Thursday, September 19, 2013

Albuquerque Breaks into the Zeitgeist Thanks to Breaking Bad

I knew it would only be a matter of time before I was forced to blog about Breaking Bad.  Filmed at Albuquerque Studios, the Emmy-winning, universally revered television show is all any Burqueno (aka Albuquerque resident) has been able to talk about since the final eight episodes began airing six weeks ago.  Now that the end is near, everyone here seems to be having a collective epiphany, followed by an intoxicating surge of pride, about how pivotal the show has been for Albuquerque – economically, of course, but also in other intangible ways that are harder to quantify but impossible to ignore.  Even the show’s producers realize this, leading them to buy a bunch of billboards to thank Albuquerque for “the great chemistry.”  I, for one, had a nearly choked-up reaction to this gesture. 

To put it simply, AMC’s runaway hit has put Albuquerque – an underrated city of 1 million that many Americans can’t spell and a surprising number think is located in Mexico – on the map, both geographically and psychologically.  (Case in point:  A recent Entertainment Weekly cover story on the show listed Albuquerque as a stand-alone city name, like New York or Chicago or Los Angeles.)  The fact that the gritty, underdog, crime-laced backdrop of Albuquerque plays such an important role in the plausability of Walt’s story makes it a place that has genuinely rooted in the minds of fans both in the US and abroad.  Yes, abroad!  What’s been truly shocking is the number of international visitors – particularly Japanese – who now vacation in Albuquerque because of their fascination with Breaking Bad.  They’re everywhere, taking photos of seedy locations and venturing into desolate parts of the city that would never otherwise be part of the “tourist trail.”

At first, they were finding these locations from the show on their own and recreating scenes by throwing pizza boxes on top of Walt’s house. Then The Candy Lady in Old Town began selling them the same blue candy she supplied for the show as a souvenir - soon followed by the Heisenberg hat.  And the ABQ Trolley Company began offering its wildly popular Breaking Bad trolley tour.  And the City of Albuquerque added a self-guided Breaking Bad tour on its tourism website.  And Routes Rentals started its bicycling tour.  And Rebel Donuts created its blue crackle donut.  And Marble Brewery introduced its limited edition beers, Walt’s White Lie and Heisenberg’s Dark, and began hosting viewing parties every Sunday, while The Supper Truck started selling Los Pollos Hermanos-inspired chicken and wings.  And Great Face & Body rolled out its blue crystal bath products and cooking classes for "Blue Sky" candy.  And on and on and on.  

Rebel Donut's "Blue Sky" Donut, Inspired by Breaking Bad

While the city may have been a tad slow to catch on and cash in, let’s just say the press has also seemed to jump on this phenomenon last-minute as well, with more Breaking Bad travel articles in the past two months than I could count.  Among them: Los Angeles Times, The New Yorker, CNN and USA Today.  Clearly, Breaking Bad fever is at dangerous levels everywhere.  But for Burquenos, we’ve become hopelessly addicted to the notoriety, to the success of the show and to the global relevance it’s given us.  At least for two more weeks.

I recently gave in to the undertow by signing us up for Routes Rentals' three-hour Biking Bad tour, which included locations ranging from Walt and Jesse’s homes to Tuco’s headquarters to Hank’s DEA office.  Led by guides who were gushing megafans themselves (no one can hide it at this point, as Talking Bad’s weekly celebrity “super fan” demonstrates), the tour took us to the locations of unforgettable past scenes (such as the barren lot where a child on a bike became a murderer), as well as very recent ones, including the plaza where Walt waited on a bench in vain for Jesse to arrive for a meet-up.  That one was especially eerie, as the scene was still incredibly fresh, and I could just imagine Jesse walking away in a panic.

The downtown plaza where Walt asked Jesse to meet him - only to have Jesse get spooked and walk away.

The tour let me see my adopted city thorough the eyes of a giddy tourist and led me into unknown areas both quaint and sketchy.  I then got my final gratification when the most recent episode – during the flashback – showed Walt pitching the idea of a day trip to the Turquoise Trail, Tinkertown and Madrid to Skyler.  As an East Mountainer who lives close to all three, it’s exactly what I'd do with visiting friends, making me feel one with Walt in a way that was both exciting and disconcerting.

