Perusing a restaurant menu in New Mexico can be surprisingly confusing. It's similar to deciphering a menu in a foreign country.
Don’t worry. This menu decoder will guide you through the maze of options and lead you to the land of delicious. So relax, order a margarita, dig into the chips and salsa the friendly American waiter just delivered and get ready for a great meal.
New Mexican and Mexican food are not the same thing. New Mexican cuisine has its own set of tastes and it offers up some interesting twists on familiar favorites. Although New Mexican cooks are influenced by the flavors of Mexico, they also incorporate elements of Native American cuisine and build on treasured family recipes from old Spain. New Mexican cooks were doing fusion before fusion was cool.
Red or Green?
Nothing defines New Mexican cuisine more than the chiles. Anyone who has spent even a few days here knows the state is obsessed with the vegetable called a chili pepper in the rest of the country.
New Mexico’s chiles have a unique flavor. They are grown in the vicinity of Hatch, a town in the southern part of the state. Green and red chiles are earlier and later stages of the same vegetable. Green chiles, which tend to be the hottest, are harvested first. Those left in the fields to ripen become a glorious red as their heat mellows and matures.
The most ubiquitous question in New Mexico is: Red or Green? In fact, in 1996 it became the official state question. It refers to whether you want your burrito, enchilada or taco smothered with green or red chile. Before you answer, ask your server which is hotter. Most restaurants buy chile frequently and the heat varies from batch to batch. If you can’t decide which you’d like, ask for Christmas and you’ll get half red and half green.
You are not required to eat chile. It’s OK to just say no. It’s also always OK to ask for the chile a lado or on the side. This is an especially good idea if you’re afraid it may be too hot, which is a reasonable concern.
And speaking of too hot, if your waiter tells you an entrée is spicy or that it’s got a bite, he’s not kidding. New Mexican food can be blisteringly hot. Even if you are used to eating sweat-inducing Indian or Thai curries, start slowly. You can always turn up the heat by adding more chile. Turning the heat down, however, is virtually impossible.
Chile is not just for savory main dishes. It’s in ice cream, pies, candy and drinks. And when it’s served with breakfast, it’s guaranteed to clear the cobwebs no matter how many margaritas you had the night before.
OK. Now that we’ve had the mandatory chile discussion, let’s order!
Drinks or Bebidas
If you’re a wine drinker prepare for a wonderful surprise. When people think of great American wine producing regions, New Mexico is usually not even on the radar, but it should be. Grapes thrive in our warm, dry climate and rich, volcanic soils. New Mexican vintners have been producing high quality wines since the early 1600s when two friars secretly smuggled grapevines out of Spain. Ask your bartender or server for a recommendation.
New Mexico is a craft beer wonderland. There are dozens of award-winning microbreweries. They are all over the state, not just in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. Again, ask the bartender or your waiter or waitress for a recommendation.
If artisanal brews aren’t your style, but you want to stick with beer, ice cold Mexican cervezas perfectly compliment New Mexican dishes. Try a Corona, Dos Equis or Modelo.
I had had margaritas before I moved to New Mexico, including some very good ones. But nothing prepared me for the sheer ecstasy of drinking a prickly pear margarita while eating a green chile cheeseburger on a hot summer afternoon. Nothing.
Most restaurants offer more than one type of margarita. Maria’s New Mexican Kitchen in Santa Fe, for example, offers more than 100 varieties. There are coconut cream margaritas, margaritas made from hibiscus flowers and mango red chile concoctions. There are green chile margaritas with jalapenos and cucumbers. There are pale green margaritas with Midori and bright pink ones with watermelon juice. My current favorite is the Desert Flower at El Patron in Albuquerque. It’s a fragrant deep red blend of prickly pear juice, tequila and St. Germain elderflower liqueur.
Drinking margaritas in New Mexico is so popular, Tourism Santa Fe created a Margarita Trail. You can read more about that here. If you’re the designated driver or just want to stay clear-headed, you can always order your margarita without alcohol.
If you can’t decide whether you want a beer or a margarita, try a Mexican beer with a scoop of frozen margarita floating on top. It’s called a Mexican Iceberg. Salud!
Starters or Aperitivos
Most restaurants that specialize in Mexican or New Mexican fare serve complimentary tortilla chips and salsa as a starter. That rule is not ironclad, however. Best to check the menu or ask your server if there’s an additional charge. In many places the chips and salsa arrive as soon as you sit down, even before you’ve ordered drinks.
We could spend the rest of this post discussing the taste nuances of various salsas. Some like the delicious deep red salsa at Los Cuates in Albuquerque (my favorite) are sweet, smoky and very hot. Others are tomatoey and mellow. Some contain green chiles, jalapenos and onion chunks. Watch out for seeds which are generally super-hot.
