Posted by: acooksca | 09/05/2010

Chasing Chilies

Santa Fe, New Mexico, the second oldest town in the country, is celebrating its 400th birthday this year. Colorful banners flutter in the already decorative historic area. Frescos in St. Francis Cathedral sparkle with fresh color. The hundred galleries and museums in town are exhibiting every manner of New Mexican art.

Roasted Shishito chile peppers

Bruce and I are in Santa Fe for an equally important celebration…the annual chile harvest. The chile is the official state vegetable of New Mexico. In late summer green chilies are roasted for salsas and snacking and red chilies are hung to dry for an infinite variety of sauces. They show up in everything.

We drop our bags at the gracious St. Francis Hotel near the historic Plaza and head for the Rail yard where the Tuesday Farmers Market is awash with the smell of roasting green chilies. Wire mesh drums spin over propane fires roasting a bushel of chilies to a blistered perfection in about 4 minutes. Local cooks stand in line to snap up bags of their favorite varieties as the chilies come out of the roasting drums.

We stop to talk with a local grower selling Shishito chile peppers, a variety recently introduced from Japan. Thin walled, about 3 inches long and mild, this is a perfect snacking pepper. “Shishitos are taking the place of the Spanish Padron peppers” she tells us. “You sauté them whole and just add salt. I think they have a better flavor, sweeter.”

Later that day we find Shishito peppers as a special at Café Pasqual’s near The Plaza. They are sautéed just until they blister and sprinkled with salt and lime. Café Pasqual’s is a great place to taste well crafted chile sauces. We order their highly-flavored Chorizo Burrito. It comes with a sharp fresh green chile sauce and a complex red chile sauce. Free range chicken is smothered with a deep, lush chile mole. A tart, light textured chile sauce unifies the flavors of toasted tortillas, Barbacoa (slow roasted marinated beef ) and eggs. 

We meet with Joel Stein, a local historian, for a stroll of Santa Fe. Conversation gets around to whether we need to drive the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail around New Mexico, or just eat the perennial favorite at Bobcat Bite , just outside of Santa Fe. “The place is a dump. It hasn’t changed since it opened in 1953. But I go there all the time. Whether I have the green chile on it or not, it is the best hamburger I ever ate!”

Green Chile Cheese Burger, Bobcat Bite

On a lonely frontage road 8 miles out of town we spot a line of cars parked before a tiny roadhouse. A few Formica-topped tables, a well-worn bar with 8 stools and a simple menu is all you get at the Bobcat Bite. Everything is house made… the brioche burger bun, the tart coleslaw, the old fashioned American potato salad. Lean choice chuck steak is ground daily for the burgers. At 10-ounces and 1 ¾ -inches thick they take a long to cook on a flat top griddle that’s been in constant use for 50 years. This is a very beefy tasting burger with a crisp exterior, perfect red center, thin melt of cheese and chopped roasted green chilies. We have to agree with Joel…this is the best hamburger we ever ate.

We get a tip for an unusual use of chilies from Hayward Simoneaux of Todos Santos Chocolates. He was named one of the top-ten artisanal chocolate makers in the US by Chocolatier Magazine. As we sample a few of his wonderful creations he tell us “for the extreme in chocolate go to Kakawa Chocolate House. That guy is a fanatic. He resurrects seventeenth and eighteenth century recipes, authentic Meso-American and European chocolate drinks.”

We arrive at Kakawa Chocolate House late in the day, just before closing. A “fanatic” is enthusiastically explaining heritage chocolate drink recipes to a customer. They sound truly unique, more savory than sweet, with lots of citrus rinds, hibiscus flower, pomegranate, mescal…and yes, chile. We sample several exceptional iced drinks such as The Diablo, a haunting creation of 70% dark chocolate, coffee, crushed almonds and rice milk with a kick from smoky chipotle chilies.

Agave Way Cocktail

As chile is the favorite seasoning of Santa Fe we expect it to show up in market-fresh cocktails as well. At the Secreto Bar in the St. Francis Hotel head bartender/mixologist Daniel Gonzales recently won the 2010 Shake It Up Cocktail Competition in Las Vegas. “We involve chile in our cocktails because it is just amazing” he says.

Bruce and I develop a particular fondness for the Secreto’s chile-accented cocktail called Agave Way. A thick slice of Hatch (Anaheim) chile is muddled with a few ruby grapes in a shaker. Add Reposado Tequila, agave nectar and lime juice. Shake well and strain into a chilled glass. The chile adds freshness and a gentle sting of heat. It is a cocktail made to complement the menu of New Mexican small plates that is offered: fiery chile sauced tamalitos, marinated shredded pork ravioli with a refined bean sauce, guacamole incorporating fresh sweet corn kernels and charred tomatoes.

With 400 years to perfect a chile-base cuisine, we have to say Santa Fe dazzles with the whole chile experience.
Café Pasqual’s (121 Don Gaspar Ave.) shares their Chorizo Burrito recipe at:
Bobcat Bite Roadhouse for green chile cheese burger: 420 Old Las Vegas Highway
Todos Santos Chocolates: Sena Plaza Courtyard, 125 E. Palace Ave., #31
Kakawa Chocolate House: 1050 Paseo De Peralta
Secreto Bar in the St. Francis Hotel: 210 Don Gaspar Ave.



  1. You never disappoint! I always look forward to your adventures. We have another place to keep in mind when we travel!

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