If you ask a local how you should get your burrito or enchilada, the answer will be “Christmas,” followed by a statement about New Mexico being home to the best chile sauces and garnishes ever.
Chile, never to be confused with chili, is the all-encompassing term for the traditional hot 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.
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 flavor. The green chile is hotter – sometimes by an order of magnitude. Ordering your dish “Christmas” style means that you'd like both to accompany your meal.
For those who are new 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, 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.
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 the kind of old fashioned diner that once dotted the American highways.
Despite the traditional American interior and dessert options (like pies, cakes, and malts), Plaza Cafe Southside is home to several traditional New Mexican plates as well. Get the bowl of New Mexican chile with their green chile topping. This dish features staples like carne asada and calabacitas. If you want a little more crunch, get the Frito Pie, a local classic, with ground beef and red chile.
PC's is another affordable outlet. This Santa Fe restaurant, which includes a great bar and lounge, has an excellent list of weekly specials. Their carnitas plate and the chicarron burrito are local favorites. I suggest either with the red. If you're just looking to sample the chile, get their chile fries in the Christmas variety.
Tortilla Flats is a neighborhood restaurant known for its happy hours, sports games and they serve 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, usually pork in New Mexican cuisine.
Los Amigos doesn't have any red or green chile, but they do have three varieties 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.
Horseman's Haven is open for breakfast, lunch, and on Sundays, 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. Get the green chile. A hotter green chile is likely not to be found in the whole of Santa Fe, 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.
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.