Casa Chimayó Restaurant, reviewed; our favorite fall menu item
There’s a wonderful charm lurking within a hidey-hole, ramshackle New Mexico house, the way a low-slung door can give scant indication of the twists and turns and high ceilings inside. There is an art to cultivating that appearance, too, probably — a jumble of slatted tin roofs and turquoise-painted wood sidings, a weathered sign you might just miss if you’re not looking for it: What’s there? All this is not to say that Casa Chimayó Restaurant, tucked away on West Water Street, is contriving anything. Nestled inside an old house, the eatery is the family home of owner Tim Cordova, whose grandparents lived here and whose ancestral recipes are the inspiration for Casa Chimayó’s versions of la comida de Nueva España.
With that history, it is little surprise that the place is self-consciously authentic. Witness the pair of in-house shops hawking house-made posole, chile powder, and gourmet margarita salts. Like most downtown restaurants, they probably wouldn’t turn up their noses at a large party of weekenders from Lubbock. But to file away Casa Chimayó as purely a tourist destination would be an error borne of shallow first impressions. The downtown spot lands somewhere on the spectrum much closer to underappreciated, unpretentious, quality New Mexico comfort food.
The vibe is appropriately communal for a family home. The bunched-together turquoise tables of the indoor-outdoor patio lend the space a barbecue-inthe-park vibe. You might feel compelled to turn and ask your neighbor: “Have you been here before? Is the chile legit?”
The village of Chimayó is world-renowned for its one-of-a-kind strain of red chile, and any restaurant invoking its name and claiming to serve the real deal simply must deliver the goods. The verdict? The red here will prompt a green-only man to begin thinking heretical thoughts. It’s rich, nutty, woody — and fiery. Why isn’t all chile this perfectly hot? Casa Chimayó makes it seem easy.
The Chimayó red, when splashed over the dinnertime-only El Comanchero rib-eye, is called a “demi glace” on the menu — but look around. See the paper Tecate ads hanging overhead on a line? You know the deal: This is just good red chile. They say nothing pairs better with red than red meat, and here the chile most clearly proves its worth, elevating a hefty but otherwise unremarkable cut into a very satisfying meal. A manageable side helping of calabacitas is note-perfect, tender and crunchy at once, the ideal airy complement to a heavy plate. The pastelitos are worth saving room for. Warm and flaky sugar-dusted pastry sandwiches a sweet layer of apples, as if a slice of pie encountered a panini press, and you’re glad they did.
The smoky-fresh green chile more than holds its own, too. Halfway through a second visit, I wondered why Casa Chimayó’s chile never ranks on any best-of
lists. The blue-corn enchiladas arrive as if accompanied by an angelic choir, stuffed as they are with a pillow of tangy shredded chicken and smothered in screaming-hot green. This is the kind of meal that can turn your day around.
Those reasonably priced enchiladas ($10-$15 for the plate, depending on your filling) are available at lunchtime, as are most of the straightforward local cuisine options. Lunch is when the patio is at its most pleasant, as strips of heavy fabric keep off the heat of the midday late-summer sun but not the light. And here’s a wild-card hot take: Perhaps the enchiladas’ best feature is that they are the perfect size, the way too many New Mexican meals in town are not. The same can’t be said for the titanic Burrito de Chimayó, a soft tortilla temptress, filled with delectable pinto beans and melted cheese and chicken that is tender, smoky, and grilled just right, beckoning you closer and closer to the precipice of a nap.
If you are trying to set some kind of personal caloric record and insist on a starter as well as an entrée, go for the Pueblo tortilla soup, a peppery chicken-and-vegetable warm-up with a refreshing scoop of cool avocado dropped in the center. You can skip the guacamole en molcajete “drizzled in sweet corn relish.” That relish, on one recent night, was a smattering of limp and flavorless kernels; the lettuce bed on which the guacamole is served looks fresher. The guac is a good texture, and tasty enough, with diced onions and jalapeños floating around in there, but the $12 tag says more about the quantity than the quality.
Those who’ve come for a truly authentic experience might quibble with the margarita list, which is diverse but carries an agave-wine asterisk (the house has only a beer and wine license). Your tequila-free marg will be served in a saguaro-stem glass, the kind you might get at a dollar store, and the kind that amuses a very easily amused person such as myself. The green chile-infused house margarita comes with fresh-chopped chile on top; whatever difference there is between agave wine and tequila is lost in the pleasantly zesty kick of heat. And it turns out that saguaros, at least the plastic kind, make for a good grip.
The menu, including the drinks list, amounts to a series of showcases for red and green, function and flavor. You pick the medium, that’s all, and you can’t go wrong. Everything else melts away, and all you require sits before you, a hot plate full of down-home norteño simplicity that will set you just right.