Restaurants and Ristras
By Marjorie Lilly
Hatch is a somewhat down-at-the-heel little town at first glance, but it comes alive in the fall with the slow fire of hundreds of red chile ristras. They hang from the beams of about 10 roadside chile vendors, exuding the musky smell that makes southern New Mexico recognizable even to someone who's been away for years and is blind and deaf.
The vendors range from open-air stands owned by former fieldworkers, which give the place the dry, rustling feel of harvest in an agricultural town, to the Cadillac of chile shops, the Hatch Chile Express on Franklin Street, owned by the chile-growing Lytle family. There you can find every imaginable knick-knack and widget with a chile motif stamped on it: earrings, salt and pepper shakers, fanny packs, wind chimes, wind socks, socks, T-shirts, toothpick holders, handsoap containers, cookie cutters, cookie jars, cookbooks, hat racks, drawer pulls, bookmarks and more. The Flores shop next door is a competitor of the Chile Express and has lots more handmade items, but may not be open much in November.
Hatch Chile Sales on Hall Street is an intriguing chile shop to explore. It has a wide variety of things for sale besides fresh chile, all crammed into a small place. There's chile pistachio brittle; homemade salsa that the owner, Rosa Atencio, makes; ground oregano, garlic and cumin you can buy from big sacks for 25 cents a spoonful; chile-dusted pecans as well as plain fresh pecans; Mexican herbs and spices in mayonnaise jars labeled in Spanish—ruda, flor de azar, palo azul and rosa de castilla; plastic bags of dried jamaica (to make a beverage); chile marmalade, both red and green; and powder made from both caribe and chipotle chiles. Atencio told me that chipotles are jalapeno chiles that are baked so that they're dried and smoked. The family makes them themselves in a big oven. You learn something new every day.
Gilbert Pino of Gilly's, right near the bridge over the Rio Grande, claims he's the only vendor who will be able to roast chiles in November or December because he has a walk-in cooler that will preserve the green ones. Near there is a chile shop with a great name, Hot Damm. You should also check out The Chile Fanatic, Valverde's, Don Cornelio's and all the rest.
The prices for ristras seem to be the same at all of these stores, running from $3 for ones as big as a hand to $20 for four-foot-long ones. Hot Damm has even longer ristras. Shaped ristras, handmade locally, cost $20 or $25; there are round wreaths (and it's not too early to think about Christmas), crosses and even a few hearts.
Hatch has about six respectable restaurants that offer Mexican food (of course) and use mostly chiles grown in the area. Restaurants tend to come and go in Hatch, with people trying to ride the wave of chile's popularity and capitalize on Hatch's status as "chile capital of the world."
Hatch is a town somewhat lost in time, or maybe in poverty. There's a sign saying "Cafe" down the street that still commemorates a place that closed about eight years ago. You might have a waitress who doesn't speak much English, and I swear I saw a hen with her chicks a few feet from Hall Street, in a parking lot. It's a little like being in Mexico.
The restaurants are listed here in order of appearance, from the north end of Hall Street to B&E Burritos around the corner on Franklin. You might consider walking from one restaurant to the next in one major chile-eating binge.
They're judged by sampling only a couple of items on the menu and by what other people I talked to at random have said. It isn't a definitive culinary ranking, or even necessarily fair. It's only to get you over to Hatch to check them out for yourself. Addresses and phone numbers are in the restaurant-guide listings in this section.
Fidencio's—This is an over-the-counter order place that has a very full menu and long hours. It's kept busy. There are a few tables, but it's for take-out mostly. When I was there the specials looked good: All three included sour cream and guacamole on the side. The owner told me carne asada and carnitas were their most popular items. One item I rarely see in the US but that's common in Mexico is tortas, meat and avocado sandwiches on a bun. You should try their horchata, a rice drink. 7 a.m.-9 p.m. Mon.-Weds., 7 a.m.-10 p.m. Thurs.-Sun.
Valley Cafe—This is small and quaint with red-and-white-checked tablecloths. They say their most popular dish is their flautas. I think this is because the rolled fried tortillas are light and chewable, unlike the ones I've usually had, which tend to be hard and tough to chew. They serve them with guacamole and sour cream. I loved them. One thing you should check out even if you're just walking by is their warm, caramel-filled churro pastries, for $1.25. The cook there says they're common in Durango, Mexico, where she's from. They also have American food. 9 a.m.-6 p.m., closed Tues.
El Mexicano—I was told this is one of the places Mexicans go to in Hatch. One of the best things about this restaurant is that they have four flavors of homemade aguas frescas in big glass containers: canteloupe, horchata, pineapple and lime. I had Caldo de res (beef stew), which included carrots, chunks of corn on the cob and cabbage and comes with a small bowl of Spanish rice to add to it, and a lime. The taco barbacoa was extremely tender, made of "beef lip," and came with a red chile sauce and little bowls of cilantro and onions. Both these plates were wonderful. I was in heaven.
The Pepper Pot—The staff was so overextended here that they couldn't offer me anything to eat. But the place has the virtue of having long lists of both Mexican and American food, which might be important if you're inviting your father-in-law from Minnesota. It's the favorite of Jim Marion Etter, who has written for this paper and lives in Hatch now. He says he loves their salsa. Daily 6 a.m.-3 p.m.
El Patio Verde—They have excellent Mexican food, but their main attraction may be the charming decor. The locale has been recently renovated and is super-clean. The walls are painted light green (as the name implies) and there are Mexican-serape curtains tied back with fake flowers and maracas. It's a bit kitschy, but that's how it's supposed to be. The owner, Angie Justus, has won prizes for her flower arrangements and they are all over the walls, along with paintings by local artists. Even the restrooms are decorated. It's delightful.
B & E Burritos—If the beat-up sign by the road saying "Mexican food" and the plywood paneling walls are hip to you, this is a very good eatery for you. It's been featured on the Food Network channel in connection with the Hatch Chile Festival and has been written about by the New York Times. The restaurant has been there for 28 years, obviously just as it is, with a window outside and a counter inside for ordering. The owner, long-time resident Willie Villegas, says nothing on their menu is more popular than anything else, but his personal favorite is the green chile burrito. It could be a classic. They use chiles grown in the family's own fields. 7 a.m.-6 p.m. Mon.-Fri., 7 a.m.-3 p.m. Sat., closed Sun.
Marjorie Lilly writes the Borderlines column.