Nearly every food culture has some sort of flatbread or fried dough, but there’s nothing quite like a sopaipilla, the pillowy gem of New Mexican cuisine. I was born in Grand Junction, Colorado, in the state’s Western Slope region, and both states are influenced by a mix of Spanish, Hispano, and Native American cooking that defines much of the Southwest. Growing up, I thought nothing of sopaipillas (or sopapillas), served with honey alongside entrees at New Mexican restaurants in town, until we moved to Phoenix, where Mexican rather than New Mexican food dominated.
Sopaipas, pieces of dough fried with olive oil, originated in southern Spain, especially in Moorish communities. According to the New Mexico Department of Cultural Affairs, Moorish settlers fleeing persecution were among the Spanish who arrived in New Mexico during the late 16th century. In the 1860s, as the U.S. government forced Navajos and Mescalero Apaches to relocate to the Bosque Redondo reservation in eastern New Mexico, the tribes adopted sopaipas as a way to stretch limited rations; the simple mix of flour, baking soda, salt, and fat could be fried on the go. The concept is similar to Navajo frybread, which also originated on the painful Long Walk and can be found in New Mexico. There isn’t a definitive explanation as to when the two recipes diverged, but the preparation of sopaipillas today, which produces large puffed pieces, makes them unique.
With their simplicity and versatility, sopaipillas are used a few different ways in New Mexican dining today, from versions stuffed with carne adovada to sliders with sopaipillas for buns. After we moved to Arizona, I’d anxiously await our yearly road trip to visit family in Colorado just to tear off a corner of a plush, plain sopaipilla, pour some honey in to coat the fluffy interior with sticky sweetness, and dig in. It’s still as good an excuse as any for a visit.
What qualifies as a sopaipilla
You’ll find sopaipilla-style fried dough across the Americas in nations with Spanish history, like Argentina, Chile, and Uruguay, but they end up flat, similar to a tortilla; New Mexican sopaipillas turn into little clouds. Texas also claims the sopaipilla, designating it as the official state pastry from 2003 to 2005 in recognition of its place in Tex-Mex culture; but they’re almost always prepared as a dessert item in the Lone Star State, commonly rolled in cinnamon and sugar (although topping them with honey or powdered sugar is not unusual).
While sopaipilla recipes always include some kind of leavening agent, the frying process is crucial; water in the dough quickly turns to steam, expanding to create the signature puff. As with tortillas or biscuits, there’s no one way to make sopaipillas and recipes aren’t always precise. “Everything’s a little bit of a guess, we don’t measure anything, we just know what to put in there,” says David Sandoval of El Patio de Albuquerque, who has been making sopaipillas for 47 years.
Normally, sopaipilla recipes omit yeast, but Sandoval’s recipe includes it as a slight twist. “Our restaurant is the only one that makes sopaipillas the way we do — round, fluffy, and sweet,” he says. “The key to ours is using vegetable oil, which makes them so puffy and light. We use flour, yeast, and a touch of sugar in our recipe; after mixing, they need to rise for at least an hour. We fry around 350 degrees and just make sure they are golden brown before flipping them over.”
Chef Janet Malcom has worked for 32 years at Rancho de Chimayó, where they incorporate a simple mixed recipe that takes two or three minutes in the fryer. “In order to get the sopaipillas to rise and cook the way they should, we find that 375 isn’t hot enough for this area and we have to push it to 425,” Malcolm says. “When we make a batch of sopaipillas, it’s about 400 on a tray; sometimes we make up to five or six trays a day because we can get orders for 20 or 60 for takeout.”
Dining etiquette and tips
In northern New Mexico, you might find sopaipillas stuffed with savory ingredients and served as an entree. Restaurants fill them with meat (often ground beef but sometimes New Mexican pork or carne adovada) and beans (refried or the traditional pinto) before topping the sopaipillas with a hearty amount of cheese melted under a smothering blanket of red or green chile or both (aka Christmas style).
Elsewhere they show up as complementary sides to other New Mexican mains, sometimes set down on your table by the basketful. Traditionally, sopaipillas stand in for tortillas, used to mop up red or green chile, or scoop up food. Most often they’re served with honey, which helps cut through the chile’s spice. But don’t save them for dessert; according to Tomasita’s, one of Santa Fe’s oldest restaurants, only out-of-state visitors try to use sopaipillas to finish off a meal.
There is one sticking point that divides diners: the proper way to eat them with honey. There’s a constant debate over whether to drizzle honey on top or tear a corner off to pour some inside. While I grew up pouring the honey inside, according to Malcom, there’s no right answer. “I just think it’s down to everyone’s preference,” she says. “For me, sometimes the best way is to melt some butter, mix it with honey, and dip sopaipilla pieces in it. That is truly delicious.”
Where to get them
An established favorite since 1977, El Patio de Albuquerque has two locations serving breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Its signature sopaipillas are served alongside a menu full of Southwestern and New Mexican favorites.
142 Harvard Drive SE, Albuquerque, NM, 87106
Located approximately 30 minutes from Santa Fe, this celebrated restaurant in northern New Mexico has been producing award-winning cuisine for over 50 years. The restaurant also includes a hacienda with seven guest rooms for visitors to stay in and enjoy bite-sized versions of Rancho de Chimayó’s sopaipillas rolled in cinnamon and sugar at breakfast.
300 Juan Medina Road, Chimayo, NM, 87522
This small, unassuming diner off of the historic Route 66 in Gallup is always packed with locals and visitors who know that the food is among the best representations of New Mexican cuisine in the state. Sopaipillas come with most meals, but get the stuffed sopaipilla swimming in green chile for the best of both worlds.
406 W Coal Avenue, Gallup, NM, 87301
The family-owned Tomasita’s has been serving well-crafted northern New Mexican dishes for 40 years. The restaurant now has a location in Albuquerque as well, but nothing has changed about the quality of the food or the sopaipillas that come with every meal. In fact, the first item on the menu is its stuffed sopaipilla, an invitation diners should accept.
500 S Guadalupe Street, Santa Fe, NM, 87501
Another long-standing Albuquerque institution, Sadie’s has been serving New Mexican food for over 60 years. Its food is regularly voted as a “Best Of” winner for the Albuquerque Journal and its locations all boast regional classics. Try the sliders with sopaipillas for buns.
6230 Fourth Street NW Lot, Los Ranchos De Albuquerque, NM, 87107
Asonta Benetti is a freelance food, travel, and beverage writer based in Phoenix, Arizona. Her credits include Food & Wine, AFAR, and VinePair.
Eric Burnside is an editorial photographer based in Los Alamos, New Mexico.