Whether the Breaking Bad tourism juggernaut can be sustained, it’s hard to say.  But there’s one big potential bright spot – the Breaking Bad spinoff Better Call Saul, starring Bob Odenkirk as the strip mall personal injury attorney* who reluctantly enabled Walt’s deepening criminal activity, was recently picked up by AMC.  No word yet on where it will film, but I will spit out my Chai tea if it turns out to be anywhere other than Albuquerque.  Local entertainment website One Headlight Ink even conducted a poll recently about whether the slimy yet shrewd Saul Goodman will be portrayed as a graduate of the University of New Mexico (UNM) law school, which has the unfortunate distinction of facing a severe drop in applications in recent years.   But you gotta admit – it sounds just about right, doesn’t it? 

*Reportedly, the Saul Goodman character was based on Ron Bell, a real-life personal injury and DUI attorney in Albuquerque who has kitschy promotional billboards all over the city.

Sunday, March 24, 2013

The Secret Sandstone Caves of New Mexico

In fall 2011, my partner Kevin was working on a film called Blaze You Out.  One of the scenes took place in a carved sandstone cave located near Espanola, New Mexico, that is known as The Tree Cave.  Kevin took a bunch of photos of this amazing cave – one of which we blew up on canvas and have hanging in our dining room – and he also got the opportunity to talk briefly with Robert “Ra” Paulette, the artist who’d singlehandedly sculpted the cave out of soft, naturally occurring sandstone.  Ra shared how this was one of several caves he’d created in Northern New Mexico as a labor of love and a gift to his fellow New Mexicans.  He sees them as wilderness sanctuaries that can help modern humans connect with their innate emotions.

It’s a little hard to understand how a cave could do that unless you see one of Ra’s creations for yourself, which is exactly what I did last weekend.  After much build-up, we finally took a day trip to see The Tree Cave along with two friends.  One was a friend who’d inquired about the photo in our dining room and expressed a keen desire to visit the cave.  Another was a friend who grew up in Taos and was the only person thus far who had recognized the photo in our home and was familiar with The Tree Cave.  So the four of us headed out on our mission to experience or revisit this awe-inspiring work of art that’s unmarked, hidden and known only to those who, well, know. 

Hiking up to the cave from the road, you are surrounded on all sides by regal sandstone formations, all jagged and crumbling.  It becomes quite clear how Ra picked this spot, as the creamy-colored sandstone is incredibly soft and malleable.  (That’s what allowed him to dig out the cave, which he does all by himself until he gets tired.  Then, as he told Kevin, he gets some folks to help him cart away the excess sand.)  The first sign of something unusual is a cluster of skylights in the hillside far above, which illuminate the cave with light and shadows.  Then you see the long, narrow entrance, and after passing through, find yourself in a massive chamber with a huge “tree trunk” column in the center.  The ceiling is so high (20+ feet?) that you have the feeling – and acoustics – of a cathedral. 

But it’s really what’s on those ceilings and walls that I find hardest to describe (and thus I refer you to the photos).   Creeping tree branches are carved in fluid patterns and interlaced with hearts and flowers, the two secondary motifs of the cave.  There are also a number of carved benches and seating alcoves, allowing you to sit down or step into a more intimate space for reflection.  Wall niches occur throughout and have been decorated with candles and offerings from visitors, including rocks, flower petals, movie tickets and rosaries.  One has also been claimed by a resident bird for her nest. 

Sitting in one of the recessed benches, I noticed that my voice was magnified within the niche, despite talking in a whisper.  This is one of the many atmospheric elements of the cave, like its cool air and the way the skylights highlight various carvings as the sun moves.  Looking around, I felt the tree branches started to look more and more like the ribbing on the interior of a human’s intestines.  Perhaps this was because I felt enveloped in this magical experience.  Looking at the myriad hearts carved into the gritty walls, it felt like I was inside “the lower intestine of love.”  Unlike other art that you look at and witness, this is art you can walk around in, touch, live and breathe. Upon stepping back outside of it, you can't help but be transformed.  You walk out into the hot, bright day marveling at mankind’s potential to be truly loving and giving.

Now, I’m sure that makes me sound like a real new age New Mexican, but it’s proof that Ra’s goal of creating surprising emotions and thoughts with his caves is not that far-fetched.  The Tree Cave is a very, very special place, and I am humbled that I was able to experience it.  I’ve since learned more about Ra Paulette in an oral history I found online.  Surprisingly, however, this was one of only 10 results in my Google search for information about him.  (The only major media coverage I found was an LATimes article from the 90s.)  He is a professed hermit, and it seems he likes it that way. 

