Over the years it’s been my experience that almost invariably, New Mexican restaurants which violate traditional New Mexican grammar don’t prepare the object of their grammatical faux pas very well. The grammatical transgression of which I speak is forgetting the “i” before “e” rule and committing the piquant peccadillo of spelling New Mexico’s official state vegetable with two “i’s” and no “e’s.” It’s entirely forgivable that chile is technically a fruit, albeit one which packs an incendiary capsaicin punch, but like many New Mexicans, I feel personally insulted when presented with a menu offering “chili.”
That grammatical malapropism wasn’t lost on Calvin Trillin, a legendary American journalist and novelist known for his humorous writings about food and eating. In an October, 2002 article on Gourmet magazine entitled “Bowlful of Dreams,” he described a visit to the New York City “New Mexican” restaurant Los Dos Molinos: “One of the places I’d heard about, Los Dos Molinos, seemed to have been designed for citizens who have gotten about ten years past spring break at Daytona Beach but had not lost their taste for specialties like a “Kick-Ass Pitcher” of Margaritas. Although the red and green chile served as a dip with the chips would have been perfectly recognizable to a New Mexico purist, he would have been put off by his first glance at the menu. Sopaipillas were listed under desserts.
In the most serious deviation from the gospel, the red and the green were identified on the menu as “chili”—a spelling that would make any New Mexican connoisseur shudder. Chili is what people in Texas and California eat at chili contests and, to the astonishment of people from Northern New Mexico, even in between chili contests—chopped meat and chili powder and maybe beans. It has no relation to a bowl of New Mexican red or green, which is somewhere in the neighborhood of a sauce or a soup or a stew, perhaps with a few pieces of meat in it, and is spelled “chile.”
When he launched the Chili Stop restaurant in June, 2008, Ron Chavez had absolutely no compunction about the spelling of his restaurant’s name. His brother, a retired teacher who made several trips to South America told him “chili is a vegetable and Chile is a country,” a contention backed up by several sources. Perhaps Chavez and his brother had never read Trillin.
Though Chavez might not be able to win a spelling bee anywhere in northern New Mexico, his green chile was the very best in the Duke City area. When simmering on the stove, its aroma was like an irresistible siren’s call or a life-altering religious experience, the effect of which was rendering native New Mexicans like me weak in the knees and light in the head. Effusive salivating akin to Pavlov’s dogs and absolute olfactory arousal ensued the moment our nostrils caught a whiff of that chile. No, my friends, this wasn’t “chili” as Trillin aptly described it.
Readers suffering from “advanced geriatric progression” like me might remember the Winston cigarettes slogan “what do you want good grammar or good taste.” Chavez’s green chile was so good, it was easy to forgive and forget that atrocious spelling of “chili.” It was so good, it was easy to forgive the occasional too well-done beef on a bowl of green chile or the charred edges on the burger patties. What we wanted was good taste, not good grammar.
Alas, Chavez sold the Chili Stop five months after opening it. Now called “The Chili Stop Cafe,” there are many indications this is not the same restaurant. Most telling might be the “sub-title” on the signage which reads “Best Chile in the Westside.” Better still, every entree on the menu on which it is used, spells it “chile.” Still, as described above, spelling alone is not indicative of how good (or bad) the chile might be.
Also indicative that this is not the Chili Stop of old is a larger menu than that of its predecessor, a menu which includes daily specials. The breakfast menu features burritos (including a veggie burrito) and egg breakfasts (including omelets). The lunch menu includes burritos, enchiladas, burgers, tacos, stuffed sopaipillas, quesadillas and other items. The restaurant now has a more artsy ambience and much more comfortable seating. Cleanliness seems more prevalent and best of all, Chavez’s often confused and youthfully air-headed kitchen and wait staff has been replaced by more seasoned and attentive employees who actually care about their guests’ dining experiences.
Conspicuous during my inaugural visit in March, 2009 was the seductive siren smell of green chile, but that’s a rarity in many New Mexican restaurants anyway. The specialty of the house, I was told, is the green chile cheeseburger. It was great to hear some things haven’t changed.
The salsa is of mild piquancy–garlic, jalapeno, onion–and is fairly thick so it doesn’t run off the chips, which are served warm in a basket. The chips are also low in salt and have the fortitude to scoop up Gil-sized amounts of salsa.
Burger options no longer start and end with the ubiquitous New Mexico favorite, the green chile cheeseburger. You can now have a barbecue bacon burger, mushroom Swiss burger, tortilla burger (with chile and cheese), chicken tortilla burger or you can have your burger open-faced.
The green chile cheeseburger is made with hand-formed, well-seasoned beef patties. Served on a sesame seed bun about five-inches in circumference, the beef is draped by well-melted cheese (which also covers the green chile). White onion, tomato, lettuce and pickle are available on the plate while mustard and ketchup can be found on each table. The green chile has neither the bite nor the flavor of the old Chili Stop burger, but this burger isn’t solely about chile. This burger is most definitely about the beef which is prepared to slightly more than medium doneness. As a supporting character, the green chile imparts a nice flavor that doesn’t overwhelm everything else on the burger. That’s a good thing.
The Chili Stop Cafe has established a loyal following among west-siders and has even won over some of the die-hard green chile addicts who, like me, thought they had found green chile Nirvana at the old Chili Stop. After one visit, I’m not ready to proclaim the Chili Stop Cafe equal to or in the same league as its predecessor, but it definitely warrants repeat visits.
The Chili Stop Cafe
3600 Highway 528
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 12 March 2009
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Green chile cheeseburger, chips and salsa