The Oldsmobile Toronado is a monster of a car. Seventeen feet long and grossing nearly two tons, it's an old-school blacktop heavyweight and, in its day, was one king-hell luxury ride. Although it never had the power of a Corvette or the raw muscle of those classic Mustangs, pound-for-pound, the Toronado was a slugger. It held its own.
By this summer, my secondhand Toronado (called Gomez, the name picked out in gold thumbtacks against his blue-velvet interior) was on its last legs. With well over 200,000 miles on his big V-8, Gomez was showing his age. In his prime, this beast had power everything -- windows, seats, doors, locks, the works -- but most of his electrical system had long ago failed, leaving him with no working gauges, a speedometer that stopped at 32 mph no matter how fast he was going, seats permanently kicked back, lowrider-style, and one door forever locked. He leaked every fluid from every possible orifice, blew clouds of blue smoke from a broken exhaust pipe, and ticked like a bomb at idle.
But the important thing was, Gomez still ran. Like an old prizefighter -- punch-drunk, staggering and half-retarded from too many hits to the head -- when the bell rang, he was ready to mix it up. Just get Gomez out on an open stretch of highway, and you could feel the years drop away.
Between Albuquerque and Denver lay 440 miles of highway. More than enough asphalt to satisfy Gomez -- and since the stretch happened to coincide with the green-chile trail, there were endless eating opportunities for me.
I can think of no strictly regional food item so dearly loved, fiercely debated and quintessentially vital to local cuisine as the humble green chile. For thousands of years, members of the capsicum genus have been cultivated in Central and South America. Christopher Columbus (to whose credit we can add the chile's original misrepresentation as a pepper) brought some back from the New World and introduced them to the Old one. More than 200 varieties of the little buggers are grown today, over a hundred of which are indigenous to Mexico.
You cannot overstate chile's importance to residents of the Land of Enchantment. Chile is like a religion in New Mexico, the largest producer and consumer of chile in the United States and home of the famous Hatch chile. It is everywhere and in all things. Burger King, McDonald's and Wendy's all offer green-chile cheeseburgers on their menus, and every street corner has a taquería that dishes out chile like methadone to shambling hordes of helpless addicts.
As far as I'm concerned, the green-chile trail begins at the Owl Bar, an hour below Albuquerque. Gomez, my wife and I growled into Socorro County mid-afternoon -- siesta time -- which was perfect for a nice lunch in the cool, dark confines of the Owl. Gomez was running hot but had held steady at 90 mph until we were forced to slow down for the tiny, nowhere town of San Antonio, ten miles south of Socorro. The sun of the nuclear age rose over this little hamlet -- thirty-some unobstructed miles from the Trinity site -- and as we grumbled down the main street, I got the feeling that nothing had changed since the morning of July 16, 1945, when scientists at the White Sands range detonated the world's first atomic bomb.
The Owl Bar is important in the culinary annals for two reasons. First, it serves the best cheeseburger in the world (although my wife will still argue herself blue in favor of Tommy's Original World Famous Hamburgers in Los Angeles). And second, according to local lore, all those mad scientists slaving away in their desert bunkers deep in the desolate reaches of Jornada del Muerto would show up at the Owl Bar after long hours working on their doomsday project, get good and liquored up, then go tear-assing back home along these same long stretches of desert highway. Thing is, after a few cold brewskis, your average high-energy nuclear physicist can get a bit peckish. So the late Jose Miera (original owner of the Owl Bar and, as far as anyone knows, the only civilian who knew anything about the blast before it happened) had a grill installed in his nondescript high-desert roadhouse and started cooking. The rest, as they say, is history.
The Owl still makes its "world famous Owlburger" the same way it did over a half-century ago. The kitchen grinds the beef and forms it into patties so large they hang over the bun on all sides. Tongue-blistering fresh green chiles are chopped into chunks, then slopped generously onto a cheeseburger that, once lifted, can't be put down again without the whole architectural structure of lettuce, onions, cheese, chile and meat collapsing. But since there's little between heaven and hell that could make me put down an Owlburger, issues of structural stability are of no concern to me.
Stepping out into the heat of a blazing New Mexico sunset a couple hours later, my wife and I spotted the puddle under Gomez's crankcase. Immediately, we're thinking that David Lynch movies start this way: East Coast newlyweds tooling around the Southwest when some tiny but vital portion of their car's anatomy ruptures, leaving them stranded with night falling and some glare-blind mechanic named Skeeter working out of a tarpaper shack attached to his rusted-out Airstream saying, "Sorry, folks. Gonna be two weeks 'fore I can git that part." Next thing you know, BAM! -- out come the atomic zombies.