Initially, before I visited, I wondered why Ra didn’t lead tours or charge admission to the caves he’d spent years creating (for example, two to three years per cave), but now I understand how antithetical that idea is to his artistic philosophy.  He no more owns the caves than the private or public land they were built on.  They belong to New Mexico, and I only hope that future owners of the land will continue to honor that.  

Tuesday, May 15, 2012

The Street Art of Buenos Aires, Argentina

A few weeks ago, just before leaving for Buenos Aires, I randomly got a recommendation from a stranger.  I was in the Golden Crown Panaderia in Old Town Albuquerque yammering about our upcoming vacation.  Out of nowhere, a woman exclaimed, “You have to take the Graffiti Mundo street art tour!”  She went on to tell me that it was the highlight of her visit to Buenos Aires and that I needed to make a reservation a month in advance.  Her fervor was so convincing that I booked it that week.  Thank goodness I did.

Kirsty of Graffiti Mundo at the first graffiti wall we visit, which spans an entire block.  Here we get an introduction to the first collective of pioneering artists and how they got started.  They simply asked a store worker nearby if they could paint the wall.  He said yes, and so began an ever evolving, often repainted installation. 

Founded by two British expats in 2009, Graffiti Mundo leads several different tours of Buenos Aires’ unusual and fledgling street art scene.  We chose the bike tour, which takes place on Sundays when there’s less traffic.  For $35, you get a bike rental, helmet and bike guide (all provided by Biking Buenos Aires) plus an engaging art tour led by Graffiti Mundo.  You also get the equivalent of an international meetup.  An Aussie named Kirsty educated us on art, and the shepherding of our eight-person tour – which included Americans, Columbians and a Dutch chick – was done with Scandinavian precision and brio by a fellow named Karri

Bike guide Karri (right) keeping us hapless tourists safe.  Also, you can see here that each bike rental comes with a custom license plate from that bike's "sponsor."  You don't get to choose.  The unfortunate plate I got: SCHMERLZ.  

Over the course of four hours, Kirsty led our merry band of tourists around the historic neighborhoods of Palermo and Villa Crespo while Karri put himself between our group and oncoming traffic at many an intersection.  Amazingly, in this big city of speeding, lane-shifting traffic, every car (including taxis) politely stopped when he raised his hand or rang his tinny bike bell.  With the fear of death removed and a warm breeze wafting through the tree-lined (and often cobble-stoned) streets, I found myself as relaxed as the weekend vibe in Palermo, the hippest area of Buenos Aires.  I was also able to see more of the city than I had in the entire week prior.  On bike, you simply go farther – and take in more.

Is it a little bit odd to be standing on a cobblestone street, looking at a beautiful old building, that has a very bright, colorful, modern mural on it?  Yes and no.  But the street art of Buenos Aires is generally embraced by its residents.  Even painting over someone's work with a new mural is generally okay, although a few artists get upset about it.  Those held in the most esteem are somewhat safe - out of respect.  The biggest no no came when someone stole street art off the buildings and put it up in a gallery for sale. 

That was an entirely pleasant perk of the tour, but Graffiti Mundo also delivered the goods.  I learned a LOT about Buenos Aires through its street art.  As a whole, it provides a fascinating psychological study of what’s happened since the Argentine economy collapsed in 2001-2002 – triggering frozen bank accounts, soaring unemployment and an ongoing financial quagmire – and how art can both process and soothe the country's emotions.  This is such a clear realization for Argentines that street art, which only started here after the collapse, is not considered a crime.  In fact, artists can work in plain daylight without fear of arrest. In many cases, building owners welcome the artists - or even invite them to come.  Case in point:  the city's most buzz-worthy restaurant, Tegui, has a graffiti-covered exterior.

Below is a selection of my favorite street art “installations” with a bit of detail about each.  

A large mural by one of the city's first and best street artists, Mart, who started at age 12.  Like much of his work, it feels very dreamy, fanciful...and almost French.  He  uses aerosol paint yet achieves very fine lines somehow.  It's a very distinctive style that you can recognize instantly when you see his work throughout the city.

Part of a large wall by one of the handful of female street artists, Zumi.  It's a perfect example of how street artists tried to cheer up the city after the economic collapse - and why the police let them do it without punishment.  Animals and other universally beloved, non-controversial symbols became popular subjects. 

