NEW MEXICO’S unique mix of Native American, Spanish, and American foods sets it apart from pretty much every other cuisine on the planet, and is worth a visit to the state all on its own. Here are some incredible food and drink experiences to get you started.
1. High-end cuisine in a town named after a game show
In 1950, the little hamlet of Hot Springs, NM changed its name to Truth or Consequences in answer to a challenge from the radio game show of the same name. Today, this small town / hipster haven is home to funky bathhouses that utilize the local hot springs, Spaceport America — “the world’s first purpose-built commercial spaceport” — and an excellent restaurant at the historic Sierra Grande Lodge.
Dine on the patio and enjoy the incongruity of fried alligator tail, bison steak, or mac and cheese with saffron parmesan cream in a desert town with an incredible name.
2. The combination plate at Rancho de Chimayó
To try the full gamut of sit-down New Mexican food all on the same plate, make the short drive north of Santa Fe to Chimayó, and after visiting the local miracle shrine and collecting a handful of holy dirt (which is what you have instead of holy water when you live in a dry climate), go to the local treasure — Rancho de Chimayó — and order the combination plate.
Representing the tried-and-true favorites of New Mexican cuisine, the plate comes with carne adovada (spicy pork simmered in red chile), a tamale or a chile relleno (a roasted green chile stuffed with cheese), and an enchilada. Finish it up with a sopapailla — a divine, crusty pillow of fried dough served with a squeeze of local honey — for dessert.
3. Samples at the Santa Fe Farmers Market
You can taste New Mexico’s local foods in microcosm by heading to the Santa Fe Farmers Market on a Saturday morning and grazing the ample free samples, which will include local honey, goat cheese, roasted pieces of exotic squash, lamb sausage, focaccia, olives, locally grown fruit, etc.
Almost everybody lets you try before you buy, and by the time you get to the end of the colorful rows you’ll have had lunch already — and probably filled up your tote bag with hydroponic tomatoes, stone-ground mustard, and lavender soap.
4. Late night (or early morning) cinnamon rolls at the Frontier
Next time you’re in Albuquerque, party like a UNM student by hitting up a Lobos basketball game, heading to a Lobos-friendly bar (hint, that’s all of them), and then walking your tipsy self over to the Frontier on Central Ave. It’s the late-night / early-morning / all-the time watering hole, right opposite UNM.
Order yourself a big breakfast complete with one of their legendary massive cinnamon rolls to soak up all that fine Albuquerque microbrew. If you can’t finish it (the servings are huge), there will definitely be some hungry students at the tables next to you to help out.
5. The 66 Diner experience on the old Route 66
It’s the ’50s-style diner to beat all others. Checkered counter, jukebox, soda fountain — you’ll find it all at this retro Albuquerque joint. Order a patty melt with fries and a milkshake, and, when you’re done, get a photo of yourself in front of the building — Jetsons-esque during the day, gloriously neon at night.
6. Chocolate elixirs at Kakawa Chocolate House
To give your sweet tooth a history lesson, try drinking a chocolate elixir from Kakawa Chocolate House, a chocolate shop founded by a chocolate historian. The gooey concoctions are prepared according to historically accurate recipes from Mexico, Central America, North America, and Europe.
Some are spicy, some taste downright medicinal, some have flower essences, and not all of them are sweetened. Try the Aztec Warrior or the Mayan Full Spice with chile and herbs, the 1775 Marie Antoinette with orange blossom essence, or the Modern Mexican with canela, almonds, and vanilla.
7. Margaritas at the border
Go as far south as you can go before you hit Texas (or Mexico) and you’ll be in Mesilla, NM, near Las Cruces. La Posta de Mesilla is a Mexican/New Mexican restaurant in a super cool historic stagecoach station. The space features a piranha tank and a cage full of parrots, and it’s known for its range of creative margaritas.
Try the Smoked Agave with Del Maguey mezcal, the Chile ‘Rita with blackberry/habanero sauce (shown above), or the Damiana & Daiseys (Damiana is an herbal-based liqueur and a Mayan aphrodisiac…so — you know — don’t drink it alone.)
8. Dueling burgers in San Antonio
Put your inner food critic to the test with a two green chile cheeseburger lunch in San Antonio, home to New Mexico’s most famous rival burger bars, the Owl Bar & Cafe (77 Highway 380), and — right across the street — Buckhorn Tavern. Both spots have been much lauded, make it into every “must-eat” burger list, and serve ultra-spicy green chile cheeseburgers.
James Beard Award-winning food writer Jason Sheehan says the Owl serves “the best cheeseburgers in the world…perfected across the decades by a kitchen that doesn’t do much else.” GQ‘s Alan Richman describes Buckhorn’s green chile offerings as “ultimate in a burger with a burn.” Go and choose your own favorite.
9. Izakaya at Izanami
Have a soak or a massage at Ten Thousand Waves, Santa Fe’s world-class Japanese-style onsen spa, and then amble your now-relaxed bones over to their new restaurant, Izanami. Don’t expect sushi — Izanami is an izakaya-style eatery, meaning Japanese bar-style small plates like teriyaki chicken skewers, gyoza, or a genuine wagyu beef burger.
Order a flight of sake from their encyclopedic selection and watch the sun go down over the mountain on the porch of this beautiful space.
10. A lava lamp + tacos at Coyote Cantina
Santa Fe is known for its brilliant weather, gorgeous sunsets, and ethereal light. Enjoy all three during summer at the lively upstairs patio restaurant Coyote Cafe while sipping a lava lamp, a strange-sounding but incredibly refreshing cocktail consisting of a frozen margarita poured into a Mexican beer (usually a Dos Equis), which tastes like happiness in a glass.
Accompany it with food, of course, like their tuna tacos, ceviche, tacos al pastor, or the nachos with barbecued pork.
11. Cooking classes at the Santa Fe School of Cooking
If you’re truly in love with the flavors of New Mexico and aren’t fortunate enough to live in the state, you should take a hands-on cooking class at the Santa Fe School of Cooking, where they offer both demo classes and workshops on New Mexico traditional foods. You can get elbows-deep in masa, roast your own green chile, make red chile sauce from scratch, wrap your own tamales, and then, as a reward for your hard work, have the best recompense of all: lunch.
12. Posole at El Parasol
New Mexican food includes a distinctive combination of local native foods, and one of the oldest dishes comes from the Anasazi. Posole is a hearty stew made with pork and chewy hominy — giant corn that’s been prepared by soaking it in lime water. For real norte-style posole, head to El Parasol, a locally owned New Mexican fast-ish food chain. There are two locations in Santa Fe, but for the ultimate experience head slightly farther north to the small city of Española and the original El Parasol location, called “El Paragua.”
To really go home-style, eat it with a red chile tamale broken up in it, which is how Pedro Atencio, the owner and founder of these iconic restaurants, enjoys his.