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The Definitive Guide to Santa Fe Green Chile

Early September means a lot of things to a lot of people: the end of summer, the beginning of school, and shorter, cooler days. In the Southwest — New Mexico, especially — it means green chile season.

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Green chile is a huge deal in New Mexico. Unlike other nominally regional foods like Boston cream pie, people in New Mexico really do eat New Mexican green chile, on everything, all the time. In fact, no one here would bat an eye at eating three meals in a row that each involved green chile. Sure, you can find green chile in various forms and spellings — green chili, chile verde — throughout the Southwest, but nowhere else do they seem to inspire the same fervor.

What makes New Mexican green chile so special? Flavor, culture, and horticulture. First and most obviously, green chile peppers are delicious. Real New Mexican green chiles have a strong vegetal taste that approaches artichoke territory: the combination of this quality and their heat makes green chile dishes deep, complex and captivating. New Mexico Magazine culinary editor, cookbook author, and regional food authority Cheryl Jamison says, "The fullness of the flavor is just astonishing. It's the best combination of flavor and heat and sweet and vegetable goodness."

"It’s the best combination of flavor and heat and sweet and vegetable goodness."

When Dr. Paul W. Bosland, director of the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University, was asked to describe New Mexican green chiles, he put the peppers in context according to the criteria for measuring heat profile: how fast the heat comes on after biting a chile, how long it lingers, where one senses the heat, whether the heat is sharp or flat, and the level of heat. "The New Mexican pod type is kind of a moderate-fast development, moderately fast dissipation, the heat sensation is mid-palate, and it's got what we call the flat heat," he says. "Usually New Mexican green chiles can go as low as 200 or 300 Scoville heat units up to 7,000, just below jalapeños."

Green chiles, and chiles in general, also have a tremendous cultural significance in New Mexico. As stated in the 2011 book Chasing Chiles by Chelsea Green, "Perhaps no other state in the Union — if not all of the Americas, from Alaska south to Tierra del Fuego — has a higher percentage of residents who link their cultural identity to the daily consumption of Capsicum annuum" (chile peppers).

Photo: Svetoslav Radkov/Shutterstock

What Is a New Mexican Green Chile?

Horticulturally, the New Mexican green chile is actually a specific pod type, like a bell pepper or a habanero, so it's kind of a big deal that the state has its very own pepper. Many claim that the distinct properties of the New Mexican chile pepper pod type are what give the peppers their unique appeal.

Historically, chiles have been a part of the local cuisine since well before this area was called New Mexico. However, green chiles have become increasingly popular in recent history thanks to refrigeration. Green chile peppers were once enjoyed only during late summer and early fall, before those green chiles ripened into red chiles. The green chile was merely a short-lived stage in the life of the pepper, and was therefore a seasonal delicacy.

Then everyone and their mother had a freezer. Today, green chiles are picked and roasted before they can turn red and are then frozen for use throughout the year. In the Fall, the smell of roasting chiles fills the air, and you'll see the peppers being blasted with flames in wire mesh drums at farmers markets and in gas station parking lots alike.

The only exception to fresh or frozen green chiles are those green chiles that are dried and pulverized for use as a powdered spice, though red chiles are more commonly used in this preparation. While a green chile will ripen into a red chile, certain cultivars are preferred for eating green or red. Depending on when a green chile pepper is harvested, it may have begun to turn red, which explains why some green chile sauces and stews have bits of red flesh.

Green Chile in its Many Forms

Confusingly, the phrase "green chile" is used to describe several different things. So what is green chile: a plant, a sauce, a spice, or a stew? The answer is yes.

When green chile peppers are served in sauce form, the sauce is referred to as green chile. When a stew is made from green chile peppers, it is also called green chile. As is the condiment of chopped green chile peppers. Sometimes, green chile (stew) comes with a side of green chile (condiment). The phrase "green chile" can also describe the peppers themselves, the plants they grow on, the powdered spice made from the dried peppers, or a filling for burritos, tamales or enchiladas.

So what is green chile: a plant, a sauce, a spice, or a stew? The answer is yes.

For clarity, this piece will refer to these various items as green chile peppers, green chile sauce, green chile stew, or chopped green chiles, though in New Mexico all of the above would simply be called green chile. If your camera and sunburn don't give you away as a tourist, asking for "green chile sauce" will.

Below, an exploration of some of the best known green chile dishes in Santa Fe, though the city is by no means the only green chile destination in the state. But first, here's some help understanding green chile terminology.

A Green Chile Lexicon

Smothered

When green chile is used as a sauce atop enchiladas, tamales, chile rellenos burritos and more.

Handheld

The opposite of smothered, typically used to describe a burrito. In this case, the green chile is on the inside, either in chopped or sauce form.

Red or Green?

A common question asked by restaurant servers that refers to one's chile color preference. Many green chile preparations have otherwise identical counterparts made with red chiles.

