Culinary and Cultural Adventures along New Mexico’s Green Chile Trail
By Buzzy Gordon
The southwestern United States is a region that is woefully under the tourism radar of many. Yet the curious minority who are looking for something that is at the same time a bit different but also off-the-charts rewarding would do well to consider northern New Mexico – in particular, the [47th] state’s northeastern corridor.
Within and around the triangle formed by the cities of Albuquerque, Santa Fe, and Taos are found attractions that appeal to just about every interest: adventures in nature, encounters with native American civilizations, relaxation in world-class spas, urban sophistication, gastronomy and an art scene that spans centuries. In short, it is a destination that lives up to the motto emblazoned on New Mexico’s many variations of colorful vehicle license plates: Land of Enchantment.
Indeed, one of the striking examples of such a license plate is the black plate emblazoned with red and green chile, and the slogan “Chile Capital of the World” in yellow caps.
There is, of course, no officially designated green chile trail — unlike, for example, the Turquoise Trail, among others. Still, the roads connecting and emanating from the aforementioned triad of cities have earned that nickname by virtue of the ubiquity of dishes based on – and seasoned with – the pride of New Mexican agriculture: the chile pepper. This diminutive yet august vegetable has been cultivated in North America for centuries – long before it was discovered by European conquerors and their settler descendants – who have since enthusiastically embraced it as a staple of contemporary cuisine.
Green, Red and Christmas
Green chile (commonly spelled “chili” elsewhere, but still pronounced the same) is the progenitor of red chile, as the green matures into red as it grows. Yet the color is not necessarily a predictor of the degree of heat: there are mild and spicy green varieties, just as there are mild and spicy reds. For those wishing to gauge the heat before eating, it behooves one to ask – or taste – first.
Speaking of asking, New Mexico is the only state with an official State Question: “Red or green?” This question is invariably asked by wait staff in a New Mexican restaurant, inquiring whether you wish green or red chile on (or with) your order. The ingenious way the locals have come up with to solve the frequent dilemma of which to choose is to answer simply: Christmas — the combination of red and green that is the best of both worlds. (And don’t be surprised if this becomes your own go-to request by the middle of your sojourn in the state. )
While green chile will lend a piquant kick to most any anything consumed — whether eaten or drunk— sometimes it can be barely noticeable, such as when it is used in ice cream and milkshakes, as examples that would hardly enter the uninitiated mind. Spicier reds are often used in cocktails to add extra punch to the alcohol.
When it comes to foods, meanwhile, New Mexicans will add green chile to just about anything — baking or cooking with it during preparation, or sprinkling (or pouring) it on when it is served. Green chile can appear at any and every meal and time of day — in eggs or burritos for breakfast, cheeseburgers for lunch and stews or enchiladas for dinner, to mention only a few possibilities. It will even to perk up snack items, like scones and croissants, or candies – in particular, chocolate bars and fudge.
Get Your Chile Kicks on Route 66
The state’s largest city, Albuquerque — ABQ, for short — is the primary gateway to the region, by virtue of its major international airport in. ABQ is also located along the famed Route 66, a distinction still celebrated to this day, in road signage and as badges of honor displayed by dining and hospitality establishments. (One such marker is borne proudly by the funky Hotel Zazz, listed in Forbes Magazine among its 77 notable hotel openings in 2022.)
Route 66 skirts the small old town of Albuquerque, whose center is a symbol of the city’s origins as a Spanish colonial outpost, dating back to the days when New Mexico actually belonged to the country of Mexico. Indeed, all the cities on our itinerary boast a “plaza mayor,” or central plaza, which was – and remains – a center of administrative and cultural life, surrounded by municipal offices and distinguished by a slightly ornate elevated pergola that serves as a bandstand for frequent free concerts.
A good place to begin a New Mexican green chile experience is Golden Crown Panaderia, a father-and-son operation that bakes wholesome, crusty green chile bread that will tempt you to eat a whole loaf. But save room for at least one slice of the bakery’s famous green chile dough pizza – and don’t forget dessert: a fruit empanada, or biscochito, the official state cookie (yes, New Mexico an official snack, as well).
Thus fortified, head out on a short drive to the Petroglyph National Monument, which encompasses three canyons lined with fascinating rock carvings. Well-marked foot trails lead you past – and up close to – unusual designs and symbols engraved into volcanic boulders over the millennia by early Native Americans and Spanish settlers. Friendly and knowledgeable park rangers will help you plan a route most suitable for your desired level of exertion.
