Not many restaurants get to celebrate 50 years in business. The popular Rancho de Chimayó Restaurante, in the historic mountain hamlet of Chimayó, will begin its 50th year in October 2014 and they are excited about it. Opened in 1965 by Arturo and Florence Jaramillo in his grandparent’s former home, the restaurant is still going strong. Today, it is mostly run by Mrs. J, as she is fondly known to staff and regular customers. Her former husband comes up from Mexico each sunner to help during the busy season.
Meet Florence Jaramillo
The octogenarian owner of this beloved eatery wasn’t born to chile, she married into it. Born in 1930 in Hartford, Connecticut, this independent young working woman was on vacation in Virginia Beach with her girlfriends when she met Chimayó native Arturo Jaramillo. The dapper young man, a member of the US Navy, was stationed there. They courted, fell in love and married in 1953.
The first time Florence Jaramillo ate a chile was in 1956, during her first visit to New Mexico. She and her husband had taken Grandpa Jaramillo, then living with Mr. J’s parents in Santa Fe, for a day up on the High Road, where he grew up. On the way back, they stopped at a small New Mexican restaurant for dinner. It was meatless Friday and they ordered chile and eggs. “I couldn’t tell you if it was good or not,” reminisced Mrs. J. “Grandpa thought it was wonderful and Art did too so it must have been good.” For her it was just different. She didn’t mind the heat so much she said; she’d grown up eating hot Italian peppers and spicy sausages. It was not love at first bite.
The couple and their young daughter Laura moved to Santa Fe in 1963. After nine months in the city they moved to Chimayó. Two years later they opened the restaurant in the then restored home of Arturo Jaramillo’s grandparents, Hermenegildo and Trinidad Jaramillo.
Starting the restaurant
They started the restaurant using Grandma Jaramillo’s recipes. “They’d never been written down and we had to get them from one of her daughters,” Mrs. J. shared. “They wrote them down for us and the cooks worked with them.” The chile at Rancho de Chimayó has always been gluten free thanks to their first cook who felt that cornstarch offered greater taste consistency than flour. “No we’re not using flour to thicken it,” Mrs. J. remembered her saying. “We’re going to use Argo Starch.” And that was how it’s stayed for almost 50 years.
The restaurant was busy from the beginning with lots of local publicity and people coming from Santa Fe and Albuquerque to try this new dining spot. Part of the draw was old family recipes and anther was the old family home they were in. People were also attracted by the fabled, Chimayó chiles they grew themselves. Chile growing is very labor intensive and they were busy with the restaurant so they only farmed for three years. Mrs. J. said she’d love to find someone who will grow chile in those fields. These days she buys a great deal of the chile crop this small town is known for growing.
The first 50 years
The original menu was much smaller than it is today. Carne adovada was one of the first dishes they served. Northern New Mexico classics such as stacked blue corn enchiladas, the combination plates, tacos, enchiladas and their popular, tamale plate came later. They also made their own tamales in the beginning. They would start at 10 at night and work until 8am the following day. They turned out 300 dozen every other week and they’d run out of them before it was time to make the new batch. Today, they outsource both tamale and tortilla making. “All of this is very time consuming,” confided Mrs. J.
Both their signature chicken with queso and their famous stuffed sopaillias were the result of a chance meeting with restaurant owners from New Jersey in the late 60s. While dining out during a Christmas trip, the Jaramillos struck up a conversation with the easterners at the next table who happened to own an Italian restaurant. “He told me what he did with chicken breast and that’s how the chicken with queso began,” said Mrs. J. Then he talked about stuffing “something into bread” and an idea was born. “I said to Art, we should do that with sopaillias,” she recalled. They began stuffing the fluffy dough pillows with beef or chicken, beans, and Spanish rice creating Sopaipilla Relleno, a now-popular New Mexico culinary tradition. “I don’t care what anyone would tell you in this place,” said Mrs. J. “We started those.” Today, Rancho de Chimayo’s menu is extensive, but the old favorites remain.
The Rancho de Chimayó Legacy
Some families have been coming since the beginning, especially Sundays after church. And visitors from afar come back drawn by memories of a great meal. “People come and say, ‘we were here 30 years ago and it tastes the same,” Mrs. J. said. “I don’t know how they tell, I couldn’t tell after 30 years [but] I’m glad they came back.”
For the 40th anniversary they offered $2 specials. “I wanted to give something back to the community,” Mrs. J. said. They ran a different special each week for four weeks. Will they do it again this time? “Not that one. We may do something, but not that one.” So, when October nears, read the newspaper ads and check their website. What will celebrate the golden year is a new Rancho de Chimayó cookbook. The first one, published in 1991, in collaboration with Santa Fe authors Bill and Cheryl Jamison launched the couple’s award-winning cookbook career. Once again, Mrs. J. is collaborating with them on this new book. It’s planned for a May 6th release date withe an official book launch party planned for Saturday, June 21st. Details will be posted on the restaurant’s website closer to the date.
Cheryl Jamison observed: “For 50 years, Florence Jaramillo has overseen this landmark, making sure it showcases northern New Mexico’s distinctive cuisine and rich heritage. Mrs. J. is the embodiment of grace, humility, and hospitality, with a core of steel. She has made Rancho de Chimayó an American culinary treasure. Bill and I have been honored to work with Florence and her daughter Laura on their original cookbook about half a lifetime ago, and on the new 50th anniversary edition.”
Florence Jaramillo is still at work almost every day greeting old customers, meeting new ones and making sure the busy restaurant runs the way it should. Is the octogenarian thinking of retirement? Not yet. She says she’ll give it some thought after the 50th anniversary celebration is over. But until then she’s just got too much to do,
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