Some restaurants serve their salsa warm. With others it’s room temperature. The chips vary too. They can be made of blue, yellow or pale white corn. They can be thin and crispy or thick and crunchy, salted or not, warm or room temperature.
The bottom line? Chips and salsa are delicious, but they are not the main event. Control yourself.
As far as appetizers go, you’ll find favorites such as nachos and guacamole on most menus. Of course they will have a New Mexican twist which means chile will be involved somehow. Here a few possibilities you may not have tasted before.
Chile con queso is a warm dip that comes with tortilla chips. It’s melted cheese with chiles and sometimes chopped fresh tomatoes. It’s delicious, filling and can be – wait for it – hot.
Ceviche is chopped raw fish and seafood that has been marinated in lemon or lime juice. It’s often topped with chopped tomatoes, raw onions and chile.
Mexican style shrimp cocktail is practically a meal in itself. Usually served in a giant cocktail glass, chilled cooked shrimp are immersed in a tomato clam juice cocktail sauce that also includes ketchup and a little Worcestershire and Tabasco. It’s topped with chopped avocado and is always served with saltine crackers.
Tapas, or little plates, originated in the fashionable restaurants of Spain. Tapas are small servings of olives, cheese, meat, dried fruits or other hors oeuvres. Tapas can be hot or cold. A very satisfying meal can be built around a well-chosen selection of tapas.
Soups or Sopas
Posole is a hearty winter favorite, especially around Christmas, although it’s good year round. It is pork in red chile with hominy, which are large corn kernels, onions and spices. Posole can be spicy. Ask your server.
Green chile stew, like posole, is a winter comfort food that’s delicious any time. Some versions include pork; some include chicken. The other main ingredients are potatoes, tomatoes, spices and of course, green chile. Like posole, green chile stew can be spicy. Consult your server.
Chili con carne is what people in other parts of the country call chili or chili soup, the familiar concoction of beef with onions, tomatoes, beans and chili powder (not to be confused with New Mexican chile powder which is a completely different thing). As in other places, there are many variations on the basic recipe. Green or red chile may replace the tomatoes. Beans may or may not be included.
Breads or Pan
Even the most humble cafes offer wonderful bread choices including warm hand-rolled tortillas made of yellow corn, blue corn or white flour.
Indian or Navajo fry bread is a delicious and versatile goody. It is the basis of Indian tacos, a must-try dish described below. It makes fantastic sandwiches and is equally wonderful served warm with just butter or honey. It’s made by quickly deep frying a flat round of dough until it puffs up and browns in the hot oil. You can sometimes get fresh fry bread from roadside vendors or at fairs and farmers markets. Look for the long lines.
Pueblo or oven bread is another delectable Native American staple. Baked at a very high temperature in a traditional outdoor oven called an horno, oven bread has a crunchy exterior and an a soft interior. Oven breads can be plain and simple or include chiles, cheese and other tempting additions.
Sopaipillas are the iconic New Mexican bread. Like fry bread, sopaipillas are deep fried. The dough puffs up creating a hollow center. Sopaipillas have been described as little pillowcases ready to be filled with meat, cheese, chile or ice cream. Or they can simply be drizzled with honey or dusted with cinnamon and sugar. There is a popular fast food restaurant in Albuquerque called Stuffy’s whose menu is built around sopaipillas.
On our second visit to New Mexico many years ago, my husband and I settled into a cozy restaurant in Old Town Albuquerque. It was a chilly spring afternoon and we ordered steaming bowls of green chile and chicken stew. When the waiter placed two sopaipillas and a little crock of organic honey on our table, my husband looked at me wistfully and said, “I had forgotten about these. They are magical.” He doesn’t normally say things like that.
Sopaipillas are complimentary in most New Mexican restaurants. They come with your meal like bread and butter do in other parts of the country.
Entrees or Entradas
Even if you are a Mexican food fanatic and are quite familiar with tacos, burritos, enchiladas and the like, you’ll find a few differences on the menu in New Mexico. First there are a lot more choices. Tortillas, as mentioned earlier, can be made from regular yellow corn, exotic and delicious blue corn, or white flour. Taco shells can be crispy or soft or somewhere in between. They can also be made of corn or flour.
Fillings range from shredded chicken, shredded beef, ground beef, fish, seafood, beans, eggs or potatoes in various combinations. A fried egg is a popular optional addition to most dishes. And, of course, everything comes with red or green chile or the colorful combo known as Christmas. Remember, you can ALWAYS ask for the chile on the side.
Here’s a quick rundown of some common entrees.
