Over my decadently long University winter break, I took a trip to Albuquerque and Santa Fe -- Albuquerque to meet my boyfriend's family, and Santa Fe to not have to hang out in Albuquerque the whole time -- and as much as I was dazzled by the natural beauty, the art, the distinct architecture, the culture, and the rich history of New Mexico, I think I came away most impressed by the food. (Of course!)
Iowa has a sizable Latino population, and if you've lived here there's no doubt your small town had one or two quality Mexican restaurants. That's probably true of many small towns all over the Midwest, and the US. And when a foreign food enters the local culture and evolves over many generations, it picks up its own characteristics. My favorite local Mexican restaurant, Vel's Amigos in Fort Madison, is unique (as far as I know) in that it uses potatoes and peas in its enchiladas. That is pure Iowan Irish-German hearty comfort food, there! Anyway, what I'm saying with all this is that I'm not going to imply that you can't get good Mexican food in the Midwest. But the Mexican food of New Mexico has developed a very, very special flavor all its own that you can't experience without being there.
The first thing my boyfriend's mother told me was "Watch out -- the chili is addictive." I thought, yeah, yeah, I've tasted chilis before -- but not like this I haven't. New Mexican chili sauce is pungent and flavorful, rich with that complex chili taste but without trying to prove anything about spiciness. The capsaicin in New Mexican chili knows it's spicy, and leaves it at that. It doesn't go about posturing and betting you you can't stand to eat it. The spiciness is a complement rather than a challenge. Generally speaking, that is -- I'm sure the Southwest has its share of insanity sauces, but that's not the point of chili like it so often is out here. (I found that the restaurant with the menu that boasted, "We cannot be blamed for the spiciness of our chili!" served the blandest sauces of all. Kind of like how anything that calls itself "comedy" immediately ceases to be funny.)
"Red or green?" is the unofficial State Question of New Mexico. I was asked it the first time I ordered something in a restaurant. "Uh, uh, uh, chili?" I stammered, caught off guard. The waitress gave me a "well, yeah" look. You quickly learn your preference. I'm a red chili addict. It's deep and dark and velvety and smoky and delicious. I miss it so. I plan to learn to make it soon.
Aside from the chili, there are just so many good quality Mexican classics, and dishes unique to New Mexico. The enchiladas are amazing, just cheesy as all hell -- I don't know how authentically Mexican this is, but it's the way I like 'em. The burritos are big and hearty. The guacamole is rich and buttery. The salsas are spicy and flavorful. The tamales are mealy and comforting. Two New Mexico-only dishes I tried were posole, a stew of pork (yep, I ate meat -- I was a guest and I thought it rude to turn it down, plus I have a "try local foods while traveling" rule) and hominy, and New Mexican sopaipillas. Uruguay, Chile and New Mexico all have something called a sopaipilla. Uruguay's is more like a fried tortilla; Chile's is a sweet pastry with pumpkin. New Mexico's is a big puffed-up pillow of fried bread that's hollow on the inside. Most commonly you bite off a corner and then squirt honey inside to your taste. They can also come stuffed with beans and cheese and other fillings. I did not try this because I liked them with honey too well.
The only thing I didn't like were calabacitas, or squash, which seemed to be a Santa Fe thing -- they were offered alongside or inside everything. I don't really have anything against squash; as a vegetarian I'm aware that it is a really good source of essential nutrients, and once Brian whipped up a butternut squash soup that was delicious. But it's not my favorite. I will admit that I only had one experience with calabacitas, in a "New Mexican Burrito" at the Plaza Café in Santa Fe (Santa Fe's oldest restaurant, and the site of the falsely advertised too-hot chili). Calabacitas were the only vegetarian filling offered. I found them bland and pasty and watery. And also, why not beans?! Burritos should have beans! I'm sorry! Call me a purist! I want beans! I'm a vegetarian and I want my legumes! Also, their tomatoes tasted like cardboard. But that was my one and ONLY blah food experience in New Mexico. A separate post with restaurant recommendations is coming.
My New Mexico experience will most definitely influence my cooking from now on. I've borrowed the Southwestern cookbook Comida Sabrosa from Brian. The only question is what to try first...