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Over the past several years, I’ve published an year-end retrospective on the Land of Enchantment’s culinary scene, highlighting the recognition–good and bad–New Mexico’s restaurants and cuisine have garnered over the year. Because New Mexico’s restaurants and cuisine achieved such unprecedented acclaim (and some notoriety) over the past six months, rather than wait until year’s end, here’s a synopsis on 2014, the year in food, so far….
Happy New Year! 2014 was only one day old when a New Mexico only institution expanded its operations to the Lone Star State. Blake’s Lotaburger launched its first and, thus far, only restaurant outside the Land of Enchantment when it opened its doors in an El Paso location at precisely 10AM on January 2nd. With around eighty locations throughout New Mexico, Lotaburger was named America’s fourth best burger by National Geographic in 2012 and remains first in the hearts of many New Mexicans.
Jessie Oleson Moore, the cake anthropologist who runs Cakespy, an award-winning dessert blog, drove seven hours total to get to Pie Town, New Mexico. She had envisioned “streets paved with cookie crust, street lamps shaped like apples, and churches with meringue spires,” a vision which turned out to be “turned out to be pie in the sky.” While she didn’t find the pie “life changing, fireworks-inducing,” she acknowledged that “there is something amazing about eating pie in a town which has a rich history attached to the buttery crusted stuff.”
Luscious tiramisu from Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho earned “Best Dessert” Honors in the 2014 Taste of Rio Rancho Event
USA Today proclaimed Santa Fe’s “chocolate trail” “a genuinely sweet experience that may just change the way you enjoy that next nibble of indulgence.” Nothing that “an authentic confectionery scene has emerged” in the City Different courtesy of “a number of artisanal shops” opened in recent years, the daily periodical touted the “distinctive trail” “forged by enterprising chocolatiers committed to local, traditional and cutting-edge ingredients.” Among the chocolatiers highlighted were Kakawa Chocolate House and Todos Santos Chocolates.
The Roadrunner Food Bank’s annual Souper Bowl, held on a brisk January day, is the Food Bank’s largest fund-raising effort every year. The soups seem to get better every year, too. Here are the 2014 winners:
Beef Noodle Soup with Bak Choy from Banana Leaf in Rio Rancho
It’s customary for the mayors of the cities competing for the Superbowl to place a friendly wager, typically betting cuisines representing their respective cities. New Mexicans saw red when the mayor of Denver declared he would be wagering “Colorado’s famous green chile.” Not only that, a spokesperson for the mayor declared “New Mexico and Colorado do share in two major items here–a love of our green chile and a love of the Denver Broncos.” With that declaration she managed to outrage green chile fanatics as well Dallas Cowboys fans (who still outnumber Broncos devotees). Call it green chile karma if you will, but the Seattle Seahawks trounced the Broncos and ostensibly enjoyed their “famous Colorado green chile.”
Santa Fe celebrated its 20th annual Souper Bowl, raising over $60K for the Food Depot. Some 1,400 people cast ballots for their favorites from among 28 soups. The winning soup, a winter squash and chorizo soup garnished with fried sage and maple cream prepared by Andrew Cooper, executive chef at Terra Restaurant in the Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado, also earned “best savory soup. Other winners included:
- Best cream soup: spicy potato and bacon cream soup from El Milagro New Mexican Restaurant.
- Best vegetarian soup: roasted poblano pepper piñon and juniper berry soup from Kingston Residence of Santa Fe (a retirement community).
- Best seafood soup: Tom Yum Seafood soup from Nath’s Specialty Catering.
Not to be outdone, the City of Vision held its fourth annual Taste of Rio Rancho competition at the Santa Ana Star Center. Not limited to soups, this competition pitted 26 restaurants against one another in several culinary categories. The “Peoples’ Choice” award was won by O’Hare’s Grille & Pub. The critics choice awards included:
The 2014 James Beard Foundation Restaurant and Chef Award Semifinalists included a number of restaurants and chefs representing New Mexico.
Best New Restaurant: Izanami at Ten Thousand Waves, Santa Fe
Outstanding Wine, Spirits, or Beer Professional:Ron Cooper, Del Maguey Single Village Mezcal, Ranchos de Taos
Best Chef Southwest Region:
- James Campbell Caruso, La Boca, Santa Fe
- Rob Connoley, The Curious Kumquat, Silver City, NM
- Jennifer James, Jennifer James 101, Albuquerque, NM
- Frederick Muller, El Meze, Taos, NM
- Jonathan Perno, Los Poblanos Inn, Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, NM
- Martín Rios, Restaurant Martín, Santa Fe
Only Ron Cooper made the finals.
