If you’ve read or studied the history of New Mexico, you’re probably aware that life wasn’t easy for Spanish colonists. As with other efforts to colonize North America, Spanish settlers quickly found themselves insufficiently provisioned for the agrarian lifestyle they sought to establish and maintain. Wholly dependent on water to produce and maintain crops and farmland, they quickly found out rainfall in the desert Southwest was fickle and unpredictable. When winter came, the harsh realities of a poor crop yield set in. Settlers often had to resort to taking the food of their Indian neighbors, often by duplicitous means.
Throughout the seventeenth century the Spanish population in New Mexico never exceeded more than 3,000, about one-sixth the number of Pueblo residents. Clashes between Spanish settlers and soldiers and various Pueblos were largely predicated by the indignities Pueblos suffered at the hands of the Spanish. Then came severe drought, higher than average temperatures and very little rainfall. Significant crop losses, livestock death and starvation made life tenuous. These conditions were exacerbated by raiding Navajos and Apaches seeking to supplement their own dwindling foodstuffs by preying on other inhabitants of the colony. Ultimately these events contributed to the Pueblo Revolt of 1680 when the Spanish were driven out of the Land of Enchantment.
After the Spanish “reconquest” of New Mexico, fortified settlements began to spring up in areas replete with good fields, waters, pastures, and timber. Communities built a Church (usually the first structure to be completed) government buildings and homes. Settlers worked together to build corrals, dig irrigation ditches and plow and plant field. Spanish laws required settlers to configure settlements as a plaza which became a community’s religious and social fulcrum. These plazas consisted of contiguous houses built around a central open area that could be entered only through a fortified side gate. At Ranchos de Taos the plaza enclosed over two acres to hold all the community’s livestock in the event of an Indian attack. Individual families were prohibited from going out and settling the land.
In 1760 Ranchos de Taos was attacked by Comanche Indians who kidnapped 56 women and children and killed 17 people. Those Hispanic survivors who remained in the area took refuge at the Taos Pueblo for their mutual protection. Over the next 20 years, the settlers cautiously returned to their farms and plazas. In 1772 a mission church was begun with Franciscans supervising the construction. That church–The spectacular San Francisco de Asis Church, which was completed in 1815 and still dominates the Ranchos Plaza. It has long been acknowledged as one of the most beautiful buildings left by the early Spanish in the entire United States. Painted by Georgia O’Keefe and photographed by Ansel Adams and many others The Ranchos Church remains one of the most photographed buildings in the country.
Today much of what was once a central open area is a parking lot facing the back of the San Francisco de Assisi Mission Church, a large, sculpted Spanish Colonial church with massive adobe buttresses and two front-facing bell towers. The contiguous houses built around the once central open area are now occupied by art galleries, small shops and the Ranchos Plaza Grill, one of the premier New Mexican restaurants in Northern New Mexico. From the Grill’s north-facing open-air patio, your views afar are of spectacular snow-capped mountains, including Wheeler Peak, the highest mountain (13,127′) in New Mexico. Towering deciduous trees provide sun-shielding shade and lend to the beautiful ambiance. For al fresco dining, you can’t beat it…and you might just be tempted to abscond with the beautiful red chile ristras hanging on the patio.
Both from an experiential and culinary standpoint, you can’t beat dining inside the venerable restaurant. Uneven flagstone flooring in- and outdoors means you should watch your step. That’s challenging to do when you step inside the spacious front room where intriguing artwork festoons the walls…and watch out for the rack of antlers at eye-level for most New Mexicans of average height. A distressed blue trastero with a traditional sunburst design and a petaquilla (trunk) are reminders of yesteryear when the restaurant may have served as a family home. The main dining room is actually smaller than the front room with four four-tops flanking a table for six.
While the building in which Ranchos Plaza Grill is situated may be over a hundred years old, the restaurant itself is relatively new. Adam and Rae Lynn Medina opened the traditional and authentic New Mexican eatery with the help of Adam’s late father who was in the restaurant business. Adam’s graduation from culinary school coincided with the space on the plaza becoming available. Cooking duties were shared between Adam, Rae Lynn and Adam’s mom and dad. Today Adam is at the helm with other family members lending a hand. Though both red and green chile are featured fare, it’s the red chile whose story is told on the menu. No ordinary red chile is this. It’s chile Caribe, dried red chile pods ground to a crushed form and reconstituted. It’s absolutely delicious! A vegetarian chile is also available.
Having grown up in Penasco, some 25 miles or so south of Ranchos de Taos, I was familiar with the Ranchos Plaza Cafe though had never visited until Guy Fieri, host of the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives program visited. In an episode titled “Beef and Bird” which aired on Friday, 4 November 2022, Fieri and his son Hunter lavished the restaurant with praise (though the Food Network’s Triple D website refers to the cuisine as “Mexican.”) For a restaurant that prides itself on Northern New Mexico cuisine, that’s almost an insult. So is the spelling “chili” on other Food Network sites featuring New Mexico’s sacrosanct cuisine.
Northern New Mexican cuisine means carne adovada made the Taos way–marinated pork medallions topped with chile caribe and ground red chile. It means making everything in-house (except for sour cream). The Plaza Grill is renowned for its “bigger than your head” sopiapillas which are available as an entree (stuffed with chicken) or dessert (with honey). Guy Fieri jokingly chided his son Hunter for “shoveling” his food, saying “it’s like trying to eat with the Tasmanian Devil.” Shout-out to my fellow Peñasco Panther and captain of the state champion basketball team Clarence Vigil for managing to appear on camera several times and even getting in a good quote.
