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15 Signs You Grew Up Eating (New) Mexican Food in New Mexico

The same burrito from above
The same burrito from above

While everything New Mexican is in right now because of Breaking Bad and the emerging hipster paradise that is Albuquerque, longtimers of the Land of Enchantment know better than to let hype ruin their culture. After all, this vast, epic state has been on-and-off trendy since the days of Charles Fletcher Lummis, through Georgia O'Keefe and the Southwestern cuisine movement of the 1980s, exporting New Mexico's resources for easy consumption in the form of terrible salads and turquoise. But while fads come and go, NM remains as confoundedly beautiful as ever--especially when it comes to its foodways.

It's a hell of a land, with food that seems familiar to non-New Mexicans as Mexican food but that New Mexicans know as New Mexican food, which is a bit Mexican but not completely Mexican...um, what? Let us explain this and other subtleties in the following listicle that should be a valuable lesson for non-New Mexicans and a validation for New Mexicans...enjoy!

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15. You've Never had a Santa Fe or Southwestern Chicken Salad in Your Life

Mickey D's Southwestern salad
Mickey D's Southwestern salad
McDonald's

During the 1980s, as I always explain in my lectures on Mexican food, it seemed every other "Mexican" restaurant had agaves out front and statues or silhouettes of howling coyotes or Kokopelli inside. The last national remnant of that era is something alternately called the Southwestern or Santa Fe salad, usually with chicken in it. When I gave a lecture at the legendary Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe some years back, I asked the audience if anyone had ever had such a salad; no one raised their hand. When I told everyone about how the salad now represents New Mexican cooking nationwide, people got PISSED.

14. Your Grandparents did Matanzas, Your Parents Saw Them--But You Only Know About Them Through Books

Behold, the snout!
Behold, the snout!
Photo by Professor Salt

Matanzas are an Hispano tradition in which a pig is slaughtered, then processed to become food, lard, and everything else to last a village through the rest of the year--I wrote about it in my ¡Ask a Mexican! column some years back. It's been the stuff of academic discussion, folklore documentation, documentaries--and it's a quickly disappearing way of life, although the current locavore movement is interested in keeping the tradition alive. But more on that in a bit...

13. Reading the Word "Panocha" on a Menu Doesn't Make You Snicker

Panocha from Chimayó, which makes it holy panocha...
Panocha from Chimayó, which makes it holy panocha...

Panocha is a sprouted-wheat pudding made with brown sugar that pops up in New Mexican restaurants during Lent, which is now. In Mexican Spanish, however, "panocha" is slang for "pussy," leading to many hilarious misunderstandings over the decades. Here's my treatise on the subject in my ¡Ask a Mexican! column--oh, how I love sweet, sweet panocha!

12. Your Favorite Cookies are Biscochitos

Biscochito stand somewhere...
Biscochito stand somewhere...

This anise-flavored, usually star-shaped, cookie is a Christmas tradition so beloved across the Land of Enchantment that the New Mexican government deemed it the state's official cookie--the first cookie in the country ever to earn such an honor. Take THAT, Famous Amos!

11. You've Been "Eating Local" for Over 400 Years

Santuario de Chimayó
Santuario de Chimayó

New Mexican food is the oldest regional American cuisine in the United States, beating those pilgrims of Plymouth by more than half a century. By necessity, New Mexican food was about local and organic long before hipsters made it cool. And the locavore movement means that New Mexican cuisine is probably treasured now more in the state than at any point in a generation. Even better? Actual New Mexican cuisine--as opposed to the excesses of the Southwestern cuisine movement during the 1980s--is starting to become popular nationwide, as evidenced by the cult of the Hatch chile roast--which we'll get to in a bit...   10. Blake's Lotaburger is Your Favorite American Food

SO GOOD...
SO GOOD...

I first knew that Breaking Bad was legitimately 'Burque when this legendary hamburger chain became a key plot point. The cheap comparison is to say it's the In-n-Out of New Mexico--but In-n-Out doesn't have green chile cheeseburgers or sell breakfast burritos, does it? Hence, Blake's Lotaburger is better.

9. The Best Tortillas are Flour--or Blue Corn

Blue corn tortilla heaven via the Soho Taco guys
Blue corn tortilla heaven via the Soho Taco guys

New Mexico, along with Arizona and Texas, are states where the art of flour tortillas is something sacred, instead of something relegated to Maseca. It makes sense: flour tortillas have been made here ever since the conquistadors set up shop. And the conquistadors were smart enough to teach tortilla making to the Pueblo Indians, who responded in turn with blue corn tortillas. Regular corn tortillas? A Mexican abomination compared to these treasures.

