Little-known fact: Red and green chile pods are one and the same. Their color and flavor relies on how late in the process the fruit is harvested from the pepper plant. Both red and green chiles are full of capsaicin, the chemical that produces the chile’s spicy bite. But while fresher, younger green chiles can be stewed into a sauce, red chiles stay on the plant longer, and when they are finally picked, they are dried, then pulverized into a powder and reconstituted before sauce is made with them. Nowhere near as hot as habañero chiles, New Mexico red peppers are mellow and earthy, with an almost fruity aftertaste. In New Mexico red chile is less lauded than its hot green sister, but for travelers who aren’t ready for a three-alarm sauce, red chile is a perfect way to spice up fajitas or an enchilada. And then, of course, there’s always “Christmas”—a smooth blending of red and green.
In addition to smothering their spicy-sweet “Shed Red” over everything from enchiladas to burritos, the chefs at this downtown institution (which has been recognized by the James Beard Foundation) also marinate roasted chicken and beef in their world-famous red sauce. What sets it apart: the chile is made from Hatch peppers grown exclusively for the restaurant.
With northern New Mexico locations in Santa Fe, Pojoaque, Española, and Los Alamos, El Parasol serves up a terrific menu of red chile-smothered tostadas, tamales, and burritos. This is the perfect place to fuel up before a day of skiing in Taos, or hiking, climbing, or trail running in the Jemez or Sangre de Cristo Mountains. Meat eaters: don’t miss the pork tamales. Vegetarians, try the bean and red chile burrito, with or without the cheese.
It’s no wonder La Choza gets its red right. This neighborhood restaurant, which anchors the southern end of The Railyard, has the same owners as The Shed. The difference is that this outpost caters to locals, who have a discerning palate when it comes to red and green chile. The enchilada plate, served with cheese, chicken, carne adovada (beef served between two blue-corn tortillas) definitely tastes best smothered in red.
It’s tough to stick to the red- or green-chile New Mexico party line at this south-of-town café, because Harry’s eclectic menu includes flavors that stray far from the pepper plant. Even if it doesn’t smother the menu, however, the red chile here, when poured over its New Mexican-style blue corn turkey enchiladas, ranks top on my list.
Right next to the New Mexico Rail Runner train depot, Tomasita’s is the natural next stop for hungry tourists. That’s a good thing—because the chefs here know how to make New Mexican classics. Temper the red chile by eating it in a sopapilla stuffed with New Mexico pinto beans, cheese, and roast beef.