Enchiladas and burritos are similar in that both contain a filling of some sort – beef, chicken, cheese, beans – rolled into a tortilla then topped with chile and more cheese. Enchiladas are traditionally made with yellow corn tortillas and burritos rely on soft white flour tortillas. However, as mentioned above, there are often tortilla options that blur the line between the two dishes.
Another twist relates to how the enchiladas are prepared. Once you’ve decided what type of tortilla you want, what sort of filling and what color chile, your server may ask one final question: rolled or stacked? A rolled enchilada is what we are all used to: the filling is scooped onto a flat tortilla which is then rolled into a tube. Stacked enchiladas are a casserole, sort of like New Mexican lasagna. Chicken and cheese (or whatever filling you’ve opted for) is spread into a baking pan topped by a layer of flat tortillas, followed by a layer of chiles, another layer of chicken, etc. Then it’s baked. It’s southwestern comfort food at its finest.
If the only kind of tacos you’ve had were from a fast food chain, you must try tacos in New Mexico. They are beyond delicious and come with a staggering array of fillings. For example, my favorite so far was a soft flour shell filled with pulled pork that had been simmered in red chile and topped with spicy coleslaw.
A Navajo or Indian taco is an entirely different dish. It’s a beef or chicken mixture spooned onto the center of a warm, puffy round of fry bread. That is then topped with cheese, beans, lettuce, tomatoes and chile. It’s served open-faced. It looks sort of like a pizza.
Tamales are a traditional Christmas favorite although they are served year round. They are a hybrid dumpling. A dough ball made from masa, which is corn flour, is stuffed with pork, chicken or beef. It’s then wrapped in softened corn husks and steamed. Tamales are served in the corn husks which you remove prior to eating.
Carne adovada is pork simmered over low heat in red chile, vinegar and spices until it is fall-apart tender. It can be served as a main dish along with rice and beans or as a filling for tacos, burritos and enchiladas. It’s a good idea to find out how hot the carne adovada is before you order it.
Once you’ve had a green chile cheeseburger in New Mexico, it’s hard to go back. Luckily you can find them everywhere. Blake’s, the beloved fast food chain that claims to have invented the green chile cheeseburger in the 1950s, still serves up an awesome version of the classic. In fact Blake’s green chile cheeseburger was named “Best in the World” by National Geographic. Although there are many variations on the theme including tasty additions like bacon, fried eggs, grilled onions and ham, in my humble opinion the basic juicy burger topped with cheddar cheese and a mountain of fresh green chile still rules.
Vegetables and Sides or Verduras y Lados
Beans and rice are typical side dishes in New Mexican restaurants as they are in Mexican eateries. The main difference relates to the beans. In New Mexico beans are almost always pinto beans. Sometimes they are refried, but generally they are served whole in a sauce that includes spices along with a little bacon.
Papitas are sliced potatoes fried in butter with bell peppers, garlic and spices.
Calabacitas is a casserole of sautéed yellow squash or zucchini baked with corn, rice, onions, spices and mild cheese. There are many variations on the basic recipe, all homey comfort food.
Desserts or Postres
Chocolate’s roots are in ancient Mexico where it was consumed in liquid form, unsweetened and spiked with chile. Most restaurant menus include familiar choices like chocolate cake. But consider stepping over to the dark side. If your restaurant doesn’t offer any exotic options, there are chocolate cafes in Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque that serve interesting hot and cold chocolate drinks as well as confections like green chile-infused chocolate bark and dark, shiny truffles dusted with bright red chile.
Tres leches cake is a dense, sweet white cake with white icing. Tres leches means three milks. The cake is soaked in condensed milk, evaporated milk and heavy cream. It’s over the top.
If you’re still feeling the chile after burn from your main dish, eating ice cream is the best way to put out the fire. Not only does the cold temperature provide instant relief, dairy products counteract the heat, which is why a dollop of sour cream often comes with Mexican and New Mexican entrees.
It’s hard to beat a big dish of ice cream, but there is one more possibility. Dessert tacos! I’ve saved the best for last. Cookies just happen to make excellent taco shells and the perfect dessert taco filling is ice cream. And that, mis amigos, is simply the best way to end a New Mexican meal.
Plan Your Visit
What follows are a few restaurant recommendations. This list is Albuquerque-centric because that’s where I live. I’ve included links to the local visitors’ bureaus’ restaurant pages for Taos and Santa Fe. Buen Apetito!
Cervantes has been in business since the 1970s. The décor theme has a velvet flocked wallpaper meets Conquistadors vibe and the food is wonderful. Consult with your server before ordering. It can be hot, hot, hot. Cervantes won the award for the best prickly pear margarita in town. The service is fantastic. It's one of my husband and my favorite restaurants.
