Desert Food Odyssey 2021

I’ve wanted to visit New Mexico for a long time. A few years ago, my dear friend Marianne and her husband John dropped out of the hustle and bustle of big city livin’ to open a brewery in Truth or Consequences. I knew basically nothing about the town except that it sounds like the best possible place to fight a duel to the death (which appeals to me). I was delighted to learn that it’s a soaking town and Marianne and John have a hotspring in their yard. Angela and I greatly enjoy soaking and it seemed like the obvious choice for a much-needed post-vaccination road trip. Here was the plan: 1) Stop at Thi and Melissa’s house in SLC and get an espresso at D’Bolla (these are the first items on my agenda for any trip south). 2) Stay at an inexpensive hotsprings resort in Truth or Consequences for a few days and explore the area. 3) Get an Airbnb in Santa Fe for a few days and explore a different area.

It was a good plan. Southern New Mexico is huge and empty and sublime and we found a lot of really good food both in tiny little towns and in El Paso and did a ton of peak soaking. We also got to hang out a lot with Marianne and John and their two-year old son Hank, who instantly became my BFF.

We stayed at the Pelican, which I highly recommend. The rooms are funky and big and very reasonably priced and you can use the private indoor soaking tubs 24/7. I soaked in the middle of the night after Angela crashed and played Jon Hopkins’ Meditations and had the whole place to myself.

We also soaked a couple times at Riverbend Hotsprings, which is a little more upscale and rents out picturesque private soaking pools overlooking the Rio Grande. It’s amazing. We especially liked soaking there after dark.

But what you really want to hear about is the food. My expectation was that Southern NM would be a bit rough for food, El Paso would have good standard Tex-Mex, and Santa Fe would be great. I had it totally wrong. By and large, the Santa Fe food scene sucks. There is good food to be had, but it takes some searching. Southern NM and El Paso, on the other hand, both held unexpected riches.

The first delight, though, was the fucking Breaking Bad hot dog place in Albuquerque. During the years the show was on the air, every time they showed that hot dog stand I thought, “I wonder if the food is good. I bet it is.” It turns out—I shit you not—they serve the single best chile dog I’ve ever had in my life. And I say that as a lover of chile dogs. The red chile is intensely aromatic and very hot, so they only need to use a little and the whole thing stays stuck together in the bun like the perfect little present it is. Not one bit of chile got on my shirt, which is borderline miraculous. The dog itself is locally made and extremely good. The frito pie is also superb. I overheard someone ordering green chile, which I hadn’t seen on the menu. It will haunt me that I didn’t try it. The next time I go to New Mexico, that green chile is the first thing on my agenda.

Truth or Consequences does not have the best food options. In fact, the only things we ate there were a couple ready-made salad bowls from Walmart and a cubano I got as a sample from a friend of Marianne’s who is opening a new sandwich shop called The Portly Pepper. He is from Miami and the sandwich is proper. I was delighted to be suddenly eating a surprise cubano.

Without question, the food treasure of the area is Hatch, the chile capitol of the world. I wasn’t sure if it would be a tourist trap or a chile Mecca, and it turns out to be the latter. I bought a fucking garbage bag of dried chilies from a guy on the side of the road. There are only a handful of restaurants in town and from what I could tell they are all great, with the exception of Sparky’s. Sparky’s is the famous roadside attraction and they sell a green chile burger that shitty magazines like Maxim or Food & Wine always pick for their “The Best Burger in Every State” listicles. The burger is fine but in no way special. They are stingy with the chiles and the chiles themselves are not as flavorful as the ones we found elsewhere in Hatch.

Our favorite food in Hatch was the Christmas-style chilaquiles at the Pepper Pot. Both their red and green chile are peak examples of the category. We regretted ordering machaca, not because it wasn’t good, but because it didn’t come with chile.

