Best green chile memories: learning to love spice

One of the best things about fall in Santa Fe is the aroma of roasting green chile in the air. New Mexicans love our green chile. So much so that it’s the official state vegetable. We’ve been in Colorado for the last month and are missing the distinctive fall aroma. I see Facebook friends posting about it and sharing photos, we missed the Green Chile Cheeseburger Smackdown last Friday (congrats to winning chefs Rocky Durham of The Blue Heron at Sunrise Springs and David Sellers of Street Food Institute) and we don’t have any of those smoky green bits to add to our food. I’m feeling a bit nostalgic. Ordering a side of Colorado green chile to smother my breakfast potatoes really brought it home. Colorado chile is a pale second New Mexican chile. In the midst of my nostalgia I began rehashing some of my most memorable green chile experiences. Here are some of my best green chile memories.

My first green chile memory

best green chile memories - Mary & Titos is an Albuquerque food legend as well as a James Beard American Classic, photo Steve Collins

Albuquerque food legend Mary & Titos is a James Beard American Classic, photo/Steve Collins

On a visit to Albuquerque over Christmas 1991 we decided we had to eat at one of the city’s legendary New Mexican restaurants — there are a few. We headed for Sadie’s on a Saturday night. We waited a long time with a lot of other would-be diners for a table. I perused the menu and decided to order the stacked blue corn chicken enchiladas smothered in green chile. “Mild, medium or hot?” our server asked. Not having honed my New Mexico heat tolerance I went for mild. I tucked into my food when it arrived and immediately began to cough. That “mild” chile sure was hot. I had learned my first green chile lesson: the chile heat is what it is and that’s it. If you are heat-sensitive, ask to taste it or order it on the side. Don’t have your food covered in it! In New Mexico they won’t take food back for being too hot to eat.  Even sour cream could not make this tolerable for me. That was really the only NM restaurant I’ve been asked what heat level I wanted. There’s good reason for this. Chile, like wine grapes, is beholden to terroir as well as the year’s weather conditions. Wet conditions result in one heat profile while a dry creates another. There’s really no way to predict the heat of a chile before tasting it. I remember one year when the hot chile one market was selling was milder than one that was marked as “medium.”

By the time we ate at Albuquerque’s Mary & Titos, another legendary purveyor of traditional New Mexican cuisine, designated a James Beard Foundation American Classic, I was a pro.

Learning to eat hotter and hotter chile

Best green chile memories - Green chiles at the Santa Fe Farmers Market, photo Steve Collins

Green chiles at the Santa Fe Farmers Market, photo Steve Collins

It took years but I can tolerate fairly hot chile these days. My eyes may tear, I may cough and my sinuses clear up, but I valiantly persist. Working at a downtown luxury hotel helped me adjust to chile heat. Employees got free lunch. Most of my fellow workers were either native New Mexicans or from Mexico, as were the cooks; the hotter, the better! On days when the food had chile it was often too hot, for me but it was darned tasty so I persisted. Slowly, my heat tolerance increased.

Santa Feans will tell you the hottest green chile in town is at Horseman’s Haven on the city’s south end. While I would never attempt their level two (or higher) green, it’s hotter than hell, I do eat their next level down. It hurts, but I can do it. I felt really proud the day I conquered their green. It’s one of my proudest and best green chile memories. I felt like I was Queen of the World. I can now mostly hold my own when it comes to eating New Mexican green chile.

Colorado chile

best green chile memories - Eating Colorado green chile at the 4th Street Diner in Saguache, CO brought on the green chile memories, photo Billie Frank

Eating Colorado green chile at the 4th Street Diner in Saguache, CO brought on the green chile memories, photo Billie Frank

My second green chile experience was in Northern Colorado where we lived for eight years before moving to Santa Fe. Juan’s a long-gone Mexican restaurant in Loveland had wonderful pork green chile that I used to order and cover my shredded beef. It was heaven. Colorado green, unlike its New Mexican cousin, is usually made with a roux so it has a way thicker texture.

