Half a century ago, my mother operated a successful taco stand located in East Los Angeles. Eventually, she sold it to her sister, who parlayed that small business into a high volume Mexican food restaurant on the edge of the San Gabriel Valley. It wasn’t really a “sit-down” kind of joint, as patrons were required to order at one window, and pick up their food at another. In fact, for most of my life, the place didn’t have tables. My Aunt built her business on three items; taquitos, (seasoned beef or chicken tightly rolled into corn tortillas and fried to order) and red or green burritos. I remember countless hours sitting at my aunt’s feet as she rolled taquito after taquito. In front of her was a stack of warm tortillas, and a stainless steel pan with chicken or beef. She would roll 20 or 30 of them, then reach down and hand me one, un-fried, of course, and I would quickly gobble it down. They were soft and flavorful and I ate thousands of them growing up. Lately, I have been making them for my family, and the kids love them.
Most people came for the burritos, though. If you ordered red, you got chunks of beef in a flavorful red chile based sauce and refried beans. Ask for a green burrito, and you came away with chicken in a slightly hotter green sauce and refried beans. Simple, and mouth watering-ly delicious. I never passed on an opportunity to go eat at The Burrito.
As I got older, I developed a taste for even hotter stuff. To be honest, my Aunt’s fare wasn’t very hot, as at least half of her customers were Gringos. You could get the hot, if you knew what to order.
For a minute, though, lets sort through what constitutes “hot”, at least in my opinion. If you bite into a jalapeno pepper, you will experience the kind of hot that singes your tastebuds and destroys any chance to enjoy the more subtle flavors in the rest of your meal. I have many friends who love to do this. I remember watching one of my friends try this with a chile we grew at Casa Coyote…the kids still laugh as they remember the various colors his faced turned, and how much he cried while swallowing it. Yet another friend tells a story of going to lunch with his Latino co-workers, and being offered a free meal if he could eat an entire jalapeno. He did, and I imagine the others at the table had a good laugh, well worth the price of buying my friend his lunch. I do not enjoy that type of hot.
There is another type of hot out there. It begins its life in a field in a small New Mexican town named Hatch. In Hatch, they grow chiles. That is pretty much all there is to do, and so they are good at it. I have been fortunate enough to live and work in Albuquerque, and Fall is the time of year for two of my favorite events, roasting chiles and the Balloon Festival. Once the chiles begin roasting, the smell pretty much wafts over the entire town, and even those hiking up in the Sandias can probably catch a whiff if the wind is just right.
Once the chiles are roasted, the skin is peeled away the expose the “meat”, and then various spices like garlic and cumin are added and it is turned into a paste-like sauce. It is often simmered for hours after adding a meat, and the result is a healthy meal that actually raises your metabolism and provides fuel for your day. The other hot I speak of begins with that first bite….sure, your tongue and tastebuds immediately realize that your mouth’s heat index has risen considerably, and so extra saliva is generated. Capsaicin within the chile fires one’s endorphins at a direct proportion to the heat or Scoville units within the chiles. Once you swallow, the real fun begins. The heat literally expands and fills your entire chest cavity, opening it’s fiery wings like a butterfly. You will often experience something akin to a runner’s high. The word that may best describe it is sensual.
Also, there is ample evidence that eating spicy chile based foods is a healthy way to lose or maintain weight.
Suffice to say, along with 392 days of sunshine each year, clean, dry desert air, and the presence of brown skinned people, I miss New Mexico and it’s chile dishes. No matter where I am living, I always search for places that offer real chile-based foods. The closest I’ve found in this area is The Rose Pepper. Travis Damn Quillin and I have found ourselves there quite a bit recently, usually on Saturdays, ordering up bowls of red and green chile to go. They give you flour tortillas along with, and a few bowls will feed the crowd I run with.
The Primary Wife does a good job of making the Red. We still have dried red chiles brought here to us in aught four by Martinez The Desert Rat, and once in awhile, she will whip up a batch and it is a family favorite. Still, the Green gives us fits. She has tried her hand at it, and she comes close, but it isn’t quite right. Whats been fun is that both Travis’s wife, Jersey Girl, and Rock Solid’s wife, The Missus, have tried their hand at it this month. Jersey Girl produced a green chile dish mostly made up of jalapenos, and it was very good, but really was more of a soup. The Missus found some canned chiles to use, and hers came out fluffier, but still lacking that certain something.
I wanted to have some honest to goodness New Mexican chile around Christmas time, so I looked into buying some frozen prepared dishes from a broker out there. The problem, of course, is shipping. Prepared foods must be stabilized and shipped quickly. It is not cost efficient to buy it in bulk and ship it here. It would actually be cheaper were I to fly to Albuquerque, rent a car, and drive to Garcia’s or Los Cuates, eat, and fly home. (Calling Southwest the minute I’m done here).
So, I decided to combine my favorite two pastimes, eating chile and cooking with a houseful of semi-drunken friends. Brilliant, you say? I agree. I am about to order some bulk frozen and dried chile pods, and we will all pick a day to hang out and make chile from scratch. We have a handful of great recipes, and we can sit around and play board games while the chile simmers. A good day by any measurement. Somebody usually brings tequila. Someone else usually provides beer. One guest arrives promptly at 4:20.
I can’t wait.