The quick stop burrito place was also great. I had bean, chicharron, and lightly roasted green chilies in a fresh flour tortilla and I am still fantasizing about it. The tortilla was perfect and the flavor was dominated by the chilies, with the beans providing substance and the chicharron adding a textural contrast. Angela had a chile verde burrito and it was equally good. Even the food in the gas station looked good in Hatch.

El Paso was a big excursion that we paired with White Sands. My strategy was to join the El Paso food discussion Facebook group a few months in advance and keep my ear to the ground. As with any public forum for food recommendations, one has to wade through a lot of garbage, but I did pick up some tidbits that helped make it a successful trip. We fasted for about 20 hours and then ate four consecutive lunches. This is my favorite way to do food tourism. First we ate at Elemi, which is a buzzy upscale place downtown that does regional Mexican food with a twist and a flourish. They clearly have not been able to restaff to adequate levels and it took forever, which I normally have no trouble forgiving but was non-ideal coming off a 20 hour fast.

The food was a little disappointing overall. The Brussels sprouts appetizer was delicious, though it’s hard to fuck up fried sprouts with a sweet, sour, and spicy glaze. The tortillas were fluffy. The fish taco was crunchy and very good even by California standards. But the other tacos we had—suadero with chorizo verde, carnitas with chicharron, and duck al pastor—were just ok. The problem in each case was that in order to achieve a refined presentation they cut all the garnishes up into a tiny little brunoise or thin little strips that lost all textural distinctness. Even the chicharron was crushed nearly to a dust. All three tacos were soft meat on a soft tortilla with no contrasting textural elements.

We also hit up Flautilocas for Juarez-style flautas and The Little Diner for gorditas. The flautas were great and the gorditas were worth trying.

But the real gem was Birria Chaparral. I caught wind of this place from a comment deep in a recommendation thread in the El Paso Facebook group. The comment just said “Search Google for Birria Chaparral,” but it sent my spider sense a’tingling. I googled it, and it turned out to be open only for short stretches three days a week, including RIGHT NOW. This was definitely a bit of a wild goose chase. Chaparral is a suburb in New Mexico and we drove about thirty minutes into a purely residential area before finding this sign:

Angela was HIGHLY skeptical. “Wait, this just looks like someone’s house. Where are you taking me?” “Just chill, the sign says Birria.” But yeah, it was totally someone’s house. They have a Birria restaurant in the garage.

They were extremely nice to me and when I told them it was my first time they immediately gave me a generous sample of the only thing they sell: birria tacos with consomé. “Holy fucking shit,” was my reaction to tasting it. “Um yeah we are going to want a whole bunch more of that.” She suggested adding cheese to the tacos. “If you’re recommending it, I’m saying yes. And two lemonades.”

It was transcendent—possibly the best Mexican food I’ve ever had north of the border. The homemade tortillas were crunchy and aromatic, the birria was tender without being mushy, the cheese was gooey, and the consomé was intense and complex. Oh, the dunking! I doubt I will go a month for the rest of my life without thinking about this meal. It was the culinary high point of the trip.

And so we pushed on to Santa Fe. It’s a beautiful town, but wow is it bougie. It’s like Aspen-level bougie. The main downtown area is just repellant, with an oxygen bar and a few dozen art galleries that will sell you a painting of a coyote for six thousand dollars. The safety theater of outdoor mask-wearing was in full effect and some dipshit pottery boutique wanted me to give them my personal information for contact tracing before they would let me walk around inside and make snarky comments. I politely declined, but felt my first glimpse of how a “Karen doesn’t want to wear a mask” public spectacle gets started. Y’all, if you don’t understand why people hate the liberal nanny mentality, you may need to work on expanding your imagination. I’m more or less a liberal. We are an annoying people.

