At Kachina, the chiles pack heat -- but they can also be sweet

With a knack for the nuances of wine, sommeliers can taste caramel and a hint of peach when all the rest of us can do is sniff out oak. Oenophiles aren't the only super tasters around, though. Work with chiles long enough, as Patrick Hartnett has, and you learn to detect flavors far beyond mild, medium and hot.

See also: -Kachina promises a magical trip through the Southwest, but the journey isn't finished - Slide Show: Behind the scenes at Kachina - Chef and Tell: Patrick Harnett, exec chef of Kachina, on chiles, chiles and more chiles

Anchos, the dried poblano chiles prized in Mexican mole, might be called slightly sweet by the average Joe, but Hartnett finds flavors ranging from coffee, licorice and tobacco to dried plum and raisin. In his role as executive chef at Kachina, the southwestern restaurant in Westminster that I review this week, Hartnett uses anchos powdered and pureed, but it's when they're served whole and stuffed with squash that you have the best chance of discerning these more subtle flavors.

Good luck pinpointing the chile used in his quail and waffles. Despite its ubiquity on billboards, you'd have to log as many hours in Southwestern kitchens as Hartnett has to know the dish's smokiness comes from smoked jalapenos (aka chipotles) in agave-honey syrup. When dried, chipotles have a "rich, almost sweet and chocolate tone with some tobacco notes," he says, whereas in canned adobo sauce they have a "more vinegary, tomato flavor."

But these chiles can pack some heat, so unless you know what you're doing, you might want to stick with maple syrup next time you make Sunday breakfast.

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Gretchen Kurtz has worked as a writer for 25 years; during that time she's stomped grapes in Napa, eaten b'stilla in Fez, and baked with Buddy Valastro, aka the Cake Boss. Her work has appeared in publications including Boulevard (Paris), Diversion, the New York Times and Westword. Our restaurant critic since 2012, she loves helping you decide where to eat and drink tonight.
Contact: Gretchen Kurtz