Category Archives: Eating New Mexico

Pie Town – Pie Eating Contest

Ever since my seven-year-old nephew, Little Trickster, learned he would be returning to the Pie Festival in Pie Town, New Mexico, he talked about nothing but winning the children’s pie eating contest. Turns out, last year he lost due to a hand raising technicality. A similar travesty was the fate of Sir Leopold Chestnut, SECOND PLACE winner of the 1903 Summer Olympics prune and custard pie eating contest. Both were sadly unaware that after they finished their pie, they were to raise their hand to be declared the winner. At least this year Little Trickster could learn from his folly. Chestnut, shunned by his peers, never competed again.

Little Trickster had been studying up on how to win this year’s contest. On the two-and-a-half-hour journey from Albuquerque to Pie Town, between singing verses of popular Disney songs, he spoke non-stop about the rules of the contest as well as the best techniques to take the crown. Each contestant was given an appropriately sized fruit pie by age division. All but the youngest contestants had to keep their hands behind their backs during the challenge and could not use them to eat said pie.

The best technique, said Little Trickster, was to move the pie closest to the edge of the table. After the stuffing was inhaled, it was best to use your teeth to flip over the pie tin and drop the pie on the table. It was much easier to eat the rest of the pie this way. He called it the alligator technique. A bit of a misnomer as we all know alligators prefer tarts to pies, unlike their fatter cousin the crocodile.

“You need to listen to me,” said Little Trickster, “so both you and I can be winners in our contests.”

Wait, what?

I knew my nephew was entering the pie eating contest, but I had no plans of entering the adult pie eating contest. I envisioned my first time at the festival perusing pie stands and craft tables. I had not planned on entering a pie eating contest. But Little Trickster, being adorable, was insistent. And I, being both a sucker and partaker in pies, was talked into entering the contest.

Upon our arrival to the Pie Festival, I went to the pavilion and paid the $1 fee to sign Little Trickster up for his age group and then paid $5 to sign myself up for the adult division. We were each given ribbons that showed the judges that we were participants.

In hindsight, it would have been a great deal to concede the contest and walk away with a $25 pie for $5.

At 1 p.m., the pie eating contestants gathered around the row of tables in the middle of the Pie Festival open area. The audience surrounded the pies and contestants (outside the “Splash Zone”) to cheer on their friends. Much attention was paid to the Splash Zone in fear of pie in the sky debris.

First up were the kiddos age 0 – 5. I’m not quite sure how a 0-year-old would eat a pie, but hey, there you go. The little kids were given mini-pies and the contest was on. A winner was declared, and two runner-ups. Each were given ribbons. The parents next to me were rather upset and kept talking about cheating from the winner (their kid got second). Seemed a bit silly to me as it was all for fun — it’s not like it was the pie eating Superbowl. [Editor’s note: fun or not, pie eating contest rules regarding hands on the table is a disqualification-level action. It is a safety matter, fingers are libel to be chewed off in the heat of the competition.]

Next up was Little Trickster’s division, ages 7 – 12. There were 19 participants. Their pies were larger than the mini pies, but still not a full-size pie. Little Trickster was down to business. Right off, he asked the judge if he was supposed to raise his hand when he was done. Once he got the affirmative, and the other kids were all lined up, the contest started. Little Trickster face-planted into his pie and tore that pie up! He used his teeth to flip the pie over using the Alligator Technique. There was whipped cream everywhere — on his nose, on his forehead, even in his hair. He mowed through that pie as fast as he could. (In related news, whipped cream is apparently an excellent conditioner.)

Pie Town - Pie Eating Contest Little T
Little Trickster going for gold

Unfortunately, those older kids were way faster. Out of the 19 participants, Little Trickster got 4th place. I was very proud of his placing and he seemed to be in good spirits, which can’t be that surprising as it’s hard to be sad after eating pie.

Then it was my turn. Little Trickster came up to me and helped me tie my plastic apron. “Since, I didn’t win, you’re going to have to win this,” he said.

Wait, what?

I was just doing this for fun (and pie) but mostly just to placate the now berry-stained kid. Suddenly there was all this added pressure on me to win? Really, my only goal was to not end up like that kid in “Stand By Me.” (No, not the dead one, the one in the pie eating contest, though I didn’t particularly want to end up like the dead one either. I have to remember to chew.)

“Don’t worry,” said Little Trickster. “I’ll coach you. I already asked the judge if I could stay with you and cheer you on.” There were 24 participants in the adult division, and the trash talking starting early. A man from Portland told the rest of us we were going down. A woman from Arizona giggled and said this was her first time. A woman from California let us know she had won three years ago. Ooh, a seasoned veteran.

We lined up around the tables and placed our hands behind our backs. Little Trickster ran around to eye the competition and shout out instructions. He told me to kneel to be closer to the pie.

“REMEMBER THE ALLIGATOR!” he shouted.

The judges placed the pies in front of us. Unfortunately, these weren’t mini pies, or even medium. These were daunting, huge, full-sized strawberry rhubarb pies. Pies that were covered in whipped cream (much like most of the previous contestants).

And not with a shot, but a splat, the contest was on. I shoved my face into that pie and started chewing. And chewing and chewing. And I stopped and realized I was only through the whipped cream. I went back to chewing. I finally hit the filling. It was delicious. I could hear my friends cheering me on. I could hear Little Trickster yelling out instructions. “Do the alligator! Stick your whole face in that pie!” I got through half the pie and drug the tin over to the edge of the table with my teeth. I flipped it and dumped the pie on the table.

Trickster demonstrates the Alligator Technique.
Trickster demonstrates the Alligator Technique.
Pie Town - Pie Eating Contest Trickster in Action
It still looks pretty tasty.

