Lacy Waxes Lyrical on New Mexico

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What an excellent submission from site reader Lacy! Seriously, I was so enamored with her writing that I bought a one-way ticket to New Mexico, bar exam be damned. Yo quiero La Choza.

In the world of food, there are regions.  The American South, for example, is a region of food.  France is a region of food with smaller regions, like Provence, contained therein.  Every good amateur gourmet knows this. But I propose that there exist not only regions and sub-regions, but micro-regions, if you will.  Eddies in the flow of gastronomic space-time that create pools of such intensely unique and delightful food experiences that their very existence seems to defy all logic and reason.  I myself have experienced one of these eddies, and the locals call it Santa Fe. 

New Mexico Mexican food is unlike any other of the sub-genres of Mexican food.  I grew up in Texas eating Tex-Mex with cheddar cheese in the enchiladas smothered in Wolf Brand chili or green tomatillo sauce.  I now live in California, and I have experienced Baja Mexican food with fish tacos in corn tortillas and anaheim chiles in abundance.  But nothing — let me repeat, NOTHING — compares to the delights of a blue corn enchilada prepared with queso fresco and smothered in green chile that will leave your lips pleasantly burning and senseless.

I was back in New Mexico this past weekend, and I visited the restaurant La Choza.  La Choza is located literally 10 feet from the railroad tracks of the Santa Fe rail line that still runs pleasure trips between Santa Fe and Lamy.  It’s in a largish house that’s been converted into a restaurant and you park your car precariously close to the tracks in a dusty gravel strip between the house and the railroad.  It’s that kind of place.  Inside, you find real adobe walls about a foot thick, and large rooms filled with simple tables and chairs with local art adorning the walls.  (Santa Fe is, in its soul, an artist’s town, and so any restaurant worth its scratch will have local art on the walls, usually for sale.) 

The menu is deceptively simple.  There is nothing on it that one wouldn’t find in any small family run Mexican restaurant: enchiladas, tacos – soft or crispy, tamales, burritos, Frito pie, and margaritas.  I order the combination plate of one cheese enchilada and one beef soft taco which comes with pinto beans and posole — a distant cousin to hominy.  One of my companions orders the same, the other, a vegetarian burrito plate.  And then, the Official State Question: “red or green?”

In New Mexico, chile comes in two varieties: the green which are the young chiles picked green and then roasted to perfection, or the red which are the same type of chile, allowed to ripen, and traditionally dried in the blazing New Mexico sun on the roofs of adobe houses.  The green is usually milder, but not always, and only in comparison to the scorching bitter heat of the red.  At the top of the La Choza menu is a disclaimer, for the benefit of tourists, which reads ‘We are not responsible for “too hot” chile!’  Both kinds are traditionally cooked with pork and other ingredients to make the sauce for enchiladas but being in Santa Fe, the open minded kind of place it is, La Choza also caters to vegetarians.  The only correct responses to the Official State Question are “red,” “green,” or “Christmas.” 

After we place our order, a large basket of fresh chips and fresh salsa arrives with our drinks.  These chips are not the least bit greasy, but are crispy and full of corn flavor.  In fact, they are so deliciously flavorful that they do not need salt.  If all you’ve ever been exposed to in your life is Doritos and Tostitos, you have not tasted a true tortilla chip.  The salsa is pleasantly piquant with flavors of roasted tomatoes, cilantro, and chile, with just enough heat to leave the back of your throat smoldering nicely.  I call it “after burn” because you don’t sense it until after the chip and salsa have left your mouth.

When the meals arrive only a few moments later, the aroma is overpoweringly delightful.  The plates are scalding hot and brimming to the point of overflowing with green chile.  When you order a burrito or a taco in Santa Fe, do not expect to be able to pick it up and eat it with your hands as you might do at Taco Bell, at least, not unless you want green chile up to your elbows.  New Mexican food is meant to be eaten with fork and knife and spoon.

We dug into our meals, and I must tell you, it was a Zen experience.  The green chile was delicious, yet didn’t commit the ultimate faux pas of overpowering the smooth queso in the enchilada, nor the deliciously spiced meat in the taco, nor the full corn flavor of the blue corn tortillas.  The beans tasted like they’d been cooked all day in my neighbor’s crock pot (which is a GOOD thing) and the posole — which I don’t normally like because it’s sometimes chewy with a weird texture — was tender and delicious.  I found myself scraping the last dregs of chile off my plate with my spoon – I didn’t think it prudent to lick the plate in public.

Arriving with our meal was another basket, this time filled with three warm sopapillas.  For anyone who doesn’t know, a sopapilla is a square of fried dough that puffs up when cooked, leaving a warm soft pocket in the middle which one fills with honey to eat.  Among my friends and relatives, there are differing opinions as to the proper method for eating sopapillas; some involve pouring the honey directly into the pocket then tilting it from one side to the other to fully coat the inside, others require that the honey be applied on the outside only, and still others opt to add their honey bit by bit and bite by bite to fully maximize the honey to sopapilla ratio.  However you do it, it is, I believe, mandatory to come away with sticky fingers.

When we were finished, out stomachs were full, our minds floating on chile scented clouds of ecstasy.  The price for this little slice of heaven?  Thirty dollars for three dinners of outstanding quality and taste. 

But the most amazing part of this long winded story is not that the chile was so perfect, nor that the restaurant was so cozy, nor that the price was so reasonable, nor that the art and ambiance were so distinctly “Santa Fe.” No.  The most amazing part is that this is just ONE of the dozens of exemplary restaurants that carry on happily in relative anonymity nestled in this small town at the foot of those majestic mountains.  Every cuisine imaginable from New Mexican, to Thai, to pizza, to Indian and back again is represented, and each and every one is a culinary delight.  If you’ve never found yourself lucky enough to stumble into a concentrated micro-region of cuisine, I honestly implore you to keep searching.  They do exist.  And if all else fails, I know the way to Santa Fe.

3 comments

  1. Oh Lacy thank you!!! :)

    It’s been a few years since I ate at La Choza but you just brought it back with a rush. I have some great pictures of my brother and I out acting goofy on the railroad tracks.

    You make me pine for Santa Fe. I need to get back out there.

    Thank you thank you for your yummy review.

  2. thank you for a wonderful story that makes my heart homesick for southwestern cooking, taste and smells. having been born and raised in tucson,arizona and now living in the western part of pennsylvania, i get sooo hungry for real mexican food i can almost taste it, like today reading your article. thank you again, you made my day.

  3. if you like frank bruni, you’ll LOVE him after reading review of new steakhouse, wolfgangs and comparison w/ Lugers.

    msg

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