The humble Northern New Mexico village of Chimayo has a reputation far and wide as a place in which miracles occur. Because of the healing and restorative nature of those miracles, it has even been called the “Lourdes of America.”
During Holy Week of 1813, a devout Penitente named Bernardo Abeyta was performing his penances on a hillside when he looked up and saw a bright light emanating from the ground near the river. Abeyta ran to the spot, knelt and began digging with his bare hands toward the light’s source. Within minutes he uncovered a large and wondrous crucifix bearing the image of Nuestro Senor de Esquipulas.
The crucifix was processed to the church in Santa Cruz where it was placed in a niche off the main altar, but the next morning it was gone. In fact, the crucifix disappeared three times, only to be found back in its hole. After the third time, everyone understood that Nuestro Senor de Esquipulas wanted to remain in Chimayo. A tiny chapel was then built above the hole. The miraculous healings began almost immediately with the first recipient being a grievously afflicted Bernardo Abeyta himself.
The healings grew so numerous that the tiny chapel was replaced in 1816 by the current and much larger Santuario de Chimayo, an adobe mission on which miracles are still visited. More than a quarter of a million people visit Chimayo annually. They bring with them their petitions for healing and many of them are granted relief from infirmities, disease and unhappiness. The walls of the Santuario’s sacristy are adorned with discarded canes, crutches and before-and-after photographs of healings that transpired at this Holy Shrine.
It might be a stretch to call the food at Restaurante Rancho De Chimayo miraculous, but many people will agree that it may just well be divinely inspired. The restaurant has culled a world renowned reputation for some of the very best traditional and contemporary New Mexican cuisine in a spectacular, tree-lined setting since 1965. In fact, Restaurante Rancho de Chimayo is probably most responsible for New Mexican cuisine being recognized as a distinctive cuisine than any other restaurant in the state.
For generations Hispanic families in Northern New Mexico served traditional New Mexican food at home, while many restaurants throughout the region served “Mexican” style food similar to what our neighbors in Arizona and Texas offered. That meant insipid chile lacking the flavor and piquancy which has become a hallmark of New Mexican cuisine. Rancho de Chimayo helped changed all that by showcasing just how extraordinarily flavorful were the ordinary foods served in the family homes throughout Northern New Mexico.
In October, 1965, Arturo and Florence Jaramillo transformed the century old Jaramillo ancestral home with its white-washed walls and hand stripped vigas into El Restaurante Rancho de Chimayo. Their goal was to provide a different type of restaurant experience, one in which diners could feel as though they’d been invited to an old Spanish home with a grand ambience and spectacular food. Over time they expanded the restaurant to 4,000 square-feet, including a 400 square-foot kitchen which churns out deliciousness for throngs of as many as 350 patrons, the restaurant’s seating capacity.
Today cozy dining rooms and their stately fireplaces radiate warmth whether lit or not. Religious iconography of Northern New Mexico shares wall space with colorful framed paintings, many of which depict the restaurant. Family heirlooms and portraits festoon some of the dining rooms. In the summer, there may be no lovelier setting that on the lush and verdant terraced patios which beckon hungry patrons to commune with beauty. High school graduations, weddings and celebrations of all kinds are often held on the sunroom just below the terraced patios.
Restaurante Rancho de Chimayo employs some 75 people and is an integral part of the community. In addition to the incomparable setting and wonderful food, one of the best reasons to visit is the employees themselves. Think service that’s sassy with a smile. The waitresses are attired in traditional period dress, the only inauthentic detail sometimes being a tattoo peeking out from under a puffed sleeve. Ask a question to which the wait staff doesn’t have an answer readily available, and they will find an answer for you. They generally have a warm smile for you, too.
The indefatigable Florence still owns and manages the restaurant more than forty years since she helped found it. In 2006 she was one of five recipients honored by the National Restaurant Association with a lifetime achievement award previously bestowed on such culinary glitterati as Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck and Julia Child. The grand lady, honored as New Mexico’s restaurateur of the year for 1987, still shows up to the restaurant and has a radiant smile for everyone.
Accolades are nothing new for Jaramillo and her fabulous restaurant. For three consecutive years, from 1999 through 2001, Restaurante Rancho de Chimayo was selected by Hispanic magazine as one of America’s top fifty Hispanic restaurants. In 1988, Nation’s Restaurant News, a respected trade publication, selected Rancho de Chimayo for inclusion into its Hall of Fame, placing it in very exclusive company.
Unlike many Northern New Mexico restaurants, Rancho De Chimayo has not “anglicized” its entrees and still serves chile that does more than decorate the plate with color; it adds that distinctive, addictive flavor all native New Mexicans crave–and cumin won’t come within a mile of this chile. Ask a waitress if the carne adovada is made with cumin and either you’ll get a blank expression reflective of the abominable spice’s lack of use throughout Northern New Mexico or you’ll get a response indicating the restaurant holds true to the authenticity of New Mexican cuisine and that means no cumin.