Our cultural explorations continue, but indoors this time, at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, a great introduction to the 19 Native American habitats that dot the New Mexican landscape – some of which you will undoubtedly later visit in person. Free tours are led by enthusiastic volunteer docents, who explain the meanings behind the many exhibits and entertaining videos.
The cultural center is also home to the Indian Pueblo Kitchen, arguably the best indigenous restaurant in the state, and a must for any visitor in the area. Highly recommended on the menu are the Green Chile Pork Stew, and the Blue Corn-Crusted Onion Rings with Green Chile Ranch dressing.
Albuquerque can also be your introduction to the Heritage Hotels brand of 100% New Mexican hotels and resorts (reviewed elsewhere on these pages here). Heritage has three of its 10 statewide properties in ABQ, nine of which are in the three cities featured in this article.
All Heritage Hotels are New Mexico-themed, like the award-winning Hotel Chaco, whose pristine architecture is inspired by Chaco Canyon in particular, and the state’s climactic environment in general. Hotel Chaco is convenient to just about everywhere in town – including the airport, the petroglyphs and the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center – not to mention being in walking distance to Old Town. Its very own rooftop bar-restaurant is also popular among local residents.
Hotel Chaco is also right across the street from Sawmill Market, a diverse food hall that has been described as one of the best tasting experiences in the American West. Here you can find green chile incorporated into just about every fusion cuisine you can imagine – from French to Italian to Japanese – while washing your food down with wine, spirits and beers from a wide variety of vendors.
The City Different: Santa Fe
Although it is barely an hour’s drive away from ABQ, Santa Fe is like entering another world altogether. Its widespread and distinctive adobe architecture is a wonderland unto itself, and New Mexico living in a nutshell.
Apart from the landing place that is ABQ, Santa Fe is the most visited city in the state, and with good reason. As the state capital that is considered the oldest capital city in the United States – actually named as a capital (of the Kingdom of New Mexico) long before the USA declared itself an independent country – it is rich in history: even today, one can visit the oldest American public building, the Palace of the Governors, built in 1610 and in continuous use since then.
Another way to enjoy learning about New Mexican history is to take the Lore of the Land train ride – one of many rail adventures offered by Sky Railway. Enjoy the scenery from the open-air flat car on a train emblazoned with a fantastical Roadrunner – the official bird of New Mexico (yet another official state designation!) – when you are not listening to the guide regale passengers with tales and legends of years gone by. Plus, you can sip margaritas while being serenaded with live music of the region.
Nature, the arts and gastronomy are the additional elements that contribute to a pleasurable stay in Santa Fe. The city lies in the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, a subrange of the Rockies, whose name – which means “blood of Christ” – derives from the frequent alpenglow hues at sunset; try to book a hotel room (Santa Fe is home to a number of highly acclaimed destination spas) with a view of the mountains in order to enjoy the most magnificent sunsets one can possibly imagine.
The art scene in Santa Fe comprises three different yet equally appealing dimensions. Museum Hill is an amazing concentration of interesting museums: several different showcases yielding hours of viewing enjoyment, and in particular The Museum of International Folk Art and the Museum of Indian Arts and Culture.
For many, meanwhile, the Georgia O’Keeffe Museum will be the highlight of an art experience in Santa Fe, as most of her iconic paintings are on display here. Her more devoted fans will also want to contemplate excursions outside the city to her home and studio in Abiquiu and/or Ghost Ranch, where the surrounding scenery served as her greatest inspirations, (Advance reservations are required in all three places.)
In addition, more contemporary art lovers – especially those in acquisition mode – can spend hours strolling and browsing along Canyon Road, where more than 100 galleries, boutiques and restaurants are located within a manageable stretch of a shady city street. The truly avant-garde inclined will surely want to check out the House of Eternal Return at the very different Meow Wolf.
Moreover, several times a year Santa Fe is also host to differently themed annual art festivals-cum-markets, where casual visitors and collectors alike mingle to admire the works of artists who gather her from all over the state, the region and even the world. These are in addition to the weekly markets that take place at the Railyard, the city’s main venue for public entertainment.
As a magnet for crowds, not only does the Railyard has its far share of good places to eat, but there are also many highly recommended places in the city proper. Coming in at the top of our list are La Choza, for typical New Mexican fare, and Café Pasqual’s, which became famous for its breakfast/brunch, but whose dinner is fine dining at the region’s best.
