New Mexican food: One adopted Coloradan’s discovery

New Mexican food, Denver, Jack-N-Grill

As a native Californian, I grew up eating Mexican food.  It became part of my identity.

My first babysitter brought over her home-cooked tamales and enchiladas for lunch.  I didn’t have PB&J’s or chicken noodle soup when Mary Guerrero watched me.

If we had my dad’s favorite Japanese dishes for dinner, I wondered aloud why we couldn’t have burritos instead.

As a high school student, I probably consumed more Taco Bell than McDonald’s (OK, I know some people who really don’t believe that Taco Bell is Mexican. But when you’re a teenager, authenticity isn’t a top priority).

Not surprisingly to this day, Mexican is my favorite kind of food.  Even as other types of cuisine have come into my culinary radar, I will choose the dishes I first grew up enjoying.

Yet, when I moved to Colorado, and took subsequent trips to the neighboring state to the south, I realized that a different kind existed here:  New Mexican food.  It’s a regional take of the Mexican found all over the west and distinctly different from the California type, the Sonoran variation in Arizona and Tex-Mex in…well, you know where.

If you have eaten at a Southwestern restaurant, then you’ve gotten a little taste of New Mexican.  But you won’t really know it fully until you’ve been there or here in Colorado, where we’ve pretty much adopted it as our own.

Here’s a bit of primer of what to expect with New Mexican food, which I’m sure you’ll enjoy once you’ve had a taste of it.

With New Mexican food, green chile is king

During fall, the scent of roasted chiles permeates the air here.  These emerald treasures, Hatch chiles from their namesake valley in New Mexico, take an extended tumble in a large steel drum, hand-rotated to ensure even heating.  The resulting product, a blistered and blackened chile, then become irresistible dishes like chile verde, or green chile sauce. Don’t even try to ask which is the best.  Everyone has their favorite recipe, and the debates can cause longtime friendships to split irreparably – almost.

Hatch chiles, roasted chiles, New Mexican chiles, New Mexican food
A bingo machine…uh, chile roaster at the Golden Farmers Market, blistering those beautiful Hatch chiles
But other chiles hold court too

Of course, there are other “New Mexican” chiles.  They go under the names Pueblo, Rio Grande and Anaheim peppers, and farmers grow both red and green varieties.  When dried, they get strung up into decorative bunches called ristras, and you’ll see them everywhere across the state.  The chile is the state’s official vegetable, and they even come with an official state question: “Red (sauce) or green (sauce)?”  If you want both on your dish, be really native and say “Christmas.”

New Mexican food, chiles
Don’t forget the other kinds of chiles found in New Mexican cuisine
They’re not moldy – the tortillas are supposed to be that color

A few other states grow blue corn, but it seems to be most at home in New Mexico.  Here’s where you’re going to have corn meal that looks concrete gray. But once you’ve mixed it with wet ingredients, it takes on a deep blue, almost purple hue.  You’ll then see it in corn tortillas and chips, muffins, fritters and pretty much anything else requiring using maize.  It doesn’t taste all that different from yellow or white, but it’s a signature local food.

blue corn tortillas, blue corn, blue cornmeal, New Mexican food
A perfect stack of blue corn enchiladas (photo courtesy of La Tortilleria)
Stack those enchiladas up

What comes to your mind when someone says “enchiladas?”  Is it a rolled softened tortilla filled with cheesy and/or meaty goodness and smothered in a piquant, kickin’ sauce?  Well, in New Mexican restaurants, you’ll often see the stacked version, which involves placing slightly fried corn tortillas on top of each other, with filling and sauce in between.  It’s like having an individual enchilada pie…and it’s just as tasty as the regular kind.  They’re often topped off with a fried egg, which I don’t like, but many others do.

stacked enchiladas, New Mexican food
A beautiful mess, otherwise known as stacked enchiladas (photo courtesy of Taste of Home)
Pillowy sticky yummy sweet stuff

I had only discovered sopapillas when my family went to a Mexican restaurant in Denver way back in 1978, when I was still in grade school.  When we returned, I nearly cried when our local places didn’t serve them.  Apparently, they are a Southwestern specialty that hasn’t made it to most other areas of the country.  But once you’ve enjoyed this puffy, slightly crispy fried bread drizzled in honey and sprinkled in powdered sugar, you’ll want them in your local Mexican eatery too.

sopapillas, New Mexican food
Sopapillas – bet you can’t eat just one! (photo courtesy of Tasty Kitchen)

If you want to try some New Mexican while you’re in Denver, here’s a very brief list of restaurants (in no particular order):

1.) Little Anita’s 

2.) Jack-N-Grill

3.) Soccoro’s Street Tacos

That’s just a quick intro to how New Mexican food contrasts itself with other Mexican varieties.  Do you have a favorite aspect of it that I haven’t mentioned here?  Let me know in the comments!

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