Green Chile Cheeseburger with Grilled Onions from the Santa Fe Bite
The inaugural Friends of Gil (FOG) dinner was held on Saturday, February 22nd at Joe’s Pasta House in Rio Rancho. The dinner started off as a foodie summit, but would up as a celebration among new friends. it was a night of rich laughter, convivial gaiety and great food. It was a night we ended long after the restaurant’s closing hours and only after we noticed we were the only ones left at the restaurant.
To showcase the regional diversity and history of the humble American donut, Zagat’s selected a single donut that represents each state. Taking a rather liberal interpretation of the term “donut,” the list included several ethic varieties such as Alaskan fry bread, churros from Arizona and beignets from Louisiana. So, you might think New Mexican sopaipillas might be the Land of Enchantment’s representative donut. That wasn’t the case. Instead, the single donut which best represents New Mexico is the Apple Green Chile Fritter at Albuquerque’s Rebel Donut.
My friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver enjoys a green chile cheeseburger with a fried egg and green chile from Perea’s Tijana Bar
Slate asked the provocative question “If each state could have only one meat, what would it be?” By meat, Slate discounted turkey, chicken and fish. Only mammals were considered and stews needed not apply. While only four states designate “official state meats,” all fifty steaks have a lot to offer carnivores. According to Slate, the Land of Enchantment would be carne adovada while discounting red chili (SIC) stew as “just pork shoulder braised in an incredible dried chili paste.” Chili paste? Obviously that description was not written by a New Mexican.
Full Service Restaurants (FSR) magazine named Duke City chef Michael Giese one of 40 chefs under 40 years-old to watch. The magazine scours the entire fruited plain for chefs who distinguish themselves in the full-service restaurant industry. Giese is the executive chef at the Pueblo Harvest within the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center.
When it comes to romance, MSN compiled a list of ten restaurants which will have you feeling the love. The only restaurant in the Land of Enchantment to make the list was Santa Fe’s The Compound. MSN described it thusly: “From the thick white-washed adobe walls adorned with flowers and discreet flashes of bright modernistic color, The Compound is a wonder of design and style. Owner Mark Kiffen’s contribution to the restaurant is a menu that lives up to the elegance of the dining room.”
In recognition of particular strengths in history, music, visual arts, learning, food, theater and science, twenty small towns were singled out by Smithsonian magazine as the “best small towns to visit in 2014.” The only small town in the Land of Enchantment honored was Silver City, described as having “something for everyone.” The town’s culinary culture was well represented on the feature by the Curious Kumquat, “where owner Rob Connoley’s interest in molecular gastronomy mixes delicate foams with local meat and produce.” Connoley was a 2014 semi-finalist for James Beard Best Chef in the Southwest award.
Gustavo Arellano, the hilarious writer of “¡Ask a Mexican!,” a nationally syndicated column in which he answers any and all questions about America’s spiciest and largest minority, has spent quite a bit of time in the Land of Enchantment. That gave a lot of credibility to his observations in a article entitled “15 Signs You Grew Up Eating (New) Mexican Food in New Mexico.” Among his observations: Blake’s Lotaburger is Your Favorite American Food; It’s Not Mexican Food; It’s NEW Mexican Food; and The Smell of Roasted Chiles Means Fall is Coming.
Yahoo Travel took a stab at listing America’s 50 Best Casual Restaurants. Price–can two people fill themselves up and get out for less than $50, excluding alcohol?–was the main deciding factor as to what constitutes “casual,” but other factors such as ambiance and longevity were also considered. The only restaurant from New Mexico to make the list was the Santa Fe Bite, purveyor of incomparable green chile cheeseburgers.
Food Network celebrity Guy Fieri has visited a number of Italian restaurants while hosting Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives. Fieri celebrated the very best of the lot in an episode called “Amazing Italians,” ostensibly his very favorite Italian restaurants in the country. Not only did Albuquerque’s fabulous Torinos @ Home make the list, Fieri also named their beef cheek manicotti among his top Italian dishes.
