In the 1970s when Jane and I pondered the feasibility of a guide to restaurants that serve great regional food around America, our first dinner at Rancho de Chimayo was strong persuasion to proceed. Here was – and continues to be – a fount of New Mexican fare at its finest, served in a setting that is nothing less than magical. Candlelit tables are arrayed on a stepped patio outdoors, strolling guitarists strum, and the air smells of sagebrush and native cooking.
Understand that New Mexico is one of two states that prides itself on having a cuisine unlike anywhere else. (Louisiana is the other.) Yes, many places around the country have signature dishes, from Florida’s Key lime pie to Minnesota’s whitefish and from Buffalo’s beef on weck to Tucson’s Sonoran hot dog; but New Mexico’s style of preparing and serving food is unique. What you eat here is not Mexican; it is not Texan; it is not Spanish; and it is not Southwestern, although it is, to some degree, a taste of all of them.
New Mexicans seldom sit down for a “bowl of chili,” but there are few dishes here in which the chile pepper (spelled with an e at the end) doesn’t play a vital role. Foremost among them is carne adovada, a house specialty for which is pork marinated in chile puree and sizzled until it glistens red. The marinade turns it tender; and its pepper heat is balanced by servings of posole (hominy corn) and Spanish rice.
For something less incendiary, consider sopaipillas rellenos, in which the triangular fried breads are stuffed with beef, beans, tomatoes, and Spanish rice, and topped with red or green chile sauce. There are flautas, too – rolled corn tortillas filled with chicken or pork and fried crisp, topped with cool sour cream. Rancho de Chimayo’s green chile stew is a New Mexico classic; Roadfood’s Buffetbuster (who took the pictures accompanying this review) calls it “The Gold Standard.”
The drive to the village of Chimayo through the foothills of the Sangre de Christo mountains in the cool of an autumn evening is a Roadfood trip to remember. Chile ristras (wreaths) decorate adobe homes and late-day light makes sagebrush shimmer.