"We're never going to make it," my wife told me.
I just smiled, patted Gomez's hood and said, "American iron, baby. Have a little faith."
In fact, Gomez started up on the second turn of the key, roaring like a dinosaur stuck in a tar pit but not yet ready for extinction. We pulled out and moved north up the trail to Albuquerque and the Owl Cafe, a distant culinary cousin to the original Owl.
In San Antonio, where time stopped over five decades ago, an eatery billed as an "authentic 1940s roadhouse" is just that: authentic. Albuquerque's Owl Cafe opened in the mid-'80s as one of those self-styled '50s diners. Frankly, places like this, with their shiny brushed chrome and Leave It to Beaver malt-shop ambience have always made me itch; on the other hand, the Owl Cafe does have an enormous sculpted owl's head rising up out of the roof, lit from below by spotlights and hot, red neon, which can be almost preternaturally creepy when seen at night for the first time. You've got to give the place bonus points for that.
Besides, along with the Owl name, this eatery also got the recipe for those wonderful green-chile cheeseburgers. Granted, it has a lot of other stuff on the menu, but who cares? That burger (and maybe a side of green-chile cheese fries) is what it's all about. The burger here is just as big, just as juicy, just as fall-apart-in-your-hands tender, topped off by mounds of chopped chile that's hot but not too hot, with an excellent smoky flavor and a mellow afterburn that carries you over until the next bite.
As it turned out, the memory of the Owl's green would have to carry us a lot farther than that. The next morning, we continued our trek north, but after less than a mile it became painfully clear that Gomez didn't have it in him to drag us over Raton Pass. We limped home on back roads, nursing the engine and taking it as easy as we could, but Gomez was a goner. He was running now only out of habit, and after so many thousands of miles, I don't think he quite knew how to quit.
Like a true highway champ, he got us back to Albuquerque.
In the parking lot of a Waffle House, I sold him to a friend for 25 bucks and a case of Pacífico. Maybe he'll reappear one day as a lowrider or as some coddled show car somewhere. Either way, I miss him.
In Albuquerque, we rented a nutless, four-cylinder plastic matchbox car that stank of feet and hospital disinfectant. When driving Gomez, I'd pull up to the line and commuters would shrink back in revulsion. On the rare occasions when I had any passengers other than my wife, they'd ride in terrified silence, afraid that at any moment Gomez might burst into flames or simply shake himself to pieces taking a turn at sixty miles an hour.
In this new car, though, I got the distinct impression that people were laughing at me every time I stepped on the gas. It was disconcerting, but there was nothing I could do about it, because to do anything about it would have required catching someone -- and that was obviously not going to happen once this car hit the highway.
Instead, we refocused on our quest as we squeaked and gurgled through Santa Fe, where -- in deference to the tourists flying in from either coast and the RV-loads of Minnesota farm families on a tour of the great American Southwest -- the chile heat is turned down and the presentation jazzed up. Restaurants along the Plaza post signs warning rookies to order their chile on the side unless they're sure of what they're getting themselves into.
When you order something with green chile in New Mexico, traditionally, that's just what you're going to get: fire-roasted chile, peeled and chopped. Sometimes it isn't even chopped, but simply served as the whole pod, a purist's dream. Rarely is anything done to adulterate the natural flavor and heat. Chile is so sacrosanct that if it's made into a sauce of any kind, the preparation is done carefully and with great restraint so that the taste and texture of the main and most important ingredient is preserved. Even at the upscale Coyote Cafe in Santa Fe, chef Mark Miller treats the modest pods with a staggering respect, giving chile glazes and sauces equal billing to such culinary heavyweights as Angus beef, truffles and wild boar.
The transformation of the chile from crop to condiment to sauce smacks -- deliciously -- of culinary assimilation. Immigrants coming north from Mexico and points even farther south carried with them the poblano, serrano and pequín chiles that were a bedrock foundation of their cuisine. It's in the chile's refinement -- from its naked use in Hatch, Socorro and Albuquerque to its being clothed and mellowed by increasingly dense sauces as it moves through Raton, Trinidad and Pueblo -- that I see the movement and acclimation of an entire culture. In the blending of the chile is the mingling of a people.
Still, to be honest, people in Denver do things with and to green chile that would get them shot anywhere south of Santa Fe.
