New Mexico Restaurants Give Chile Reception

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SANTA FE, N.M. --

Travelers of all kinds are attracted to New Mexico for its stunning landscape, reputation as a spiritual retreat, rich history and connections to America's past. People come to ski, to shop, to paint and to explore. But one of New Mexico's greatest rewards, enjoyed by travelers year-round, is the food.

Earlier this month, I spent a long weekend with two old friends in Santa Fe and Taos, taking in the sights, sounds and flavors of New Mexico. One of just a handful of regional cuisines in the United States, New Mexican cuisine is built upon Native American, Mexican and Spanish influences and a group of indigenous ingredients. But nothing comes close to topping the influence or ubiquity of the New Mexican chile pepper in its varied forms: Fresh green or dried red, ground or flaked, pureed or chopped, it was a constant delicious presence.

Our chile-fueled adventure began almost immediately upon our arrival at the Albuquerque International Sunport. A tip from Robert Sayre, culinary director of Conflict Kitchen in East Liberty, directed us to El Modelo, a New Mexican eatery just a few minutes from the airport, where the kitchen takes up about 80 percent of the building, and tamales and stuffed sopapillas can be ordered by the dozen. All food is packaged to go, although there are picnic tables in the back. We dived into New Mexico-style burritos -- pork braised in a red chile puree (pork adovada), which was spicy, but also distinctly fruity, with hints of prune and raisin flavors . A large sopapilla, the local name for fried dough, barely contained its filling of refried beans, cheese, lettuce and a red chile sauce laced with chorizo, while savory tamales were hidden beneath a dense blanket of more red chile sauce, braised pork, melted cheese, shredded lettuce and a few tortilla chips.

Restraint, we were quickly learning, was difficult to come by in New Mexico, on the part of cooks and eaters.

Off we drove to Santa Fe, to visit natural hot springs, the New Mexico Museum of Art and many more chiles. At Maria's New Mexican Kitchen, a sprawling, casual restaurant on the outskirts of downtown Santa Fe, chips were served with a red-chile salsa speckled with seeds and packing a mouth-tingling heat. Don't miss the fantastic posole, a thick soup of posole corn (also known as hominy) and chunks of pork simmered with whole red chile pods and thin strips of pork rind. A New Mexican variation on huevos rancheros was pure comfort food: poached eggs nestled in a bed of more green chiles, roasted and pureed into a slightly sweet, slightly tangy sauce.

Of course, there's more to New Mexican cuisine than its chile sauces, and both Santa Fe and Taos offer all kinds of food. But why eat Italian in Santa Fe or sushi in Taos when you have Spanish cuisine with its historical connection between the two regions. La Boca, a Spanish tapas restaurant, came highly recommended, and its dining room was crowded even during the sleepy off-season.

The best dishes here melded Spanish flavors with seasonal ingredients, like a small cast iron pan of pureed butternut squash, topped with mahon, a cow's milk cheese from Spain, as well as a splash of pumpkin seed oil and toasted pumpkin seeds. Toasted bread bathed in Manchego cream sauce tasted almost like savory bread pudding, topped with sauteed mushrooms and a fried egg.

No food-lovers trip to Santa Fe would be complete without a visit to the farmer's market, which was crowded with local vendors even in early March. Chiles came in even more varieties here, including beautiful wreaths of dried red chiles and flowers stacked on tables just outside the market. Inside, several dozen vendors sold everything from early spring greens to local eggs to soap made from goat's milk. We loaded ourselves down with edible souvenirs, bags of ground chile and smoke-dried corn called chicos and dried Mexican oregano.

There was plenty of food to sample as well, including local goat cheese, freshly baked breads, cheese, a green chile and cheddar croissant (weird but delicious) and a pleasantly tangy apple cider slushee, that I hope to re-create next cider season. …

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