I had a food agenda worked out from internet research and the Santa Fe food Facebook group, but after we ate our first meal at a highly regarded brunch spot called The Pantry, all bets were off. Especially coming from Hatch, where every drop of chile is precious ambrosia, the chile they served us at The Pantry was like a slap in the face, and they served it over greasy, salty hash browns. This was a sudden paradigm shift: shit, we can’t trust Santa Fe. If people think this is good (and they do—the place opened a couple additional branches and it comes up all the time in the Facebook group and other recommendation venues), then we can’t believe anything they say. Then we walked into a little shop downtown and found the exact same bracelet that Angela had bought at Rockin’ Rudy’s in Missoula for 35 bucks on sale for 175. “Uh oh, let’s just go trawl the strip malls.”

So yeah, we rethought our agenda. Everything expensive was off the table. In a place like this, the more expensive something is, the more likely it is to be bad. I had a highly regarded upscale dosa place on my list but then I scrutinized the menu and found this:

Oh HELL no. That’s not food. I’m not eating at a place that sells that. Instead we ended up eating at an Afro-Caribbean place in a strip mall called Jambo and a nearby spot called Tibet Kitchen. Jambo had an amazing peanut stew and the rest of what we had was solid, but it wasn’t a remarkable meal. Similarly, Tibet Kitchen had really good momo but nothing remarkable. De Valle Panderia was great and so was The Paleta Bar. The latter applies the high-end frozen yogurt formula to the paleta and it was really delightful. I wonder what other cities this sort of paleta joint exists in? I got a taro paleta with dark chocolate, pine nuts, and pistachio and it was dank. They give you a huge mound of strawberries on the side drizzled in chocolate and I was feeling it.

After a day to cleanse our palettes after The Pantry, I convinced Angela to give Santa Fe chile another try and we ate at La Choza, which is always the first place that comes up for chile. I was not prepared to adopt a harsh stance towards Santa Fe without trying it.

Getting in was a whole ordeal. You pull in and a security guard tells you there’s no place to park and explains which streets in the neighborhood have spots where you won’t get towed. Then you drove around for a half hour till you find a spot. We got there at 6pm on a Tuesday and they gave us an hour and fifteen minute wait time. In for a penny, in for a pound. But it better be good.

And it was good! Not amazing, but solid. The most exciting part might have actually been the mocktails. I had a Tamarind Mule and it is a peak mocktail. Angela was equally excited about her salt and lemon thing. The enchiladas with pork adovada were good and the chile relleno was outstanding, but the red and green chile were both a little cooked out and mild for my taste. The tamale was not good.

We also tried Tia Sophia’s, the long-standing breakfast institution downtown. This is the first place that always comes up as a breakfast recommendation. It’s got a fun, divey vibe with paper towel napkins, terrible coffee, and the scent of mildew in the air. I’ve gotta say, though, it goes a little too far with the mildew and coffee. It’s almost hard to eat there and the coffee is not “so bad it’s good,” it’s tolerably gross. BUT the chile is on point. It’s fiery and fresh and not overcooked. Wish they didn’t give me a room temp store-bought flour tortilla on the side but otherwise I was happy.

As far as I can tell, though, the only truly extraordinary culinary opportunity in Santa Fe is the Kakawa Chocolate House. (My salivary glands exalted just now when I typed that.) We went twice and I wish we had gone again. It is esoteric, challenging chocolate and it is mind-blowing. They do have a lot of approachable, straightforwardly pleasant offerings but they also have a lot of stuff that is downright aggressive. In particular, their historically-informed Mesoamerican elixirs (served in three ounce portions) are *wild*. It’s not something everyone will enjoy, but I was so enthused that I mildly embarrassed Angela. The women who run the place, though, were delighted that I appreciated what they are doing and just kept giving me samples. Their offerings rotate daily, but they had some unsweetened drinking chocolate with nuts and flowers that made me yelp, and there’s this:

If you go there and they have this, GET IT. This is not your friendly neighborhood Mexican hot chocolate. This is like the chocolate equivalent of late Coltrane. Another woman ordered one at the same time as me and we bonded over it while her husband made faces and said things like “Oh god that is not for me. Oh god. Oh god what is that. Can I have a glass of water?”

