By Jane and Michael Stern
Originally Published 2003 Gourmet Magazine
Santa fe boasts more than 200 restaurants. It’s an impressive number for such a small municipality, but what makes “The City Different” really different is the quality of food at every level, from fancy (Geronimo) to funky (Bert’s Burger Bowl). Corned beef hash for breakfast at Cafe Pasqual’s and dinner at Santacafé (with the occasional warm sopaipilla from the Plaza Restaurant and a slice of double chocolate cake from Dave’s Not Here) is our idea of culinary heaven.
As good as these in-town places are, however, we have a special fondness for discovering meals outside of town. In the orbit of the state capital, through the high desert or up in the mountains, there’s a bonanza of humble restaurants all the more memorable for their remoteness. Other than a horse on sagebrush trails, we can think of no finer vehicle for experiencing the enchantment of northern New Mexico than a car on back roads in search of carne adovada and chiles rellenos.
El Farolito was described to us in an email as “an adobe-covered house trailer way out in the middle of nowhere with fabulous green chile.” We couldn’t resist. Soon we were driving northwest through Española, across the Rio Chama, and into the Carson National Forest, where grazing cows and stately rock formations vastly outnumber humans and houses. As we cruised onto the single street that is El Rito, we smelled sizzling WondeRoast chicken from the rotisseries inside Martin’s General Store, and we heard the sound of a fast blade on a chopping block coming from behind a kitchen door across the street.
It turns out that El Farolito is not actually a house trailer, but it is the shape of a double-wide. It was opened 20 years ago by Carmen and Dennis Trujillo, and its name comes from the little lantern that hangs like a beacon on the front porch—the only light in town after dark. In the fall, the modest diner smells of roasting chiles; year round, it serves eye-opening red and green chiles that are odes to the luminous flavor of the state vegetable. The green is an opulent stew of tender pork, tomato, and ribbons of hot, hot chile. The red is opaque and meatless—puréed pods and spice. It is more of a sauce for dipping tortillas or cloaking a burrito, though you can get a bowl of red with ground beef and/or beans added to it.
“You’ve had the Frito pie at the old Woolworth’s on the Plaza?” asks Dominic, the Trujillos’ 29-year-old son. “Ours blows it away!” As popular in northern New Mexico as enchiladas, the Frito pie is said to have been invented at the Santa Fe Woolworth’s some 40 years ago, and the traditional way of serving it is in the Fritos bag. El Farolito serves its version in a bowl, and it is ravishing: A massive layer of beefy red chili garnished with shredded cheese and lettuce completely blankets a foundation of salty corn chips. Beyond the persuasive combination of flavors, the magic here is in the textures of the dish. The Fritos soften but retain a fragile, ghostly crunch.
As we left El Farolito, we paused to sign the guest book and added our consensus to a page where one happy customer had written, “This is the way it should be. LIFE IS GOOD!”
The village of Chimayó is off a winding road in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, but it’s far from obscure. Generations of weavers have made its cloth a western legend, and its early-19th-century Santuario is a destination for religious pilgrims who believe that dirt from its earthen floor has miraculous healing powers. And for four decades, hungry travelers have come to Chimayó to eat Leona’s tortillas.
Leona Medina-Tiede knows wheat. When she was growing up, her mother grew it and harvested it with a sickle. “We rubbed it on a screen to get the thistles off,” she remembers. “We’d hurt our hands bad doing that. Then we’d pick it up, and the wind blew the thistles away.” She and her mother took the wheat to the Chimayó mill, where, Leona recalls, “They wouldn’t grind it too well, so you’d get little crispy nuggets of unground wheat in your flour. It was so good!” Leona’s mother rolled out fresh tortillas three times a day for her 11 children.
When we first drove through New Mexico, in the mid-1970s, Leona had a stand on Highway 76 where she sold tortillas and chiles. At harvest time, you could pull over and get a sandwich of just-roasted chiles wrapped in a fresh tortilla—one of the greatest roadside snacks ever. She now makes and sells flavored tortillas (apple cinnamon, onion, garlic, piñon, or pesto), and she runs a little restaurant, shaded by a catalpa tree, across the parking lot from the Santuario. Here, she serves tamales that radiate corn flavor, red and green chile stews, posole, and the traditional hangover cure of pozole and tripe known as menudo.
Leona’s also serves exceptional burritos stuffed with fiery carne adovada (chile-marinated pork), rice and beans, or chicharrones (like nuggets of bacon, only piggier). The one that knocks our socks off is the chile relleno burrito. Rellenos, which are chiles stuffed with cheese, breaded, and fried, are popular throughout New Mexico, but too often the chile and its crust turn to mush. Leona’s has crust with crunch; the chile pod it sheathes is al dente and full flavored, with enough mellow melted cheese inside to balance the heat. Wrap it in one of her tortillas, and you have what Leona calls a “handheld burrito,” meaning it’s easy to pick up and eat with no utensils. This is a valued quality among pilgrims for whom Leona’s sanctuary is a blessed part of the walk through Chimayó.
Leona’s (permanetly closed)
4 Medina Lane