If you like Mexican food, then you are going to LOVE New Mexican food. Although I’m not a native New Mexican, I did live there for ten years and I love to eat, so while not an expert, I’m well positioned to give pointers on what foods you need to eat while in New Mexico for a true experience. I just wished someone told me what foods to eat in New Mexico before my first visit.
So, first of all, what is New Mexican food? When I first moved to New Mexico, I asked many lifelong residents how New Mexican food differs from Mexican food? The standard response was, New Mexican food is just like Mexican food but it is done better and with more care. I like that answer but a better answer is New Mexican food is a blend of Spanish and Mexican foods with strong Pueblo Native American influences. New Mexican dishes tend to use flour tortillas, pork, chile peppers, and cheddar cheese while Mexican dishes use corn tortillas, seafood, grilled meats, salsa, and a lot of spices.
What is Chile?
Noticed that I spelled chile with an “e” on the end? Chile with an “e” is a pepper that can range from mild to really hot and is an integral part of many New Mexican dishes. Chile with an “e” at the end is the proper Spanish spelling and the most common spelling of chile in the Southwest U.S. Chili without the “e” is the Americanized spelling of chile. Most New Mexican can’t wait until August/September when the chile peppers are harvested and roasted. Even to this day, when I smell chiles roasting at a local market in Dallas, I can instantly picture myself waiting in line at Wagner’s Market in Corrales, New Mexico for my annual bushel (think a really big basket) of roasted green chiles. When I would get home, I would dutifully peel off the skins, clean, chopped, and freeze the chiles so I’d have an adequate supply for the year. Chiles can be red or green with the red being the fully ripened ones that tend to be a little sweeter to me. Either can be hot so ask before ordering. The heat of the chile depends on the dryness and temperatures of the growing season.
On my first trip to New Mexico for a job interview (which I turned down and then took six months later due to my future boss’s persistence, thank you Howard), I ordered enchiladas at the El Pinto Restaurant in Albuquerque. The waiter then asked me red or green? And I’m like red or green what? He was talking about the color of the chiles for the enchiladas. Red or green is the New Mexico state question. It is a trick question because there are three possible answers: red, green, or Christmas, with the latter being a mixture of the two. That night there was no question that I was a tourist because after he told me about red and green chiles, my follow up response was do they come in any other colors? That got a chuckle from the waiter. For the record, my preference is green but red ones are good too.
Foods to Eat in New Mexico.
Here is my list of favorite foods to eat in New Mexico. A few of these foods are seasonal but you can now find them at other times of the year. Also, some of these foods are not really “true” New Mexican foods but are adaptions of common foods that you can only find in the Land of Enchantment.
Here are the foods to eat in New Mexico:
Stacked enchiladas. These are like the rolled variety of enchiladas but are stacked flat several layers high and smoothed with green chile sauce and cheese. Somehow, they just taste different than the rolled kind. I just can’t explain it so you will need to trust me on this.
Breakfast burrito. We are not talking about those skinny little things that you find at a typical fast-food restaurant which you can eat in a bite or two. We are talking massive gotta hold them with two hands burritos stuffed with eggs, potatoes, cheese, lots of green chiles, and your choice of bacon, sausage, or chorizo. The ones you eat with your hands are sometimes referred to as grab breakfast burritos but you can also get a plated version that is smoothed with chile and cheese. Both are equally good. Being from New Jersey, I go for grab variety as it reminds me of a sub sandwich. I also fold my pizza slices and eat them with my hands.
Posole. Posole, sometimes spelled pozole, is a pork and red chile based soup with hominy, a type of corn. The hominy is boiled in water and lime juice. The texture and flavor of the hominy are unlike regular corn. Posole is served as either an appetizer or as a meal on its own.
Green Chile Stew. This is the New Mexican version of chicken soup. Made with green chiles, potatoes, pork (sometimes beef), garlic, onions, and chicken broth it is food for the soul. Eat it with a hearty piece of white bread or the standard New Mexican go to, a warm flour tortilla with some butter. This is typically a fall or winter dish.
Green Chile Cheese Burger. This is just a cheese burger with green chiles on top but the unique combination of the two is something different and adds a little bit of kick that is not too overpowering. Add bacon for an out of this world experience. And if you want to go all out, order green chile cheese fries which are fries smoothed with green chiles and cheddar cheese. I do still regularly make myself a green chile cheese burger despite living in Dallas with the chiles I freeze every year.
Frito Pie. Coming from the East coast, Frito Pie is a completely bizarre combination of foods for me. It took a lot of convincing for me to try it the first time but after that, I was hooked. Normally, Frito Pie is Hormel Chili added to a bag of Fritos. That is good but in New Mexico, they take it a step further. In New Mexico, Frito Pie is homemade chili, shredded cheese, tomatoes, and cheddar cheese with some red enchilada sauce on top. Yummy. This is my second favorite New Mexican dish.
Green Chile Chicken Enchiladas. This is my all-time favorite dish. Essentially these are shredded chicken and cheddar cheese, wrapped in a corn or flour tortilla, smoothed in green chile sauce and cheddar cheese before being baked. Have a warm flour tortilla or two on the side smoothed in butter to take this meal over the top.
Carna Asada. Carna Asada is pork that has been marinated in red chile sauce and then slow-cooked. I have had carne asada on its own or as a burrito. I prefer the latter but both are equally good. Carna asada is also good with eggs (scrambled or over easy) for breakfast. Talk about getting a spicy start to your morning.
Stuffed sopapilla. Sopapillas are traditionally thought of as a Mexican dish, but they likely originated in New Mexico. Sopapillas are a fried dough closely related to Native American Fry Bread. It is soft, fluffy, light, and very cavernous which makes it great to stuff all kinds of meat into. I like them stuffed with carne asada and a little chile sauce and cheddar cheese on top. Shredded chicken or beef taco meat are other possible stuffings. Sopapilla can also be dessert if left unfilled and topped with honey. When eaten as a dessert, they must be eaten hot.
Native American Frybread. Native American Frybread or fry bread is closely related to Sopapillas. Typically, the only time a New Mexican eats frybread is at the New Mexico State Fair but you can find it at markets and other events throughout the year. Frybread is dough that has been fried in oil or shortening. It is lighter and more fluffy than other types of fried dough that I have eaten all over the world. You top frybread with powdered sugar and honey or sometimes jam.
Indian Taco. An Indian Taco is a taco made out of Native American Fry Bread instead of a corn or flour tortilla. The fry bread is laid flat and topped with the traditional taco toppings such as beef, lettuce, tomatoes, chile sauce, and cheese.
Biscochito. Biscochito is the New Mexican State cookie. The origins of the cookie are likely from Spain but the residents of New Mexico have made this their cookie. You can usually only get this cookie made from anise, cinnamon, red wine, and lard or butter during Christmastime.
Anything You Can Put Green Chile On. In New Mexico, they will put green chile on just about anything. Some of my favorite things to put green chiles on or in are pizza, bagels, and scrambled eggs.
I hope that you liked this blog post about foods to eat in New Mexico. I plan to supplement this post later with some of my favorite restaurants and New Mexican that you can find in stores near you.