Few states are as defined by a single food the way New Mexico is. Here, green chile is both the name of a plant and a prepared dish. It can be served as a salsa or in a stew. Spanish colonizers brought chile with them when they founded Santa Fe in 1610, and it has shaped the state’s cuisine for more than 400 years. As scholar Kelly Urig writes in her book, New Mexico Chiles: History, Legend and Lore, this is what gave New Mexico the time and space to develop foodways more distinct than its East Coast counterparts.
Today, chile in New Mexico is more than tourist trope. As Dave DeWitt, the Albuquerque-based historian and author of Chile Peppers: A Global History, explains, chile here is all things: condiment, spice, main meal, and even art—most notably in the form of ristras, the strings of dried red chiles that adorn doorways. In this road trip, we trace the history of chile through Santa Fe, Chimayó, Taos, and Albuquerque. And while Hatch Valley, in the southern part of the state, is famous for its green chile, there’s not much to do there outside of the Hatch Chile Festival, which takes place every Labor Day weekend and will hopefully resume post-pandemic.
When to go
August through October is green chile harvesting season. The state is achingly beautiful year-round, but the autumnal contrast of golden aspens against blue Sangre de Cristos is a special kind of sight.
If you fly into Albuquerque, grab a rental car and spend the night at Hotel Chaco. A sleek, contemporary property located in the heart of Old Town, its Native American–inspired art and architecture is curated with the help of Native consultants, sculptors, painters, and ceramicists—many of whom have their works on rotating display, making the hotel itself an art gallery. Located in the walkable shop-filled district of Old Town, it’s right across the street from the New Mexico Museum of Natural History, The Albuquerque Museum, and Sawmill Market, New Mexico’s first food hall.
Grab cocktails and dinner on the roof at Level 5. With indoor and outdoor seating available, it’s the perfect place to watch the sun set over Albuquerque. Get mixologist James MacPherson’s Sun Dagger cocktail, whose smoky garnished red chile rim contrasts nicely with the bourbon. Jalapeños and serrano chiles are featured on chef Christian Monchâtre's menu and grown at the hotel’s garden, along with tomatoes, eggplant, kale, and radishes.
In the morning, grab a coffee and passionfruit doughnut at Cutbow Coffee, a two-minute drive from the hotel. There, 30-year industry vet and New Mexico native Paul Gallegos finesses the challenges of roasting at 5,312 feet. He studied under none other than Alfred Peet of Bay Area–based Peet’s Coffee, and returned home to open up the best coffee shop in the state.
Next, hop on I-25 toward Santa Fe, an hour north. As one of the state’s oldest Spanish settlements, the city can be thought of as the birthplace of chile in New Mexico. It’s very close to here, amid the brutality of conquest, that Spanish colonizers first introduced chile to Indigenous Pueblo people. Although chiles are endemic to South America and were long cultivated in Mesoamerica, most historians—including Urig and DeWitt—agree that, based on written records and physical evidence, chile wasn’t actually grown in New Mexico before the Spanish arrived.
Few other restaurants in Santa Fe are as historic or iconic as The Shed, which is touristy for good reason. It was founded in 1953 by Illinois transplants Polly and Thornton Carswell, who learned recipes from local friends like Yolanda Vigil. Back then, “New Mexico [restaurant] cuisine was in its infancy,” their grandson Josh Carswell recounts. “There was family home cooking, but the restaurant cuisine here hadn’t really started.”
The Shed helped pioneer the idea of New Mexico restaurant cuisine, popularizing it outside of the home. Today, blue corn tortillas, pork-laden green chile, and posole are staples you’ll find throughout the state.
Although New Mexico green chile might be better known throughout the U.S. than its red counterpart, both are equally representative of the culinary culture here. (Red chile is just green chile that’s had the chance to ripen fully; it doesn’t refer to a specific type.) Red chile is more characteristic of the northern part of the state, where Santa Fe is located. That’s because shorter growing seasons in the colder north better lend themselves to red chile, which is dried, powdered, and preserved for year-round consumption. The southern part of the state, by contrast, boasts more large-scale farms that take advantage of a warmer growing season to produce green chile, which is either consumed fresh or frozen. Try both at The Shed: order the #4 or #5 enchilada plate, Christmas-style.
The Saturday Farmers Market in Santa Fe
David L. Moore - US SW / Alamy Stock Photo
After brunch, drive to the Santa Fe Farmers Market, if you can catch it before it closes at 1 p.m. In the fall, you’ll find farmer Matt Romero roasting some of his famous green chiles. If you plan to take some home, get them in a fridge or on ice within two hours, per USDA guidelines. If carrying a cooler for the duration of your trip—or on your flight home—seems unwieldy, consider shipping the chiles. When chopped up and frozen in an airtight container, they’ll last for months.
