Deciding how to spend your vacation time can be as simple as deciding what motivates you—and for many people, food is an excellent motivator. From traveling a few towns away to have lunch with a friend to traveling around the world to experience your favorite meal prepared by chefs in its country of origin, food is a great way to experience a new place.
During our recent trip to the USA’s Southwest we made it our mission to seek out the famous Hatch chile in Hatch, New Mexico, and we were delighted to find they were every bit as delicious as we expected them to be. Although our trip coincided with the Hatch Chile Festival, it was the chile peppers themselves that stole the show.
This post shares Road Unraveled correspondent Craig Mathias’ thoughts on why it’s worthwhile to seek out the source of a special New Mexico dish—and why Hatch might be the perfect town to add during your next road trip to the American Southwest!
Hatch Chiles: Go, Eat, Smile
GUEST AUTHOR: Craig Mathias
Spicy food—the end goal of the addition of chile (sometimes spelled chili) peppers to a wide variety of dishes—is (IMHO) one of life’s great joys. The world agrees: a vast array of cultures around the globe are often known for their chile-infused culinary specialties that embody, quite literally, the stuff of legend. Among these are the fiery cuisines of the Szechuan and Hunan provinces in China, the many (very many) curries of India, Sri Lanka, and of course Thailand, and, what has piqued both our interest and our taste buds here today, the so-good-you-can’t-believe-it’s-real Hatch Chile. When properly prepared (and that’s the key – read on), the Hatch Chile fundamentally defines good Mexican food, imparting that classic, unmistakable true-Mexican flavor. Yes, Mexican food can include a wide variety of chiles. They span a range that starts from the mild and very-similar-to-Hatch Anchos and Anaheims at the heart of those wonderful chiles rellenos. There are the ubiquitous nachos-are-useless-without-them Jalapenos, Chipotles (a smoked Jalapeno typically available canned with an Adobo sauce), and the very hot Serrano (that I dearly love). There’s also the Habanero and Scotch Bonnet, these last two being well beyond my personal tolerance except when used in small doses for flavoring. And don’t even think of trying the Carolina Reaper and/or the so-called Ghost Pepper – such would be just plain nuts, again IMHO.
But the Hatch chile – oh, my, is just plain legendary, the holy grail of chile peppers. For the devotee (again, me included), it’s more than a worthy justification all by itself for a trek to its source: the fun little village of Hatch, New Mexico – which is, as you might guess, the self-proclaimed Chile Capital of the World.
The Hatch Chile FestivalHatch is a bit of a drive from Albuquerque and the other major populated parts of the state. It’s not very big, and, like many tourist-centric towns, it has a vibrant main street with numerous shops and restaurants. We happened in on one of the days of the annual Hatch Chile Festival, which, despite the name, really has less to do with the pepper of interest here. It’s more of a county-fair type of event, really more of interest to locals. We did stop by, and found the usual carnival food and rides, but little to do with the peppers themselves aside from a few Hatch chile souvenirs here and there. Sure, they sold plenty of Hatch chiles fresh from harvest, but we were surprised by how few of the vendors offered actual food made with Hatch chiles that you could sit and enjoy. It felt more like a farmers market than a festival. Let’s stop short of a claim of false advertising, however, as the event was well-attended and most folks appeared to be having quite a good time regardless.
But we were there for the peppers, so after a quick walk around the Hatch Chile Festival venue, we headed back downtown, such as it is, enjoying the harvest-festival vibe that extended well past the fairgrounds. The streets were rich with the aroma of roasting Hatch Chiles—yes, these really need to be fire-roasted in a special rotating basket above an open flame (typically propane) in order to bring out the flavor and to burn away the tough outer skin. We saw motor-driven versions available for as little as $185 each, just in case you want to give this vital requirement a go.
And now back to the taste buds. We ended up at the famous-among-chile-aficionados Pepper Pot restaurant, one we’d seen on TV and read about in the press (they have no official Web site, which I’ve always considered to be the height of confidence among famous people and other entities). The wait for a table was significant, but, finally, at last: great New Mexican food with fresh, local Hatch chiles in abundance. The combo plate and the New Mexico stacked enchiladas (with both red and green sauces, known locally for obvious reasons as “Christmas” style) and chiles rellenos were both truly magnificent. I’ve eaten Mexican in many, many places over the years– I’m from California originally, I’ve been to Mexico, and I love even the grilled-centric Tex-Mex variant. But this really is the place: my experience in Hatch was finding what is truly the holy grail of not just chiles, but of Mexican-style cuisine itself.