I started working on the crust (which was just as tasty as the pie). I stopped to look up to see where everyone else was at. One girl had given up, and looked rather green. Most of the other contestants had way less pie to get through than I did.

“Put your face back in there!” Little Trickster shouted. I took another bite and looked up again. Little Trickster threatened me with bodily harm if I didn’t win. And I couldn’t help it. I spit out my pie laughing. Poor Portland guy. He was across from me and wasn’t too happy. I tried to chew again but the cheers and coaching was just too much. I just kept giggling. Finally a winner was declared, and then the second and third place winners. My adventure was over. Out of the 24 contestants, I came in 23. Thank goodness for the one green-looking girl.

Pie Town - Trickster After the Fact
I gave it my best shot. 🙂

Little Trickster came over to comfort me. “It’s okay,” he said, “we’ll do better next year.”

Wait, what?

It’s Green Chile Season in New Mexico!

It began about a week ago.

Outside of grocery stores all across New Mexico, yellow tape cordoned off propane tanks. Empty one-room buildings near the sides of the road began to teem with life. Trucks pulled off in fields of dirt, and men and women gathered red chile ristras to decorate their truck beds. Cardboard sandwich signs were placed in strategic locations offering sacks and bushels and the prices for fresh or roasted.

Fresh Green Chile
Fresh New Mexico Green Chile

 

It’s Chile Season in New Mexico.

From now until the end of the season, we won’t be checking in with our families and friends to ask how work is going. We won’t be at backyard barbecues discussing Billy’s first days of school, or how Aunt Sarah’s hip is doing. Instead, we’ll be asking each other for roasting sightings.

“Do you know when they’re roasting Hatch chile over on Wyoming and Montgomery?” or “Someone said they’ve started roasting at Smith’s… is that true?”

Chile Roaster at Triangle
Chile roaster set up outside Triangle Grocery in Cedar Crest, NM. You can smell the chile from Highway 14.

We’ll discuss the year’s weather conditions. “It was a dry summer, this chile batch might be extra hot, don’t you think?” We’ll take polls amongst each other to ensure we got the right amount. “Did you get a bushel [22 lb.] or a sack [35 lb.] this year?” And toward the end of the season, we’ll fret about others. “Did you get your chile put up yet?”

Bag of Hatch XHOT
An unassuming bag. Inside: Extra Hot Hatch Green Chile! Look out

This week, I’ll talk to my sister and my mother and ask if they want to share a sack. We’ll decide if we want to go with Big Jim (mild) or Sandia (hot). I’ll go to Sichler’s in Albuquerque at San Mateo & Lomas and pay extra to have my chile roasted. If the peaches are ripe and the workers are generous, they’ll slice up a peach for me to eat while I wait. As I inhale the smell wafting off the roasters, I’ll nod a hello to the other people waiting around for their chile.

We’ll be our own little tribe, knowing that anywhere around the state, in small towns and large, from Las Cruces to Aztec, at any moment, the same mouth-watering smell is being shared across the open spaces with other New Mexicans who know the secrets of this season.

Sichler Farms Chile Shop
Sichler Farms Chile Shop

This season always takes me back to my past. The smell of roasting chile reminds me of times gone by when my mother and grandmothers and aunts would sit on the porch, peeling chile with gloved hands as my cousins and I played in the yard. The matriarchs shared recipes and family gossip, wiping their brows with wet washcloths to make sure they didn’t get the chile’s burning juices on their skin or in their eyes. They laughed as they recalled  past batches, when they forgot to use the washcloths and, oh how the chile burned. They would call us kids over to grab more plastic bags or to take the filled bags to the freezer. My cousins and I would dare each other to eat the chile. Every child of the state made their bones on that first too-hot bite of freshly roasted green.

Roasted Hatch Green Chile
Roasted Hatch Green Chile

This time is about the future too. Because after the chile season comes the burning of Zozobra, where a 50-foot-tall paper and muslin puppet moans and groans as he goes up in flames, kicking off the Fiestas de Santa Fe. As “Old Man Gloom” burns, all our troubles of the year are burned away.

Soon after, the smells of roasting chile and our burning past troubles are replaced by those of funnel cakes and corn dogs and the sounds of the carnival rides and cheers from the nightly rodeo crowds at the New Mexico State Fair.

From there, the air grows chillier and the cottonwood leaves on the Rio Grande turn from green to a cacophony of auburn colors. Hundreds of balloons fill the morning sky and seem to compete with the sun in their majestic beauty during the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta.

Once the balloons have landed and been packed away, snow soon begins to dust our desert lands. Then softly glowing luminarias decorate plazas and homes across the state. And on Christmas Eve and Christmas day, families pull out their reserves of green chile from the freezer and come together to make their holiday meals. Pots of green chile stew boil on the stove and green chile chicken enchiladas bubble in the oven. Posole and tamales are served around the dinner table, and if the children finish their plates, they will be rewarded with biscochitos.

And it all starts with that first late summer sighting of green and red.

Chile Ristras in Hatch, New Mexico
Chile Ristras in Hatch, New Mexico

A friend of mine from New York once asked me why New Mexicans were so crazy about chile and the chile season. It’s not just about the chile, I answered. It is so much more than just the harvesting of the year’s batch across the state. Chile season is where the past, present, and future collide, and community and family are interchangeable.

