Unsung Desert Eats: A Tour of Uniquely New Mexican Foods

Food Lists New Mexico
Unsung Desert Eats: A Tour of Uniquely New Mexican Foods

New Mexicans are strikingly proud of their cuisine. Due to the state’s geographic locale, as well as its rich history, it is a place at the crossroads of many cultures. A vibrant melting pot—er, roiling pot of green chile stew?—of Mexican, Native and Spanish influences. The convergence of these diverse cultures make the local food singular. While outsiders may only conjure up images of sandy desert and mesa when they think of our state, Nuevo Mexicanos know that here there are fertile valleys where pistachio trees grow over rambling cascades and fruit trees flourish, while mountain tops watch over the scene from far away. From the borderlands to the mountainous north, to the four corners and Navajo Nation, there is many a food mecca within the great state, all of which are unique New Mexican.

As you eat your way through the great desert expanses of New Mexico, just be ready to choose your variety of chile—that is, red or green—when you’re ordering up your food. New Mexico is the only state with an official question, and that is: “Red or green?” Travelers will find this a testament to the state passion—growing, cooking and enjoying great food that is uniquely its own.

alagormado pistachio.pngPhoto by Erin Slonaker/Getty
Situated as the county seat of one of New Mexico’s southernmost counties, Alamogordo has a lot of things going for it, one prime example—its inhabitants claim it to be “the friendliest city on Earth.” While that declaration is highly dubious to anyone who’s actually spent a good amount of time there, Alamogordo does assuredly have one of the world’s superlative things, and that is the biggest pistachio on the planet. Ok, it’s actually a statue of a pistachio, but it is still impressive. Billed as a “New Mexico Treasure since 2014,” this monument is evidence of southern New Mexico’s rich agricultural lands. In fact, a huge swatch of Otero County is prime nut-growing land, and southern New Mexicans are exceedingly proud of their expertly farmed, flavored, packaged and delivered pistachios. McGinn’s Pistachio Tree Ranch—handily located on I-54, the busy corridor that leads to White Sands National Monument—boasts the giant pistachio attraction and the most variety of pistachios you’re likely to find. Green chile, red chile, habanero-limon, garlic, ranch, lemon-line and more are all flavors of this alabaster-shelled nut you’re likely to find within the massive outlet that is McGinn’s storefront. And growers in southern New Mexico do it all while using less water than growers in that other nut-growing state, California.

hatch chile row.pngPhoto by Education Images/UIG via Getty Images
A friend of mine from Albuquerque was recently in Portland, Ore. and saw vendors hawking Hatch green chile at the local farmer’s market. Clearly, the stuff is available in all reaches of the U.S. Yet, the only way to know if you’re getting the authentic varietal of this piquant pepper is to go to the source. And that is the tiny town of Hatch and the surrounding environs of the Hatch Valley. While green chile of all manner can be grown in different regions (see: the battle raging between Colorado and New Mexico), as a Burqueña, you know what side of the debate I fall on—Hatch green chile reigns supreme. And from August ‘til early October New Mexicans celebrate the state food. During those months, the scent of roasted green chile is on the air throughout the state as enthusiasts roast the bounty of the green chile harvest. This roasting happens literally everywhere, from rural dirt lots to the local Whole Foods. That green chile is then incorporated into numerous dishes—green chile stew, green chile apple pie, green chile cheese burgers—you name it, if they’re cooking it in New Mexico, it’s probably available with a dash of green chile on top. Though, one should note, a state-wide love of red chile is almost as prevalent as the regional commitment to green chile. Regardless of your red or green (or Christmas) preference, next time you’re barreling northward on I-25, take a load off in Hatch, not just for the easy access to the world’s finest pepper, but to take in some small town quaintness. Hatch has its own share of odd statuary and green chile dishes and flair you’re unlikely to find anywhere else.

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This little town in the Tularosa Basin is barely a blip on the radar, but its rich railroad-related history is not something to be forgotten. Neither should we overlook the enigma that is its cider. In the last decade or so, the stuff has begun to be distributed nationally, though around the same time this brilliantly colored red drink was achieving fame, it started being made with “extractive matters of cherry” and “cherry flavoring.” If you love the taste of cherry flavoring more than the fruit itself, you’re going to love the famous Carrizozo cherry cider. Really, sampling the cider is just an excuse to make the stop in this town—the kind of place where tumbleweeds look quite natural rolling down the dusty streets. Well worth a stop for any desert wanderer on the hunt for refreshment.

frybread getty.pngPhoto By Chris Maddaloni/CQ-Roll Call
Shiprock is in the Navajo Nation—an expansive autonomous stretch of land that extends throughout New Mexico, Arizona and Utah—but since it is just a hop skip and a jump (I mean that pretty much literally) from Farmington, New Mexico, and the portion that Shiprock occupies is on the New Mexico side of things, it must be mentioned as the preeminent place to get a Navajo taco. You can pick up these round, fluffy discs of heaven throughout the state, but the frybread—the base of the Navajo taco—is key. And in Shiprock, it is perfected. You can stop at one of several diners to pick up the taco, which is, at its most basic, frybread topped with the kind of stuff you’d find in a taco—beans, cheese, sour cream, lettuce and meat—or you may chance upon roadside stands that are serving up both frybread proper and decked-out Navajo tacos. This dish is an absolute must-eat on any journey through New Mexico. Not only will the blend of carbs, protein and fat power you through many more miles of travel, but the Navajo taco is the perfect archetype of New Mexican food as a whole, illustrating the convergence of multiple cultures on a single plate.

Main photo by Betsy Weber, CC BY 2.0

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