Dining New Mexico
For nearly a quarter century, the most popular section in New Mexico Magazine (the nation’s oldest state magazine, by the way) has been a humorous column entitled “One of Our Fifty is Missing.” The column features anecdotes submitted by readers worldwide recounting their experiences with fellow American citizens and ill-informed bureaucrats who don’t realize that New Mexico is part of the United States.
Some travelers from other states actually believe they’re leaving their nation’s borders when they cross into New Mexico. Others think they need a passport to visit (not that they’d visit considering they’re wary of drinking our water.) Merchants and banks throughout America have been known to reject as “foreign credit cards” American Express and Visa cards issued by New Mexico banking institutions.
The realization that it’s New Mexico, U.S.A. isn’t lost solely on ordinary citizens and bureaucrats. Even modern pop culture has gotten into the act.
During one episode of The Simpsons, the iconic Homer Simpson didn’t know New Mexico existed until looking at a Krusty Burger map and exclaiming with surprise “Hey, there’s a New Mexico.” Homer’s despotic boss, the Yale educated Mr. Burns wasn’t much better: “Whoa! Whoa! Slow down there mistro. There’s a New Mexico?”
Not only is there a New Mexico, it’s being increasingly “discovered” by thousands of viewers who tune in to various shows on the Food Network. Hardly a week goes by without one of the network’s gastronomic glitterati visiting the Land of Enchantment and salivating effusively at some culinary creation or another.
It’s not only the Food Network which has uncovered New Mexico’s gustatory gems. It’s the Wall Street Journal, GQ magazine, Gourmet magazine and dozens of other traditional media publications. Online, New Mexico’s cuisine is frequently feted on the popular Roadfood Web site as well as on salon.com, epicurious.com and a wealth of other Web sites.
New Mexico’s cuisine has also achieved the pinnacle of achievement in the culinary world, garnering numerous awards from the prestigious James Beard Foundation. In recent years, the “Oscars of food” have been awarded to chefs, restaurants and cookbooks all from New Mexico.
Not every mention of New Mexico’s cuisine is “peppered” with references to chile, the capsaicin blessed staple of New Mexico home and restaurant fare.
It may surprise you to learn that an Italian restaurant (Trattoria Nostrani) in Santa Fe was lauded by Gourmet magazine as one of the 50 best restaurants in America or that the Food Network and epicurious.com selected as the best burger in the entire fruited plain, a burger crafted in a humble New Mexico café (Bobcat Bite) with seating for only 26.
Several other New Mexico restaurants have earned prestigious national accolades. A surprising number of them are nondescript mom and pop diners with little to offer in terms of ambience but which serve outstanding food (most of it not sophisticated enough to be called cuisine).
Understandably many of New Mexico’s best restaurants are concentrated in its most populous cities, but to limit your culinary exploration to those cities is to miss out on some of the very best restaurants anywhere—many just off the “well eaten path.”
Stay on the teeming tourist traversed areas, and you won’t discover that some of the state’s best New Mexican (El Bruno) food can be found in Cuba (New Mexico) or that its best Cuban food (Tocororo Cafe) might just be found in Madrid (also in New Mexico). You’ll miss out on conceivably New Mexico’s best Cajun food (Callie’s), which is served from a dilapidated mobile kitchen that looks like a rejected hippie bus (or a rusty roach coach on steroids).
Within miles of one of the ten natural wonders of the world you’ll find what is arguably the state’s best barbecue and (gasp) until just a few years ago it was served at a Carlsbad Dairy Queen by an owner who took the term “independently owned” to heart. Even though it’s on a tourist trodden path, neither the Food Network nor the guidebooks have found this one.
New Mexicans like me are a discerning and demanding lot when it comes to our disposable income and one of our favorite ways to spend our hard-earned money is by dining out.
In fiscal 2003, New Mexicans spent $1.6 billion in eating and dining establishments. Considering the state’s median household income is just over $30,000 a year, the Land of Enchantment’s restaurants—and not just those anointed “best of” by the culinary cognoscenti—have got to be pretty good to inspire such enthusiastic patronage.
Before you check out my restaurant reviews, please review my rating system which explains how I arrive at my ratings. It’s not exactly scientific and I don’t take into account anyone else’s opinion of the restaurants in which we dine, not even the opinion of my faithful dining companion and wife Kim whose palate has matured tremendously over the years.
Your opinions may certainly differ as there are no rights and wrongs in my ratings, just opinions–mine.
Bobcat Bite photos courtesy of my friend and colleague Andrea Lin.