In Raton, we stopped for dinner at a little roadside joint called the All Seasons Family Restaurant that had reached a sort of culinary detente. This place serves the chopped green chile familiar to New Mexico, as well as the stewish green sauce of Colorado. Both offerings had good heat and a nice bite, with the sauce featuring large pieces of chile in a thickened base studded with pork chunks. Mmmmm. Pork chunks...
Inching our way along I-25, the little car whining like a sick donkey on any uphill grade steeper than half a degree, we decided to take a break at a tumbledown roadhouse outside of Trinidad. We had high hopes for our first bite of Colorado verde, but alas.
"Sin!" I cried after the first bite. "An absolute sin!" This weak, tainted dish was an abomination. The sauce was thin, with little flavor, less kick and no burn whatsoever from the pathetic little shreds of chile floating around in a greasy ocean of pintos.
Back out into the night and farther north to Pueblo, a city that again elevates the preparation of green chile into an art -- although one markedly different from that practiced in the dry heat of the Chihuahuan Desert. At this point on the map, green chile is no longer served as a recognizable fruit, or even a thin sauce, but has been thoroughly incorporated into a thick, gelatinous stew. The heat is variable, depending more on preparation than the raw fire that lives within the chile itself. Cooking time matters -- the longer any sauce is reduced, the more powerful the influence of the chile -- as do thickness and viscosity. It's a new world to me, strange and exciting.
By the time we hit the outskirts of Denver, my lovely wife had had enough of the green-chile trail.
"If you love me, you'll let me stay home," she said.
Going solo now, I headed out the next day with the intent of eating my way through Denver. Could there be such a thing as too much green chile? That's like asking if there can be too much good tequila or why a speedometer would need to go past 100 mph.
My introduction to Denver green came at local favorite Benny's Ristorante y Cantina (301 East Seventh Avenue), where I ordered the green-chile plate, along with some chicharrones and extra tortillas to mop it up, as my "welcome to the neighborhood" meal. The verde was thick and messy -- which, I'm quickly learning, is just the way you want it in this town -- and had a long, scorching burn compounded by the fact that I was washing it down with hot coffee. For a first-timer, seeing the big lumps of meat and a few random vegetable bits thrown into the mix was shocking, but as a food writer, I fear nothing.
Not even a cow's head. At Taquería Patzcuaro (2616 West 32nd Avenue), another Denver institution that's even earthier than Benny's, I was scrutinized by the Mexican revolutionaries whose pictures covered one wall. They watched me gobble down three tacos filled with the very tender meat from the cheeks of the cow, wonderfully marinated and so full of flavor that I forgot all about my green chile until I'd already devoured two of them. The verde here is a bit milder than at Benny's but more complicated, with the tang of smoke, soil and maybe even a little lime (or something equally bitter/sweet) lurking stealthily beneath the heat. Throw in an excellent adovada (red chile, I know, but it was still very good) and a killer strawberry licuada, and I was in heaven.
But I wasn't done. By now I'd given up the highway in order to explore Federal Boulevard on foot, wandering here and there to taste empanadas, sip mango juice, order some green chile to go. I ate with my fingers, scooping up chile with tortillas hot out of the press. I made a mess of myself and must have looked like half a madman, walking blindly and being led by my nose and gut. Through all that day and most of another, nothing topped Patzcuaro.
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Finally I came up for air at La Fiesta (2340 Champa Street), where I walked inside to the radio playing the Spanish-language version of ABBA's "Dancing Queen." In a crowded, noisy, echoing room that reminded me of some of the lesser-known joints around Juarez, I ordered the green-chile chicken enchiladas, extra verde on the side. The enchiladas arrived hanging off the plate, mounded high and wide with lettuce, tomatoes and an ocean of gooey, clinging, thick sauce. I was fairly sure I could see my death at the bottom of that plate.
I remember the first bite, that burn of honest, genuine chile melting across my tongue -- mild at first, then cranking up the temperature, then slowly fading -- but not much else. Don't get me wrong: This green chile was good, but I'd gone the distance. I'd reached my limit. I was done. Like Gomez before me, I'd put on a lot of miles and eventually reached a point where I could go no further.
Yes, I made it home eventually, but my tongue was numb and there was a re-enactment of the Mexican Revolution being fought in my belly, the outcome of which was far from decided. I'd gorged myself, loaded myself down as best I could, and come out the other side alive. I wasn't a new man. I wasn't a changed man. I was just a man --the same guy I was when I left New Mexico. Just one more supplicant in the Chile God's kingdom.