Chimayó is one of the most mythologized, misunderstood—
and, some would say, maligned—places in New Mexico.
On one hand, it holds a place in popular imagination as the Lourdes of America,
a reference to the annual Good Friday pilgrimage to the Santuario de Chimayó,
a nineteenth-century church. New Mexicans and visitors from afar also celebrate
Chimayó’s weaving tradition, the potently flavorful chile grown there,
and the local restaurant, where margaritas compete with the church’s holy dirt as a tourist draw.
~ Postcard From New Mexico: Don Usner’s Chimayo
Named for the Tewa Indian word describing one of four sacred hills overlooking the verdant valley on the foothills of the Sangre De Cristos, Chimayó may be only 26 miles from Santa Fe and 52 miles from Taos, but in some ways seems further removed by time than by distance. While its aforementioned counterparts have transitioned to artsy and cosmopolitan service and tourism economies, Chimayó has had a harder time moving away from its pastoral-agricultural sustenance roots.
Where Santa Fe and Taos may be imbued with rustic sophistication and urbane trappings, Chimayó moves at a slower pace. At the end of the day, neighbors still meet at the fence for some serious “mitote” time. Close friends are referred to as “comadre” (female) and “compadre” (male), as familial a Hispanic term for endearment as there is. Land owners work together to maintain the acequias, the communal-ditch system which irrigates chile fields and apple orchards. Chimayó is certainly not a village that time has forgotten, but one which beckons for a return to better times.
That’s the Chimayó in which Roberto Cordova fondly remembers being raised as a boy and for which he named his restaurant, Casa Chimayó. Long before it was a restaurant, the nearly three-quarter century old adobe structure was a family home, the site of Roberto’s birth. Though he was born in Santa Fe, Roberto spent his formative years in Chimayó where he learned traditions and culture from a very close extended family and the values of hard work from his grandparents.
Roberto traces his familial lineage back to Zacatecas, Mexico, from where his ancestors set off with other Spanish families to found and colonize the last Spanish frontier, the villages of Northern New Mexico prefacing the Sangre De Cristos. Those settlers founded the villages of Santa Cruz, Quarteles, La Puebla, Chimayo, Rio Chiquito, Cordova, Cundiyo and Truchas, all still viable today. These pioneering families also developed and perfected the now famous Chimayó chile. Their descendents continue to plant and harvest this chile, annually surmounting Chimayó’s hot summer days, cool nights and unpredictable water availability to produce a delicious bounty.
The edifice housing Casa Chimayó has long served as a restaurant, most recently hosting Los Mayas which shuttered its doors to begin the new year of 2011. Rather than leasing to another prospective restaurant, the Cordova family decided to share their family’s culinary cultural heritage themselves by opening Casa Chimayó which launchd shortly after Los Mayas closed.
From the outside, Casa Chimayó can’t help but resemble a long familiar enclave behind adobe walls. If, however, you were familiar with Los Mayas, you’ll quickly discern the changes within the complex. The entrance is now to your immediate left as you step into the walled courtyard. The restaurant, a veritable museum, pays tribute to the community of Chimayó, honoring Roberto’s childhood home with vintage photographs and the incomparable weavings from the village. The historic Santuario de Chimayó is well represented in art works as is another aspect of the village’s proud culture–the low-rider.
On October 21st, 2013, the Food Network premiered an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives entitled “Aces of Authenticity.” Casa Chimayó was one of two New Mexico restaurants showcased along with the incomparable Torinos @ Home in Albuquerque. Host Guy Fieri chronicled the restaurant’s founding after Roberto’s retirement from government when his mamasita advised him to “open up a restaurant, hire some cooks and I’ll teach them how to cook our way.” Our way is the traditional New Mexican way, the way his ancestors did it.
The menu forewarns that red or green, the chile is hot, apprising that a milder alternative is available in the “ranchero” sauce. Casa Chimayó proudly serves sun-dried red chile pods and fresh, roasted green chile that is peeled in-house. Both red and green chiles are grown and harvested by local farmers. The only item in which cumin is used is the “Mercedes Posole,” described as “prize-winning red chile, hominy and pork stew often served when celebrating life’s blessings.” You’ll find out quickly that a meal at Casa Chimayó is one of life’s blessings.
