In late September and early October, the roofs of south-facing portales — porchs — all over New Mexico sprout brilliant red ristras, vivid stalactites of chile peppers strung from the eaves to dry for the winter.
Begun as a way to keep food wrung from a hard land preserved through the winter, these ristras, now beloved by tourists as souvenirs, may be the state's universal symbol.
The ristras signal the winding down of green chile season, which in late summer and early fall perfumes roadsides, back yards and supermarket parking lots with the earthy aroma of chiles being roasted in big butane-powered drums.
Chiles are the soul of New Mexican cooking, which blends Native American and Hispanic influences into a cuisine unto itself. To follow the chile's fragrant trail is to follow the Rio Grande as it cuts through the ever-rising mountainous terrain between El Paso, Texas, and Santa Fe, N.M.
Only the chile grown there has the distinctive taste associated with the New Mexico chile, notes Al Lucero, owner of Maria's New Mexican Kitchen in Santa Fe. It's a matter of what the French call "terroir" — the soil and growing conditions — that produces the chile's flavor, "like cabernet grapes grown in the Napa Valley."
The chile trail parallels the four-centuries-old Camino Real, the "Royal Road" that linked the Spanish colonial capital of Mexico City with the northern interior of New Spain. Known these days as Interstate 25, it's one of America's great drives, more than 300 miles through the scenery of a thousand Western movie matinees of our childhood.
We flew into El Paso, rented a car and drove north to Albuquerque, N.M., making Santa Fe a day trip from there and breaking the drive in the middle with a one-night stop in Truth or Consequences, N.M.
The mountains, silent and ancient, are never far away on this drive, and neither is a bowl of green chile pork stew. In galleries and gift shops along the way, you can buy every kind of chile-themed knickknacks, from pens to place mats.
And in coffee shops and car washes, at diner counters or white-linened tables, you might sample chiles rellenos, stacked blue-corn enchiladas with red or green chile sauce, green chile cheeseburgers or tempura squash blossoms in a red chile beurre blanc.
The first question you'll likely hear from your waiter is "red or green?"
Both chile sauces are made from the same chile, but the red chile has been allowed to hang on the plant longer and become fully ripened. Green chile sauce has a sharper, "greener" flavor and is usually hotter than the red, which tastes deeper, rounder, sweeter and earthier.
Actually, you don't have to choose between the two: You can have both. The code word, when you're ordering, is "Christmas." And for chile-heads and adventurous eaters, driving the chile trail during New Mexico's brilliant fall is certainly Christmas come early.
If you're used to Tex-Mex cooking, El Paso offers a good transition into the New Mexico frame of mind. It's set on the cusp of Mexico amid the Franklin Mountains, with its mirror city, Ciudad Juarez, across the now-diminished Rio Grande.
Chiles await even before you leave the El Paso airport, at the El Paso Chile Co., which sells all manner of chile-abilia. El Paso Chile Co. honcho W. Park Kerr is the crown prince of chile hereabouts, and he has a larger shop downtown where his business is headquartered.
Also downtown is the city's hippest restaurant, Cafe Central, whose eclectic menu pays homage to home with cream of green chile soup. But you'll want to get out into the neighborhoods for your immersion in chile cuisine.
Start with one of the locals' favorites, L&J Cafe, a landmark next to Concordia Cemetery. They roast green chiles out back on the patio, and chile guru Kerr calls L&J's chile con queso and green chile chicken enchiladas paradigms of their genre.
El Paso is a gold mine of dives and diners. It's home to the famous H&H Coffee Shop, a tiny 10-stool diner attached to a car wash, lauded by foodie gurus from Julia Child to the James Beard Foundation. From the well-seasoned grill come breakfast tacos, hotcakes and carne picada — chunks of tri-tip beef griddled with onion, tomato and jalapeno, and served with fresh flour tortillas. On Tuesdays, perfect chiles rellenos stuffed with melting Muenster are made from scratch.
Machaca — shredded brisket, scrambled with eggs, chiles, tomatoes and jalapenos — is one of the specialties at the even humbler Lucy's Coffee Shop, a blue-and-white-tiled diner attached to the Budget Lodge Motel at 1305 N. Mesa.
To wash it all down, saunter across the international bridge to Cuidad Juarez (take your driver's license), onto Avenido Juarez for an evening of bar-hopping. Have a margarita at the Kentucky Club Cantina (reputed to be the birthplace of the drink). A couple of doors north at the Nuevo Martino restaurant, venerable waiters shake martinis tableside.
From El Paso, less than an hour's drive north will bring you to New Mexico's Chile Central: the Mesilla Valley.
Take the "Old Road," which parallels I-25: N.M. Highway 28 to La Mesilla and Las Cruces; then N.M. Highway 185 to Hatch, winding peacefully past adobe houses painted in bright turquoises and blues, through the dappled shade of pecan orchards. You'll pass fields of sweet-smelling alfalfa and cotton; vineyards; horse, cattle and alpaca farms, with the pleated purple-gray Organ Mountains as backdrop.
Vast fields of peppers make this area New Mexico's Napa Valley of chiles.
The little village of Hatch, in fact, has given its name to New Mexico green chiles, familiarly known as Hatch chiles.
A few miles south of Hatch, Las Cruces, southern New Mexico's largest metropolis, has the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University.
The institute's demonstration garden showcases vari-colored chiles at the Fabian Garcia Research Center, next to a landscape garden of native plantings.
