Mexican or New Mexican

Or both?! It’s the never-ending debate in these parts: What is the difference between Mexican and New Mexican cuisine, anyway? Is there one?

By dena miller

Ask most people and they’ll say it’s the small things: corn, pinto beans and white cheese (Mexican) vs. wheat, black beans and yellow cheese (New Mexican). But so much more is common ground – lots of fresh veggies, sustainable ingredients and livestock, and a shared history that makes the food here truly unique.  (Disclaimer: New Mexico’s beloved Hatch green chiles stand alone.)

Locals, spoiled by the preponderance of selections, have their favorites. And visitors –especially those on their first trip through the Southwest – should take advantage of their time in town to solve this delicious dilemma for themselves. We’re here to help with the lowdown on popular spots whose tastes come from either side of the border.

Red Ruby Trout with rice and sauteed vegetables. Courtesy Azteca Mexican Grill

Azteca Mexican Grill (122 Doña Luz Street) offers everything you’d expect from a restaurant of that name. Owner Nicolas Zarazua and family bring to your plate generations of fine Mexican cuisine.

“One of our most popular dishes is Chile Rellenos, which are served in the traditional Mexican way which is smothered with molé sauce,” he said. Poblano chiles are stuffed with monterey jack cheese, egg-batter-dipped and fried, then garnished and served with pinto beans and rice. “The molé is made with a special blend of ingredients we bring directly from Mexico.” 

Huaraches are another traditional favorite, Zarazua noted. The homemade masa dough tortillas are served either “al Pastor” (pork) or with carne asada (beef), and accompanied by sides of frijoles charra – another Mexican favorite of pinto beans with chicharrones, bacon and seasonings – and sauteed onions, jalapeños and rabanos (radishes).

If your visit to Azteca falls on the weekend, be sure to try the house speciality, a lively pork Menudo served with a side of corn tortillas and salsa de arbol. And don’t overlook the seafood specials, with fish a surprising regular on a Mexican menu, always grilled to succulent perfection.

Coctel de camaron, spicy shrimp cocktail with tomato, onion, jalapeño and avocado. Courtesy La Cueva

La Cueva Cafe (135 Paseo del Pueblo Sur) may be tiny on the outside, but the kitchen is putting out some big, bold Mexican flavors. Enjoy the sun on the patio of the historic Casa Baca plaza and while you peruse the menu. Start with a fresh cocktel de camaron, a spicy shrimp cocktail with tomato, onion, jalapeño and avocado.

Then consider some of La Cueva’s traditional favorites. How about a platter of carnitas en mole verde: pork with potatoes and carrots simmered in a homemade green molé sauce?  Or, citrus-marinated pork wrapped in a banana leaf and steamed. Both plates are garnished and served with rice and pinto beans.

Ceviche Mexicano, spicy chipotle shrimp enchiladas, chicken molé enchiladas and fajitas are other popular offerings. There are several vegetarian items as well, and note, the entire menu is gluten-free.

Mexican, New Mexican, Latin and American styles converge in Guadalajara’s expansive menu so drool-worthy if you can’t find something to suit you, then you’re just not hungry enough. Courtesy Guadalajara Grill

Spanning the border (and maybe confusing the question more) is Guadalajara Grill, a landmark family-owned and -operated business with locations on both the north side (822 Paseo del Pueblo Norte) and the south side (1384 Paseo del Pueblo Sur) of town.

Mexican, New Mexican, Latin and American styles converge in an expansive menu so drool-worthy that if you can’t find something to suit you, then you’re just not hungry enough.

“Appetizers, meals and deserts all made fresh to order,” they want you to know. “Our menu is made up of the wonderful foods that we have all grown up loving, with the style and presentation you should expect from a fine eatery.” Be forewarned: That translates into huge portions of comfort.

Nacho steak, or ribs, brisket and chicken smoked to perfection, among the many other offerings at Casa de Valdez. Courtesy Casa de Valdez

Casa de Valdez (1401 Paseo del Pueblo Sur) has been pleasing its customers for years with its savory, modern-style Northern New Mexican cuisine. You’ll find plenty of your favorites on its menu – your choice of enchiladas, burritos, tamales, fajitas and combination plates – but when you turn your attention to the smoker or the grill, be prepared to be dazzled.

Juicy and delicious ribs, brisket and chicken are smoked to perfection and served with your choice of original, honey or habañero barbecue sauce. Can’t decide? Get all three, with a choice of sides. Casa de Valdez also turns out a mean ribeye, sirloin or strip steak; make it ranchero style with cheese and your choice of red or green chile.

So, take a culinary tour and let us know what you think. We may not get anywhere near an answer, but we sure are enjoying the journey.