Note: If you've already seen the basic review, see the 2001-3-15 update.
The term ``Mexican food'' is pretty broad; almost as broad as ``Indian food,'' which comprises several major families of cuisines. To distinguish it from the food of Oaxaca and Veracruz, I would call Rancho de Chimayó's cuisine New Mexican food. It has much in common with generic Mexican food (e.g., tacos, tamales and tortillas), but there are a lot of elements that are probably not seen much south of the border.
I eat New Mexican food a lot, but Chimayó really stands out. Perhaps it's the atmosphere, with the outdoor tables on the patio and on up the hillside, with their umbrellas ready for fast deployment during the occasional ten-minute downpours of summer. I'm not really that big on atmosphere, but this place has plenty of that too.
It's in the village of Chimayó (chee-mah-YO, with an accent on the last letter; I understand that the name comes from the Tewa language and means ``flaking stone''), about halfway between Santa Fe and Taos. From Santa Fe, take the Taos highway north to the Nambe turnoff near Pojoaque, turn right (towards Nambe) and go a few more miles to the junction marked for Chimayó. Proceed a few more miles until you are in the village, then continue most of the way through town, until you are starting to worry that you've missed it. Keep in mind that there is only one business in Chimayó that has a parking lot that will hold a hundred cars; it's on your right, opposite a bed and breakfast place on the left.
This place has been around forever (at least 30 years, I think), but the five or six times I've tried it's always been fabulous. My last visit was in April 1995.
Normally I'm no great fan of red chile; I much prefer green. Northern New Mexico, though, has some of the best red chile in the world, and Chimayó is the proof. The heat is not excessive (but not wimpy either), and the flavor is marvelous.
I had their ``Combinacion Picante,'' which has a cheese enchilada, a tamale, and a nice piece of carne adovada---a tender, lean piece of pork cutlet, marinated in red chile. I think it's the best thing I've had there, and possibly the best carne adovada I've ever had in a restaurant.
Sopaipillas (pronounced "SO pa PEE yas" by Anglos) are a characteristic New Mexican food, and Chimayó's are almost the best I've ever had. (The late, lamented La Casita in Socorro made the reference version, and I've never had its equal since they closed in the 1970s.) A sopaipilla is a light fried bread with a large cavity inside. I like to bite off one corner, pour a little honey in, and then move it all around so the honey coats the bread from the inside.
Portions are ample, so don't order appetizers unless you're really hungry! Prices are moderate.
Since most people who visit Chimayó will pass through Pojoaque (pronounced "po-WOK-ee" by Anglos), I can't resist telling my favorite (and only) Pojoaque joke. It seems that internationally famous linguist Charles Berlitz was having lunch at the Lota Burger in Pojoaque. He went over to one of the employees and said, ``I speak scores of languages, but I can't imagine how to pronounce the name of this place.'' The local woman turned to him and patiently enunciated ``LAH ta BER ger.''
For an appetizer we had the small guacamole. Get the large; the small was maybe three tablespoons, and it's too good to stop there.
The sopaipillas (hollow bread pillows) were a little off the best I've ever had (La Casita in Socorro during the '60s and '70s) but still quite good. I like them exactly between flaky and bready and these were just a bit on the bready side. I was surprised and pleased to note a little color to them, as if they were made with some whole wheat flour. That's not the tradition---most New Mexican restaurants use the Wonder Bread-colored white flour, white as the driven snow. I liked today's version a lot.
My entree was one of those creations you generally find only in the slightly more yuptoid parts of northern New Mexico: shrimp in green chile pesto sauce wrapped in blue corn enchiladas. It was yummy. I didn't quite figure out where the pesto was in all this. It was definitely not one of the most basil-infested dishes I've ever had, but that was not really a problem, especially smothered with melted cheese as it was. The shrimp were tiny but tender.
My companion's entree was lamb fajitas. It was a triumph. World-class flour tortillas, onion shreds caramelized just right, and the lamb was tender and delicious.
We split two painfully delicious desserts. Flan is a standard in New Mexican culture: a thick custard made in a small ramekin and then inverted out onto a plate and sauced with caramel. I've had the classic version which is just custard and caramel, and it can be wonderful. Rancho de Chimayó's version was innovative: before inverting the custard, they browned the top of it so it was caramelized, so when they invert it, the flan rests on a sweet and crunchy base. The caramel sauce was thick and perfect, and the custard itself marvelously smooth.
The other dessert was a chocolate mousse flavored with roasted piñon nuts. I've had some pretty dense mousses in my day, and loved them, but this was a fairly light version. There were some veins of pure chocolate scattered through it to compensate for the lightness of the mousse. I've always loved the way good local piñon nuts work with chocolate: a great nuttiness at first bite, and an interesting series of harmonious aftertastes afterward. The piñons were of the highest quality and carefully toasted to give a marvelously complex and nutty flavor.