As with its predecessor Los Mayas, Casa Chimayó offers chiles rellenos en nogada, which stellar food writer Lesley Tellez describes as “a living piece of Mexican history.” The dish was invented by nuns in Puebla, Mexico in 1821. Similar to how the Margherita pizza showcases the colors of the Italian flag, chiles rellenos en nogada feature the colors of the Mexican flag: a green poblano chile stuffed with sundry ingredients such as dry fruits, a creamy walnut sauce (white) atop of which pomegranate seeds (red) are tossed. Because the flag of Mexico was first unfurled at about the same time, this dish evokes patriotic fervor among Mexicans.
Among New Mexicans such as my friend Skip Muñoz and I, the dish evokes involuntary salivation. Made correctly, it’s one of the most spectacularly diverse and delicious dishes you’ll find at any Mexican restaurant. Casa Chimayó’s rendition, available on the appetizer menu, is one of the very best I’ve had, better even than Los Mayas. A poblano pepper is engorged with slowly stewed sirloin, apricots, raisins, apple and orange nectar then adorned with cream cheese, cinnamon and walnut sauce and topped with pomegranate seeds and piñon when in season. There is no one flavor profile. Instead you’ll enjoy a balance of several flavors playing off one another and providing flavor explosions with every bite. It’s a dish raved about by the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives host Guy Fieri who visited Casa Chimayó in September, 2013.
There are six quesadillas on the menu, all served with a side of salsa. One of the more “New Mexican” of the half-dozen is made with cheese, calabasitas, corn and onions, the three latter ingredients a very popular combination dish in both households and restaurants. Interestingly the calabasitas are nearly al dente, retaining a delightfully crispy texture. The accompanying salsa, made from fire-roasted tomatoes, cilantro, onions and jalapeños is fresh and invigorating.
The carne adovada–succulent pork marinated in a rich red Chimayó chile and spices (including a fresh Mexican oregano) then stewed slowly in its natural juices to a tender finish–is absolutely delicious. Each tender tendril of porcine perfection is meant to be savored slowly though it’s hard to hold back and not devour this delicious dish. The Chimayó chile is piquant, but not overly so. It’s also rich and earthy with complex notes and a silky, velvety texture. The carne is accompanied by rice and whole pinto beans, the latter perhaps the best restaurant-made beans in Santa Fe, if not New Mexico. These are beans made the way abuelitas have been preparing them for generations.
“Never the twain shall cross” is an adage which often seems applicable to New Mexican and Mexican restaurants. It’s not every New Mexican restaurant which can cross over successfully and prepare Mexican food well…and vice versa. Perhaps because of the family’s Zacatecas roots, the Mexican food is exemplary. My love for the chiles rellenos en nogada is almost matched by my love for the enchiladas de pollo en mole rojo. A citrus-marinated chicken breast is hand-shredded then sheathed by blue corn tortillas covered in a complex mole sauce made with spices, peanuts and Mexican chocolate. It’s a mole good enough to forgo New Mexican entrees. That mean’s it’s special!
Desserts are oh, so New Mexican. Casa Chimayó is one of few New Mexican restaurants which serves sopa, a wonderful dish also known as caplrotada. By any name, sopa is a New Mexican bread pudding whose sweet notes are tempered by cheese, usually Cheddar. Served warm, it’s a very rich dessert, so much so that the natillas seem mildly sweet in comparison. The natillas, a custard dish made with milk and eggs, are slightly thicker than egg nog and sprinkled with cinnamon.
Casa Chimayó is two blocks away from the Santa Fe Plaza and 32 miles from the pastoral village for which it’s named, but after one visit, it’ll be close to your heart.
409 West Water Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 27 December 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Chile Relleno en Nogada, Quesadilla (Cheese, Calabasitas, Corn, Onions), Carne Adovada, Pollo en Mole Rojo, Sopa, Natillas