Christmas

A response to the above question indicating that you want both red and green chile, combined.

Green Chile Stew

A hearty dish centered on roasted and stewed green chile peppers that may also contain pork, beef, potatoes, beans and/or tomatoes. Some restaurants make a proper stew, others add meat, potatoes, posole or beans to their green chile sauce and call it a stew or a "bowl."

Green Chile Sauce

A mixture of cooked green chile peppers and their juices that may also include seasoning such as onions and garlic or tomatoes. Green chile sauce is typically but not always thickened with a roux. Again, most New Mexicans simply call green chile sauce "green chile."

New Mexican Chile Pepper

A pod type of chile pepper developed by Dr. Fabian Garcia at New Mexico State University and officially released to the public in 1913. Other chiles were eaten in New Mexico before the New Mexican Chile Pepper came along, but this specific kind of pepper did not exist until 1913. Now it is by far the favored chile in New Mexican cooking.

Hatch

A Southern New Mexican village and the self-appointed "Chile Capital of the World." A "Hatch green chile" is not a distinct varietal of chile but any chile grown in Hatch. Many green chile peppers are grown in and around Hatch, though they are also grown throughout the rest of the state. Hatch is also the name of a company that distributes green chile products around the country, though these products do not necessarily include green chile peppers grown in Hatch.

Santa Fe's Signature Green Chile Dishes

The Shed

Signature Dish: Green Chile Stew
Also Recommended: The Chicken Enchilada Verde, which comes smothered in green chile sauce
Location: 113 East Palace Ave
Phone: (505) 982-9030
Website: www.sfshed.com

The Shed is a Santa Fe institution that manages to fill its tables with tourists and locals alike. And those tables certainly are full: this is one of the hardest Santa Fe restaurants to walk into without a reservation, though you can always try for a seat at the bar, where a lengthy list of margaritas is served. The restaurant opened in 1953 and moved to its current location off the historic Plaza in 1960. Before the move, the menu was more continental, but since 1960 The Shed has focused on New Mexican cuisine (though the garlic bread that comes with all entrees belies its past). It has a sister establishment in La Choza.

Patrons pass through a leafy, tiled courtyard featuring patio seating before entering a traditional adobe building that dates back to 1692 and houses the coppertop bar and dining room. As proof of the building's age, the top of the surprisingly low exit is padded for the safety of the comparatively giant humans who walk the earth today.

The menu warns guests that the green chile is spicy, which is perhaps a nod to tourists who may not be accustomed to what passes for average heat in this state. Here, green chile stars in quesadillas, blue corn soft tacos and enchiladas, chowder and, most importantly, stew. The Shed's green chile stew, available in cup or bowl form, is among the best in Santa Fe. The stew is based on the murky liquid yielded by the cooked peppers and is seasoned with lots of garlic. Tender chunks of red and yellow fingerling potatoes bob amongst pieces of roasted, diced green chiles bearing appetizing flecks of char, and the hearty bowl has that legendary green chile flavor in spades.

The Shed's green chile sauce itself is vegetarian, though the stew includes pork, and the trimmed pork cushion that is used is leaner than the meat in most green chile stews. The chiles themselves are the Sandia varietal and come from southern New Mexico. The spiciness may be a challenge for the uninitiated, but for the average diner it is just on the pleasant side of challenging. It's hard to imagine anyone not enjoying the interplay between a spicy bowl of green chile stew and a perfectly tangy margarita from the bar.

Santa Fe Bite

Signature Dish: Green Chile Cheeseburger
Location: 311 Old Santa Fe Trail
Phone: (505) 982-0544
Website: www.santafebite.com

Santa Fe Bite is the year-old reincarnation of the former Bobcat Bite, and it is affixed to Garrett's Desert Inn in handsome downtown Santa Fe. When the restaurant transitioned to its new identity in August 2013, it grew from just five tables to 140 seats. Santa Fe Bite serves steaks, burgers, shakes, chops and green chile-laden New Mexican cuisine on its patio and main indoor dining room, which exhibits a refined Route 66-era aesthetic complete with classic car artwork.

Green chiles grown in Hatch can be found in many guises: atop home fries with cheese, in steak and cheese enchiladas, and even on a small breakfast hamburger. Among these items, Santa Fe Bite is best known for its green chile cheeseburger. There are many, many green chile cheeseburgers in this town, but few are as substantial and satisfying as this one. Often patties are smaller and flatter and the meat is of a lesser quality, as though it can lean on the crutch of the green chiles. Not here.

The 10-ounce burger is made from eighty-percent chuck and twenty-percent sirloin for a thick, juicy patty with a healthy char that's served on an in-house bun and topped with diced green chiles and white American cheese. Why American cheese? General manager Walter Espinosa says that cheese is preferred for its melt and mildness, so as not to interfere with the chiles. The burger is seasoned with garlic and onion before being seared in cast iron. It is rivaled by the in-house potato chips that come on the side, which are golden, crunchy and as long as the tuber from which they were cut.

