New Mexicans love their traditional cuisine. Its roots go back over a thousand years to the foods of the Native American Pueblo people. These farmers were descendants of the first settlers in the area. It also greatly reflects the influence of the Spanish who arrived via Mexico in the 16th century. One of the most important ingredients found in Northern New Mexican cooking is the official State Vegetable, the chile. New Mexican cuisine, while having similarities to Mexican and Tex-Mex, displays a distinct character of its own. If you want to learn more about New Mexican food terms, read Santa Fe Dining, Experience New Mexican Cuisine.
Here are restaurants outside Santa Fe that honor local food traditions.
The Duke City has some really great New Mexican restaurants, some are local icons.
Family owned El Pinto, in the North Valley, has been serving up their version of New Mexican food since 1962. The restaurant, in a large and rambling hacienda, has eight distinct dining areas. The large patio, with its big fountain and five separate dining areas, is THE place to dine in summer. Two of these patios can be enclosed in cold weather and are used as dining rooms year round. You’ll probably have to wait for a table as this busy spot doesn’t take reservations (except for parties of 15 or more). Put your name on the list and head for the bar. You can treat yourself to a margarita and nibble on chips and the house salsa while you wait. Their signature dishes are the Red Chile Ribs and the House Specialty (Chile con Carne Enchiladas). They are offered rolled or the traditional New Mexican way, stacked.
Mary and Tito’s (2711 North Fourth St (505-344-6266), is a local landmark. This no-frills restaurant, opened in 1963, now boasts national recognition. It was honored by to The James Beard Foundation’s as one of America’s Classics in 2010. According to the Foundation, restaurants that earn this honor have a “timeless appeal” and “serve quality food that reflects the character of their communities.” Many locals believe that Mary and Tito’s serves the best New Mexican food in Albuquerque and maybe even the world. Tito has passed on, but the eatery is still family-run. Their daughter Antoinette Gonzales Knight manages it and octogenarian Mary comes in daily to greet customers. Mary and Tito’s is known for its red chile, carne adovada, chile relleno and Mexican turnover (made from sopapilla dough in the shape of a calzone). Gonzales Knight recommends the Mexican Pizza, a deep-fried flour tortilla topped with refried beans, cheese, lettuce and tomato. If you have room for dessert, try the Mexican wedding cake. They’re known for it. They are open from 9am to 6pm Monday through Thursday and 9am to 8pm Friday and Saturday.
Sadie’s, founded in 1950, is an Albuquerque tradition. Now located in a large building on 4th Street, which seems to be Albuquerque’s New Mexican Restaurant Row, they serve some of the hottest chile in town. Locals love it. Popular dishes include green chile chicken enchiladas (either rolled or stacked) and Roberto’s Special, a plate of beans and papitas (little potatoes) topped with an eight-ounce grilled beef patty that’s topped with queso (melted cheese) and your choice of red or green chile or go for both (known locally as Christmas), Carne adovada is another dish they’re known for. Try it the entrée version or have it in an enchilada. Adam Richman, of the Travel Channel’s Man vs. Food, recently sampled Sadie’s 6 ½ pound sopapailla. The giant, foot -wide puffy dough is filled with beans, papitas and your choice of chicken, ground beef or carne adovada. It’s topped with cheese and the chile of your choice. This $40 behemoth will feed a crowd. If you can chow down on one by yourself (plus a half-basket of chips, a small bowl of their SPICY salsa and a dessert sopapailla with honey), it’s on the house. You’ll also get a Sadie’s tee shirt, a certificate proclaiming you did it, your photo on the restaurant’s wall and bragging rights. Five people (mostly skinny) have managed this feat. In 2009, Sadie’s opened a second location in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights catering to the eastside crowd. Be prepared to wait at either location, they only take reservations for parties of eight or more.
Some of the best, most authentic New Mexican food is found in Española, north of Santa Fe. The town, settled by people of Hispanic descent over 400 years ago, has a long history of what locals call “las comidas de las abuelas” (the food of the grandmothers).
El Paragua started life as a roadside stand in 1958. It was the local version of a kid’s lemonade business. Two young brothers earned pocket money serving up their mom’s tacos and tamales. By 1966, the stand turned into a full-service restaurant. Order their award-winning Beef Taco Plate, the Enchilada Ranchera or the Chiles Rellenos.
UPDATE: Chimayó celebrates its 50th anniversary during October 2015.
Chimayó, on The High Road to Taos, northeast of Santa Fe, is famous for three things: its church, El Sanctuario de Chimayó, known for its reported healing miracles; its weaving, passed down through families for generations and Rancho de Chimayó Restaurante. The Jaramillo family has been serving traditional Northern New Mexican food in this restored hacienda since 1965. The restaurant is popular with both locals and visitors. It’s especially busy on Sundays when large New Mexican families fill the dining rooms. Start your meal with a Prickly Pear Margarita or Chimayó Cocktail while munching on chips and salsa. Order the house specialty, Carne Adovada, or try one of the other dishes on the extensive menu. Owner Florence Jaramillo recommends the green chile stew. She says they’re also known for their sopaipillas which arrive with every entree. You can also order them as an entrée, stuffed and smothered. For a New Mexican dessert treat, try the Natillas. Their version of this traditional custard is made from an old family recipe.
Wherever you chose to dine and whatever you decide to order, don’t leave New Mexico without sampling the local cuisine. Buen provecho!
Author’s note: As a former hotel concierge and current owner of a travel concierge and trip-planning business in Santa Fe, the writer may have at some time been the guest of restaurants mentioned in this post. These experiences have not influenced this post in any way.
Billie Frank was a concierge at two Four-Diamond hotels in Santa Fe. She is co-owner with Steve Collins of The Santa Fe Traveler, a travel concierge and trip-planning service. She also has a blog, Santa Fe Travelers. In addition, you can follow her on Twitter.
Steve Collins, who kindly provided the photos, is a former executive chef who loves southwestern food. Steve has written several cookbooks, including “Grilling and Smoking with The Home Chef,” winner of a National Barbecue Association Award of Excellence. He writes a monthly grilling column for National Barbecue News. You can follow him on Twitter.
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