Picture the foods of the American Southwest: fiery dishes, cold drinks and incredible flavours. It turns out that these are an everyday part of the smaller communities as well as the chic urban eateries across New Mexico and Arizona. The desert of the Southwest is a backdrop where the green chile reigns supreme and the locals will happily share their secrets of freshly made salsa.
COOKBOOKS: If you can find copies of these cookbooks, grab them!
- Southwestern Kitchen, by Jane Butel
- Fiestas for Four Seasons, by Jane Butel
- The Great Salsa Book, by Mark Miller
- Arizona's Salsa Trail, The Official Guide by Christine Maxa
5 BEST WAYS TO TASTE THE FLAVOURS
1. Follow Arizona's Salsa Trail in the southeast part of the state. The stops along the trail include a dozen family-run eateries that will set your tastebuds ablaze (and we mean that only in the most positive of ways). Stop in at a grocery store and check out the staggering selection of salsas. Then, bypass the big name brands and buy local.
Our top picks:
2. Look for the green chiles.
You can be methodical about this. Follow New Mexico's official Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail or just try it scattershot. The chances are you'll find the ubiquitous green chile on virtually ever menu, breakfast, lunch and dinner. We stopped by the local grocery store to pick up canned, chopped green chiles to try to recreate the recipes back home in the middle of a cold Canadian winter.
Our top picks:
- At the tiny El Mesquite Taqueria in Pima, owner Jesus Cabrera roasts his green chiles over fragrant mesquite wood. Jesus serves dishes like Carne Asada Burrito or Birria Tacos with a side of very spicy Sonora style salsa.
- Locals have been stopping in for three decades to eat tasty Huevos Rancheros, the signature dish at El Coronado on Safford’s Main Street. The dish is smothered in homemade salsa - the recipe hasn't changed in 30 years - tomatoes with oregano, cumin, garlic, onions, cilantro, jalapeños and serrano peppers.
- El Charro boasts three homemade salsas: the signature hot sauce on the menu since 1979, a thicker and spicier chile caribe salsa, and the flaming hot jalapeño salsa.
- The Manor House Restaurant has been on the Salsa Trail since its inception. Their award winning salsa (heavy on the cilantro) flies out the door. They make it in five gallon pails at a time.
3. Open your tastebuds to frosty margaritas
Our top picks:
- In Roswell, a stop on New Mexico’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, they serve up a tongue-sizzling Fire-Roasted Green Chile Cheeseburger at downtown Peppers Grill & Bar. A handmade beef patty is topped with Monterey Jack and a thick slice of roasted Chaves County-grown hot green chile. For added heat, the burger is served on a jalapeño bun and a side of green chile enchilada sauce for dipping.
- We found lots of local colour (and chiles) in historic Pinos Altos, a small New Mexican community where the dining magnet is definitely the Buckhorn Saloon. Behind its thick adobe walls is the real deal, complete with a bison head above the bar and a pot bellied stove that’s been a fixture since 1897. Chef-owner Thomas Bock serves up bowls of thick, meaty green chile stew, flavoured with onions and served with soft, warm tortillas for sopping up the drippings. The Saloon’s signature Green Chile Cheese Fries are a plate of fries smothered with a green chile sauce and melted Monterey Jack cheese. The juicy, cooked-to-order Buffalo Burger gets its extra kick from a slice of fresh green chile.
- 66 Diner on classic Route 66 in downtown Albuquerque, NM has been named one of the top 10 diners in America by Huffington Post. The menu includes a massive Green Chile Cheeseburger, a New Mexican staple and their thick milkshakes consistently win awards as the city's best.
- The Green Chili Beef Burrito at El Charro in Safford, AZ is a house speciality - an enchilada-style flauta, deep-fried and topped with cheese and sauce, and very filling.
4. Look for dishes with the trinity of ingredients - corn, chiles and squash.
Our top picks:
- The Classic Margarita at Stables Ranch Grille (in the Tubac Golf Resort) spoiled us for life. Patrón tequila and a splash of Grand Marnier served in two versions: frozen with salt and lime or traditional with rough kosher salt on the rim.
- Elvira's in Tubac where they have nine margaritas on the menu in flavours like agave honey, mango and tangerine-orange. We tried the Tamarind Margarita made with tequila, tamarind pulp, lime and served in a Tajin chile-rimmed glass.
- We loved the House Margarita at La Paloma in southeast Arizona where their advice is to "drink it right off the rim to get a hit of salt."
- Silver City's Little Toad Creek Brewery & Distillery serves a Jalapeño Rita, a Southwest style margarita created with vodka infused with muddled jalapeños. Think: traditional margarita meets Southwest heat.
5. Embrace Mexican
New Mexico and Arizona are heavily influenced by the flavours from south of the border. Virtually every city or town - no matter how small - has a stable of Mexican restaurants that can satisfy every budget. We travel on the frugal side and luckily there is no shortage of Mexican foods that fall in line with our finances.
Our top picks:
- Frida Kahlo Chile Poblano at Elvira's in Tubac. Stuffed with squash blossom, roasted corn, queso Chihuahua (a Mexican semi-soft cheese made from pasteurized or raw cow's milk), covered with a bean chipotle sauce. The vibrantly decorated restaurant is considered one of the best Mexican eateries in the state.
- One of the best meals we ate in the Southwest was the Tres Queso Relleno at Sandiago's Mexican Grill in Albuquerque (right at the base of the Sandia Tram). It was a tortilla-encrusted poblano chile filled with goat, Cotija and Monterey Jack cheeses and topped "Christmas" style (with both red and green chile sauces).
- Chiles Rellenos at La Paloma in Solomon (also a stop on the Salsa Trail) - roasted, mild Anaheim chiles are stuffed with cheddar cheese, fried in a light batter and then doused with two scratch-made enchilada sauces.
- Start with Spinach and Queso Dip (spinach, artichoke, mushrooms, spinach, poblano and Mexican cheeses) and follow up with the signature dish, Carne Seca, at El Charro Café in Tucson's El Presidio Historic District. The Carne Seca is made of marinated, lean Angus beef sundried on rooftop racks, then shredded and grilled with green chile, onions and tomatoes.
- They say Tucson has the best Mexican food north of the border. Testing that claim along “The Best 23 Miles of Mexican Food” requires stamina and a love for dishes like pico de gallo and local specialties like the cult-status Sonoran Hot Dog (a large hot dog wrapped in bacon, and topped with pinto beans, grilled onions, fresh tomatoes, jalapeño sauce, mustard and mayo).
- Pulled Pork Tacos at The Mission in Scottsdale, a moderate-size city that is home to more than 600 restaurants (more per capita than Manhattan - this is foodie heaven). The pork has been marinated overnight (for a minimum of eight hours), topped with Cotija cheese, dried cabbage, pickled jalapeño and a signature pineapple glaze served on a hand pressed corn tortilla.