Really, if you like Mexican (or New Mexican), Pepper Pot’s dining experience alone is worth the trip and then some.
More Information: Facebook.com/PepperPotRestaurant
The Hatch Chile: Green, Red, Christmas, and More
But enough reminiscing, taking my word for it, and getting very, very hungry. I’m sure you’re wondering what makes Hatch Chile peppers so special, so let’s get to that.
This video from the New Mexico Tourism Department shares some additional information on the Hatch Chile and its importance in the New Mexico culinary experience.
Hatch Chiles are actually grown in several areas of New Mexico, but when driving into Hatch you’ll see large fields of this remarkable fruit. I would personally describe a roasted Hatch Chile as having a relatively mild, smoky flavor– in other words, not too spicy, and far from intense. But my endorphins have undoubtedly built up over the years, and someone without decades of hot peppers assaulting their tongue might find Hatch Chiles on the piquant side. Moreover, I’m told that about one in ten Hatch Chiles are, in fact, naturally very spicy.All of this is further complicated by the fact that there’s a distinct difference in flavor between the raw green Hatch Chile and its taste when allowed to age, turn red (just like a fresh green bell pepper will do over time), and dried. The red is a little bit hotter and otherwise quite distinct from the green, but much of the heat in any pepper is in its seeds. Scraping the seeds from a fresh or dried chile will indeed take much of the edge off. Both the red and the green, regardless, are unique and delicious, even among similar Mexican peppers– literally, there is nothing else like a Hatch Chile, especially when it’s fresh-roasted.
Now, there are more types of peppers on this planet than I can count, including many more from New Mexico alone, each with their own subtle (or often not) differences in heat, texture, and applicability. And many types of peppers are available, both fresh and processed, in supermarkets and specialty food stores around the country. You can even find a variety of authentic Hatch Chile products in cans, usually at specialty grocers like Whole Foods. But let’s face it: even what appears to be simple Mexican food requires a skilled hand to deliver the best experience, and not everyone even wants to cook Mexican, and often anything else for that matter, in the first place. The restaurant industry is thus in no danger of being replaced by an alternative, especially the restaurants close to the source of key ingredients and owned and operated by local folks experienced in how to get the best out of essential local ingredients. In my experience, these more often than not deliver precisely what we’re looking for: flavor, authenticity, and that glorious satisfaction that always materializes at the end of a great meal.
And this is why you want to go to Hatch, and perhaps other venues, be they in China, India, Thailand, or wherever. First, the ingredients are as fresh as they can be. Second, the local chefs know what they’re doing. Third, well, there are lots of other great things to do both at your destination and coming and going as well. Yes, your local Mexican restaurant might be good, and even great. But my recent experience once again showed me the value of being there (coincidentally, that’s also the title of my favorite movie of all time).
Hotels Near Hatch, New Mexico
Hatch is a small town, so your best option for hotels would be in Las Cruces which is about 40 minutes away. Las Cruces is New Mexico’s second largest city and you’ll find plenty of great choices for places to stay. Here are a few deals to consider.
Visit Hatch, New Mexico!
The Hatch Chile Festival may have been slightly disappointing, but lunch at the Pepper Pot and a stroll around the fun town of Hatch, New Mexico made the long ride to get there more than worth it – and, when you finally make the trek, I’m sure you’ll agree. Do you enjoy Hatch Chiles? Do you plan to visit this Hatch or have you already stopped by? Leave a comment below and let us know what you think!
The American southwest has a lot of interesting places to visit. Explore a few more through these articles!
* From time to time, our travels are directly impacted by a service or company. In this case, we visited multiple locations in Hatch, New Mexico, and this post includes our candid review of our experience. We selected these locations based on our own research and travel needs; we were not offered and did not receive compensation of any kind from them or any other party in exchange for our review. Learn more about our travel philosophy here.