One of our favorite Colorado greens is at Mountain Shadows Restaurant, our go-to breakfast placet when we’re in Colorado Springs. We found this funky gem, on the east side of the historic Old Colorado City, area by accident; it was a fortuitous one! They sell their green in mason jars and it’s so good we once left with some for ourselves and to give as gifts. It’s thick, not overly spicy and really tasty. It’s true comfort food!

Colorado tries to compete with NM in the unofficial chile wars, but, in my opinion, it’s no contest. New Mexico wins hands-down.

Buying New Mexico green

best green chile memories - Matt Romero roasting green chile at the Santa Fe Farmers Market, photo Steve Collins

Matt Romero roasting green chile at the Santa Fe Farmers Market, photo/Steve Collins

New Mexicans are very opinionated when it comes to their green chile and just about everyone   has their favorite. As mentioned, chile takes on the character of the land it’s grown in. The best-known NM chile comes from Hatch in the southern part of the state. They’re famous for growing it and their annual chile festival draws people from all over. Hatch chile the main chile that gets shipped out of state. There’s a lot of it, though as Kelly Urig, the Chile Chica, creator of the Emmy Award-winning short The Chile Film (La Sangre Roja y Verde de Nuevo Mexico, points out in her book, New Mexico Chiles: History, Legend and Lore writes about the decline of chile production in the state due to a number of factors.

best green chile memories - Berridge Farms roasting green chile in Santa Fe, photo Steve Collins

Berridge Farms roasting green chile in Santa Fe, photo/Steve Collins

The most popular chile is the Big Jim, a large chile perfect for chile rellenos. Much of the chile roasting in Santa Fe comes up from the Hatch Valley. You’ll find green chile roasting outside most grocery stores as well as in parking lots around town. Farmers from down south set up their roasters site around town. Hatch’s Berridge Farms, owned and run by Urig’s family, sets up at the Rodeo de Santa Fe grounds on Rodeo Road on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays from 9am to 5pm during roasting season; they’ve set up somewhere in Santa Fe during roasting season for decades.

We’re partial to the organic green grown at Matt Romero Farms in Velarde sold at the Santa Fe Farmers Market. Matt Romero mans his chile roaster all season. Chimayó is famous for its red chile. It’s allowed to ripen and then is dried and ground before use.

We miss not being in Santa Fe during chile season. It means our freezer won’t have green waiting for us all winter. The good news: Albuquerque’s Bueno Foods buys up copious amounts of New Mexico green and freezes it. It’s available in markets all over NM and shows up in markets around the country for those needing their green chile fix. But if you want fresh green chile, the time to strike is now.

It’s been fun and cathartic sharing my best green chile memories. Hope you enjoy reading them as much as I enjoyed writing them!

What are your best green chile memories?

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3 Responses to “Best green chile memories: learning to love spice”

  1. Vera M Badertscher
    September 12, 2017 at 11:46 am #

    I’ve lived in Arizona for more than 50 years, and still can’t tolerate hot chiles–particularly in New Mexico style food, where they turn the heat up several degrees. Love the taste of green chiles from Hatch, as mild as those in a can and I even tried my hand at making chile rellenos this year. (It is a tedious job and I think I’ll go back to ordering them at restaurants instead.) But in Tucson, anybody who loves chile has the same opportunity to get fresh roasted outside the grocery stores and at farmers’ markets this time of year. And we have our own Chile Trail–which you no doubt would spurn. 🙂
    Vera M Badertscher recently posted..A Life and a Dream Ended When Mame Kaser DiedMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      September 12, 2017 at 1:08 pm #

      I’m all for any chile trail! Will have to check it out next time we’re in Tucson.

  2. Steve Collins
    June 5, 2018 at 9:26 am #

    Thanks for the comment!

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