It’s hard to find people more proud of their local cuisine than New Mexicans. And for good reason. For starters, it’s the oldest regional cooking style in the whole of the US, with a heritage going back roughly 400 years. For another, it’s a unique blend of Native American, Spanish, and more modern American influences. New Mexican cuisine has an identity all its own – Tex-Mex (or even just regular Mex) it most certainly isn’t.
Part of that comes down to distinctive local ingredients. New Mexico is famous for specific produce like blue corn (often ground and used to make blue corn tortillas), pion nuts (pine nuts) and, above all else, the green chile. Also known as New Mexican or Hatch chiles, they’re the state’s largest crop – and can be found in most classic New Mexican cuisine.
For travellers heading to Albuquerque eager to taste the Land of Enchantment’s most popular staples, where to start? If your spice tolerance doesn’t register beyond a single pepper on most restaurant menus, begin by priming your palate: you’re going to be in for some heat.
First and foremost, it’s time to get acquainted with chile culture. If you’re going out to eat, be prepared to answer New Mexico’s most-asked question: “Green or red?” Both chile sauces are equally delicious, though green is a bit spicier. If you’re having trouble deciding and want to try both, simply ask for “Christmas.”
It doesn’t get much more New Mexican than the green chile cheeseburger, a local classic that sees a sloppy, diner-style burger topped with a big, spicy helping of the stuff. Though the dish is available all over, one of the best bets is 66 Pit Stop, whose hulking Laguna Burger has been voted one of the best in the state. Get it with a side of Frito pie – a local dish that blends chili con carne, cheese, and Frito corn chips, among other ingredients.
It’s borderline criminal to visit Albuquerque without trying a breakfast burrito – and, you guessed it, there’s green chile involved here, too. Consisting of scrambled eggs, cheese, chile, and various other toppings and add-ons, all wrapped up in a big flour tortilla, they’re a wonderfully hearty start to the day. Frontier is said to do one of the finest examples in Albuquerque (and, as a side-note, is also famous for its massive sweet rolls).
Given its proximity, many of New Mexico’s most popular plates are closely related to Mexican dishes. Tamales, for instance – meat and cornmeal wrapped in cornhusks and steamed – are hugely popular, and El Modelo is famous for its authentic version. Carne adovada (chunks of pork marinated in red chile) is another example, said to be a cousin to Mexican carne al pastor. Head to Mary & Tito’s for this staple – it’s said to be the best New Mexican restaurant in the whole state.
And that’s certainly not where New Mexican cuisine ends. Any belly-filling trip to Albuquerque should be spent sampling the Native American-inspired dishes of the region as well. King among these is posole: a rich, flavoursome stew made of giant corn kernels, which has origins in the local Navajo population. Navajo fry bread (puffed, fried bread that’s also known as an “˜Indian taco’ when served with a number of savoury toppings), is another dish with Native American origins.
So whether it’s burgers or tamales, burritos or posole, New Mexico’s rich cuisine is one of the state’s biggest draws. Just count on getting a bit red in the face: thanks to the abundance of green chile, these dishes rank pretty high on the Scoville scale.
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Have you tried these classics of New Mexican cuisine? Which was your favourite? Share your thoughts with us in the comments section below.
Written by Claire Bullen