Chile Facts

  • New Mexico produces more chile than any other state in the U.S.
  • The majority of chile harvested in the state is from the southern region, from Lordsburg to Artesia. The most famous is Hatch, which holds its own annual Hatch Valley Chile Festival around Labor Day each year.
  • It’s illegal to advertise chile as being grown in New Mexico if it’s not. A new state program has taken this idea even further to help consumers identify New Mexico grown chile and chile products. To find out if your chile and chile products are New Mexico certified, check out GetNMChile.com.
  • All New Mexican chile grown today comes from cultivars created at New Mexico State University in the late 1800s. In 1913, Dr. Fabian Garcia introduced the New Mexican pod type.
  • There are several types of green chiles, other than New Mexican. The Anaheim or California is a mild version of the New Mexican green chile (tastes more like a bell pepper). The Poblano green chile comes from Pueblo, Mexico and is known for its dark green color and mild flavor. The Poblano is wider than the Anaheim and New Mexican green chile. The Chilaca and Pasilla chiles are similar to the Poblano in color, but are much skinnier. And there are the Serrano and Jalapeno chiles, which are smaller and generally spicier than these others. Of course, there are hundreds of other varieties of chile across the state and around the world. These are just a sampling.

Green Chile Recipes Coming Soon!

 

The Beatles Lied: A review of Casa Blanca’s Fried Green Chile Strips which are, in fact, all you need.

Casa Blanca Mexican Restaurant
Ruidoso, NM

501 Mechem Drive, Ruidoso, NM | (575) 257-2495

[No website, but here’s a link to their Facebook page.]

We rolled into Ruidoso at what I thought was an optimal time, pulling into the parking lot at Casa Blanca at around 1:30 pm. A little after the lunch rush, but not too close to dinner time. As most New Mexicans know (and as I learned), roughly half the population of Texas descends on Ruidoso this time of year. We had about a 15 minute wait for a table, which, considering the crowd in town and in the waiting area, I thought this was very reasonable. (Author’s note: Okay, not really. I wanted to dig into those green chile strips so bad, I thought 15 minutes sounded like an eternity!)

The hostess and the wait staff were very friendly, considering everyone was hustling and bustling. We were seated at a nice table near a window, with plenty of room for our party of five. Three baskets of warm, crispy tortilla chips arrived immediately after we were seated, along with three bowls of very good salsa.

[Zia’s note: These are the best chips & salsa I’ve had in an eternity.]

Casa Blanca Chips & Salsa
Casa Blanca Chips & Salsa, Ruidoso NM. Worth the trip.

After placing our drink orders, we asked for two baskets of their world (probably) famous fried green chile strips.

Fried Awesomeness Dipped in Ranch
Casa Blanca’s Fried Green Chile Strips are WHY RUIDOSO EXISTS. I’m pretty sure that’s accurate.

How do I describe these things?

How would Picasso paint a lovely woman in a hat and fur coat?

How would Neruda describe love?

Well, since I can’t really channel either of those famous Pablos, I will do my best to describe them from a foodie’s perspective. They arrive at your table nice and hot, almost too hot to eat immediately. The batter is light and crisp, sort of flaky. The peppers themselves are cooked to perfection; they’re not soggy or greasy, but firm. If it’s possible (or legal?) to describe a chile pepper as cooked “al dente,” then that’s what I’d go with. So, once these have cooled down a bit (about 10 seconds after they arrive to your table…a slightly burnt tongue is a reasonable price to pay), just pick one up and dredge it through some ranch dressing. The ranch will cool it off a bit. Bite, chew, and enjoy. Repeat ad infinitum or until the basket runs dry.

The Entrees

Confession: the chips and salsa and the chile strips were plenty filling and could easily have been our meal…but that’s not how we roll.

Jalapeno BLT: Reading the menu, this sandwich sounded SO good. Smoked jalapeno bacon on sourdough with lettuce, tomato and a habanero mayonnaise.

Jalpeno BLT Casa Blanca
Jalapeno BLT at Casa Blanca in Ruidoso. Spicy/salty/bacony.

However, if I’d read the menu a little closer, I would have noticed that there is also cheddar cheese on this sandwich. I love cheddar cheese, and I love a good BLT, but I’ve never been a fan of cheese ON my BLT. Had I noticed, I simply would have asked the waitress to hold the cheese, so that one is on me. The sandwich itself was VERY salty, mostly due to the jalapeno bacon. The bacon was spicy, and taking a bite of the sandwich would definitely warm up the inside of your mouth, but the salt content was just too high. The combination of salt and heat makes you go through a lot of iced tea, so keep your glass full! (The wait staff was very good at keeping everyone’s glasses full.)

Going around the table, everyone was pleased with their entrees, but I think all of us had gotten so full of chips and salsa and fried green chiles that we had (temporarily) lost our enthusiasm for eating. Zia ordered the Taco Plate, which she reported to be “your typical taco plate.” Similar reports from the rest of the team.

Taco plate, Casa Blanca
Casa Blanca, Ruidoso, Taco Plate. “Your typical plate o’ tacos!”

NOTE: Casa Blanca offers a dessert sopapilla, which is ginormous and sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. We were too stuffed to go there, but I’d highly recommend ordering like this: Chips & Salsa, Fried Green Chile Strips, Sopapillas. It WILL be plenty of food. You WILL leave happy.

Overall, I like Casa Blanca. I’ve been there twice now and would definitely return . . . as long as they keep frying up those green chiles.


 

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Ruidoso, NM – Flying J Ranch

The Flying J Ranch

6 Flying J Road, 1028 State Hwy 48 | Alto, NM 88312
(575) 336-4330

A big reason for our trip to Ruidoso was to go see the Flying J Ranch (caution: this site auto-plays Western music). Zia had been there many times as a young girl growing up in New Mexico. Zia’s daughter was making her second trip to the Flying J, the first one being when she was around three years old. This was my first time.

Like the rest of Ruidoso, Flying J was enjoying the benefits of tourist season, so the ranch was pretty crowded. However, they make parking pretty organized and easy. As soon as we pulled into the lot, a cowboy was there to herd us into our parking spot.