Last but not least, there are also interactive food-themed attractions worth checking out: Food Tours New Mexico, a walking tour of downtown eateries incorporating information about the city’s past and present, and a choice of cooking classes – followed by tastings – at the Santa Fe School of Cooking.
It is only fair warning to mention that for a city that welcomes so many tourists, Santa Fe has rather limited municipal transportation options: its helpful, free round-robin shuttle bus service was suspended during the pandemic and had not yet resumed at the time of our visit this summer. More remarkably, there is no local taxi service – only Uber, which of course is limited to those with the app.
For this reason, as well as the multiplicity of worthwhile day-trips outside the city, renting a car is probably the best option. Out-of-town excursions to consider are the cliff dwellings of Bandelier National Monument; Los Alamos, of Manhattan Project fame; and the aforementioned Turquoise Trail, a National Scenic Byway which connects Santa Fe with Albuquerque. In addition, next on our agenda we are hitting the road to Taos, our final destination.
Taos: The Little Town with Lots to See and Do
Taos is barely more than a small town – a population of less than 7,000 residents – and yet it ranks among the top five most visited cities in the state. It owes its popularity to its mix of colorful history and concentration of art galleries and boutiques located in its beautiful and well-maintained downtown area.
The most interesting way to reach Toas is via The High Road to Taos, conveniently starting from Santa Fe and winding northwards through communities like Las Trampas and Trucha, which are dotted with quaint rural churches and artists’ studios and workshops, many devoted to the traditional craft of weaving. The highlight of the drive is undoubtedly the Santuario de Chimayó – a chuch complex that has been designated an official National Historic Landmark, with two remarkable chapels featuring native American decors situated on the grounds of a tranquil verdant area alongside the clear waters of a wide stream.
Just on the outskirts of Taos is another holy site, San Francisco de Asis Church, whose Spanish mission architecture has always attracted the interest of famous artists and photographers. In the same plaza sits a great introduction to the cuisine that may be enjoyed locally: the Ranchos Plaza Grill, where a good choice is the chile rellenos smothered with your choice of red or green chile sauce.
Once you have reached the center of town, you can’t go wrong checking into the luxurious El Monte Sagrado resort, one of the gems in the crown of New Mexican hospitality brand Heritage Hotels. Its sprawling and magnificently manicured grounds, combined with the friendliest of staff, compete with the property’s convenient location as the best reasons to stay here.
While Taos is an easy place to explore on one’s own, a fun and informative preface is to join a Taos Walking Tour, preferably led by gregarious local personality Sam Richardson. Richardson not only knows just about every top artist working in town today, he also reveals intriguing legends of the past – including surrounding the famous Kit Carson, who turns out to be a more controversial character than many might have thought.
Visiting the many tempting galleries, along with institutions like the Harwood Museum of Art, can certainly work up an appetite; and Taos has not one but two stellar Mexican restaurants that are up to the challenge of sating it: La Cueva and Orlando’s – try them both.
Just out of town as well are several “don’t miss” experiences: Taos Pueblo, a living community of the Red Willow people, who have continuously inhabited their multi-storied adobe homes for over 1,000 years; Ojo Caliente, a spa in the high desert built around one of the only places on the planet blessed with sulfur-free hot springs containing four different healing minerals (arsenic, lithia, soda and iron); and the Rio Grande Gorge, a magnificent narrow canyon spanned by a steel bridge that is the second highest bridge in the U.S. Highway System.
Finally, whatever city in the state is your departure point, don’t leave New Mexico without sinking your teeth into a green chile cheeseburger, a succulent way to experience the iconic ingredient that has been our focus here. Each of our three urban centers can lay claim to a tasty example; we had the good fortune to sample the one at The Gorge Bar and Grill, which had the added attraction of offering patio dining overlooking picturesque Taos Plaza.
Over the course of a 40-year career that has spanned more than 80 countries, award-winning journalist Buzzy Gordon has been a reporter, editor, and travel writer on five continents. His work has appeared in USA Today (where he was a regular travel columnist), National Geographic Traveler, The Los Angeles Times and The Washington Post, among other leading publications. Buzzy is the author of Frommer’s Jerusalem Day by Day Guide and a contributor to publications in Israel and the United States.