Angela was obsessed with the ice cream, which had an absurd percentage of cacao. She got it twice. The truffles are also amazing. The prickly pear truffle is frickin’ weird, in a good way. The goat cheese and sage truffle is genius. The truffle itself is flavored with goat cheese and the sea salt on top is infused with sage. I directly told them, “no food that we have found in Santa Fe even begins to approach what you’re doing here.” They were like “yeah, that’s the idea.”

The other places I would recommend going out of your way to try are the Santarepa Cafe and Craft Donuts. The former is a Venezuelan joint dowtown and it’s hard to imagine you’re going to find a better lunch in that area. The woman who owns the place is fantastic. I made a boring order to try some representative classics and she refused to accept it. She was like, “no you don’t want that, you want sampler number 1. What do you want in the empanadas? No, you don’t want that. Just let me pick.” “Omakase.” I failed to take a picture but it was an excellent and fun plate of food. Craft Donuts is a food truck within walking distance of downtown that makes donuts to order and has a lot more topping options than a typical hot donut place. We went twice. The sweeter donuts were too sweet for me but the plainer ones and the ones with something salty or tart to cut the sweetness were great. It actually might be the best maple bacon donut I’ve ever had, with big proper chunks of bacon. I could not refrain from biting it long enough to snap a pic.

Let’s see, we also had an early morning pastry expedition where we found very good croissants at a place called Clafoutis but then I embarrassed Angela when we walked into this Slovak-Hungarian place called Dolina and I took one look at the pastry case and insisted that we leave without buying anything.

We intended to eat at Fiesta Oaxaca our last night. They have both a boring menu section and an interesting section with mole and a couple other regional dishes from other parts of Mexico (tbh the juxtaposition of radically different regional foods on the menu seemed a little jarring but it looked worth giving a chance). They changed their hours, however, and were closed Wednesday, so we went to the last place on my list: Taco Fundacion. And it was terrible. Reviews were good, so I’m glad I didn’t try it till last or I would have lost all faith in local opinion and skipped La Choza and Tia Sophia’s. The fried oyster and shrimp tacos were innocuous, though the tortillas were worrisome. But fried seafood is hard to mess up and everything else was bad. The lengua was straight up gross, and lengua is my favorite taco filling. Avoid!

Culturally, we were disappointed that the SITE art space was closed and the O’Keefe museum was sold out by the time I realized they were selling tickets a month out, but Meow Wolf was a blast. Definitely do it, and don’t read anything about it first. We were underwhelmed by the art galleries in general, which are full of cliched southwestern art and the occasional sideways Rothko, but the Russian art gallery is a gem. The woman who owns it has a large personal collection of Soviet propaganda she’s willing to haggle on.

We did take a couple scenic drives and we were especially impressed by the old Spanish church at Chimayo. There is a little hole in the wall you squeeze through and then there’s a pit of holy dirt where a priest found a miraculous cross buried a couple hundred years ago. And you are allowed to dig in the holy dirt!

So to my friends in the ASA who will visit Santa Fe in July, my recommendations are: go to the Kakawa Chocolate House more than once if you do anything, eat lunch at the Santarepa Cafe, do Meow Wolf, go to Chimayo if possible, avoid The Pantry and Taco Fundacion, and be very skeptical of all food that is expensive and/or near the city center. On Saturday and Sunday there’s a food truck next to Craft Donuts that does menudo. If I were around on the weekend, I would try that. There’s some Mexican and Guatemalan food out by the airport that I would try if I could do over again.

Overall it was a great trip. The soaking was exactly what we both needed. It was wonderful to see Marianne and John and meet their son. Main culinary takeaways: Birria Chaparral is a peak experience. Kakawa Chocolate House and The Doghouse Drive-In (aka the Breaking Bad hot dog place) are both exceptional. Hatch is the place to go for New Mexican chile, but you’ll be fine if you skip Sparky’s. Santa Fe is not my favorite town and I don’t need to go back (Kakawa sells drinking chocolate online, thank god). Next time I’m staying in Albuquerque and getting that damn green chile at the Doghouse.

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