I'm currently in New Mexico to research for my coming book on the history of Mexican food in the United States. One of the chapters will deal with the Southwestern cooking phenomenon that spread across the country during the late 1980s and early 1990s and has now largely disappeared to the point where its only real legacy is the Santa Fe chicken salad. The natives out here laugh at this, wanting to know what exactly is so Santa Fe about a chicken salad–but I digress.
One of the last remaining Southwestern-esque restaurants in Orange County is Chimayó at the Beach in Huntington Beach, originally part of the David Wilheim empire but now operated by T S Restaurants, whoever the hell they are. I liked Wilheim's Savannah and his other creations, but never understood Chimayó. Without him at the helm, it's become even worse. Nothing left on the menu is even remotely Southwestern–sure, there's some dishes sprinkled with chile this and pecan that, but why offer clam chowder? Even funnier was their recent decision to offer “street-style” tacos that are “authentic”. As opposed to fake tacos? I received the press release for that a couple of months ago and just laughed. Tacos are Mexican by birth, Tex-Mex and Sonoran by relation. They have about as much to do with the real Chimayó as, well, clam chowder.
Compare our Chimayó with the real deal.
As part of my stay, I visited the town of Chimayó, about 40 minutes north of Santa Fe. The Orange County connection: there is a shrine there dedicated to the Santo Niño de Atocha, the patron saint of the Mexican state of Zacatecas who has tens of thousands of devotees in Orange County. Also? Believe it or not, visiting the day I went was a Vietnamese family with a Fountain Valley High School sticker. If only wabs could be as respectful of Vietnamese Catholic traditions as Viets…but again, I digress.
Chimayó is most famous for its Santuario, a shrine built over a hole where New Mexican settler found a cross in the 1800s. El Santuario de Chimayo is known as the Lourdes of the Americas due to its curative dirt, but one can find a holier, tastier alternative next door to the shrine at Leona's Restaurante. Here is New Mexican food at its most essential: red and green chile stews derived from pods cultivated in the nearby valleys, stacked enchiladas glued together with cheese and ground beef, the wonderful brown sugar pudding called panocha (go ahead and laugh, wabs–this one did!), and fat tamales that Leona's sends out across the country. I ate the tamale burrito–exactly what it sounds like. You pick a tamale (I chose the chicken with green chile), they wrap it inside a wheat tortilla, slather your choice of red or green chile, add a sprinkle of cheddar cheese and a smear of refried beans. Mother Maria, this was wonderful–why can't our Chimayó at least try to replicate the real deal?
Final point: when I mentioned Chimayó at the Beach to the restaurant critic at the Santa Fe Reporter, the city's alt-weekly, he laughed. “'At the Beach'?” he asked incredulously. Yep. Laughs across the table.