Sadie’s has been an Albuquerque institution for more than 50 years. There are three locations. If you want spicy, this is your spot. The salsa has nuclear meltdown level heat. Many locals swear Sadie’s has the best New Mexican food in town.
Los Cuates has four locations in metro Albuquerque. They have been in business more than 25 years. Their salsa is extraordinary and everything on the menu - including the green chile cheeseburgers – is delicious.
Cocina Azul currently has two Albuquerque locations but rumor has it there’s another on the way. These restaurants score high points for authenticity with local folks. They serve very spicy home style entrees.
Zacatecas in the Nob Hill section of Albuquerque claims to have the best tacos and tequila in town, and they may very well be right. Their creative Mexican inspired dishes are served in a hip, bustling location with outdoor seating right on Central Avenue. Good food, nice atmosphere. Interesting drink and menu selections.
MAS - Tapas y Vino is a stylish full service restaurant and tapas bar in the historic Hotel Andaluz downtown. They specialize in updated versions of traditional Spanish dishes. Make sure to take a look at the hotel lobby on your way into the restaurant. It’s incredible.
Knocking the larger places is a popular Albuquerque pastime. People say their food isn’t authentic. They don’t like the atmosphere, think they are too touristy. Blah, blah, blah. I’ve enjoyed every meal I’ve had at the following two establishments and my out of town guests love them both.
El Patron is located in the NE part of town. They have excellent margaritas, lots of menu options and superb stacked chicken enchiladas. Their carne adovada is red chile simmered perfection. The service is friendly and the Sandia Mountain views from the patio are hard to beat.
El Pinto in the North Valley is a huge operation with lots of different dining areas, an extensive menu and excellent guacamole and margaritas. It’s a popular place for brunch and is a good choice for a large family group.
In Old Town
The Church Street Café is often crowded and with good reason. They serve excellent New Mexican food in an historic adobe house just steps from the Plaza. This is where my husband had the mystical sopaipilla encounter.
Q Chocolate Café features hot and cold chocolate drinks, hand-made truffles, barks and chocolate dipped fruit as well as coffee and tea. If you’re curious about the difference between European and Mexican chocolate, stop in to this cozy little shop and talk to the friendly, knowledgeable chocolatiers. They offer samples.
In Cultural Institutions
The Pueblo Harvest Café in the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center is one of the best and most interesting restaurants in Albuquerque. Their award-winning culinary team incorporates traditional Native American flavors and elements into contemporary dishes. There’s bar service and a bakery so you can sample the wonderful breads. There’s music on the weekends and an outdoor patio with mountain views. This restaurant has won many awards and has been featured on the Food Network. By the way, the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center itself is fascinating and contains an amazing gift shop. Explore the exhibits, do a little shopping, then relax with some New Mexican wine and a delicious meal.
Pop Fizz, on the campus of the National Hispanic Cultural Center, is an unconventional Mexican snack shop that specializes in ice cream tacos, popsicles or paletas in exotic flavors like avocado, mango red chile and pineapple habanero, to name just a few. They also offer sandwiches, hot Mexican entrees and bar service with an emphasis on local beers which they pour over appropriately flavored popsicles. Really.
San Antonio (NM)
The Buckhorn Tavern is a humble, downhome bar in the miniscule town of San Antonio near the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge about 90 miles south of Albuquerque. Small, but mighty, the Buckhorn claims to have the best green chile cheeseburger in the USA. They aren’t just talking through their hats, as people used to say. They’ve been mentioned in the New York Times and Travel and Leisure and the Buckhorn’s cook beat Food Network superstar Bobby Flay in a green chile cheeseburger throwdown competition in 2009. In 2007 GQ awarded their burger 7th place in the top 20 burgers in the country.
Less than 20 miles north of Albuquerque you’ll find the Range Café. The “range” does not refer to open land for grazing cattle. It refers to a kitchen stove. The décor is fun, the chile is hot, the servings and drinks are large and the desserts are decadent. Plus there’s a gift shop. Well worth the drive. If time is an issue, there are also three locations in Albuquerque. Highly recommended.
If you take the Turquoise Trail, the backroad between Albuquerque and Santa Fe – which you definitely should do if you have time, read why here – you will be stopping in Madrid. You can’t miss The Hollar. It’s right on the main drag, just like everything else in town. The chef is whipping up some amazing food with a southern twist. There’s outdoor seating and a full bar.
If you’re up north in the Navajo Nation, make sure to stop in Shiprock and head straight to Nataani Nez. The servings in this Navajo restaurant are massive, the food is excellent and the people are friendly. This place is fairly basic, but the fry bread . . . sigh. And they have best French fries I’ve ever tasted. No bar.
For a good list of restaurants in Taos, click here.