When I moved to New Mexico from the Midwest my palate was tuned to the bland—mostly pretzels and hotdogs and fish. I was on a mission to find the best restaurants in Santa Fe AND it didn’t take long to convert to New Mexico’s chile paradigm. Now I have Christmas almost everyday.
Chile, never to be confused with chili, are the traditional peppers that are found in nearly all New Mexican dishes. The New Mexican Chile that we know today was cultivated at the end of the 19th century by a botanist working in Las Cruces. In 1913 the ‘New Mexico No. 9,’ the product of his cultivation, was released on the US market for mass consumption.
In 1931 the first cookbook of New Mexican cuisine also became the first cookbook to describe the pepper and its use. The use of the pepper’s ancestors, however, dates back centuries to Pueblo Natives and Mesoamericans.
Novices need to know that green and red chiles are from the same plant and are the same pepper. Think of grapes and raisins. The red chile has matured longer and usually carries an earthier and spicier flavor. The act of ordering ‘Christmas,’ of course, implies that you’d like both red and green chile in your meal.
Those new to chile also need to know that chile is not about heat, although the heat can be varying according to the pepper and the buds of the taster, but all about flavor.
The smell of roasting chiles characterizes the late summer and early fall in New Mexico. You’ll find roasters in the parking lots of grocery stores making fresh bags of the peppers. The roasted chiles are offered in a variety of scale from freezer-bag to survivalist feedbag-size portions. New Mexicans make a habit of peeling the roasted chiles and freezing them for the year to come. There’s nothing more New Mexico than buying a bag and having a peeling party with your friends.
But even though chiles rise to prominence at the end of summer, they’re available in abundance all year round.
So for novices to the pepper and for those with longtime familiarity, here’s a brief menu of legendary spots for Santa Fe chile.
The restaurant Cafe Castro is notable for a number of reasons, but the main two are certainly price and sopaipillas! With incredibly reasonable prices, Castro’s keeps the atmosphere friendly not just with their interior, but by drawing in the neighborhood locals for weekly meals. You can also order any burrito on the menu in a stuffed sopaipilla, a kind of fluffy and slightly sweet bread common to New Mexican cuisine.
On the chile side I tend to go red at Castro’s. Their red chile is a deep crimson and has an earthy taste to it.
PC’s is another affordable outlet. This Santa Fe restaurant, which includes a great bar and lounge, has an excellent list of weekly specials including Thursday night’s red chile beef casserole, which is a strong choice if you visit on that day. Should you not be so lucky, their carnitas plate and the chicarron burrito are local favorites and New Mexican cuisine you can’t afford to miss. I suggest either with the red.
If you’re just looking to sample the chile, get their chile fries in the Christmas variety. If you’ve a taste for spice you’ll never want naked fries again.
Los Amigos hasn’t any red or green chile, but rather they offer three variety of homemade salsas: red, green and the spicier orange.
Have any of their tacos with a tall glass of horchata. This cuisine is more on the Mexican side of New Mexican, but it’s definitely a Santa Fe favorite.
Tortilla Flats is a neighborhood restaurant known for its happy hours, sports games and good eats. You’re never there when it isn’t hopping—morning, afternoon or night. This is simply a beloved spot and the people eating there show it the most. Tortilla Flats also serves breakfast through the lunch hours, which doubles down on just how great of a place it is.
Get their breakfast burrito with green chile and chorizo. Chorizo is a spice-treated meat and its original use was to make the meat more survivable for long journeys, but as is the case with many such things people developed a taste for it. Chorizo tends to be pork in New Mexican cuisine and it is presented in the form of ground meat.
Horseman’s Haven is open for breakfast and lunch. On Sundays, Horeseman is one of the most popular places in town for brunch. Breakfast is top notch for the extra kick of their chile, tuned to locals’ standards.
At the Haven, get the green chile. A hotter green chile is likely not to be found in the whole of Santa Fe. Horseman’s, like Castro’s, is a penny saver, too. Another great feature is simplification. Breakfast burritos come with bacon or no bacon. Those are your choices. When a place minimizes their options like this it tells you that they know what they’re doing, so relax.
A special tip is that their green chile isn’t just hot it’s hot as ****, so be sure to order sopaipillas and don’t be stingy with the honey. As any New Mexican knows, sweets and lemons are a way through the spicier sides of heat.
Plaza Cafe Southside probably has the most surprising interior of all the places on our list. This southside version of the downtown classic looks inside and out like an old fashioned diner–the kind that once dotted the American highways but have come into decline. The interior is telling as pies, cakes and malts are a favorite at this location.
Despite the traditional American interior and dessert options, Plaza Cafe Southside is home to several traditional New Mexican plates as well. Get the bowl of New Mexican chile with their green. This dish features staples carne asada and calabacitas. If you want a little more crunch, get the Frito Pie, a local classic, with ground beef and red.
Posa’s is a Santa Fe must. Not only is this beloved location a popular place to eat, but you can get their best items pre-packaged to go, too.
Posa’s is all about the tamales. Get red or green, it doesn’t matter as they’re equally good. The red chile pork tamale is their signature tamale, but their vegetarian green tamales are incredible. If you’re there for breakfast, tamales and eggs should be your go to. Saving your tamales for lunch? Then order their huevos rancheros, perhaps New Mexico’s second most common breakfast after burritos.
So these are just a few of our favorite restaurants, all near Meow Wolf. Of course there are more amazing restaurants all around Santa Fe. We’ll dig into their chile after roasting season completes and the winds of winter begin to blow.