For an afternoon pick-me-up, head to The Art of Chocolate: Cacao Santa Fe. Co-owner Derek Lanter is one of the state's most knowledgable scholars on chocolate. He works with independent and Indigenous farmers throughout the state to source the dried chiles he incorporates into his drinks, many sourced from century-old texts. The Colonial New Mexican Drinking Chocolate, for example, comes from a 17th-century recipe and includes Chimayó chile, sesame seeds, hazelnuts, and sucanat—similar to brown sugar.
After satiating your sweet tooth, wander around the Plaza downtown, Santa Fe’s central square. Stop by The Five and Dime for a red chile–drowned Frito pie if you’re hungry again or spin through the New Mexico Museum of Art. For dinner, tuck into the combination plate at The Pantry, and retire early at the Inn and Spa at Loretto—a cozy yet expansive adobe hotel that epitomizes Santa Fe art and architecture.
Wake up early to stroll the galleries and public art lining Canyon Road. Don’t miss the Kuan Yin statue and garden outside of Project Tibet or grabbing a lapsang souchong London Fog drink at The Teahouse.
Then drive 40 minutes north to Rancho de Chimayó, which opens for lunch at 11:30 a.m. Both an inn and a restaurant, it’s better known for the latter—which won a James Beard Classics Award in 2016.
It’s impossible to talk about chile in New Mexico without mentioning Chimayó, both the name of a chile varietal and the tiny town in which grows it. Chimayó chile is almost always consumed dried, powdered, and red (versus green or fresh). It is a landrace chile, which means that these plants have adapted to the area’s climate over hundreds of years, as generations of farmers have passed down the seeds. When roasted, Chimayó chile is intoxicatingly bready, and smells almost like toast.
El Sanctuario de Chimayo, a historic church in Taos
Nick Fox / Alamy Stock Photo
After lunch stop at El Sanctuario de Chimayo, a historic church that inspires pilgrimages by photographers, painters, and the faithful alike. Then start up the High Road to Taos, a 56-mile scenic byway that meanders through the Sangre de Cristo’s historic mountain towns. There’ll be several art galleries on the side of the road where you’ll be tempted to stop, like in the tiny town of Truchas—give yourself an extra hour to shop but leave plenty of daylight, as the roads are winding and the views stunning.
It’ll be late afternoon when you check into El Monte Sagrado. A sprawling adobe hotel at the foothills of the mountains, it’s precisely what you imagine when you think of New Mexico. Traditional kiva-style fireplaces adorn many rooms, all of which overlook a central pond. In fall, the weeping willows are ablaze in yellow, giving the whole courtyard a golden glow. It’s just a few blocks from the Plaza, Taos’s central square, which is full of shops and restaurants.
If you want to stretch your legs, walk half a mile to The Rolling Still to sample the green chile–infused vodka—or walk just a few steps to the Anaconda Bar, El Monte Sagrado’s greenhouse-like taproom. There, bartender and Taos native Greg Rael leverages his masters in organic chemistry to engineer some of the best cocktails around. Order the carajillo, the Latin American answer to Irish coffee. Rael’s version features the traditional Licor 43 and espresso, as well as foamy aquafaba, a chickpea concoction that replicates frothed milk. It’s then garnished with dried green chile, which is a rare find nowadays.
Dinner tonight is at El Monte Sagrado restaurant De La Tierra. Chef Cristina Martinez’s vegan red posole—a highlight of the fall/winter menu—was the best dish we came across on this road trip. Most posole uses either dried red chile or fresh green chile, but Martinez’s version combines both—marrying ancho, puja, Chimayó, poblano, Hatch green chile, and jalapeño with dried hominy, simmering it down all day. If you get one more thing, make it Martinez’s blue cornmeal–crusted chile relleno, whose deep-fried blue corn coating is the ultimate complement to the molten cheese within.
In the morning, drive to Los Poblanos in Albuquerque, two hours away. A century-old dairy turned inn and restaurant, it’s still a working farm that produces lavender, kale, garlic, chiles, honey, and eggs. (Also, there are alpacas.) There’s a good reason it’s on virtually every New Mexico itinerary. Chef Jonathan Perno bottles his own hot sauce from whatever chiles the farm grows, and it’s on the tables at Campo, the hotel restaurant. Drop your bags at the front desk before tucking into eggs Benedict with green chile hollandaise and chilaquiles.
Afterward, grab bicycles—free to borrow if you’re staying at the hotel—and ride two minutes down the street to Big Jim Farms to pick your own chiles and have them roasted on-site. While the farm is named for its patriarch, Jim Wagner, “Big Jim” commonly refers to a variety of New Mexico green chile. It was developed at New Mexico State University through cross-breeding (it’s non-GMO) and is preferred for its thick, fleshy structure, which makes it substantial for roasting and peeling. The nine-acre farm offers Big Jims as well as other New Mexico green chile varieties, like Sandia.
Bike back to Los Poblanos for a free cocktail at the hotel’s happy hour, from 3 to 5 p.m., then head to Duran Central Pharmacy, a short drive away. It’s a must-visit Albuquerque restaurant and, true to its name, adjacent to a working pharmacy. The green chile here is good, but the red chile is positively drinkable. Get the enchiladas—the best last meal of a delectable road trip.