The premise of the Food Network show Restaurant Impossible is that within two days and on a budget of $10,000, Chef Robert Irvine renovates a failing American restaurant with the goal of helping to restore it to profitability and prominence. Savvy diners who’ve eaten at Passion Latin Fusion might have agreed that the ambiance left a lot to be desired, but would not have agreed that Chef Elvis Bencamo’s cuisine needed any improvement. Nonetheless, Irvine revamped the menu and renovated a structure in need of brightness and color.
Salted Caramel Panna Cotta from The Range in Bernalillo
The Washington Post posited that “the trick to eating well in Santa Fe is to eat low on the food chain.” As if to disprove that notion, its article on “three low key Santa Fe eateries to enchant you” showcased two high-end restaurants: Izanami, the Asian gastropub at the Ten Thousand Waves resort; and The Bar at Four Seasons Resort Rancho Encantado. The third restaurant featured was Santa Fe Bite, purveyor of one of New Mexico’s most famous green chile cheeseburgers. If you’re still not sure what “eating low on the food chain” means, you’re not alone
Thrillist, the popular blog which purports to give its readers “everything worth caring about in food, drink, and travel” compiled a list of the 21 best nachos in America. The Land of Enchantment’s was represented twice on the list. The nachos at El Patron in Las Cruces were described as “legendary” and constructed with slow-cooked brisket and a combination of ingredients that are “out-of-this-world awesome.” The nachos at Cecilia’s Cafe in Albuquerque were described as “bursting with flavorful” ingredients which should be paired with Cecilia’s “famous chicharrones” which Thrillist described as “hunks of stewed pork.” Hmm, apparently all these years I had no idea what chicharrones really were.
Chef Fernando Olea at Santa Fe’s Epazote
Thrillist also took a stab at compiling a list of America’s sixteen best burritos. The only New Mexico restaurant to make the list was Sophia’s Place in Albuquerque. Sophia’s had the only breakfast burrito on the list, an exception granted for “its “Christmas-style” preparation with both red and green chile sauces.” Described as a “divey spot,” chef-proprietor Dennis Apodaca was hailed for “taking a totally DIY approach to Mexican food.”
In a feature entitled “New Mexico: A land enchanted by chile peppers,” USA Today visited some of the state’s very best purveyors of what Buckhorn Tavern proprietor Bobby Olguin described as “like a legal drug.” The article described the Land of Enchantment’s addiction to chile as: chile isn’t just a vegetable. It’s practically a religion. It inspires devotion among worshipers who blend it into everything from to beer to fudge to spa treatments.
Movoto Blog, a blog celebrating the lighter side of real estate, did a seriously great job of naming “15 Albuquerque Restaurants Which Will Blow Your Taste Buds Out Of Your Mouth.” The article did a remarkably good job in listing Duke City restaurants with which critics and the general public would agree–true local favorites such as Mary & Tito’s, the Guava Tree Cafe, Giovanni’s Pizza & Subs, Budai Gourmet Chinese and The Grove Cafe & Market. Reviews on all fifteen restaurants can be found on Gil’s Thrilling & Filling Blog.
Gayot, the “guide to the good life” joins a number of national media sources that don’t know there’s more than a subtle distinction between Mexican and New Mexican food. In its compilation of the “Top 10 Mexican Restaurants in the U.S. for 2014,” Gayot listed Mary & Tito’s Cafe, perhaps the very best New Mexican restaurant in New Mexico (and my very highest rated restaurant of any genre). Gayot did get some things right, declaring that “Tito’s Cafe isn’t merely still going strong — it’s going incendiary. The exemplary red chile smothers just about everything here from omelets to tamales to the fresh-tasting chile rellenos; equally famed are the carne adovada, chicharrones and savory stuffed sopapillas with sides of refrieds done right.
The world-famous K&I Diner, home of the Travis
Santa Fe was the thirteenth (out of twenty) rated city in Conde Nast Traveler‘s annual survey of “the best American cities for foodies.” The synopsis asserted that “an introduction to New Mexican cuisine usually starts with a declaration of allegiance: green chile or red chile?” It recommended sampling both at The Shed. The article also contends that “the Santa Fe experience has grown beyond the chile war to embrace fusion fare at such restaurants as The Compound and Restaurant Martin.