As Fieri noted, the menu is “so big I have no idea what we’re going to order.” Part of the fun of a restaurant dining experience is perusing the menu and trying to figure out whether to have one of your favorite dishes or something entirely new. It’s easier for my bride who can’t eat anything piquant, but for my 39-year-old mom and me, there was no doubt whatever we ordered had to have chile. Growing up I don’t remember many meals in which red and (or) green chile wasn’t incorporated into a meal. So, when I say I was weaned on chile (Gerber red chile anyone?), it’s not too far from the truth.
Appetizers include nachos; homemade salsa and chips; homemade guacamole, chips and salsa; chile cheese fries; and a bowl of beans and chile with a sopaipilla. While my preference would have been nachos (beans and cheese with sour cream and guacamole), I was outvoted…not that salsa and chips are a consolation prize. The salsa is fresh and lively…too lively for my mom and for my Kim. Once upon a time my mom’s heat tolerance was even greater than mine, but at 93 years young, her tongue and taste buds are no longer lined with asbestos. Crispy blue and yellow corn chips proved a worthy accompaniment to the jalapeno-based salsa, one of the freshest and tastiest I’ve had in a while.
While my mom may once have been able to match my heat tolerance, she’s never been a trencherman (trencherwoman?) Her appetite is much more dainty now. When her beef and bean burrito was delivered to our table, she immediately knew she’d be taking most of it home. This burrito covers the plate and looks as if it’s swimming in a lagoon of crimson red chile. It’s thick and tall with white Cheddar atop making it a doppelgänger for Wheeler Peak. Seriously, this is one large burrito! A generous portion of rice is served next to the burrito. Mom (with a little help from her favorite son) put a dent on the burrito, finishing maybe a fifth. The burrito was terrific though the chile could have had more bite (my opinion only). Unlike at so many New Mexican restaurants “beef” means shredded beef, not fried hamburger. It makes a difference. So do the beans–New Mexico’s “other” official state vegetable, the pinto bean. These beans were absolutely perfect!
A typical dining experience with me includes watching your favorite restaurant review guru vacillating between several items on the menu. Ordering quickly is a rare experience. When it looks as if servers are ready to strangle me, my go-to selection at New Mexican restaurants is enchiladas. The Ranchos Plaza Grill offers everything from seafood enchiladas to carne adovada enchiladas, five choices in all. Three of the five enchiladas are of the “rolled” variety. As a Norteño, “stacked” is always my choice. So was three enchiladas instead of two. Blue corn enchiladas stacked and topped with beef and red chile was an excellent choice though like my mom, I struggled to finish my plate. It would have been easier had the beans and rice not been so good. Yes, even the “Spanish” rice was excellent. The beans are poster worthy exemplars of New Mexico’s official state vegetable. As far as the blue corn enchiladas, these are among the very best I’ve had across the Land of Enchantment. That chile is as enchanting as any culinary ingredient you can have.
My Kim’s go-to choice-courtesy of a prescription change that ruined her tolerance of piquant foods–has become fajitas. Not that that’s a bad thing. Besides, fajitas allowed us to experience the “Grill” portion of the restaurant’s name. You may not know this–and hopefully it won’t ruin an illusion for you–but what gives fajitas their smoke and sizzle is the strategic spritz of liquid onto a plate. At the Ranchos Grill, you won’t experience that manufactured experience of the cloud of smoke and angry sizzle that sometimes accompanies fajitas. No sizzle and no show doesn’t mean no flavor. In fact, these fajitas are superb. My Kim is especially enamored of the nearly caramelized and translucent onions. They’re sweet and delicious, a perfect foil for the savory, meaty beef (or is that beefy meat?). Sour cream and guacamole are served with the fajitas as are thick, homemade flour tortillas.
Guy and Hunter Fieri were introduced to stuffed sopaipillas during their November, 2022 visit to the Ranchos Plaza Grill. Guy commented on each sopaipilla being the size of his son’s head. None of us ordered the stuffed sopaipillas, but we did enjoy (immensely) the sopaipillas accompanied by real honey. These sopaipillas are puffalumpable pillows…indeed formidable. Tear them open and steam wafts upward just beckoning for honey. For most people, a sopaipilla or two with honey makes for a sizeable dessert, a magnificent melding of sticky sweet honey with light, crispy fried pieces of pastry dough. Culinary historians believe sopaipillas originated in Albuquerque. They were certainly perfected at Ranchos de Taos.
My mom and I couldn’t resist ordering sopa even after polishing off our sopaipilla desserts. You may be aware that in Mexican restaurants, sopa translates in English to “soup.” There’s a second definition you may not be aware of. Sopa is also a term for “sopped bread; a piece of bread soaked in broth, milk or wine.” What Taosenos call “sopa” is what Penasqueros know as capirotada, a bread pudding made with cinnamon, piloncillo, cloves, raisins, bread, and cheese. Yes, cheese. It’s integral on a great capirotada. My mom’s capirotada is the very best I’ve ever experienced. Ranchos Plaza Grill’s rendition would make my top five. It’s outstanding even though crushed walnuts are used in place of raisins.
Pioneering Spaniards would love to have had a culinary oasis in the Land of Enchantment’s oft treacherous frontier. It would have made life much more enchanting for them as it does for hordes of visitors wanting to experience some of the state’s very best New Mexican cuisine.
Ranchos Plaza Grill
8 Ranchos Plaza Road
Ranchos De Taos, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 5 May 2023
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Blue Corn Enchiladas, Fajitas, Soda, Salsa and Chips, Bean and Cheese Burrito