A large stencil piece that was put up section by section.  Kirsty said this one was meant to be a shocking statement of what could happen in the future if we trash the environment.  The artist tried to think of the happiest moment this scenario could affect to create an unsettling juxtaposition.

A piece by pioneering street artist Ever, who often paints faces...but never the eyes.  He always does something creative to avoid painting the eyes.  As a result, it's also easy to spot his work right away.  As for the Mao image, it made me think of how Argentina is currently inching away from capitalism towards isolationism.

One of several incredible, large-scale pieces we saw by Jaz, another early and influential street artist.  This guy is clearly one of the most talented - he drew these bulls freehand.  He's also pretty resourceful.  In the early days of the collapse, street artists couldn't afford paint,  so they used whatever materials they could get their hands on.  This piece has no paint - it is done in mud off the ground as well as charcoal. 

You recognize this as Mart's work, right? (Same artist as the boy on the bicycle above.)  I had to feature one more of his pieces as he was admittedly my personal favorite.  That said, don't ask me exactly what's going on in this mural.  I guess that's the point, though.  His work is otherworldly. 

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Eating Up Louisiana: Two Tasty Road Trip Stops (Part II)

Read Part I, which details our Cajun feast at Café Des Amis in Breaux Bridge, Lousiana.

Now, we flash forward to Sunday and road trip stop #2.  We’re leaving Natchez, Mississippi, after a delightful weekend in this historic town on the Mississippi River (stay tuned for a separate post on that!).  

This time, we make our brunch pit stop 1.5 hours south in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, at the city's #1 ranked restaurant according to TripAdvisor: Juban’s, which is a bit more affordable at brunch.  Located in a strip mall, this award-winning, 29-year-old culinary gem makes you forget all about that once you step inside the gracious interior.  It also provides a contrast to Café Des Amis in that it specializes in upscale Creole cuisine instead of Cajun cuisine.   

Juban's Restaurant in Baton Rouge, Louisiana, an ideal road trip stop right off I-10. Epicurean dining in a strip mall, though there's a lovely Southern facade out front. 

The difference?  I’m glad you asked, as I’ve always had a bit of confusion about the distinction between these two French-influenced cuisines.  Basically, unlike the Cajuns who migrated from French Canada, Creoles are descended from the early colonial settlers in Louisiana.  Most were of French and Spanish heritage, and most lived in or around New Orleans.  Later, the term included African-Americans as well as those who were mixed race.  Thus, while there’s a strong French element to both Cajun and Creole cuisines, Creole food also reflects other influences, such as from Africa and Spain.

So it’s apropos that the two most famous Creole dishes – gumbo and jambalaya – are both symbolic of this fusion of cultures.  Essentially, both are a big heap of things thrown into one big pot.  In fact, the word jambalaya is the combination of the French word for ham (jamon), the French and Spanish article “a la,” and the last syllable of the Spanish word for a rice-based dish (paella).  Of course, just to keep you on your toes, there is also a Cajun version of jambalaya that later evolved, but unlike the “red” Creole version colored by tomatoes, the “brown” Cajun version has a tasso base. 

Got that straight?  Phew!  Fortunately, at Juban’s, I was able to put my quest for understanding such nuances aside and just indulge my palate.  To try as many things as possible without passing out, we again split three items.  Selections were made while munching on the complimentary sweet potato chips dusted with powdered sugar.  

Sweet Potato Chips dusted with confectioner's sugar, the complimentary snack that hits your table upon arriving at Juban's.  Clearly a secret plot to rev your appetite. 

I would like to thank the heavens now that I started with a Strawberry Mint Julep, which uses strawberry-infused honey bourbon. (Essentially, it’s Knob Creek bourbon that’s had a honey comb and strawberries soaking in it.)  While my meal was excellent, this cocktail goes into the pantheon.  Sweet but not too sweet.  Husky but not too intense.  In sum, the best mint julep I’ve ever had. 

The Strawberry Mint Julep at Juban's.  Perhaps the most amazing discovery of the trip.

Now, back to the food.  First off was the Pain Perdu (“Lost Bread”), the Creole version of French Toast.  Adding as much richness as possible (seemingly the name of the game in any Louisiana cuisine), this dessert-like breakfast incorporates custard and Chantilly cream as well as a topping of wild blueberries.  It was absolutely divine, and it practically melted in my mouth.  

