The most contentious seasonal difference of opinion between Northern and Southern New Mexico residents isn’t whether Chimayo produces better chile than Hatch (though this will forever be in dispute). The great civil debate dividing the Land of Enchantment has all to do with semantics. More specifically, it has all to do with the appropriate name for the little paper bag lanterns which house a votive candle and light the way for the Holy Family on Christmas Eve.
Misguided citizens of New Mexico’s lower half (just about anywhere south of and including Albuquerque) mistakenly call those lanterns luminarias while their more enlightened Northern brethren call them farolitos. Luminarias–stacked and crossed piñon boughs ignited on Christmas Eve to light the Holy Family’s path to shelter–were brought to the new world from Spain, first to Mexico then to the American Southwest. When delicate paper lanterns made their way from China to the Southwest via Mexico, they were called farolitos, or little lanterns.
No one seems to know for sure how farolitos came to be called luminarias and even a children’s book by Rudolfo Anaya, one of New Mexico’s most prolific novelists, didn’t illuminate the truth. His book “The Farolitos of Christmas” is a fictional telling of a New Mexican girl using her ingenuity to devise the paper-bag lights as a replacement for the traditional Christmas Eve luminarias. Anaya, a stickler for history and tradition, is in the camp of northern New Mexicans like me who wince when the paper-bag lights are referred to as luminarias.
El Rito’s world famous El Farolito has people from all over the world blazing a path to a one of the first Spanish settlements in Northern New Mexico in quest of some of the best New Mexican food in the state, hence, the world.
Who says it’s among the best? How about Gourmet magazine which featured the restaurant in a 2003 edition? Not good enough? El Farolito’s praises have also been sung loudly by Michael and Jane Stern of Roadfood fame as well as by Sunset magazine, Travel & Leisure magazine, the New York Times, New Mexico magazine and in 2004 by Rand McNally which recognized it with a “Best of the Road” award, making it the only restaurant in the state to be accorded with such an honor during the year.
My friend Lesley King, author of the wonderful “King of the Road” columns in New Mexico Magazine began her feature on El Rito with a confession: “I’ll drive hours for good chile. Not that I ever have to in New Mexico where it’s almost as common as sunshine. But the idea is that I can, and the journey is, of course, half the fun.” We’re quite simpatico in that sentiment. Many of my own explorations throughout the Land of Enchantment have started as a quest for red or green chile of some repute. Rarely have I been disappointed.
El Farolito occupies a simple adobe building that from the outside looks abandoned. In fact, if you’re even slightly exceeding the at-a-crawl speed limit of 25 miles per hour, you’ll miss the restaurant’s weathered plywood sign and will have to turn around and slow down to find the restaurant. Inside, seven picnic tables constitute El Farolito’s dining area. It’s certainly not ambiance that made this restaurant world famous. It’s the green chile which won the blue ribbon at the New Mexico state fair for three years running (1987-89) and was once named “best chile” by the International Chile Society.
With all those impressive credentials and accolades, El Farolito has a lot to live up to, but it’s been doing so for more than four decades. El Farolito is listed among New Mexico’s Culinary Treasures, a New Mexico Tourism Department initiative to introduce tourists and locals alike to mom-and-pop restaurants which have stood the test of time to become beloved institutions in their communities and beyond. El Farolito was also listed–both in 2009 and in 2011–on the Tourism Department’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, a listing of the Land of Enchantment’s most outstanding green chile cheeseburger restaurants, drive-ins, diners, dives, joints, cafes, roadside stands and bowling alleys.
A green chile cheeseburger at El Farolito’s is not quite the size of a Frisbee, but it’s a handful. Stacked high in between two golden buns, one smeared with mustard, are crisp lettuce, fresh tomatoes, onions and New Mexico’s favorite fruit, green chile. The green chile isn’t especially piquant, but it has a nice flavor. It’s easy to see why so many people tread off-the-beaten-path for one of these delicious burgers. It’s one of the ten best green chile cheeseburgers in New Mexico, one very much reminiscent of the green chile cheeseburgers you’ll find at the annual parish fiestas in Northern New Mexico’s small villages.
Though El Farolito’s reputation has been built on the flavor of its green chile, its red chile is no slouch in the flavor department. Ladled on generously on the restaurant’s Frito pie, the chile has a pleasant piquancy and a depth of flavor that honors its simplicity. This red chile isn’t adulterated by cumin or other additives. There’s no need for such ameliorants as you can’t improve on perfection. The Frito pie is served in a rather large bowl large enough to share or to constitute an entire meal. As with all New Mexican food served at El Farolito, shredded cheese is a standard and plentiful ingredient.
Similar in size, meaning meal-sized, is a bowl of green chile beans (red chile beans are also available). The beans are of a soupy consistency to which chunks of pork, tomatoes, shredded cheese and of course, El Farolito’s amazing green chile are added. More often than not, green chile beans are made with whole pinto beans. The difference between whole beans and soupy beans is more than textural. Soupy beans are more similar in flavor to refried beans than to whole beans, meaning they have a prepared with lard flavor. The green chile and pork chunks are plentiful and the bowl is served hot, making it a perfect elixir for a blustery day.
The salsa has a pureed texture, like a thick tomato soup. In fact, it’s got a similar rich red color to tomato soup. The salsa is just a bit runny and may run off the chips, but it’s a delicious salsa you’ll want to consume by the bowlful–make that, two or three bowls full. As in so many New Mexican restaurants, the salsa is the most piquant item on the menu and similar to an increasing number of restaurants, it’s not complimentary. Pay the pittance. It’s an excellent salsa. The chips are crisp and low in salt, formidable enough to scoop up Gil-sized portions of salsa.
The hard-shell tacos are thoroughly enjoyable–engorged with well seasoned beef, crisp shredded lettuce, salsa and generous amount of shredded Cheddar cheese. If it rankles you to pay premium entree prices at most restaurants for skinny tacos, El Farolito offers ala carte tacos for a reasonable cost. These tacos are quite good and not just for the money.
Some entrees such as the green chile beans and Frito pie are accompanied by sopaipillas hot off the fryer. The honey is also served hot. They’re so hot to the touch that you’ll have to let them cool off a bit before you can enjoy them. Tear into them and wisps of steamy flavor will escape, moreso when you pour some honey into the cavity you cut into the pillowy puffs of deliciousness.
El Farolito is a wonderful establishment respected and cherished by people who, like Lesley King and me, don’t mind driving for hours for outstanding chile and the adventure the quest for it will bring.
1212 Main Street
El Rito, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 16 July 2011
1st VISIT: 20 March 2004
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Frito Pie, Green Chile Beans, Tacos, Sopaipillas, Tacos