The New Mexican and Mexican flavors of Taos
By Teresa Dovalpage
You may have heard that New Mexico’s official state question is, “Red or green?” It makes perfect sense — chile is a focal point of many dishes, from enchiladas and pozole to burritos and tacos.
Ah, but there is yet another question often asked when people are looking for a good restaurant in Taos. “Mexican or New Mexican? Or ‘Christmas,’ a combination of both?”
New Mexican and Mexican cuisine share many ingredients like chile, beans and the ubiquitous tortilla. But there are some important differences as well.
“New Mexican food is a fusion of Native American and Mexican food,” said Taoseña Tanya Vigil. “We also have the Spanish influence that came to us via Mexico and blended with the Pueblo traditions. Our sopaipillas, for example, are a cross between Indian fried bread and puff pastries.”
The three sisters of Nuevo México
Blue corn is a distinctive Southwest crop. Originally grown by the Hopi tribe, and sometimes called Hopi maize, it is used in tortillas, pancake mixes, corn chips and muffins. Orlando’s New Mexican Café has made it the star of one of their most colorful and delicious dishes: the blue corn enchiladas, made with chicken, beef or shrimp, and served with a salad, pozole and beans.
Speaking of beans, most residents know that chile became the official New Mexico state vegetable in 1965.But many are not aware that frijoles (pinto beans) share the same distinction. Pinto beans, corn and squash, known as the “three sisters,” have been staples of the Pueblo Indian diet for centuries.
The third sister is often featured in calabacitas, another traditional New Mexican dish made with sautéed summer squash, zucchini, onions, sweet corn and green chile.
Burritos and donkeys
The humble, but filling burrito is a fusion dish. It has Mexican roots, but became popular in California first, and then spread all over the country with a few regional variations. Burritos can be stuffed with beef, chicken, fish or chicharrón (pork). They can be deep-fried or covered in sauce. For the health-conscious crowd, there is the vegetarian option. The burrito diversity is truly amazing. Guadalaraja Grill, a Mexican restaurant with two locations in town, has an assortment of them, from the “beans and cheese only” fare to the “supremo,” stuffed with grilled meat and served with sour cream and guacamole.
An iconic New Mexican eatery, El Taoseño Restaurant and Lounge, calls itself “home of the breakfast burrito.” It includes eggs, bacon, hash browns and, of course, chile.
But watch it. Cuidado! Not all burritos are created the same. When we get to the “smothered burritos,” served with red or green chile sauce and melted cheese all over, we are talking about purely New Mexican fare.
“What do you mean by ‘a smothered burrito’?” asked Raquel Troyce, who spent most of her adult life in Mexico City. “It sounds to me like a little donkey that drowned!”
Mexican cuisine is a broad term. It refers to the culinary traditions of a whole country that range from the seafood-based Veracruz dishes to the Sopa Tarasca, a tasty bean and tomato soup from Michoacán. In Taos, the biggest influence comes from northern Mexico, like the Chihuahua and Sonora regions, but there is a little of everything.
Chihuahua-native María Rodríguez and her husband, José Rael, opened Toribio’s, a restaurant that serves pura comida Mexicana (authentic Mexican food) 22 years ago. Most plates — steak ranchero, barbacoa (slow-cooked meat seasoned with chiles and spices) and fajitas — are served with rice, beans and tortillas.
“If you are looking for a Mexican side dish, I would say try pico de gallo,” Rodríguez said. “It’s made of onions, tomatoes and peppers. And tacos al pastor is a bien yummy entrée.”
Tacos al pastor, made of pork marinated with fresh pineapple, was brought to central Mexico by Lebanese immigrants. After crossing the border, it has become one of Toribio’s most requested dishes.
The best of both worlds
Some restaurants, like La Cueva, owned by Juana and Horacio Zarazua, serve both Mexican and New Mexican food. A health-conscious couple, the Zarazuas prepare all their chile-based dishes with gluten-free flour.
Despite its name, Antonio’s, a Taste of Mexico, also offers dishes “from here and south of the border.” Owner Antonio Matus is from Veracruz and has brought his love of seafood to Taos, as his paella and enchiladas de mariscos prove.
“My main cultural influences are Mayan, Spanish and Aztec,” he said. “Our signature dish is chile relleno en nogada, a poblano pepper stuffed with beef, pear, apple and onion with a walnut and brandy cream sauce.” (The name “nogada” comes from the Spanish word nogal, that means walnut tree.)
“I am not a purist,” said Amalia Rivera, a regular at Antonio’s. “I like going to places where I can get Mexican-style guacamole and blue corn enchiladas, too. That’s the best of two worlds!”
Other local New Mexican restaurants include Bella’s, Michael’s Kitchen, Ranchos Plaza Grill, Taos Diner, Abe’s Cantina and Cocina in Arroyo Seco and Casa de Valdez.