But it is little Mesilla, on the western edge of Las Cruces, that draws the tourists, with its faithfully preserved frontier atmosphere.
Today, the adobe buildings house jewelry and gift shops, and the main dining draws are La Posta de Mesilla and the Double Eagle Restaurant and Peppers Cafe.
La Posta is practically a tourist destination in itself, with several gift shops and a plant-filled courtyard housing tropical birds. On the plaza, the Double Eagle is two restaurants in one, the more casual being Peppers Cafe, in a colorful interior courtyard. The Double Eagle's ornate rooms are filled with antiques, gilt and Baccarat chandeliers.
Both serve inventive New Mexican cuisine such as green chile red snapper.
Truth Or Consequences
North of Hatch on N.M. Highway 187, the terrain gets rougher: dry washes, arroyos, canyons, mesas dotted with sage and scrub. Beyond, the mountains rise higher, in shades of sand and sienna, roses and lavenders.
Past the Caballo Reservoir, the road rises into Truth or Consequences, which the locals call "T or C." It was originally named Hot Springs but changed its name in 1950 when host Ralph Edwards promised to broadcast his radio game show from any town that would take the name of the program.
Back in the days when society "took the waters," the town was known for its mineral springs, and it exudes the faded, funky appeal of resorts that have seen better days. There are a few signs of yuppification, though, and one of them is the renovated Sierra Grande Lodge, perched on a walled hillside block overlooking the quiet downtown.
The restaurant at the Sierra Grande is several notches more ambitious than you'd expect in a place like T or C. For our leisurely meal under the restaurant's portal, the chef sent out chilled oysters with twin sorbets of green chile and heirloom tomato.
After an evening of massage and mineral soaks, and gazing out over the moonlit town from the Sierra Grande's balcony, we dare you not to feel rested the next morning.
So it's on to Albuquerque — with a couple of stops for lunch along the way.
In San Antonio, N.M., a tiny Western town on the Rio Grande, stop at the Owl Bar & Cafe, a venerable watering hole. Even the mayor of Hatch concedes that the Owl has the best green chile cheeseburger in New Mexico.
Next comes Socorro, an 1858-vintage village with an an old-fashioned bandstand under a shaded plaza. Off the plaza is Martha's Black Dog Coffeehouse, a laid-back spot hung with tie-dyed T-shirts. We're pretty sure there isn't another place within a 100-mile radius to get sushi with shrimp, cucumber and green chile.
Albuquerque, in New Mexico's high desert, is not just another dusty adobe town. Its downtown — readying for the city's tricentennial in April — is in the midst of a lively renaissance.
If you're after Indian jewelry, pottery or other crafts, odds are you can find it here more cheaply than in Santa Fe. Shops and galleries line the quaint streets of Old Town, and the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center offers authentic pieces at all price levels.
Albuquerque has museums galore, and one of the most impressive is the National Hispanic Cultural Center complex. You can get a double dose of culture and cuisine here; there's a restaurant with an L-shaped courtyard, offering traditional New Mexican specialties.
Matter of fact, you can hardly turn around without bumping into a chile dish in Albuquerque.
A personal favorite is the quirky little university-area El Patio, with delightful outdoor dining and incendiary carne adovada.
On this trip, though, we motored out to the cottonwood-shaded village of Corrales. Casa Vieja, an old hacienda that's the domain of local TV chef Jim White, sets a festive outdoor table with the likes of green chile pork carnitas, in a crispy tortilla shell perched on a mound of garlic mashed potatoes.
You can balance out all that chile consumption with visits to a couple of Albuquerque's wineries. Gruet, owned by a French family, makes strikingly fine sparkling wine for the price. And Casa Rondena is a Mediterranean oasis with plashing fountains and gorgeous grounds.
You can eat a different breakfast every day of the week without venturing more than a few blocks from Santa Fe's central plaza. Tia Sophia's is famous for its huevos rancheros (chile-topped eggs on tortillas), and the Plaza Cafe, with its soda-fountain counter, for its divine blue corn pinon hotcakes.
For innovative New Mexican fare, you can't beat the colorful Cafe Pasqual's, decorated with whimsical Mexican murals and named for the folk saint of Mexican kitchens and cooks. This busy corner dining room buzzes with tourists and locals digging into dishes like smoked trout hash with chile de arbol salsa. It feels casual, but owner Katharine Kagel was a James Beard best-chef nominee a few years ago.
If you've missed any New Mexican specialties on your trip, you can redress that omission at Maria's New Mexican Kitchen, a Santa Fe favorite since the '50s. Maria's can serve you a spread that includes a rich layered green chile chicken enchilada casserole and plump tamales with pinon nuts, green corn and green chile.
And you would be remiss if you didn't crown your trip with a splurge at one of Santa Fe's many fine-dining spots. Mark Miller practically put chiles on the national foodie map with his Coyote Cafe, but we chose Ristra, with its spare, serene dining rooms and its elegant French owner, Eric Lamalle.
Executive chef Xavier Grenet, a Joel Robuchon protege, sends out dishes like an ethereal tempura of squash blossoms atop Dungeness crab and zucchini dice, set in a subtle thyme and red chile butter sauce.
Sipping the last drops of our black Mediterranean mussels' chipotle-mint broth, we found ourselves wishing we didn't have to drive back to Albuquerque, so we could linger over a glass of wine in the lushly planted front garden.
Still, the mountains beckoned, and the hostess reminded us: "There's a full moon; it'll keep you company all the way home."