Before the plague-like incursion of Taco Bell across the fruited plain, you would be hard-pressed to find good tacos in every state. Food Network Magazine took a stab at uncovering America’s tastiest tacos for a feature entitled “50 States, Fifty Tacos.” The article pretty much demonstrated just how much the once uncomplicated taco has evolved over the years, pointing out that “chefs will staff anything into a tortilla.” New Mexico’s representative on the list–and rightfully so–is the Navajo taco from Earl’s Family Restaurant in Gallup.
“The Rancho de Chimayó Cookbook offers a beautiful glimpse into the still-vibrant cuisine of New Mexico. With the blending of centuries-old Spanish culture with native and modern American, a unique and delicious cuisine has emerged—one that will inspire journeys to the source and delicious meals from your kitchen.” That was Chef Rick Bayless’s forward to the 50th anniversary edition of the cookbook which exemplifies the traditional cooking of New Mexico. Four-time James Beard award-winning authors Cheryl Alters Jamison and Bill Jamison have another winner here, a cookbook every New Mexican should have.
New Mexico was not entirely shut out at the 2014 James Beard Foundation awards. The Land of Enchantment’s sole honoree was Deborah Madison whose book Vegetable Literacy earned the Foundation’s book award in the Vegetable Focused and Vegetarian category. The book “shows us how the botany in our gardens can inform and guide our preparation and cooking of meals that will both delight and nourish us all.”
Santa Fe brings more than chiles to the table. That’s the premises of a highly favorable piece on USA Today which described the City Different’s food scene as “unlike any in the country.” The feature concedes that “even though Santa Fe is the epicenter of the state’s chile trail, there is a lot more to the food scene here, from fine French to Italian, with plenty of influences from the native Pueblo Indians and neighboring Mexico, which long occupied the territory.” Tomasita’s and the Santa Fe Bite were noted.
Two best friends, a chef and a Hollywood director, hit the road in search of the best comfort food America has to offer, rewarding their favorite dish with a $10,000 prize and a Golden Skillet prize. That’s the premise of the Travel Channel’s Chow Master’s program. An episode entitled “Santa Fe Burritos” pitted three purveyors of burritos in a piquant melee: La Choza and Dr. Field Goods Kitchen in Santa Fe and Hurricane’s Cafe in Albuquerque. Judging was based on creativity and flavor. The ten thousand dollar burrito winner was Dr. Field Goods who wowed the judges with a smoked goat chimichanga in mole.
May is National Hamburger Month. To celebrate the momentous month, Business Weekly “conducted painstaking journalistic research to figure out the very best burger in every state, from mom-and-pop joints to celebrity-chef restaurants and everything in between. The Land of Enchantment’s very best burger was the green chile cheeseburger at the Buckhorn Tavern in San Antonio, New Mexico.
Business Weekly also believes every state should have an official snack food just as Illinois (popcorn) and Utah (jello) have done. To that end, writers took a stab at doing what so many state legislators have failed to do. The official snack food of New Mexico was declared to be the bizcochito (which is New Mexico’s official state cookie), described as a “butter or lard-based cookie that’s flavored with anise and cinnamon…developed by Spanish colonists and is usually eaten in the morning with coffee or milk, or during special celebrations.”
Over the Memorial Day weekend, the Travel Channel revisited 101 more amazing places to chowdown. The first New Mexico restaurant on the list was the Comet II Drive-In in Santa Rosa, a true off-the-beaten-path restaurant noted for its steak ranchero and tacos. “Bringing the heat to nab the countdown’s numero 64 spot” was Santa Fe’s Tomasita’s, an eatery “offering captivating comida that keeps New Mexican locals coming back for mas.” “Whether you’re inhaling enchiladas or tackling tacos, this restaurante has something to satisfy any appetite.” Albuquerque’s Frontier Restaurant made the list at number 52. Described as “a chili lover’s paradise! Their secret ingredient? Frontier serves green chili in just about every item on the menu.” Chili? When did Albuquerque move to Texas? At number 29 was Cowgirl’s, a Santa Fe institution described as “famous for its hot 5 Pepper Diablo Nachos. This Santa Fe restaurant is a top pick among tourists and locals alike.” The highest rated of the four New Mexico restaurants on the hallowed list was Sadie’s in Albuquerque which the Travel Channel’s geniuses said serves a “popular enchilada dish”…known as a sopaipilla.” Hmm, not only is New Mexican cuisine misspelled, now it’s schizophrenic.