Inside the ranch, you find a mock-up of an Old West town with souvenir shops and treats. For the kids, there’s horseback riding, gold panning, and pistol shooting — not real pistols, of course, but they make a pretty loud “pop!” Again, the ranch was pretty crowded, so the lines for the activities were long. We judged the horseback line to be too long, so Zia’s daughter got to pan for gold for a few minutes, finding one decent-sized nugget of “gold” (aka iron pyrite).

The line for the pistol shooting was moving pretty good, so she jumped in line for quick three shots with an old-west style pistol! (Again, these are toys. They shoot a projectile with barely enough velocity to punch through a sheet of paper.)

After the pistol shooting, we headed over to watch the big gunfight between the town sheriff and a couple of “no-good hooligans.”

Gunfight!
The Sheriff faces down some ne’er-do-well scoundrels, Flying J Ranch Main Street.

This “gunfight” is Rated G and appropriate for all ages. It’s wrought with enough silliness and puns to keep the young ones entertained and laughing, and some cute one-liners for the adults. I won’t give you any spoilers, but it’s a good time for the whole family. After the show, the actors were more than happy to pose for pictures with some of the kids.

DINNERTIME

You’d think that feeding a couple hundred people at one sitting would be complicated, if not downright messy. However, the Flying J Ranch has been in business for 33 years, and they know how to move people through a chow line quickly and efficiently. When I saw the number of people crowding into the dining area, I thought it would take forever – and a miracle – to get everyone fed, but we were happily filling our bellies with a delicious, chuck-wagon style meal within about 10 minutes of getting to our seats.

They file you out of the dining hall and into the kitchen by tables, after first giving you exact instructions on what to do at each food station, and even how to hold your plate! (Hold it under the spot where the applesauce goes, because it’s a metal plate and the applesauce is the only cold food you’re getting.)

You then file through the kitchen, stopping at each station for a heaping helping of each item.  The food fare is pretty simple, and the Flying J Ranch website gives you a detailed description of what the meal offers, including what is and isn’t “authentic” cowboy fare (SUPPER DETAILS). What you get is pinto beans, chunky applesauce, a baked potato, brisket or chicken, a biscuit, and spice cake. Then you choose from iced tea, lemonade, water, or coffee to drink. (Served in an authentic beat-up old tin cup, just like the cowboys used!)

Flying J Chuckwagon Supper
Chuckwagon Supper at the Flying J Ranch. All a growing cowboy or cowgirl needs!

The only food item I can’t really write about is the BBQ grilled chicken. All five of us opted for the brisket. Also, it’s kind of a waste of time to go line by line on each food item, when two words describe them all: absolutely delicious! Nonetheless, I will give you a brief rundown. The brisket was tender, smoky and tasty; you could cut it with just a fork. The beans were excellent, and surprisingly spicy. The chunky applesauce…wow. I’m not an applesauce fan, at least not of the stuff you buy in a jar at the grocery store. The Flying J’s applesauce was like a dessert, with big chunks of sweet apples. Lastly, the potato, biscuit, and spice cake were all equally good and nicely rounded out the meal. Oh, and come hungry! There were plenty of leftovers, and you were free to return to the line for more food. I’m pretty sure the crowd ran out of room before the Flying J kitchen ran out of food.

After dinner, the Flying J cast (the same people that just spooned your food onto your tin plate) gathers on stage for about an hour long western music show. Western style music may not be your thing, but if you appreciate good showmanship, incredible musical talent, bean jokes, puns, and a little musical comedy, you’ll enjoy watching the Flying J cast perform. It’s a really nice way to sit and relax after a good hearty meal. There’s music and comedy, and even a heartfelt salute to our servicemen, servicewomen, and veterans.

Good people, good food, and fine entertainment for the whole family, the Flying J Ranch is something you must do if you’re in the Ruidoso area.

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NM Food with Tiny Twists @ Tia Betty Blue’s, ABQ

Tia Betty Blue’s is a small New Mexican café in what some call Albuquerque’s “International District” but I call “over by base,” meaning it’s kind of by Kirtland Air Force Base. It’s on the east side of San Mateo, between Gibson and Kathryn.

It’s an order-at-the-counter kind of joint, making for quicker service and a faster lunch all around. I highly suggest you read their “About” page to learn more about their culinary philosophy! >ABOUT<

COMFORT FOOD

Sometimes you just need some comfort food. Maybe for you that’s a burrito the size of an actual small burro, smothered in cheese and green chile. Maybe it’s a Frito pie or a waffle. Sometimes you just need a friendly young waiter or waitress to smile at you and bring you things, in a quaint little eatery smaller than your typical Starbucks.

Tia Betty Blue’s has all this and more. Specializing in breakfast and lunch (open until 2:00 p.m.), they serve a wide variety of typical NM breakfast/lunch entrees, like waffles, breakfast sandwiches, taco plates, and enchiladas. But what they do that sets them apart is take these café staples and give them a little twist.

WAFFLES

There is something about a fluffy, crispy, chewy waffle that makes my heart go pitter-patter. And Tia Betty Blue’s has elevated the already quite elevated garden variety waffle by making them out of blue corn and serving them two ways — sweet or hot.

SWEET WAFFLE: You get a blue corn waffle topped with seasonal fresh fruit (like blackberries and blueberries), a little syrup, and your choice of whipped cream flavor: standard, cinnamon, chocolate, or lavender. The blue corn waffle is exactly the crispychewy texture you expect in a good waffle, but the blue corn batter gives it an air of sophistication and beauty, and makes it feel somehow socially acceptable to order a waffle for lunch. I opted for the cinnamon whipped cream, which was perfectly light, not too sweet, and slightly cinnamon-y. [Note: you can order this gluten-free, or with yogurt in stead of whipped cream, or with 100% maple syrup or agave syrup instead of the house syrup. Lots of ways to have it your way.] [‘Nother Note: I didn’t take a photo because I ate the WHOLE THING before I even thought about taking a photo… sorry.]

