Hooked on Hatches
South of Albuquerque and north of Las Cruces lies the little New Mexican town of Hatch. Snuggled alongside the Rio Grande, shadowed by the Mimbres Mountains, the Hatch valley is home to some of the best green chile peppers you'll ever eat; it's a mecca for chile heads. Few jalapenos challenge my jaded palate, but habaneros inflict too much pain to be fun. Like Goldilocks, I'm happy to say that Hatch chiles are "just right."

I was introduced to Hatch green chile peppers in a tiny diner called Diane's, just off the main drag in Eunice, New Mexico. (Don't bother looking for Eunice on a map, just head south from Hobbs and you'll find it.) Diane's chiles rellenos are built around a Hatch variant called Big Jim: a meaty, thick-skinned green chile that's clearly destined to be roasted, skinned and stuffed. Like many other chile peppers, Big Jims are unpredictable. Of any two on a plate, one might be sweet and mild-tempered while the other would bring tears to your eyes and beads of sweat to your brow. Luckily, my first encounter was with the latter variety, and it was love at first bite.

Since then, I've searched high, low and fruitlessly for Hatch chiles in Houston. Just as I was seriously contemplating a 16-hour road pilgrimage to the annual Hatch Chile Harvest Festival this past Labor Day weekend, I heard about the concurrent Chuy's Tenth Annual Green Chile Festival, a three-week-long local extravaganza dedicated to the long-distance love of Hatches.

The eight Chuy's locations in Texas will import over 20 tons of the glossy green beauties between now and the festival's end on September 27, according to Jennifer Figueroa, the assistant general manager of Chuy's on Westheimer. Their Hatch hybrid of choice is the Sandia, which, although harvested green, is named after the watermelon-red New Mexican mountain range. A Sandia chile is somewhat smaller than the Big Jim, and a little thinner-skinned, which makes roasting and peeling it a fine art; but Sandias are equally unpredictable in fieriness.

"Our first batch was on the mild side," says Figueroa. "But our grower has already warned us that the next shipment will be seriously hot."

Chuy's celebratory bill of fare includes perennial New Mexican favorites such as green chile stew and green chile pork tacos; and of course they'll have chiles rellenos, a menu regular that only during festival time is made with Sandias rather than poblanos. New and noteworthy this year will be "Texas Toothpicks": fresh-roasted Sandias, cut into strips, battered and deep-fried, and -- fair warning, folks -- served with a creamy jalapeno sauce for judicious dipping.

-- Margaret L. Briggs

Chuy's Comida Deluxe, 2706 Westheimer, 524-1700; 6328 Richmond

, 974-2322


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