Learning to eat (and love) spicy New Mexico chiles

Some like it hot and in Santa Fe, hot often means spicy New Mexico chiles. When I first came to the Land of Enchantment, first on vacations and later when we moved here, I had what my husband Steve calls a “gringo palate.” I was a chile wuss; the slightest heat made me wince. Living here I felt that I had to bite the bullet or at least the chile. Learning to eat hot New Mexico chile was a long and mouth-burning experience. I won the battle!

Chile is the official New Mexico State Vegetable and diners will find it on menus throughout Northern New Mexico. It’s ubiquitous in the local cuisine but you’ll also find it in more surprising places. Green chile cheeseburgers are everywhere from national fast food chains to many local restaurants. It even shows up in the creative cookery at more upscale fusion places. If you don’t eat chile, it really limits your dining choices. So, I started to train my body.

My first spicy New Mexico chile experience

Sadie's of New Mexico's 4th Street location in Albuquerque photo courtesy of Sadie's

Sadie’s of New Mexico’s 4th Street location in Albuquerque photo/courtesy of Sadie’s

A few decades ago on a Christmas trip to the Southwest we spent a few nights in Albuquerque. It was before Google made finding as restaurant simple. I turned to guidebooks as we all did in those days. One of the places that popped up as a must for New Mexican food was Sadie’s of New Mexico. We’re big on trying local cuisine so off we went. It was a Saturday night and they didn’t take reservations. We sat in the crowded lobby for what seemed like ages before we were shown to our table. I ordered stacked blue corn chicken enchiladas; the server asked if I wanted red or green chile and I said green. I swear the server asked if I wanted mild, medium or hot and I, of course, said “mild.” After all, I’d been eating mild Mexican food forever and I was fine. The food arrived and it was beyond hot. My mouth was screaming for help. I had a plate of food in front of me and I was determined to eat it so I ordered a side of sour cream. Note to readers: you don’t order sour cream at a New Mexican restaurant. They probably roll their eyes and snicker behind your back. It totally marks you as a tourist, but what did I know and I needed that cooling dairy. It didn’t make a dent in the heat and my meal went uneaten. The lesson: taste the chile before ordering or order it on the side. Meanwhile, Steve savored his spicy dinner.

Learning to eat spicy New Mexico chiles

Baskets of spicy New Mexico chiles from Romero Farm at the Santa Fe Farmers Market photo Steve Collins

Spicy New Mexico chiles from Romero Farms at Santa Fe Farmers Market photo/Steve Collins

When we first moved to Santa Fe 12 years ago, I knew I had to come to peace with Northern New Mexican cuisine and the chile. I set out tentatively to conquer the beast. One of the first things I discovered was that there really was no “mild” in chile in New Mexican restaurants and heat always varies depending on the chiles used. The spiciness also varies due to a lot of factors including soil, location, the seed stock and the weather.  Some say red is hotter, some say green. Heat depends on the plant, where it was grown and even the growing conditions that year. The French call this terroir.

I started out slowly. My modus operandi was to either ask to taste the chile before having my food smothered in it or I ordered it on the side. I discovered that I prefer green chile. I can’t explain why I don’t like red. It’s a combination of the taste and the texture. The three exceptions for me to this is carne adovada (pork slow-cooked in red chile), tamales and posole. Many times the chile was just too hot and I ate my meal sans chile. The more I ate the hotter I could tolerate.

The experience

A breakfast burrito smothered in green chile at The Pantry in Santa Fe photo courtesy/The Pantry

A breakfast burrito smothered in green chile at The Pantry in Santa Fe photo courtesy/The Pantry

I started off with hand-held breakfast burritos made with chopped green chile. For some reason, that was easier for me to tolerate than the chile made into a sauce (also called “chile”) that is generously ladled on food when it says “smothered” on the menu. It took a while for me to work up to that.

One place I learned to eat hot chile was at the employee cafeteria in a hotel where I worked. Lunch was free and close. It was hard to get to restaurants in the half-hour allotted for lunch. As a lot of New Mexicans and Mexicans worked in the hotel and in the kitchen, food was often spicy. I remember sitting at a table one day with tears streaming down my cheeks unable to utter a word. But, I got the food down. I think that was the beginning of my victory over hot food.

It all still tastes hot to me, but there are degrees. Often when I think something is hot, Steve doesn’t experience any heat at all. When he thinks it’s fairly tame, my mouth will be burning. When he thinks it’s hot, I have tears streaming down my face and am often coughing from the heat. But… I can eat it and actually enjoy the burn. Confession: I’m a bit addicted to green chile now. I am now, at least when it comes to eating, a local.

A chile champ is born

Carne adovada (pork in red chile) at Rancho Plaza Grill in Rancho de Taos, photo/Steve Collins

Carne adovada (pork in red chile) at Rancho Plaza Grill in Rancho de Taos, photo/Steve Collins

I can (almost) eat chile with the best of them now. Yes, it tastes way hotter to me than to a New Mexican, a person raised with any hot foods or my husband, but I eat it. It still astounds me that I can do so given my lack of tolerance for hot foods when I arrived. And there is spillover; I can eat other spicy cuisine such as Indian, Mexican, Sichuan, Thai and Korean, with (again, almost) impunity. I am a spicy food star!

