I had one of my first real New Mexican meals in New Mexico, at the Little Anita's location in Albuquerque...and I hated it. I was astounded that people would dump alternating layers of boiling-hot green pepper sauce and equally steaming, nose-running-hot red pepper sauce on everything and suck this stuff down like it was gold juice. My plate was a tar pit of smoldering sauces that I had to excavate my enchiladas from, bite by bite, with watering eyes and a singed mouth, and I left swearing that New Mexican food was the devil. I worried that I might starve living in the land of enchantment.
Little Anita's is run by an Albuquerque family with thirty-plus years in the restaurant industry. It's headed by patriarch Larry Gutierrez, who has thirteen stores total -- nine in New Mexico and four here in Colorado -- and there is also a family-run cadet branch of Anita's restaurants in the Washington, D.C., area. The busy Gutierrez family also owns New Mexico Food Distributors, which produces the salsas and red/green chile for the restaurants from old family recipes. So Little Anita's is born-and-bred New Mexican cuisine -- not Mexican food, as any Albuquerque local you ask will be more than happy to tell you.
I wanted none of it...at first. Trips to a few more New Mexico restaurants, and people kept telling me that not only would the red and green grow on me, but I'd eventually miss it if I lived anywhere else. And slowly it happened: The heat didn't bother me as much, and I starting to come around, at least with the red chile, enjoying the brick-red color and the warm, slightly smoky flavor.
And then, in the fall of 2004, the Little Anita's by my house burned down. The roof caught fire and the wooden structure went up like a bonfire, leaving a charred, non-functional restaurant space, which has since been rebuilt and reopened. During the time it was shuttered, I realized that I actually missed the food: the crispy ground-beef tacos; the oily, burning-hot chiles rellenos; the plump, mealy tamales; the stacked enchiladas -- and the chile, too.
I spent my last year of college in Utah, where chiles on anything was unheard of, and red or green could not be bought for love or money (I tried asking for them at Mexican markets only to get WTFed). So I learned to do what New Mexico expats did: mail-order the stuff and have it shipped to my house, or fill up my car trunk whenever I was passing through.
Colorado, unlike Utah, is a fine state for many reasons, not the least of which is the fact that chiles are readily available. And when I came across a Little Anita's at 1550 South Colorado Boulevard, I'd found an oasis -- a familiar spot with familiar food, and I got a little teary, plus my first trip into a Colorado outpost wasn't a disappointment. This location is cafe-sized, with a counter and a dozen or so tables, and the menu is succinct: tacos, enchiladas, nachos, burritos, sopaipillas, tamales and a few stray faves like an Indian taco and burrito burger. I ordered the #2 combination plate, chicken fajitas and a Coke -- I wished there was fresh horchata -- and my food was ready in under ten minutes.
Everything was straight out of a delicious time capsule. The fajitas were plump white meat strips with grill marks and tri-color bell peppers cooked just right; the pico was heavy on the fresh cilantro and onion; the tortillas were plump and warm. And there is nothing quite like getting a searing-hot chile relleno with the green chile on the side so you can experience the oily-crisp mouthfeel before the chile sinks in, dripping melted white cheese and the soft green chile inside leaving your lips ringed with a penetrating warmth. I got red chile sauce on the tamale and enchilada, green on the relleno, and a side of the house green chile stew.
There was a dust-up last year after we learned that the "vegetarian" green chile at Little Anita's had a beef base. Although I'm not a veggie girl, I asked if the current green chile sauce was vegetarian -- and was told that no, it relied on a chicken base. Fair enough -- I like honesty, and I like chicken broth, and I figure any vegan or vegetarian who is legit (not just a picky eater) will ask about the possibility of any meat products in the food before ordering to avoid those pesky carnivorous surprises.
This green chile was a deep amber color with hints of tomato and dices of medium-hot green chiles. The sauce was thin but flavorful, and had a good garlicky savor with the barest hint of cumin. Little Anita's green chile stew was the same formula: soft bits of peeled russet potatoes and fork-tender chunks of pork. The general consensus of people I dined with in New Mexico was that Little Anita's green chile stew was flavorful but too watery -- or brothy -- and I agree with that, as I prefer a sauce with a slightly thicker consistency so as not to drown my food prematurely, more of a "sit-atop-the relleno-a minute-before-sinking-in" consistency. But the flavor is spot-on New Mexico.
It's hard to cock up a crunchy ground beef taco or a cheese enchilada (the kitchen didn't), but it is fairly easy to screw up tamales. This tamale was sneaky, though: Most of the red chile-spiced pork filling was in the middle, so it took a few bites to get to the good stuff -- and the outer hull was mealy and moist and lightly salty. And the red chile was the best I've encountered in Denver so far -- bright, warm and fruity, with that signature grainy consistency that you get when you cook up real red chiles, not augmented with tomato sauce.
I have always loved sopaipillas even before I liked New Mexican food proper (sopas are the gateway food), and these were airy pillows of salty dough that were chewy on the inside and fried crisp on the outside. I did, however, ignore the "sopaipilla syrup" because the blend of high-fructose corn syrup, corn syrup and caramel coloring isn't honey, and I think restaurants that use it need to stop being lazy and/or cheap, and just buy actual honey because it tastes better.
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I've come a long way from being disgusted by red and green; today I bicker with other chile fans over the comparative merits of both and compare sauces from different restaurants in discussions as heated as the sauces themselves. New Mexican food is not the devil, but the devil is in the details, and Little Anita's really is an above-average outpost of pure New Mexican cuisine that 'Burque refugees and Coloradans can both enjoy.