The wholesome enchilada
Not too long ago, it was hard to find a chain restaurant in New Mexico; the standard was the mom and pop café. Those places have slowly disappeared, replaced by cookie-cutter operations serving pre-made, truckdelivered food designed to meet an imagined standard of middle-American taste.
Chains feel like safe, predictable places to dine when we travel; perhaps we are afraid to take chances in strange lands and even at home. We watch contestants take risks on reality shows, eating all kinds of vile things, while we eat factory-made food in front of the TV. And despite a growing list of health concerns arising from eating at fastfood restaurants, we continue to trust and buy.
Meanwhile, there are perfectly fine locally owned restaurants serving culinary adventures right here in Santa Fe. The Red Enchilada is that kind of restaurant. It’s unusual yet representative of the unapologetic ethnic restaurant. In a world still dominated by the numbingly consistent Subway sandwich, it offers an experience of the real thing in three dimensions.
The location at the corner of St. Michael’s Drive and Osage Avenue is central, and there’s parking out front. Bright, primary-color murals cover the walls in the main dining room, which is lined with vinyl-covered booths. Tile floors and fluorescent lights brighten the room at night; in the daytime, big windows let the sun in.
Breakfast is served all day and includes standard American fare, burritos, and huevos rancheros. The menu also includes a host of more interesting things: huevos verdes (two eggs on a bed of sautéed potatoes; fresh, barely sautéed spinach, and red chile); pupusas (stuffed fresh tortillas) of queso revuelta (cheese and a mixture of vegetables and pork) or chicharron (pork crisps); Central American tamales; a typical Central American breakfast (fried plantain, Salvadoran refried beans, scrambled eggs, and Salvadoran cream); and a tamal de elote (fresh corn husks stuffed with a corn/masa filling, either sweet or savory).
New Mexico is the world capital of red chile, and The Red Enchilada has one of the best versions I’ve ever tasted. Smooth and slightly picante, it’s a perfect foil for tortillas and cheese.
The large Central American tamales, wrapped in banana leaves and stuffed with chicken and potatoes or pork, present the flavor of corn and the broth that made the masa dough. Simple, fluffy, and lacking the traditional heat of our local varieties, they are delicious. If you crave added heat, a side of the red or green chile or salsa fresca works nicely.
Guacamole here is fresh and lively. A green salad of mixed greens and tomato wedges would be good except for the flavor of the oil. In fact, my only criticism of the food at The Red Enchilada is the oil. It has an unpleasant aftertaste, and it’s used to fry and to dress the salads.
The chicken enchilada is filled with plump, juicy pieces of chicken and topped with a little cheese; we ordered it with the terrific red chile sauce. It’s a very refined dish that isn’t drowning in cheese. Soft pinto beans in their own thick broth and Mexican rice come on the side. Ubiquitous sides are too often mere placeholders, filling up the plate with a gelatinous rice mass, the beans underseasoned or from a can. However, The Red Enchilada’s rice has a slight tomato taste and is cooked to a dry, fluffy consistency.
The tostada combo is made of unadulterated, basic components. Two fried tortillas are topped with highquality meat: one, a tasty beef, the other, a juicy chicken, topped with guacamole and sour cream. A side of bright, flavorful, house-made salsa fresca comes on the side.The taco plate is simply a variation on the tostada and comes with the same sides and salsa. Chiles rellenos are made in house and, aside from the oil, they are good.
Licuados (blended milkshakes with fruit); horchata (a rice-based drink); mango, carrot, guava, and coconut juices; and several flavors of Jarritos-brand sodas wash the food down, in keeping with the Latin theme. The Red Enchilada offers three made-in-house desserts: a first-rate flan, a tres leches cake, and fried platanos (plantains).
I want our local restaurants to survive and prosper. In these times, when money can be hard to come by, The Red Enchilada continues to serve authentic, flavorful food at friendly prices. Take a chance on adventure. Ditch the standardized fare, and take a walk on the real side!