clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

The Finest Introduction to New Mexican Cooking

Lesson one: The right way to order enchiladas is “Christmas” style

Shrimp blue corn enchiladas at Orlando’s
Bill Addison/Eater

This post originally appeared in Bill Addison’s newsletter “Notes From a Roving Critic,” a twice-monthly dispatch from Bill’s travels across the country. Subscribe now.

In August 1999 I came to Taos, New Mexico, for the first time to attend a workshop led by Natalie Goldberg, author of Writing Down the Bones and many other books. I’d been following Goldberg’s techniques for years — she builds her methods for teaching writing on her decades of serious practice as a Zen Buddhist —but I’d never studied with her in person before.

As inspiring as it was to be in her classroom, the geography of northern New Mexico was equally rousing. If you’ve never been to the area it’s difficult to convey the enormous sense of space. I took a shuttle that first time from Albuquerque’s airport through Santa Fe and up to Taos at nearly 7,000 feet above sea level. At one point, on the left side of a rocky pass, I could see the Rio Grande; it was a substantial channel of water but nothing in size like the Mississippi River I knew in the South. It was summertime, and the cottonwoods, firs, and pines radiated their sunbaked, hard-won shades of green. Taos Mountains, part of the Sangre de Cristo range, loomed over the town, taking up half the sky. The mountain’s colors shifted from purple to pink and then brown to black as we approached Taos at dusk.

Chefs at the Mabel Dodge Luhan House, where the workshop was held, served attendees three meals a day, but one veteran Goldberg student suggested we skip out on one for her favorite restaurant in Taos, a place just north of downtown called Orlando’s. I wasn’t yet writing about food at the time, but the subject already consumed too much of my brain.

chile relleno
Chiles rellenos at Orlando’s
Photo by Bill Addison

Orlando’s was my introduction to New Mexican restaurant cuisine. Orlando and Yvette Ortega opened their charmer, with its dining rooms of colorful walls and painted tiles, in 1996. A perfunctory glance down the choice of dishes reminded me of a Tex-Mex menu: nachos, quesadillas, enchiladas, chiles rellenos, burritos, tacos, enchiladas, tamales. But the flavors achieved a specific sense of place through the chile sauces: fresh green, roasted red, and a third, duskier variation on a red called chile caribe. One dish, “Los Colores,” served as an introductory combo platter. It held three enchiladas made with blue corn tortillas: one stuffed with chicken and covered in green chile, another rolled with beef and smothered in red chile, and a third filled with Jack cheese and doused in chile caribe. Mounds of pinto beans and chewy-tender posole flecked with red chile rounded out most entrees.

My fellow student Nita most loved the blue corn enchiladas layered with shrimp, and over the years it became my favorite, too. “Red or green?” is the standard question asked my servers in restaurants all over New Mexico. “Christmas” is the answer I always give: some of each.

orlando’s restaurant interior
Orlando’s, colorful walls and alll
Photo by Bill Addison

These days I wander in pretty much every way a human being can wander, but something in me is rooted in New Mexico. I return as often as I can, which is usually twice a year. Natalie Goldberg, who teaches mostly in Santa Fe these days, has become a close friend; I drag her around to local restaurants.

The casual places always make me happiest: standouts for New Mexican dishes like La Choza for carne adovada (pork in a spicy red chile sauce) and chiles rellenos, Atrisco for a Christmas-smothered burrito filled with leg of lamb, tacos and quesadillas at El Chile Toreado, and breakfast burritos at Tia Sophia’s or Palacio Cafe. Of course I obsessively scout green chile cheeseburgers. My latest fave is the messy but righteous Bang Bang burger — chile, fried egg, bacon, asadero, and morita chile aioli — at Bang Bite Filling Station, a truck parked in a lot on Water Street a few blocks from the Santa Fe Depot.

Burgers at Bang Bite Filling Station
Photo by Bill Addison

Natalie turned 70 last week, and I came to Santa Fe for a celebration. Feeling the need to roam last Saturday, we drove to Taos. In the Christian calendar it was Epiphany, or Three Kings Day. We went to Taos Pueblo, which has been inhabited for over 1,000 years, centuries before the Spaniards arrived in the region in the 1600s. Every year on January 6 the Pueblo invites the public to witness a buffalo dance. The performers dress up as buffalo and also as deer with sprigs of piñon in their mouths. That day was warm for winter; there’s a terrible drought and the mountains were bare of snow, an unsettling sight. But the timeless sounds of the drums and the repetition of the dancers’ movements reminded me that traditions continue — the enormity of the land continues — past individual seasons and individual lives.

We went to Orlando’s for lunch afterward. I ordered a single chile relleno and my old flame, the shrimp blue corn enchiladas. I told myself to taste in the present moment, to not be swayed by nostalgia. What did shrimp have to do with the high desert of New Mexico, anyway? The platter arrived. The baked tortillas crunched in places, melted in others. A swirl of yellow and white cheese blurred into the green and red sauces. The shrimp played their part — a seafood backdrop against all the earthy flavors and textures. It was as consistently wonderful as it has always been, and I felt relieved and contented.

Subscribe now to get Bill Addison’s newsletter directly in your inbox.