Viva Chile Verde

Article excerpt

It's the only thing a native New Mexican can't live without

"Red or green?" That's the official state question, asked and answered thousands of times a day in New Mexico's restaurants and cafes. New Mexicans take the preparation of their state vegetable, the chili pepper, very seriously; they are prone to discussions both lengthy and fierce on the subject. How important is this sauce natives call chile? You can live without sex, many would say but live without chile? Impossible!

Some people prefer the taste of red chile. It's made from red chili peppers--a riper form of green chilies--which are picked and dried for later use. But many insist on their green. Typically, fresh-picked green chilies are roasted, then cooked slowly with meat, garlic, onion, oregano, and cumin, although there is no standard recipe. Somewhere between a condiment and a stew, this savory blend is then used to smother burritos, enchiladas, eggs, and burgers, or eaten on its own as a "bowl of green" with the possible addition of beans and potatoes. It's customarily served with a tortilla or sopaipilla.

Trying to describe the chile verde experience to someone who's never tasted it is like trying to describe the ocean to someone who has never seen it. For starters, green chile has a unique earthy, warm, pungent taste. As much a sensation as a flavor, chile ranges in heat from mild to wild, depending on the chili pepper variety, the climate where it grew, and the rainfall it received. Most New Mexico green chile has roots in Hatch, where the largest crops of Big Jim and New Mexico 6-4 green chilies are grown.

The chili pepper may be the state vegetable, but it's not a native. The wild chili originated in South America; Spanish conquistadores carried it north about 400 years ago. Those first Spanish converts were undoubtedly hooked on capsaicin, the chemical that produces the vegetable's heat and die pleasurable, endorphin-induced sensations that keep sweaty-browed aficionados coming back for more.

This heat only partly explains the vegetable's appeal. In the hands of different cooks, the green chile dish takes on distinctly different tastes. From modest holes-in-the-wall to upscale restaurants, New Mexico's eating establishments pride themselves on the originality of their chile recipes.

Red or green? Most of the year it's a tough choice. For those who can't decide, there's always "Christmas"--a portion of each. But by late July, the decision becomes a no-brainer. That's when the harvest begins, and the aromatic perfume of fresh green chilies roasting at roadside stands and open-air markets induces a delirious craving in the local population. This altered state, which lasts through the harvest and into the fall, can only be set straight by sitting down to a good helping of that fresh-roasted green.

A diner's guide to New Mexico's best green chile

* ALBUQUERQUE: Barelas Coffee House. This rowdy chile parlor, beloved of local politicians and old-timers, serves as a neighborhood kitchen for the entire city. The carpet is well-worn, and the waitresses know regulars by name. The blistering green chile is addictive--go for the crisp, green-doused chiles rellenos. 1502 Fourth St. S.W.; (505) 843-7577.

ALBUQUERQUE: Duran Central Pharmacy. Locals line up at noon for the daily specials at this expanded lunch counter in the back of an Old Town drugstore, where fresh tortillas warm on the grill. …