Chile That's over the Top: Share New Mexico's Love Affair with the Great Frito Pie

By Niederman, Sharon | Sunset, May 2002 | Go to article overview

Chile That's over the Top: Share New Mexico's Love Affair with the Great Frito Pie


Niederman, Sharon, Sunset


Elmer Doolin of San Antonio, Texas, made a successful bid for culinary immortality when he founded the Frito Company in 1932, originally manufacturing his crunchy corn chips in the family kitchen.

But mom did him one better. Sometime during the early 1930s, Daisy Dean Doolin gave in to a curious impulse: She dumped her chile over a bunch of Fritos. It was the invention of the Frito pie, and since Mrs. Doolin's time, generations of Cub Scouts, rodeo attendees, and county fair--goers have accumulated fond memories of this down-home dish. In fact, the state of New Mexico has adopted it as its own, with several eateries churning out some of the best Frito pies you'll find anywhere.

The formula of pie

The most authentic Frito pie, many say, is created when red chile is ladled directly into a small bag of Fritos. That's the way Teresa Hernandez makes the "world famous" Frito pies she serves at the Five and Dime General Store in Santa Fe. Hernandez began working at Woolworth's (now the Five and Dime) on the plaza in 1953, introducing the Frito pie there in the 1960s. Today, the establishment serves more than 56,000 tasty Frito pies a year made with her mother's secret recipe for tangy red chile. She refuses to add any garnishes, maintaining that "the original didn't have lettuce or tomato!" Says Hernandez: "The trick is to get the chile in the bag. But if you love what you're doing, everything will come out good!"

Next to nostalgia, the quality of the red chile is probably the most important ingredient in the Frito pie. At the Diner, a popular stop in Tres Piedras, 30 miles northwest of Taos on U.S. 285, the chile is irresistible.

Owner Barbara Cozart prepares her chile from her own recipe, and she is "very particular" about her ingredients, using only locally grown red chilies from the Espanola Valley. Her version is rich, crimson, and satisfying, with the meat-and-bean-filled chile saturating the crispy Fritos to just the right level of pliability. Built in the early 1940s and the only A.H. Valentine diner still standing in New Mexico, the Diner has its original red stools and mirrored stainless steel counter. Cozart proudly serves her Frito pies in the Diner's vintage bowls.

A slightly updated version of the Frito pie is found at Orlando's New Mexican Cafe in El Prado, a couple of miles north of the Taos plaza via Paseo del Pueblo Norte (State 68). Served in a generous soup bowl, Orlando's Frito pie is a deep-dish wonder consisting of either beef or chicken (your choice), beans, savory red or green chile, and plenty of shredded lettuce, tomatoes, and cheese. …

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