I know several native New Mexicans who have accepted the dumbing down of political office in America as a consequence of living in these times and who have shrugged apathetically at the attenuation of educational standards. These same individuals, however, become as agitated and vociferous as scalded cats when served chile that has been “Anglicized”–that is, chile which doesn’t bring sweat to their brows, tears to their eyes and blisters to their tongues. Pepper spray has nothing on chile for these capsaicin addicted masochistic diehards.
I spoke with one of these chileheads several days after the January, 2006 airing of the Food Network’s “The Secret Life of Fiery Foods.” He was still laughing at the segment in which host Jim O’Connor thought he was man enough to try the green chile burrito locals call “the devil” at the world famous Horseman’s Haven in Santa Fe. One bite had O’Connor red faced and sputtering, an experience shared by many people, including many locals weaned on incendiary chile.
According to O’Connor, the “devil” is the hottest burrito in the world with a chile that rivals the habanero, a pepper at the extreme level of the Scoville scale. For New Mexicans frustrated with the “kinder and gentler” preparation of our beloved chile, the Horseman’s Haven is the standard bearer for how chile should be served. It is the measuring stick of manhood. It is what separates the men from the boys. (Before you accuse me of being sexist, let me say that women—being, by far, the smarter and more mature gender–need no such validation of their adulthood or femininity.) Native New Mexicans who show weakness may as well be Texans, as deprecatory an insult as a New Mexican can hurl at anyone (if you’ve ever experienced insipid, cumin-laden Texas chili, you’ll understand why).
The Horseman’s Haven has been a Santa Fe legend since debuting its high octane chile in 1981 in a smallish dining room adjacent to an old gas station. It has since moved to a larger, stand-alone complex sharing a parking lot with a more modern service station. True to its name, the Horseman’s Haven celebrates the horse with walls and shelves teeming with paintings, plaques and statuettes of equine nobility and their human companions–from the Mexican charros to American legend John Wayne.
It’s conceivable some patrons won’t even be able to see and appreciate the art on the walls because of free-flowing tears and noses running like Usain Bolt, all courtesy of a chile which kicks sand in the face of the wimpy stuff too many so-called New Mexican restaurants serve. The Romero family, proprietors of this Santa Fe institution from day one, own the hybrid seed from which their famous green chile is grown by seven different farmers in Hatch, New Mexico.
That chile is a weapon of mass deliciousness, the favorite of blue- and white-collar workers who arrive at the Horseman’s Haven for breakfast when they need the chile’s eye-awakening properties to get them going. The regulars tend to sit on the bar where they have a view of the semi-open kitchen. The tinkling of ceramic coffee mugs blends with the whistling sound from a pressure cooker blowing off steam as beans are being prepared. It’s a good coffee served steaming hot and it heightens the bite of the chile even more. Amateurs, tourists and Texans shouldn’t pair hot coffee with the Haven’s comburent chile without a net.
The Haven’s chile will bring diners to their knees, but for New Mexicans with asbestos-lined taste buds who consider pain to be a flavor, that means we’re on our knees in prayerful gratitude for chile with both piquancy and flavor. Those qualities come across very well in the restaurant’s breakfast burritos: fluffy scrambled eggs and crispy bacon wrapped in a tortilla then covered with chile the color of glowing kryptonite. The aroma of the chile is intoxicating, an incomparably fragrant bouquet. This breakfast burrito is exciting and invigorating, a capsaicin high way to start off the morning.
Chile aficionados know that one of the best ways to “cut” the taste of piquant chile is with sopaipillas and honey. Since none are to be found on the menu, you might try ordering a side of pancakes, two light and fluffy golden orbs just begging for butter and soliciting for syrup. At the risk of braggadocio, I’ve never touched the pancakes until having consumed the entire chile-slathered burrito.
What I will brag about, however, is having survived (relatively) unscathed a side of “level-two” green chile. You won’t see it on the menu, but chileheads in the know swear level-two is chile with the heat turned up to the hottest level in Dante’s inferno. Others, perhaps ashamed at their mere mortality, claim level two is an urban myth. It most certainly is NOT an urban myth. My friend and fellow chile masochist Bill Resnik and I shared a bowl of level-two chile which we slathered on the Haven’s blue-corn tacos. With a liberal dousing of level-two chile, those tacos were painfully good.
Not only is there a level two chile, the Horseman’s Haven now offers chile and levels three to five for Navy Seals, superheroes and diners with a death wish. While filming “Parts Unknown” for CNN celebrity glitterati Anthony Bourdain had a spoonful of the level three green chile. It instantly brought sweat to his brow, tears to his eyes and more impressively, shut the gregarious one’s mouth for a moment or two. Rather than seeing the host suffer ignominiously, cameras quickly panned to another segment.
Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate and a bona fide flame fanatic swears by the Haven’s mucho burger, a half-pound of fresh ground sirloin grilled to order and served with home fries, lettuce, tomatoes and onions. Because you’re in Santa Fe, it’s almost compulsory to have it green chile cheeseburger style. At the Haven, this means the burger is smothered and the cheese is shredded. It does not mean hand-held unless you don’t mind risking a sunburn-like heat running down your arms. This is a fantastic green chile cheeseburger, emphasis on the chile. If you’re tired of green chile not making an impression on too many local burgers, this is the burger for you.
Interestingly the salsa is not quite on the same level of piquancy as the green chile. At most New Mexican restaurants, salsa is usually the most piquant item on the menu….sometimes the only piquant item on the menu. It’s a very good salsa with the flavor of freshness. The chips are low in salt, crisp and thick enough for Gil-sized scoops of salsa though with the Haven’s salsa, most will prefer dipping their chips instead of dredging them.
If your tongue and lips are still burning, you can quell the flames with the Haven’s apple pie ala mode. It’s not made on the premises, but it’s made especially for the Haven. A thick, flaky crust and plenty of pectin enhanced sliced apples with vanilla ice cream should do the trick for most diners. By the time they’re done eating the pie, most new diners regain at least part of their sense of taste and will discern that this is a good apple pie. Cinnamon rolls are also available.
In February, 2006, the Horseman’s Haven launched A Taste of Haven in Rio Rancho. The celebration among Duke City area fire-eaters was short-lived because the restaurant closed within a year after launching. Perhaps there really is only enough room in this world for one restaurant serving the world’s most dangerously delicious chile.
4354 Cerrillos Road
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 25 September 2013
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Breakfast Burrito, Green Chile Cheeseburger, Pancakes, Tacos, Salsa and Chips