The late Fray Angelico Chavez, New Mexico’s preeminent historian once wrote about Santa Fe’s growth, “The only threat to her own distinctive glory, and something to guard against these days, is the kind of hurried “progress” which has, not history or humanity, but only money as its sole aim and purpose.” Perhaps nowhere in Santa Fe has that hurried progress been more in evidence than in the world-famous Santa Fe Plaza which has seen significant changes over the years. One of the bastions against progress had been the Woolworth’s department store, in place for several generations, but which finally gave up the ghost just before the turn of the 21st century.
In its place stands the Five & Dime General Store which retains much of the charm that made Woolworth’s a throwback to better times. Best of all, the Five & Dime retained the lunch counter in which the Frito Pie was invented by Teresa Hernandez in the 1960s–nearly 60 years ago. Few, if any, do it better. The Frito Pie is served the old fashioned way, in an open bag of Fritos smothered with meaty red chile and shredded cheese.
While filming “Parts Unknown” for CNN celebrity glitterati Anthony Bourdain rankled the feathers of proud New Mexicans who have loved the Five & Dime’s Frito pies for generations. Bourdain claimed the dish was made with canned Hormel chili and a “DayGlo orange cheese-like substance.” Worse, the acerbic one claimed the Frito pie is a Texas creation, adding that “New Mexico, you have many wonderful things. I think, let Texas have this one.” Within days after the program’s airing, Bourdain issued a retraction.
UPDATE: In 2011, Kaleta Doolin wrote where she dismissed any claims about Santa Fe’s Woolworth’s having been the inventor of the Frito Pie. What gives Doolin credibility is the fact that she was the daughter of the founder of Frito Lays so she had access to company records. Her research found that the “Fritos chili pie” was first served in 1949, more than a decade before Teresa Hernandez “invented it” in the 1960s at the Santa Fe Woolworth’s.
In 1962, the recipe for “Frito pie” appeared on millions of bags of chips: “Heat can of chili, pour into bag of Fritos, and sprinkle with grated cheese, and chopped onions.” That could well have been from where Teresa Hernandez found the recipe…but she most assuredly used New Mexican “chile” and not some dreadful Texas “chili” in concocting her version. For that she should be canonized.
So, while Anthony Bourdain was right about Frito pie having been invented in Texas, he was wrong in calling it a “warm crap in a bag” and “colostomy pie.” It’s for his scatological description that New Mexicans have not forgiven him. Despite his criticism, Bourdain claims to have enjoyed the Five And Dime’s Frito pie.
The Food Network’s popular “The Best Thing I Ever Ate” program gave New Mexico much more love. The premise of this show is that restaurateurs and chefs know where to eat. It answers the question “where do food stars and chefs eat in their free time–when they’re paying.” Chef Rahm Fama returned to his hometown of Santa Fe for a “Best Thing…” episode entitled “Childhood Favorites.” In the episode, he recalled the joys of noshing on Frito pie from the original Five & Dime General Store.
The menu includes several other items, but you rarely see anyone order anything but the Frito Pie which made Woolworth’s a Santa Fe institution. The lunch counter doesn’t have much counter space and there are very few tables, so you just might have to walk around the plaza with your Frito Pie in hand, but you might never have a better one.
Five & Dime General Store
58 E. San Francisco
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 18 October 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Frito Pie