Let's be honest: it's the massive hunk of beautifully seared meat that really makes this dish, but the green chiles add a welcome bit of mild heat and help moderate the richness of the beef. It's not the most immersive green chile experience, but it's no average burger either.

Tomasita's

Signature Dish: Enchiladas Smothered With Green Chile
Location: 500 South Guadalupe Street
Phone: (505) 983-5721
Website: tomasitas.com

If you called central casting and asked for an attractive New Mexican restaurant, you might get Tomasita's. Warm light filters through the yellow tinted windows of the wood-floored main dining room and ristras of dried red chiles hang from the brick walls. Yes, there are photos of rock formations and weathered wooden crosses. Like many restaurants in the area, salt and pepper shakers are accompanied by a plastic squeeze bottle of honey, which is instrumental in eating sopapillas. This is the Railyard District: a hipper part of town where you're more likely to see tattoos than turquoise.

Tomasita's opened elsewhere in Santa Fe in 1974 before moving in 1979 to its current location, a former train station dating back to 1904. Atrisco Café & Bar in the DeVargas Center is its sibling.

Most enchiladas are rolled, but Tomasita's serves them flat. Chicken, cheese, beef, shrimp or vegetables are sandwiched between moist but sturdy layers of yellow corn tortillas, which are smothered with green chile sauce and cheese. Of the many enchilada pitfalls, excessive soupiness is perhaps the worst and most common. This is not an issue here. The fillings are flavorful and the green chile sauce and cheese are well proportioned. The sauce is relatively mild and the chiles are sourced from Hatch. In keeping with another New Mexican culinary tradition, an egg can be added on top.

Green chile can also be found here among the other usual suspects, including chile rellenos and quesadillas. In addition to New Mexican specialties, you'll also see dolmas and Greek salad on the menu, which are two of the only clues to the heritage of the restaurant's owners.

El Merendero (Posa's)

Signature Dish: Green Chile Chicken Tamales
Location: 1514 Rodeo Road / 3538 Zafarano Drive
Phone: (505) 820-7672 / (505) 473-3454
Website: www.santafetamales.com

There are plenty of good tamales in Santa Fe, but these are probably the best.

There are two locations of El Merendero (Posa's), and the Rodeo Road site doubles as the company's tamale factory. At its busiest, around Christmas, the factory makes 5,000 tamales a day. The company has its roots in the restaurant El Merendero, which opened in Santa Fe in 1955 and was run by the current CEO Jeffrey Posa's grandparents. His grandmother's tamale recipe is still in use today.

And with good reason. In the green chile chicken tamales, lofty, moist, white masa surrounds a filling of pulled chicken, and the unwrapped tamales are smothered with a standard green chile sauce. The masa mixture is less dense than most, with a gentle crumble. The sauce that tops the tamales is made from the peppers, flour, vegetable oil, salt and garlic. As with many green chile sauces, splotches of orange and red appear from partially ripened peppers. Though the tamales contain lard, the sauce is vegetarian.

The green chile tamales are also available filled with mozzarella or calabacitas. (The latter is vegan, so no lard in that one.) All of the green chiles used by the restaurants and factory come from Hatch. The tamales are available a la carte, on plates with beans and rice, or as tamale pie. They're also available to-go from a freezer at the counter, and they can be found at some grocery stores throughout the country.

The green chile sauce that tops the tamales would be considered spicy almost anywhere else in the country, but here it's on the moderate end of the heat scale. If it's too hot, there is extremely sweet, seasonal agua sandia (watermelon drink) and scratch horchata that come ladled over ice into Pepsi cups. New Mexicans eat more cheese than the French, and as is the custom, cheese is offered as a topping for the tamales (a cheddar-jack blend). But it's unnecessary given the perfect tamales and excellent sauce.

At the Rodeo Road location, diners can watch tamales being made through windows to the factory space. The Zafarano Drive location is in a strip mall in big box territory near a Panera and a Panda Express, and the interior is highly informal, bright and cheery. With tamales this good, who would ever go to one of the chains?

Dr. Field Goods

Signature Dish: Wood Fired Cheese Pizza With Green Chile
Also Recommended: Green Chile Stew, which comes with a tortilla of Sonoran proportions
Location: 2860 Cerrillos Road, Suite A1
Phone: (505) 471-0043
Website: drfieldgoods.com

Dr. Field Goods is a relative newcomer to the Santa Fe restaurant scene, and it is a welcome one: the food at this casual, less than two-years-old restaurant is more innovative and better executed than at many of the longstanding, costly yet mediocre city establishments so frequently recommended to visitors. Chef-owner Josh Gerwin describes his approach as "New Mexican fusion," as in the carne adovada egg roll with peanut dipping sauce and pickled vegetables. When it comes to green chiles, Dr. Field Goods' creative applications are novel without coming anywhere near gimmicky. That's an important distinction in a state where green chiles show up not only in food but also in spa treatments.