The Pain Perdu at Juban's.  Perfect if you like dessert for breakfast.

Next, we took a sharp turn to the savory with a cup of Juban’s Gumbo, made with smoked chicken, roasted duck and andouille sausage.  Of all the gumbos I’ve tried, this seafood-free, meat-laden version was definitely one of my favorites.  It was incredibly smoky and flavorful with a dark medium roux (a French thickening base).  

A cup of gumbo at Juban's is a must with any meal.  Interestingly, it comes with a smattering of rice on top.

Last, our Monte Cristo Madame arrived, a peculiar-yet-satisfying merger of a Monte Cristo sandwich and a Croque Madame – and of flavors both fatty and sweet.  To break it down, it’s a fried ham and gruyere cheese sandwich topped with a poached egg (that’s the “Madame” component) as well as fruit compote.  Overkill?  Definitely.  But it all melded into one big “I can’t take another bite…but I must have another bite” finish.

And that, in the end, was the gastronomic theme of this entire trip:  where excess meets ecstasy.

Monday, March 5, 2012

Eating Up Louisiana: Two Tasty Road Trip Stops

In recent months, I’ve been reminded of how much I love a road trip.  Or more precisely, how much I love plotting a road trip based on where to stop and eat.

On a road trip to Los Angeles over the holidays, that meant arranging our drive around stops at two places:  one a new and unexpected favorite in western New Mexico and the other a California roadside institution since the ‘20s.  The first was the Wow Diner, a surprisingly good “silver bullet” diner found in a truck stop off I-40 in tiny Milan, NM.  My partner Kevin discovered it while shooting a film nearby last fall.  With a worldly menu (lobster rolls!?) and daily specials, it’s a gourmet twist on retro comfort food. 

Sitting on the patio at Shields Date Garden in Indio, CA (near Palm Springs).

The second was Shields Date Garden, the home of the legendary date milkshake as well as the kitschy short film, “Romance and the Sex Life of the Date.”  For nearly a century, travelers have stopped at this tourist attraction off I-10 in Indio, CA, to stretch the legs, buy dates (they grow 10+ varieties) and get a yummy date shake for the road (you have to try one to understand how good it is).  Happily, Shields has now expanded into a full-scale restaurant, where we enjoyed bountiful salads on the sunny, palm tree-filled patio.

Given how much these stops helped to buoy our taste buds and break up our drive, I knew I needed to apply the same approach to my upcoming road trip from Houston to Natchez, Mississippi, with a college friend now living in Houston.  (This is the same girlfriend from previous gastronomic getaways to Austin and Cape Cod, who, like me, lives to eat.)  It was about six hours in between, which meant we could stop for lunch on the way there and back to break it in half.  The question was:  where?  

Our road trip route. A is Houston, Texas (starting point).  B is Natchez, Mississippi (destination).  Most of our drive time was spent in Louisiana, though. Click to enlarge for better legibility.  

Neither of us had ever done this drive (which follows I-10 through Louisiana’s swampy Cajun Country most of the way), and I didn’t want to take the risk of winging it.  We all know how it is to get ravenous and just give in to crappy roadside food or chain restaurants.  But I wanted the real deal.  Fortunately, we live in an age of Yelp and TripAdvisor, where everybody can share everything about a trip or a meal.  Before departing, I had our plan for the drive there – and by the time we left Natchez, I had a plan for the way back.  

Cafe Des Amis, located in a historic building in downtown Breaux Bridge, Louisiana.

Road trip stop #1 was a place I saw raves about online over and over – Café Des Amis in the cute little town of Breaux Bridge, Louisiana, dubbed the “Crawfish Capital of the World.”  Not surprisingly, Cafe Des Amis is known for its crawfish etouffee, a dish that perfectly represents the bountiful seafood of the region and the distinctive influence of the Acadians, French settlers who migrated from Canada to Louisiana in the 1700s.   Eventually, they became known as “Cajuns,” while the region (which comprises 22 Louisiana parishes in the “heel” of the state’s boot shape) became known as “Acadiana.” 

Breaux Bridge, Louisiana (population 8,100) is just a few miles east of Lafayette, Louisiana. From Houston, it's about 3.5 hours to Breaux Bridge.  From Baton Rouge (which is to the east), it's about 45 minutes.