HOT WAFFLE: What’s that you say?  A spicy waffle? Is it a waffle cooked with chile in the batter? No (but there’s an idea!). The Hot waffle is basically huevos rancheros, but with a waffle instead of a tortilla on the bottom. It is the blue corn waffle, topped with an egg, red or green chile or both, cheese, and your choice of meat if so desired. The sides are papas and beans. 

Huevos Wafflos?
You’re Hot. No, YOU’RE hot, hottie. This waffle is hotter, though.

GIANT FRITO CHILE PIE

I’m not sure where the “Frito Pie” was born, but I have met people from seemingly all over the country who have never heard of it. Which makes me sad for them. Frito Pie was — and still is — a cold weather staple in my family, akin to chicken soup or green chile stew. It’s just something you make every now and then when you want an easy, warm, and delicious (but not nutritious) meal.

For those not in the know, a Frito Pie (or Frito Chili Pie) usually consists of a base layer of Fritos, then the chili (typically of the chili-n-beans type), then shredded cheddar cheese and diced onion. Iceberg lettuce and diced tomato are optional. And maybe some more fritos on top.

But at Tia Betty Blue’s, they take this simple bowl of chili and turn it into chile. That’s chile with an E.

They start with Fritos, naturally. But then they do something so crazy but so simple, I’m surprised I haven’t seen it on a menu before. They add New Mexico chile (red, green, or both) — instead of the standard chili with an I. Then: cheese, onion, iceberg, tomato, per tradition.

Loved It! The day I was there, the red was very hot, and the green mild but with fantastic roasted flavor. The fritos gave it the perfect salty crunch, and the garnishing iceberg helped to cool things off.

Frito Pie featuring Tia Betty Blue's red and green chile. YES.
Frito Pie featuring Tia Betty Blue’s red and green chile. YES.

OTHER THINGS WORTH MENTIONING THAT I HAVE NOT ACTUALLY TRIED YET

Tia Betty Blue’s is very proud of their coffee. I love coffee, so I’m not sure why I haven’t tried this yet. They also have a big cooler full of unique sodas (think: juniper berry soda, key lime cream soda, cucumber soda, etc.). I love sodas, so I’m not sure why I haven’t tried these yet.

SUMMARY

Tia Betty Blue’s does New Mexican food in a way that is both traditional and unique. They try new things, but not just for show. The new things they are trying make perfect logical sense, both to the brain and to the taste buds. The atmosphere is casual and friendly. The prices are reasonable.

Oh, and there’s wifi.


 

Horseman’s Haven Café

4354 Cerrillos Rd., Santa Fe

I’m pretty sure I might have found a restaurant that serves the best green chile in the state. Nay, not just the best green chile, but perhaps the best New Mexican food I’ve had. Okay, maybe that’s too bold of a statement. Besides, I haven’t eaten at every restaurant in the state that serves New Mexican food. There could be a lovely little place in Datil that really deserves the honor of “the best”.

However, I am going to say that Horseman’s Haven Café serves the best New Mexican food and green chile in Santa Fe. A group of us went to restaurant after our rafting trip, based off of a recommendation of a friend. She did warn us to not be thrown off about the location. It’s located next to a gas station and from the outside looks like it could be an iffy place. But as I’m not particularly prissy, I was game. Besides, I was famished and had already started to secretly eye my friends to see which one’s arm I could gnaw off. The inside of Horseman’s has a typical country diner feel, with an open kitchen, plenty of tables and chairs and booths big enough to seat the nine of us.

I think my friends realized their limbs might be in imminent danger as they kept placing the chips and salsa directly in front of me. The chips were thicker than most  chips I’ve eaten at restaurants. The salsa was full of flavor and fresh. It also was less chunky than most salsa. But while it had flavor, it wasn’t particularly hot.

Seriously, measure the thickness on these things.
Seriously, measure the thickness on these things.

For my meal, I ordered a 3D burrito which comes with papas, a choice of meat and chile. Most of my friends also ordered the 3D as well, with variations on the meat and chile. My cousin ordered a combination plate just so that she could have a side of posole, to which I mocked her openly. I have a deep, abiding bitterness towards hominy–it’s just gross. But I did acknowledge the fact that it was cool that posole was an option as a side item, not something that I find is standard at most restaurants.

Apparently, there are different levels of chile that you can order at Horseman’s. I’ve heard that Level I is hot chile and Level 2 is for people who don’t cry at the end of “The Notebook”—you know, tough hombres. I myself probably fall somewhere like a 1.75. I like my chile really, really hot. If I’m not sweating and crying, it’s just not enjoyable. But I’m not above bawling like a baby if chile is too hot (or at “The Notebook” because come on, he wrote her all those letters). I didn’t see level options on the menu and our waiter didn’t ask us. I’m guessing he looked at us and made a command decision.**

So I’m not sure which level of chile I had smothered all over my burrito, but  that’s okay. Because my burrito was delightful. In fact, I’m going to go out on a very corny limb and suggest that the 3D in the burrito stands for delightful, decadent and delicious! I say decadent because the burrito was huge. I didn’t even finish half the burrito and remember, I was this close to eating my friends before we walked into the café. The chicken tasted fresh, the papas were cubed and fried to perfection and then there was the green chile. I sweated. I cried. The chile was so hot it burned my lips and I fell in love more with each bite and each tear. Everyone else commented that they enjoyed their food as well. I will say the green chile was preferable to the red chile. Those at the table who got the red seemed a bit disappointed over the lack of heat, and I sensed their envious and bitter looks out of the corner of my eye. But that also could have been just looks of embarrassment as I was making odd moaning noises after each bite. I’m telling you, the green chile was good.

burrito
3D burrito with chicken and green chile.