The genesis of the breakfast burrito may be in dispute but there’s no disputing how popular they are across the Land of Enchantment. New Mexicans all seem to agree that the best part of waking up is having a breakfast burrito awaiting them. To celebrate the heritage and widespread affection citizens have for this breakfast staple, the New Mexico Tourism launched the New Mexico True Breakfast Burrito Byway. More than four hundred restaurants from throughout the state were nominated for a spot on the final map with the final list being whittled down to fifty based on breakfast burrito fans. Katrinah’s East Mountain Grill in Edgewood garnered the most votes, tallying 2,623 votes while the Apple Tree Cafe in Corrales finished second with 1,907.
Predictably the list of ten dishes which continue to keep James Beard Award-winning chef Tony Maws grounded and inspired includes several tied to his New England roots, but while working in Santa Fe he came across a “dumpy restaurant behind a Texaco station” which “served a beautiful, hot, flavorful green chile stew” he had “on many a hung-over morning.” Maws described the green chile stew at Horseman’s Haven as “flat-out delicious, with ground pork, onions, garlic, crema, lime, cilantro and tortillas on the side….an example of how to correctly use spice.
In celebration of the “rich tapestry of “hand-crafted”, mom-and-pop soda companies out there doing what they’ve been doing for the last hundred years or so — and doing it damn well,” Thrillist put together a list of the iconic soft drink in every state. Contrary to some opinion, the Land of Enchantment’s most iconic soft drink isn’t Pabst Blue Ribbon. It’s Blue Sky, a natural soft drink founded in Santa Fe in 1980. Thrillist “kinda had to pick it due to its inherent Breaking Bad parallels.”
Gustavo Arellano, the sardonically witty author took a stab at ranking the “ten most important burritos in history,” a list he put together in response to America’s ignorance about the burrito’s history and its willingness to embrace “the Chipotle mess.” The only burrito from the Land of Enchantment to make the list was the infamous burrito “that made Jesus appear on a tortilla” in southeastern New Mexico. The tortilla in question was destined for the tortillera’s burrito.
Cakespy.com, a “Dessert Detective Agency” dedicated to seeking sweetness (literally) in everyday life spends a lot of time in New Mexico. As such, its “ultimate guide to the sweets of New Mexico” has a lot of credibility. The guide is an outstanding reference to the cuisine of the Land of Enchantment and its ingredients as well as our sweet specialties such as apple pie with green chile, arroz dulce, atole, biscochitos, blue corn pancakes, buñuelos, capirotada, chile chocolate, flan, horchata and so many others.
Gayot.com, the “guide to the good life,” listed its ten best Mexican restaurants in the United States. As with nearly every single national publication, Gayot sees no distinction between Mexican food and New Mexican food, listing Mary & Tito’s as America’s fifth best Mexican restaurant. Gayot did correctly note that “the exemplary red chile smothers just about everything here, from omelets to tamales to the fresh-tasting chile rellenos; equally famed are the carne adovada, chicharrones and savory stuffed sopapillas with sides of refried beans done right.” At least “chile” was spelled correctly.
Comfort food. We’ve all grown up eating foods that warm the cockles of our hearts and makes us feel loved and at home. Thrillist took a stab at identifying the comfort foods of every state in America. Not surprisingly, the Land of Enchantment’s contribution to the list was green chile stew. Thrillist’s rationale: “The official state question of New Mexico is “red or green?”, referring to the choice between red and green chile — but you should opt for the green kind, because New Mexico does it especially well in stew.” The unofficial comfort food of the state of Colorado was the breakfast burrito, obviously an export from the great state of New Mexico.
On Monday, June 23rd, 2014, Fubelly, an online discovery platform was launched in Albuquerque with the goal of helping Duke City diners achieve fubelly. Fubelly celebrates Albuquerque’s food culture in a medium ideally tailored for story-telling, utilizing videos with a very high production value to showcase some of the Duke City’s very best restaurants, chefs and restaurateurs to help diners engage with food and drink. Through Fubelly you’ll discover places you’ve never been and rediscover places you already love by learning more about them.
More than 1,000 food bloggers across the world make their reviews visible through Urbanspoon, the restaurant information and recommendation service showcasing restaurants in hundreds of cities. Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog is listed as Urbanspoon’s eighth most popular blog. A great big thanks to all of you for having made it so popular.