Five minutes south of 1-10, Café Des Amis is not just famous for its food – but also for its Saturday morning Zydeco Breakfast.  We were coming through on a Friday, sadly, but the meal alone made our toes tap.  We started with an appetizer that sounded too ridiculous not to try:  Alligator Sausage Cheesecake.  This savory delicacy involves crawfish, sausage made from alligator meat, gouda cheese and cream cheese baked with herbs and spices and then smothered with a rich crawfish sauce (read:  more cream).  In a word:  awesome.

The mouth-watering (and heart-stopping) Alligator Sausage Cheesecake at Cafe Des Amis.  

Next was the Pepper Jack Shrimp Poppers, which are an even better example of how Cajun food is clearly designed to shorten your lifespan.  Because who would want to eat four ostensibly healthy shrimp unless they’re stuffed with Cajun tasso (intensely flavored smoked pork) and Pepper Jack cheese, wrapped in bacon, breaded, then deep-fried…and then covered with more of that crawfish sauce?  Yes, they were insanely good, and yes, I was beginning to realize that there was no way around gaining weight on this trip. 

The Crawfish Pie at Cafe Des Amis.  The puff pastry just went "poof" upon being punctured!

Then came the entrée – which we split after all that gluttony.  Called Crawfish Pie, it’s a puff pastry filled with crawfish etoufée and accompanied by corn macque choux (a Cajun dish involving corn and veggies braised in – what else? – bacon fat) and dirty rice, both of which were outstanding.  The entrée itself?  I decided crawfish is a bit fishy for my taste.  And we could have done without the puff pastry, which collapsed into nothingness, as shown above.  But it’s probably for the best, because if it had been an irresistibly thick crust, I might have died of a heart attack on the spot.

Read Part II, which dishes on our Creole meal at Juban's in Baton Rouge on the drive back. 

Friday, December 23, 2011

Living the Expatriate Dream…in the US

At one point in my life, I seriously thought I would live in another country. And I attempted it – first in Nicaragua (2006), and then in Argentina (2007). Neither worked out, although I still occasionally have pangs for Buenos Aires like the lover I never got over. (Happily, we are scheduled to reunite this spring for a weeklong affair.)

Instead, as fate would have it, I relocated to New Mexico at the end of 2009. Many, many people were baffled at this choice, and I’ve answered the question of “Why New Mexico?” more times than I can count in the last two years. Lots of things usually get thrown into the answer: the artsy people, the wide openness, the cost of living, the unique lifestyle, the space and tranquility, the cultural heritage.

But it wasn’t until I was reading the January 2012 issue of New Mexico Magazine that another very important - and very appealing - factor crystallized. It was put into words by author Hampton Sides (who wrote Blood and Thunder: The Epic Story of Kit Carson) in his reflection on New Mexico’s 2012 centennial. (New Mexico became the 47th state in 1912.) He said:

“Yet even with statehood, I’m not sure New Mexico was ever fully conquered or assimilated, and that’s something I’ve always loved about this place. It’s still very much its own land, at the crossroads of myriad cultures, where the desert meets the mountains meets the plains. Living here is probably the closed one can come to an expat experience in the Lower 48. We’re in the United States, but we’re not entirely of it.”

Bells went off when I read this paragraph. I didn’t carry out my expatriate dream, technically, but I found something of an equivalent in my own country. To say that New Mexico is “a little different” than other states is an understatement. It feels like another country because for hundreds of years it was another country – it was part of Spain for more than 200 years, and then part of Mexico for a short while, before becoming a US territory.

For further proof of New Mexico “other-country-ness,” consider the following:

  • Many Americans do not know there's a state called New Mexico.
  • Those who do realize it’s a state are often confused about it.
  • The license plates say “New Mexico USA” to clarify things.
  • It’s the only state in the US with a bilingual constitution.
  • Along with CA, it’s one of two states with a Hispanic majority.
  • We have the first female Latina governor, Susana Martinez.
  • The state flag colors honor Isabella of Castilla.
  • The state flag symbol (the Zia sun symbol) is Native American.
  • Most city (“Santa Fe”), street and forest names are Spanish.
  • The Pueblo (“adobe”) style architecture is one of a kind.
  • The government tested the atomic bomb here. (Ahem.)

