Amuse-bouche

Casa Chi­mayó Restau­rant, re­viewed; our fa­vorite fall menu item

Pasatiempo - - ON THE COVER - In

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.

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