egg, green chile & cheese; egg, chorizo & cheese (although any burrito can be topped with red/green chile)
It pays to be frugal when on vacation, especially on a long road trip, but you can’t live on bread (or motel continental breakfast) alone. Plaza Café was a welcome stop before continuing on to the Zuni Pueblo.
Chorizo and eggs
1501 W Highway 66
Gallup, NM 87301
Gallup is a city that is over 7,000 ft above sea level (like Flagstaff) and is therefore noticeably cooler than the surrounding valleys. At this elevation, there are Ponderosa pines everywhere. We stopped here for the night before moving on.
For dinner, a restaurant recommended by Yelpers was closed, as were almost all restaurants in the center of town. Apparently, business is not brisk enough on Sundays. So, we settled for Blake’s Lotaburger, which many New Mexico foodies consider to serve one of the best green chile cheeseburgers in the state. It’s a chain, found only in NM. I would compare it to Inn-N-Out for quality, which means it’s a cut above Mickey D’s but not quite the product you’d expect from a good burger joint. The patty is 100% Angus beef, on the thinner side. The chopped green chiles were spicy and delicious. The great thing is that all the food is made-to-order.
2618 E Highway 66
Gallup, NM 87301
(also multiple locations throughout the state)