This restaurant also pays close attention to details and doesn’t compromise on quality. The sopaipillas accompanying your meal, for example, are served with a small bowl of honey from Bosque Farms, not the typical store-bought honey which comes in plastic bottles. The top of the bowl is covered in plastic because of the preponderance of bees in summer. The sopaipillas are large and puffy, best eaten immediately after they arrive at your table when cutting off a corner will allow wisps of steam to escape into your happily awaiting nostrils.
Chips and salsa are, unfortunately not complementary, but they’re worth the pittance price. The salsa is thick and rich with a nice green and red chile induced bite. It’s an addictive salsa, the type of which you’ll have at least two bowlfuls. The chips are crisp, fresh and oversized. The chile con queso is rich, thick and delicious, some of the very best in New Mexico.
When the Food Network gushes over Rancho de Chimayo’s carne adovada, I think “platitudinous fluff,” but when my adovada obsessed friend Ruben tells me it’s right up there with the carne adovada at Mary & Tito’s, it’s akin to a mouse endorsing cheese. Ruben knows his adovada, having made it his personal quest to prepare carne adovada on par with that of his favorite restaurants. His quest continues.
The carne adovada is indeed fabulous at the Rancho. Marinated, shredded pork as tender as possible is cooked in a piquant red chile caribe sauce, a marriage seemingly consecrated by divinity. The chile has its basis in chile pods, not the powdery stuff, and it’s locally grown Chimayo chile which I’ve long contended is even better than Hatch red (sacrilege, I know).
Porcine perfection for the adovada begins with boneless pork chops in which the fat is trimmed off. Still, the secret to great carne adovada is the painstaking preparation–the optimum amount of time required for the sauce to simmer to the peak of flavor and for the pork to acquire the tenderness in which tendrils peel off easily. Rancho de Chimayo has the secret down pat, better and more authentic than just about anyone in New Mexico.
The menu is replete with an array of wonderful New Mexican favorites, all of which beckon for Chimayo red chile. The Rancho’s green chile is plenty good, but it’s the red that’s in rarified company, an exquisite chile of medium piquancy with which you’ll fall in love.
We’ve already established that the carne adovada is perhaps nonpareil, but what about the other items? Fret not. This is a plate with nothing but winners. The Combinación Picante is the best way to sample more than one of the Rancho’s treasures. This is a combination plate for the ages: carne adovada, pork tamale, rolled cheese enchilada, beans and posole served with red chile. These are traditional Northern New Mexican favorites all available on one platter and all delicious.
The rolled enchiladas are layered with cheese, onions and your choice of traditional or vegetarian red or green chile served with beans. You can customize your enchiladas with either chicken or shredded beef, blue corn tortillas and a fried egg, all for a pittance. The shredded beef is terrific, generously apportioned tendrils of moist, delicious beef as tender as the carne adovada. The cheese drapes over the enchiladas like an orange-yellow shroud of deliciousness.
The beans are whole pinto beans as good or better than we prepare at home. The posole, a dish of reconstituted lye-slaked dried white corn kernels, is similarly wonderful and includes very lean and tender pork (a specialty). This is posole the way it should be made.
Tacos are engorged with shredded beef, not ground hamburger. This makes a huge difference in the taste and quality–and it’s the authentic way they have been prepared in Northern New Mexico for generations (or at least until the Taco Bell generation introduced tacos with ground beef). The Rancho’s tacos are some of the very best in northern New Mexico, but that can be said about so much in the menu.
Portions are large, but that’s a good thing because you can take home for later consumption, some of the best New Mexican food in northern New Mexico. Make sure you save room for dessert. In the summer that means strawberry shortcake, a fabulous dessert. Instead of the conventional shortcake, Rancho de Chimayo crafts an oval cake akin to a baking powder biscuit and places it atop several dollops of cream in an island of fresh, sweet strawberries.
On Friday, June 11th, 2008, Rancho De Chimayo suffered a devastating fire. Though confined to the kitchen and initially expected to take just a few weeks to repair, the damage was much more extensive than thought. It would be fourteen months until the restaurant was able to resume business. Its grand reopening showcased a darker adobe facade, golden shreds of straw flecks glinting when visited by the sun. Chile ristras hang on those walls, as much as sign of hospitality in New Mexico as the pineapple is in Hawaii. The bronze sculptures of local artist Marco Oviedo inspire and invite double-takes as people walk through the courtyard to the restaurant.
Restaurante Rancho De Chimayo is a New Mexico classic, a treasured institution some say is as integral a part of the fabric of the Land of Enchantment as red chile itself.
Restaurante Rancho De Chimayo
County Road 98
LATEST VISIT: 22 May 2010
# OF VISITS: 6
BEST BET: Sopaipillas, Chile Con Queso, Enchiladas, Carne Adovada