Growing up in Santa Fe, I learned a lot about chile at a young age. I learned, for example, that chile is the correct spelling, not chili, which is the spiced stew served by our neighbors to the East. I learned that technically, chile is a fruit. I learned that when you want to have both green and red chile in the same dish, you ask for it to be served “Christmas.”
Some say that as babies, true locals are given green chile stew in their baby bottles. That wasn’t my experience, but I’ve eaten a lot of chile, to say the least. You could imagine the cramp in my brain when I was asked to choose nine — only nine! — local restaurant dishes that feature red chile, green chile or Christmas. This is equivalent to being asked to choose your favorite child: impossible . . . but I figured I’d give it a whirl. I’ve arranged the dishes by the type of chile featured in them (three each of red, green or a combo), and that range from everyday fare to high cuisine.
Here in New Mexico we use two terms to describe the chile: red and green. Because of the colors’ association with the holiday, we say “Christmas,” when we order both kinds on the same dish. That’s why, when you order a meal that comes with chile, your waitperson will ask, “Red, green or Christmas?”
Green chile is not a small topic in Santa Fe. For example, most of our grandmothers have a dedicated “green chile freezer” in their home. The New Mexico Green Chile Advertising Act of 2011 prohibits advertising chile as being from New Mexico unless it is actually grown here. Yes, we take chile seriously. A few of my favorite restaurants for green chile dishes are El Parasol, Thunderbird Bar & Grill and The Ranch House.
El Parasol, on Cerrillos Road, has a taco that has been near and dear to my heart since my days at St. Michael’s High School. The chicken taco comes with cheese, lettuce and guacamole — but add green chile. It’s the best $3.20 you will ever taste.
On Lincoln Street, overlooking the Plaza, is Thunderbird Bar & Grill, home to the most underrated green chile stew in town. It’s slow cooked and served with a homemade tortilla. (Yes, you read that right: homemade.) A bowl of their green chile pork stew, which will set you back $8.95, pairs amazingly well with La Cumbre Elevated IPA.
A Southside favorite is The Ranch House’s “Ultimate Burger,” which they refer to as “the Grandpappi of Burgers.” It’s built with Tillamook sharp cheddar, Hatch green chile, bacon, pulled pork, red chile honey glaze and crispy onions, all topped with a green chile slaw. Pro tip: Order a side of green chile queso ($7 cup/$9 bowl) or a piece of green chile corn bread ($1.50) for that extra bit of gluttony.
When it comes to the best red chile dishes around town, you will find a variety of very passionate opinions. Three of my favorites are from Atrisco Café & Bar, Coyote Cantina and Casa Chimayo.
Atrisco, in DeVargas Center, offers a tasty snack that can be nostalgic for many Santa Feans: a bowl of chile. It comes with any combination of chile, beans, posole, ground beef or chicken, and a choice of a sopapilla or tortilla, a bargain for only $7.50 (add cheese for 60 cents).
The rooftop cantina at Coyote Café & Cantina, on West Water Street, is the home of Mama Schutz’ Frito Pie. Frito pie is our New Mexican version of nachos: Fritos with chili ladled on top, with toppings added, if you like. Coyote Cantina’s version, $12, comes with red chile beef, beans, cheese, lettuce, tomato and onion, served on a bed of Fritos. Pro-tip: wash it down with a house margarita or lava!
Another local favorite is Casa Chimayo Restaurant, also West Water Street, a few blocks west of Coyote. It features pollo en mole rojo, chicken in red mole. A tasty mole sauce made of red chile, spices, peanuts and chocolate is served over a tender, grilled chicken breast and accompanied by beans, rice and tortillas. The price is $18.
Three of my favorite Christmas dishes come from Tia Sophia, Tomasita’s and Estevan Restaurante. Tia Sophia, on West San Francisco Street, boasts one of the best Christmas breakfast burritos around.
I may be partial because my now-retired grandmother worked for years at Tia Sophia, but their Christmas burrito speaks for itself. Wrapped in a flour tortilla is your choice of bacon, sausage, bologna or ham, along with potatoes, all topped with red and green chile. It’s $8.75, or a buck more with an egg on top.
Another Christmas favorite is the “Super Combination Plate” at Tomasita’s, on South Guadalupe Street. This plate is the perfect opportunity to try some Santa Fe staples: a rolled cheese enchilada, a tamale, a relleno and a taco, with sides of rice and beans, and topped with red and green chile, all for $16.95.
If you are looking for a unique twist on a Christmas dish, the Black Angus rib-eye steak at Estevan might be the ticket. Located on Washington Avenue, Estevan offers an aged rib-eye from Niman Ranch, grilled and served with red chile demi-glace, seasonal vegetables and sautéed potatoes, with a rolled cheese enchilada, for $40. Pro-tip: Make it green for $5 more.
Before heading out, check a restaurant’s website for any changes in hours of operation. Merry “Christmas”!
Nicholas Peña owner of Food Tour New Mexico, is a Santa Fean whose culturally rich, passionate city excursions feed clients’ hearts and minds. The former food editor of Albuquerque The Magazine, Nick is a would-be chef and above-average tequila connoisseur with a penchant for the outdoors and for Northern New Mexico fly fishing in particular.