Dr. Field Goods is committed to using locally sourced green chiles that are hand-peeled, which Gerwin says adds to their flavor. His green chile offerings include patatas bravas with green chile aioli, goat bratwurst smothered with in-house sauerkraut, green chile and caramelized onion pan sauce, and a green chile and piñon crème brulee. But everything here is fair game for the green chile treatment, since the peppers can be added to any menu item.

Pizza, for instance. The menu lists a Wood Fired Cheese Pizza, to which moderately hot, chopped green chiles can be added as a topping. The pairing makes for one of the most compelling green chile dishes in town. The pizza arrives with a gorgeous char, yet its most distinguishing feature is what Gerwin calls "New Mexico gremolata." As the pizza approaches your nose, a wave of sweet, fragrant tarragon subverts one's expectations for spicy pizza. The chopped herbs set the green chile free from its usual beat, extending the peppers' range without stretching their boundaries for a surprisingly effective combination.

Café Pasqual's

Signature Dish: Handheld Breakfast Burrito
Also Recommended: Toasted BLT with Green Chile and Chile Bacon
Location: 121 Don Gaspar Ave
Phone: (505) 983-9340
Website: www.pasquals.com

Overwhelmingly smothered burritos abound in this city. In the Plaza, you can't throw an adobe brick without hitting a restaurant that serves one. The smothered burrito, which only a fool would try to pick up, has its place, but because they are so ubiquitous, it can be refreshing to find a slightly more refined take. Enter Café Pasqual's.

Café Pasqual's is an artsy, eclectic restaurant that is so intimate as to verge on being cramped, but that's part of its charm. Décor like murals, pottery and ristras are typically New Mexican, and yet there's a colorful, festive quality to the single, small dining room that would make it at home in New Orleans. The restaurant has occupied its current location since 1979 and is housed in a 120-year-old adobe one block from the heart of the Plaza. Café Pasqual's is known to attract long lines come brunch, and there's an affiliated art gallery upstairs. The food here ranges from New Mexico to the Yucatán (cochinita pibil), El Salvador (pupusas) and China (black pepper tofu stir fry). The restaurant's vegetarian dishes are particularly commendable in a state where vegetable matter can be limited to shredded iceberg lettuce.

Café Pasqual's does have a smothered burrito on its breakfast menu, but the observant diner will notice a sign hanging above the register that describes one of the city's lesser known culinary gems: the handheld, green chile breakfast burrito to-go. Instead of being doused in green chile sauce, the burrito contains minimalist strips of uncut, roasted green chile peppers. For those seeking a more pure commune with the New Mexican green chile, this is a good way to go. The tortilla wrapping the burrito is browned and slightly crisp from its time on the griddle, and the other ingredients – organic eggs, Gruyere and potatoes - work well with the chiles without competing for your attention. A light touch with the cheese is another welcome deviation from the average New Mexican burrito.

Horseman's Haven Cafe

Signature Dish: Green Chile Sauce
Also Recommended: Chocolate Milk
Location: 4354 Cerrillos Rd
Phone: (505) 471-5420

The regular green chile sauce at Horseman's Haven Cafe is hotter than nearly any other in town. The spicier "level-two" green chile sauce will have you crying, sweating, shaking, and wondering who on earth could consume any more than just a few drops of this poisonously hot yet equally delicious condiment. Then, it gets worse.

When the pain has subsided — consider ordering a chocolate milk from the counter — you will realize that, heat aside, you have just eaten some of the finest green chile sauce in the state. The sauce is composed of Big Jim and Sandia peppers. "That's how we're different from everybody else," says manager Kim Gonzales. "One meaty flavor and one hot."

This vegetarian green chile has a profound depth — more so than most of its porky counterparts elsewhere — and is thickened with a roux. And that's all there is to it: peppers and some flour and butter. The restaurant also sells pints and quarts of both regular and level-two green chile to go: some diners buy the level-two to spike their own homemade green chile. Green chile also appears in omelets, quesadillas, handheld burritos and as a stew-like bowl.

Horseman's Haven has been run by members of the Romero family since opening in 1981. The restaurant has received national attention for its green chile (see Anthony Bourdain's Parts Unknown) and yet the space has a surprisingly unassuming look despite its notoriety. Though the level-two green chile is freakishly hot, they don't make a big deal out of it. You don't get a picture on the wall or a T-shirt for finishing it (though you might be hospitalized). The most warning you'll get is from your server, who says "Be careful with that one." Also, the restaurant refuses to smother using the level-two: that's up to your own judgment, or lack of.

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