And here’s how you really know Horseman’s Have Café is worth trying out. My cousin insisted I try her posole. I did and guess what? It was great! I might even try it as a side when I’m at Horseman’s next time. Maybe. If the hominy behaves itself.

 

**I went back to Horseman’s in August and asked to have a side of Level 2. I did warn the waitress that if I cried to not take it personally, that it was just likely me being too wussy for the chile. She said that Level 2 only comes as a side, it’s way too hot to have smothered on your food. I put some on my stuffed sopapilla (not as good as the 3-D burrito, but good) and took a bite. It was the hottest, most flavorful chile I have ever eaten. Like seriously, four hours later I could still taste the chile on my lips. Totally worth it. And I didn’t cry!

Los Cuates – East Mountains

Los Cuates has five restaurants in the Albuquerque area. This review is based solely on the location at 1250 Hwy 14 in Sandia Park, NM. 

According to the Los Cuates website, they “offer freshly prepared food and a warm ambience that exudes an affordable dining experience,” and I agree. The food was good, the atmosphere was warm and friendly, the service was good, albeit a bit slow, and the price was surprisingly affordable.

We arrived at Los Cuates on Saturday at about 6:00 pm. The restaurant was not crowded. When we walked in, we were greeted and seated right away by a smiling and friendly hostess. At our table, the waitress arrived quickly, brought chips and salsa, and took our drink orders.

CHIPS AND SALSA

Thin & crispy chips! Mild salsa and hot (l-r).
Thin & crispy chips! Mild salsa and hot (l-r). Good separate or mixed together!

New Mexico — the land of free chips and salsa! The chips were thin, crispy, warm, and delicious. The only problem here was an unusual amount of “crumbs,” broken bits of chip too small for dipping. When we pointed this out to the waitress, she quickly whisked them away and brought us a fresh batch. As for the salsa, Zia and I loved it! It was dark and spicy with a unique smoky flavor you don’t normally find in restaurant style salsa. However, it was pretty spicy, so the waitress brought out a milder option, which was more tomato-based, rather than chile-based. In my opinion, both salsas were very tasty.

MARGARITA

Zia’s mom ordered a margarita on the rocks. No one else ordered a “drink” drink, so we all got to take sips. The margarita was REALLY good! So good in fact, that if I were not driving, I would have ordered one of the large sized ones for myself. (Los Cuates offers two margarita sizes, a “normal” sized one like you’d expect in a typical margarita glass, and the “large,” which is roughly the size of a mop bucket…with a salted rim.)

Margarita in a Cactus Glass.
Margarita in a Cactus Glass.

SERVICE

When the waitress returned, she told us that she was new and still learning the menu. I appreciated that, and I also appreciated that she was very friendly and quick with a smile. Before I talk about the food, I will say that a mistake was made in the kitchen with entering our order into the system. This was not our waitress’s fault. We noticed that our order was taking a long time, as people who came in after us were already being served. Eventually, a manager came out and told us what had happened, at that he was at fault, and that they would have our order out very soon. To make up for the snafu, they brought out extra sopapillas, which I thought made up for the error.

THE FOOD

Now for the food! I’ll give a quick tour around the table. Zia’s dad ordered the Tacos, Zia’s mom ordered the Indian Taco, Zia ordered two bean tostadas from the a la carte menu, and I had a special called the “New Mexican Combo.”

New Mexican Combo
New Mexican Combo: Taco, Enchilada, 1/4 rack ribs, RBI. Star of the plate = Red Chile Ribs!

The NEW MEXICAN COMBO was a taco, a cheese enchilada, and a ¼ rack of pork ribs (about 3 small ribs worth) with the standard rice, beans, and iceberg lettuce (RBI) on the side. The highlight of the meal was the ribs. They were slathered in a red chile sauce, and were tender, spicy, and tasty. The taco and cheese enchilada were good, but not remarkable. The seasoned ground beef in the taco was nicely seasoned and very good, and the garnishments were all fresh and delicious. The shell was the downside — not that it was bad, just ordinary.

INDIAN TACO

It was determined by a very informal non-poll that the Indian Taco was the best entrée on the table. The base was basically a very large, flat sopapilla. In the center, it was heaped with seasoned ground beef, cheese, beans, lettuce, and tomato. It might not look like much, but the combo of the slightly sweet “fry bread” (I still maintain that this is a sopapilla) and salty seasoned ground beef was kind of magical.

Indian Taco -- SO GOOD
Indian Taco — SO GOOD

TOSTADAS (“BEAN DIP”)

According to Zia, she was expecting two flat, crispy corn tortillas, topped with refried beans, lettuce, cheese, onion, and tomato.  This is the way tostadas are served 75% of the time in restaurants (and 100% of the time at home). You should be able to pick them up and eat them fairly neatly — like a flat taco. So when the tostadas arrived, she was a little… bummed. As you can probably see in the photo below, the tostadas were actually two very large shells, filled about 1.5″ deep with refried beans. That’s a lot of bean. Zia was able to pick & dip her way through about 2/3 of one tostada before giving up. She also said that the shells were stale.

Tostadas, aka "two large orders of bean dip"
Tostadas, aka “two large orders of bean dip”

TACO PLATE

One of the greatest things about living in New Mexico is the ability — nay, the right — to order a Taco Plate almost anywhere. NM tacos typically come with seasoned ground beef, grated cheddar, diced onion, shredded lettuce, and diced tomato. Salsa on the side. Because they are so standard in composition, it’s easy to compare one taco plate to another. The verdict here is that Los Cuates puts out a solid taco plate. Not the best in the state (or even in the East Mountains), but pretty good. The highlight of this taco plate, according to Zia’s dad, was the seasoned ground beef.

Taco Plate -- a NM Staple!
Taco Plate — a NM Staple!

