I recently made a trip to Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was my first trip there, and I was eager to have my first New Mexican cuisine experience. I am a native Texan, proud of my heritage and proud of the food culture that is Tex-Mex food, but I'm willing to get to know, enjoy and even, on occasion, embrace a different type of Mexican food. Still, it really has to prove itself.
I have had the good fortune of knowing a Mexican mama born and raised in Piedras Negras, living in Eagle Pass. She made me menudo, arroz con pollo, cheese enchiladas and numerous other dishes. I was lucky enough to be able to sit at her kitchen table and write down her recipes that had only lived in her memories until that day. It was some of the best Tex-Mex I have ever had the privilege of eating. So I know what authentic Tex-Mex is suppose to taste like, look like and smell like. Sadly, I have to admit that I have also dined at Los Tios and Monterrey House and had some of the worst incarnations of Tex-Mex known to man. But they all deserve a spot in our Tex-Mex history.
Tex Mex tends to be comprised of a specific group of ingredients with a small allowance for regional variance. The ingredients you can count on are: • large amounts of sour cream • copious amounts of cheese and meat • Jalapeños • Cumin/Comino • even olives • very large portions • very heavy dishes laden with chili con carne
As the unfortunate saying goes - "Everything is bigger in Texas!" That doesn't just refer to our hair. Our portion sizes, our plate sizes, our allotment of table tortilla chips and sadly, our people are bigger. Mexican food came from a culture of "only eat what's available because you grew or raised it." They did not know the Big Tex Taco plate or the Cowboy Bistek. We would be better off if we had never met them either.
A common feature of Tex-Mex cuisine is the infamous combination plate, with several Texas inventions spilling over the edges on one large platter: Texas-style chili con carne, chili con queso, nachos, and fajitas. A friend of mine who recently ate in New Mexico said. "Don't they know we Texans eat several baskets of chips, what's with just a few on each plate?" Texas is the land of cattle ranches, oil wells, big hair and big appetites looking for big bold flavors. Mexican food on its own can be bold, colorful and bursting full of flavor, but Tex-Mex has done its best to make it a unique cuisine, with only a few of the Mexican roots left intact.
Just across the border the cooking in New Mexico is probably best associated with the chilies grown there. Jalapeños are not often the pepper of choice when it comes to New Mexican cooking; it is instead the long green variety. Two areas of the state well known for their peppers are Hatch in the South Central region and Chimayo a small village tucked away in Sangre de Cristo Mountains near Santa Fe. New Mexican cooking, like Mexican cooking, pulls in many of the foods of its native inhabitants.
New Mexican cuisine may be defined more in the way it is cooked, rather than the ingredients in general. They really rely on the true flavors of the ingredients to shine rather than covering them with creams, cheeses and gravies. You will find great roasted vegetables, stuffed chiles (but not fried), and small portions of meat stewed with fiery and mild chiles. Cumin, which is most common in Tex-Mex cooking, is used very little in New Mexican cooking. Cumin is not even a Mexican spice, as many believe, but a Middle Eastern Spice. New Mexican cuisine incorporates: • lots of vegetables • red and green chiles • blue corn masa • small to medium portions • small amounts of meat • much lighter dishes not laden with gravy
My culinary experience in Santa Fe was enjoyable at best and awful at worst. The best place I went was The Pink Adobe and had the Steak Dunigan. A perfectly grilled New York Strip smothered in stewed green chiles and mushrooms: absolutely beautiful and very New Mexican. Breakfast at The Inn of the Five Graces was a New Mexican take on Eggs Benedict exchanging the hollandaise for a green chile salsa and a red chile sauce. The red chile sauce was so perfectly balanced and rich I had to get the recipe and have it again the following morning. As soon as I find the brand of chiles the chef used, I will be attempting this recipe at home.
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Just as we have our Los Tios and Monterrey House's, Santa Fe has Gabriel's. Simply because you put green chiles on something does not make it New Mex any more than putting chili con carne on something makes it Tex-Mex. There is a finesse to both cuisines that, when done correctly, produces comforting, historical, familial and delicious meals.
I will return to Santa Fe for the Steak Dunigan and Eggs Benedict, but I will never give up my tacos al carbon or my native Texan card.