8. Burritos Covered in Sauce Aren't "Wet"; They're "Smothered"

The same burrito from above
The same burrito from above

What Southern Californians call a wet burrito, folks in New Mexico and Colorado call a smothered burrito. Not only is it a better name, they're way better in taste: while our wet burritos are soggy masses of canned crap, a smothered burrito always comes from fresh, thick chile that never soaks into the burritos' contents but rather accentuates them.

7. It Ain't Carne al Pastor; It's Carne Adovada

Burrito de carne adovada...GOOD!
Burrito de carne adovada...GOOD!

Al pastor and adovada are ultimately the same thing: pork marinated in a chile sauce. But where al pastor gets stuck on a spit, adovada is usually cooked on the grill, cubed and sauced some more. This tradition predates al pastor by centuries, and is found in the United States only in New Mexico and places with a strong Zacatecan presence, as the adovada tradition is also strong in the greatest state in Mexico, the same state from where Juan de Oñate, conquistador of New Mexico, was born.

6. You've Been at Least Once to the Hatch Chile Festival

Big Jim, the pride of Hatch
Big Jim, the pride of Hatch

Every Labor Day, the town of Hatch grows from about 1,600 to 10,000+ for the annual Hatch Chile Festival. It's only a four-hour drive away from Albuquerque, about half an hour away from Las Cruces, and 1.5 hours from El Paso. People come to load up their trucks with Hatch chile, which they buy directly from farmers, and see the crowning of the Chile Queen. Small-town, agricultural Americana at its best.  

5. "Jesus on a Tortilla" isn't a Joke but a Fact of Life

Jesus is in there somewhere...
Jesus is in there somewhere...

The original Jesus-on-a-tortilla miracle occurred in the tiny town of Lake Arthur, New Mexico in the late 1970s. Its history is amply documented in my book, Taco USA: How Mexican Food Conquered America. While the rest of America has laughed at this miracle ever since, New Mexicans believe in it--in a land where miracles happen every evening as the sun sets, a deity appearing on your daily bread ain't nothing much.

4. You Never Tire of the Question "Red, or Green?"

Green chile fries from Blake's
Green chile fries from Blake's

If you talk to someone from New Mexico about food, they'll inevitably ask whether you prefer red chile or green chile. It's actually a cliché, at this point, along with the correct answer (Christmas--both) and about as tiresome as asking someone from Anaheim if they visit Disneyland all the time. But New Mexicans, God bless their souls, never tire of this question, if only because it's such a yummy conundrum. Oh, and people definitely have their opinions--ask 'em!

3. Frito Pie is a Sacrament

Sign outside the Five and Dime at Santa Fe Plaza, the most famous Frito pie around
Sign outside the Five and Dime at Santa Fe Plaza, the most famous Frito pie around

Although the mother of Fritos founder Elmer Doolin created Frito pie (which us Southern Californians know as chili billies), no state has embraced with with as much fervor as New Mexico, for reasons I've never quite understood. You'll remember that the state was in an uproar last year when Anthony Bourdain insulted Frito pie, and so I won't knock New Mexicans for loving this food too much. But ask the viejitos what they think of it, and they'll laugh and call it at Tejano heresy...

2. It's Not Mexican Food; It's NEW Mexican Food

San Pascual in retablo form. Note the ristra--further proof of New Mexico's godliness
San Pascual in retablo form. Note the ristra--further proof of New Mexico's godliness

While the rest of American can enjoy most New Mexican food the way they enjoy Mexican--the chile, the tortillas, the burritos, even the panocha--there is so much more to New Mexican food that makes it simultaneously regional American food and regional Mexican food. Chaqueque, lamb chicharrones, chicos, piñon, sopaipilla, bolitas, and so much more--these foods came from New Mexico and have largely stayed in the region. Are they Mexican? Yes and no. American? Yes and no. New Mexican? Yes, and HELL YES. You ultimately have to know New Mexico to understand this yummy quandary.

And the #1 sign you grew up eating Mexican food in New Mexico? Very simple...

 

1. The Smell of Roasted Chiles Means Fall is Coming

That sweet, sweet smell...
That sweet, sweet smell...

While Southern California outside of La Puente High is only now truly getting into the Hatch chile roasting craze, the roasting of chiles is near-universal in New Mexico come fall. This means that late August through September, the state is enveloped in the intoxicating, strong scent of freshly harvested Hatch and Sandia and Chimayo and Socorro getting burned to within an inch of their life, thrown into plastic bags to sweat them out (to make it easier to peel the skin), freeze-dry them to preserve for the rest of the year, then do it again: the Burn of Enchantment.

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