NO SUCH THING AS A BAD SOPAPILLA

Due to the aforementioned snafu with our order, the server brought out what seemed to be around 100 sopapillas (probably more like a dozen…but it seemed like a lot more). They were somewhat dense & chewy (which may or may not be your thing), fresh, and hot.

Sopapillas = good. More sopapillas = better.
Sopapillas = good. More sopapillas = better.

THE CHILE

We ordered both red and green on the side for the table. Both were fine but not knock-your-socks-off amazing. The red had a little bite to it, and the green was milder but had nice big chunks of green chile in it.

THE CHECK

When I’m ordering, especially when I’m hungry, I don’t always pay attention to prices; I mostly concentrate on the food. (This has burned me before. I once paid $60 for a steak at a restaurant in California. Talk about sticker shock!) Fortunately, at Los Cuates, sticker shock worked in our favor. Our bill for four adults, including a cocktail, was only $55 before the tip. We all thought this was very reasonable!

LIVE MUSIC

The building runs north-south. We were seated at the north end of the restaurant. At the south end is the bar, and there was a band playing in the bar that night. Needless to say, the bar area was very noisy with a live band playing. Where we were seated, we could hear the music, but it wasn’t too loud at all. So don’t be worried about dining there during live music nights.

SUMMARY

Overall, I recommend Los Cuates in Sandia Park. While I wouldn’t make a special trip all the way from Albuquerque just to eat there (when there’s four other locations already in Albuquerque), if you’re enjoying a day in the East Mountains or cruising the Turquoise Trail and craving New Mexican food, then it’s worth stopping in.

Also, look at the cool door handles:

I want these on my house.
I want these on my house.

 

Blake’s Lotaburger – Breakfast Burrito

Blake’s Lotaburger is a staple of New Mexico fast food cuisine, with 76 locations currently operating statewide. Around since 1952, Lotaburger specializes in fresh hamburgers, particularly green chile hamburgers. And lucky for me and for you, many of the locations serve breakfast burritos. Their basic breakfast burritos are made with two eggs, hash browns and either red or green chile. From there, you can choose from a selection of additional options, including beans, sausage, bacon, and more. Even better, Lotaburger allows you the option of smothering your burrito with red or green chile sauce. Which to me, anything smothered with green chile is just happiness.

 

insidelotobreakfastburrito

Great ratio of goodness!

On this occasion, I selected a sausage breakfast burrito with green chile and smothered with green chile sauce. It was topped with cheddar cheese and garnished with lettuce and tomatoes. The burrito had the perfect ratio of ingredients, just the right combination of sausage, egg, hash browns and green chile. Even better, the green chile had quite a kick to it. Often (and especially at fast food places) the chile is super mild, which, to a native like me, is just sad.

In my mind, there were only two small factors that kept this from being the perfect breakfast burrito. The cheddar cheese that topped the burrito looked as if it had been microwaved and was a bit too chewy. Additionally, the tomatoes that garnished the burrito were full slices, not cubed. And while I enjoy a good tomato, I prefer full slices in a sandwich. Having them on a breakfast burrito left me a wee bit flummoxed. These two factors aside, Lotaburger offers fantastic breakfast burritos for Blue Collar foodies on the go!

O’Niell’s Pub – Albuquerque – Pub Food, Upgraded

NOTE: We were there to eat, not drink, so this review focuses on the food & service at mid-day on a Friday.

WHERE IT’S AT:

O’Niell’s is located in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill neighborhood, on the southwest corner of Central and Washington. They have a nice-sized parking lot behind their building, so parking was easy. Granted, we were there at 2:00 pm on a Friday. Maybe it fills up at typical “bar times.”

Normally, if I walk into a place called a “pub” with the purpose of having a meal, I set my expectations about the food pretty low. I’ve come to expect “typical or standard barroom fare,” to mean “a lot of salt and a lot of fat,” things primarily designed to get you to order more beer or cocktails.

So, this was my expectation when ZIA and I walked into O’Niell’s last Friday to attend a going-away luncheon for a co-worker.

My first impression of O’Niell’s was how clean, open, and well-lit it was. We were immediately greeted and directed to where our party was seated, outside on the patio. O’Niell’s is, true to its name, a “pub” first and foremost. The bar is impressive, almost completely taking up one side of the restaurant. The seating is open table, with no partitions between tables. Although it wasn’t very crowded when I came in, I could see this place getting very noisy with a large crowd.

We didn’t have to wait long for our waitress to arrive and take our drink orders. I wish I could remember our waitress’s name, because she was awesome — fast and friendly.

THE FOOD:

And now for the best part…the food! I ordered the “Irish Cuban,” a Cuban sandwich with the addition of corned beef to give it that “Irish” twist. Let me be clear, they don’t substitute the pulled-pork for corned beef; they ADD the corned beef, along with slaw, pickles and mustard, and the results are mouth-watering. I would come back here just to have another one of these sandwiches! O’Niell’s offers a great variety of side-dishes, and I chose the fries. The fries were good, but nothing exceptional. This was the one thing that was definitely just “barroom fare.”

O'Niell's Irish Cuban Sandwich -- it was awesome!
O’Niell’s Irish Cuban Sandwich — it was awesome!

Zia ordered the St. Patty Melt, a seasoned ground beef burger with sautéed onions and Swiss cheese on grilled rye bread. This sandwich was also good, and that’s coming from me, a guy who hates rye bread! There’s something about caraway seeds that are like Kryptonite to me. But this rye bread was very light, not overpowering. She also ordered the coleslaw as a side dish. It was the same mayo-based slaw that was on my Irish Cuban. It was very good, coarse cut and delicious.

ZIA SAYS: The St. Patty Melt was good, but nothing unique or memorable. It was like any other patty melt pretty much anywhere. The cole slaw was very good.