A few tips to help you with learning to spicy New Mexico chile:

  • Start slow.
  • Taste the chile before you order (they won’t take food back because it’s too spicy for you).
  • Order the chile on the side so you can decide how much to add or even if you want to add it.
  • Try both red and green to see which one you prefer. You may like both and if you order “Christmas” they’ll top your food with a little of each.
  • If the chile is already in the dish, ask to taste it. They may not always be able to give you a taste. If you’re not sure if it will be too hot and you can’t taste it, order something else.

New Mexican cuisine is unique and I’ve grown to really appreciate it.  I even eat Chile-enhanced food at home; Steve loves to cook with it.  He even has his own red chile rub. We buy freshly roasted green chile every year at the Santa Fe Farmers Market and freeze it for use during the year. I love the heartiness of it, the blend of flavors and the rich colors. If you visit here, try some. It’s like going to a foreign country. If you haven’t tasted the local food you haven’t fully immersed in the culture. And remember, some like it hot. It may not be you, but perhaps, like me, you can learn.

Do you eat  spicy New Mexico chiles?


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16 Responses to “Learning to eat (and love) spicy New Mexico chiles”

  1. Gil Garduno
    February 18, 2016 at 8:31 am #

    Great, great post! My Chicago born-and-bred wife underwent a similar transformation from wimpy gringa to a chile loving fiend. We spent our first two years together in England where chile was nowhere to be found so she’d prepare this awful Lawry’s “chili” that I choked down. When we returned to the states and she was introduced to New Mexican chile, she apologized for trying to poison me with the Lawry’s.
    Gil Garduno recently posted..Clafoutis – Santa Fe, New MexicoMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      February 18, 2016 at 11:00 am #

      Thanks for the kind words about the post. EwW on the Lawry’s. I used to use their seasoning salt when I was a very young cook who didn’t know any better- I learned.

  2. Linda
    February 21, 2016 at 11:57 pm #

    You’ve done well!
    I’m on the puny side when it comes to heat in my mouth so shy away from the sensation –
    Yet friends who love it, really l-o-v-e it… to the extreme of having Chilli chocolate 😉
    Linda recently posted..Plan for the Future & Review your Year at a GlanceMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      February 22, 2016 at 7:27 am #

      I was puny, too but I conquered the heat and love it now. Santa Fe is loaded with chile chocolates.

  3. Donna Janke
    February 22, 2016 at 7:00 am #

    This post has me wanting to sample a variety of New Mexico chiles. The heat might be an issue for me in some cases. Good suggestion about asking to taste first to see if you can stand the heat.
    Donna Janke recently posted..Snowbirds in Pedasi – We are Not in Arizona AnymoreMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      February 22, 2016 at 7:29 am #

      You can, believe it or not, find Bueno Green Chile in freezer cases in some supermarkets depending on where you live. Before we bought enough fresh roasted chiles each year to freeze that was our winter go-to source and still is.

  4. Janice Chung
    February 22, 2016 at 7:05 am #

    I am a chile wuss. Your suggestions were great. I never considered trying the chile first or having it on the side. I’ll be travelling to a place later on this year where chiles are in everything sp this post was perfect to read.

    • Billie Frank
      February 22, 2016 at 7:31 am #

      In some places you may not be able to get chiles on the side. For years when we went to restaurants where spicy food was the norm-, like Thai, I went right to mild and sometimes that was too much. Now I order medium and am fine. Still not ready for hot.

  5. Catherine Sweeney
    February 22, 2016 at 9:36 am #

    I’m a wuss when it comes to hot and spicy. But the hubby, on the other hand, can’t get his food hot enough. He did have one very bad experience though. At a restaurant he was asked if he wanted his dish mild or hot, and he told them to make it as hot as they could. Well, he was in big trouble! It didn’t deter him from spicy food though. Always asks for the hottest. 🙂 The breakfast burrito pic is totally mouth-watering, by the way.
    Catherine Sweeney recently posted..Tasting Montana from Butte to MissoulaMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      June 18, 2017 at 11:10 am #

      Steve is the same way- occasionally it backfires on him as well.

  6. Irene S. Levine
    February 22, 2016 at 6:04 pm #

    Those are great tips for dining in New Mexico. My hubby loves chile peppers but I think, like you, I’d need to adapt!
    Irene S. Levine recently posted..TripAdvisor recognizes More Time To Travel for having more fun!My Profile

    • Billie Frank
      February 23, 2016 at 12:17 pm #

      Just start out slow like I did. You can do it!

  7. The GypsyNesters
    February 22, 2016 at 7:13 pm #

    The burrito smothered in green chile looks incredible, but the red with pork is killing me too. Really miss the chilies in the southwest, it’s hard to find good green or red anywhere else.
    The GypsyNesters recently posted..Charms of the Chagga People of TanzaniaMy Profile

    • Billie Frank
      February 23, 2016 at 12:20 pm #

      The good news: you can often find Bueno Green Chiles in supermarkets outside of NM. As red is used in powdered form all you have to do is get online and order some and you can recreate NM cuisine in your own home.

  8. Carole Terwilliger Meyers
    February 22, 2016 at 8:12 pm #

    I do like hot and chiles, and that photo of Carne adovada pork in red chile at Rancho Plaza Grill in Rancho de Taos started me salivating. Hope I get to actually taste that some day.

    • Billie Frank
      February 23, 2016 at 12:20 pm #

      That pork chop was outstanding. We asked the chef for the old family recipe- it was his grandmothers- and got a BIG no.

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