O'Niell's St. Patty Melt, it was OK
O’Niell’s St. Patty Melt, it was OK

For dessert, we shared a slice of Irish Cream cheesecake. For me, as I’m sure it is with most people, it’s almost impossible to not love cheesecake. This was no exception. It had a graham cracker crust and was served with three ample dollops of whipped cream. The Irish Cream flavor was too subtle, but overall it was good end to the meal.

Irish Cream Cheesecake
O’Niell’s Irish Cream Cheesecake — it was good but not Irish enough.

ROOM FOR IMPROVEMENT:

My only suggestion would be to install some misters out on the patio for hot days. Otherwise, this was a great dining experience and I would recommend O’Niell’s to my friends.


For more info, visit: oniells.com/

Cervantes Restaurant – Albuquerque – Great Red & Relleno

Cervantes  |  Albuquerque | 5801 Gibson Blvd SE 

A chile relleno is a hard thing to master. You have to get the ratio of cheese to chile to breading just right, or you end up with a mess. Too much breading and it’s heavy. Too much cheese and you lose the chile. Too much sauce on top and you get a soggy mess.

For me growing up, chile rellenos were always crispy, served right out of the grease with just a hint of red or green on top. My dad would stand over the stove, one hand holding a slotted spoon poised over the pot of popping grease, the other hand held out for balance, it seemed, all fingers thickly coated in batter and flour. As soon as a relleno turned a medium brown, it was scooped up and served. Letting it sit on a stack of paper towels for a moment was allowed, but only long enough to let a little oil drip off. Not long enough for it to cool down or soften in its own juices.

Most times I go to a new (new to me) Mexican or New Mexican restaurant, I get a combo plate of some kind. I usually look for the combo plate that includes a taco, enchilada, and relleno. It is the crispy, rightly-ratioed version of the relleno of my childhood that I’m looking for.

Most restaurants get it wrong*. The typical problem is an overabundance of batter, more pancake-like than anything else, and/or an overabundance of sauce on top — a “smothered” relleno is a soggy relleno. Or they use a Poblano pepper. And that’s just weird.

But Cervantes…. Cervantes gets it right. I ate at Cervantes in early July 2014, and in true Me style, ordered a combo plate with relleno.

NOTE: Thank you, Cervantes, for putting the taco on its own little plate. Many restaurants put the taco alongside everything else (between the enchilada and beans, for example), which means the bottom of the taco sits in the bean juice and red/green sauce until you pick it up, at which time it promptly falls apart because the integrity of the shell has been compromised.

Cervantes - Combo Plate 2

Above: Combo Plate #2: Taco (on its own plate!), Enchilada, Relleno, Carne Adovada + RBI (rice, beans, iceberg)

Anyway, the first thing I did was take a bite of the relleno. It was a little too smothered for my personal preference, but the relleno underneath was actually crispy! It had some texture to it. The chile had great flavor, there was just the right amount of cheese, and the batter wasn’t overpowering. AHHHH! (Insert mental image of the heavens opening up and angels singing here.)

I was thrilled to have found what I consider to be a properly cooked (and delicious) chile relleno at Cervantes.

SURPRISE ON THE PLATE:

The combo plates come with the typical sides of beans and rice, but also with a little dollop of carne adovada. The carne adovada (shredded pork in red) was absolutely the best thing on the plate, and that’s saying something. I was disappointed that there was only a little scoop – maybe 1/3 cup. Next time I will order more adovada.

WHAT ELSE WE ORDERED:

Carnitas plate: Cubed pork in a roasty green chile sauce. Served with RIB and hot, homemade flour tortillas. It was really good! Peppery, porky, green chile-y, but not spicy. (If you want spicy, you have to get something with red.) The flour tortillas were fantastic!

Cervantes - Carnitas

Above: Carnitas plate: Cubed pork in green chile sauce, RBI, homemade tortillas

The meals also come with sopapillas, which makes me beyond happy. The sopapillas are a little bit dense, but still delicious, and they are served with local honey.

KEEP IN MIND:

The red chile is hotter than the green, and the day I went it was pretty spicy. Not “OMG Bring Me Milk Now” kind of hot, but it was spicy enough for me to take notice! Just the perfect amount of heat. I ordered my meal Christmas style, and the green chile was super flavorful, but not at all spicy.

ABOUT CERVANTES:

Cervantes has been around a long time – according to the sign outside, since 1973. The building exterior and the neighborhood are not impressive. Which is pretty typical of really awesome NM restaurants. The slightly shady neighborhood and run-down looking building and abandoned Pizza Hut building next door let you know you’re in for a treat.

The google internetz machine calls this the “International District.” Having lived and worked in Albuquerque for a long time, I would call this the “Base District” (or probably just “Over by base”) because it’s right outside Kirtland Air Force Base. Specifically, outside the Gibson/Louisiana gate, at the corner of Gibson and San Pedro. This makes it an easy lunch for anyone working at Kirtland, but also puts it within easy reach of UNM, Nob Hill, and even the airport.

The interior is kind of dark and cozy and typical of a legit New Mexican restaurant. Not trying too hard, but trying enough. The walls are hung with lovely local art – paintings of adobe in the snow, and the like. I visited Cervantes in early July, and the interior was decked out in July 4th décor. And not just the obligatory flag here and there – they go all out. And from what I’ve heard, they do this for all major holidays. I’d like to go back around Christmas.

SUMMARY:

Cervantes is really really good. It is legit, authentic, traditional New Mexican food, with excellent red chile and a chile relleno — (almost) just like you’d get at my dad’s house.

*Yes, after decades of searching for a relleno cooked the “right” way, and 95% of the time finding rellenos cooked the “wrong” way, it has occurred to me that maybe my family and I make and prefer our rellenos the “wrong” way. But I’m sticking with this, regardless.


 

Visit the Cervantes website here > CERVANTES