You get the point. It just took me a while to get it – that New Mexico is clearly an extension of my previous wanderings and the strong tug I felt to move to Latin America. Now, as I drive home on a dirt road looking at cows in the field, I realize it’s not unlike a scene I would see in rural Nicaragua (minus the desert terrain, of course). Without exactly realizing it, I got the best parts of what I liked about Nicaragua – including a slower pace, a Spanish-speaking culture, extreme friendliness and the ineffable feeling of being somewhere so completely different – and yet with all the conveniences that come with the good old USA, such as reliable mail and FedEx delivery. And around the holidays, you all know how important that is.

So I guess there's just one thing left to say: Feliz Navidad!

p.s. On January 6th, the US Postal Service will release New Mexico’s official Centennial Stamp, which is pictured above. Keep an eye out for it as it’s quite gorgeous.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Curious Thing About New Mexico’s “Image Problem”

Barren. Arid. Boring. Like Mars.

Recently, the New Mexico Department of Tourism conducted focus groups in Los Angeles, Houston and Chicago to find out what people thought about New Mexico. These phrases above were some of the results. Worse, some people said they had no impressions of the state whatsoever, while others thought there were beaches here. To really twist the knife, Colorado and Arizona – two adjacent states tested for comparison – came out better on almost every measure tested, even skiing.

Arizona is better for skiing than New Mexico? Really? Listening to a public radio news report on these focus group results, I had to shake my head with befuddlement. I mean, New Mexico has eight ski resorts compared to Arizona’s four, and it has Taos Ski Valley, a highly respected top ski destination. Are people just that clueless about New Mexico? The answer is yes. There’s a reason, after all, that New Mexico Magazine has a monthly humor column sharing anecdotes about people, businesses and websites who apparently don’t know New Mexico is a US state.

I wasn’t completely unaware of New Mexico’s strangely poor reputation before moving, however. Albuquerque in particular drew raised eyebrows among people we knew, with two people reporting that they thought it was a “s*%#hole.” Then there was the poll I conducted on this blog, in which 66% of my dear readers let me know that relocating to New Mexico was “insane.” Part of that may have stemmed from the giant leap we took to moving to a state where we knew absolutely no one, but I also suspect the state’s “image problem” could have played a role.

Yet here’s where this all gets squirrelly. Clearly, people ARE visiting New Mexico, given that tourism is a $5.5 billion dollar industry (the second largest in the state). And people HAVE heard of Santa Fe. In a very favorable light. I mean, just consider all the perennial accolades that Santa Fe – the state’s 400-year-old cultural and literal capital as well as a UNESCO-designated “Creative City” – receives from top travel publications and websites. Here’s a roundup of some of Santa Fe’s 2011 honors alone:

*See my Christmas Eve in Santa Fe blog; **Believe it or not, Santa Fe beat out cities like Chicago, Honolulu, New York, Savannah, Seattle and Boston in this poll.

Then there’s the fact that the New York Times certainly considers New Mexico a worthy destination to cover at least once a year, with a recent 36 Hours in Albuquerque piece (yes, Albuquerque!) as well as past features like The Art of Being Santa Fe and The Thrifty Wintry Charms of Santa Fe. I’ve also seen recent features on New Mexico in countless other publications – to the point that I am constantly thinking I need to get into the travel writing game.

So I ask, where is this poor or vague reputation coming from? Clearly, it’s not from the travel media, which treats Santa Fe like its darling. But maybe the real question is, is it really a "problem" that New Mexico is not a place people know much about? Sure, it matters to tourism revenue, but does it matter to me? After all, one of the things I love best about my new state is that fact that I only have to share it with two million other people – less than a quarter of the amount of people I had to co-exist with in Los Angeles. Its “off the radar” status keeps the winds of mass migration at bay and makes our tourists especially cool people who look deeper into things.

It also makes it a ball hosting first-time visitors to the state – who are by far the majority of our visitors – and introducing them to a landscape unlike anything most have ever seen. It is just so different here, and entirely unlike Phoenix or any other “low elevation desert” destination. (Our house is at 6,800 feet, after all.) I’d like to think our visitors (more than a dozen and counting, which makes us very blessed in the open-minded friends department) take back positive impressions that get circulated and work against the grain.

Or maybe they shouldn’t say anything, and we’ll just keep it our little secret.

Monday, September 12, 2011

My Pilgrimage to Chimayo, New Mexico

Last Friday, I took the high road. Finally.

A fabled 56-mile scenic byway, the “High Road to Taos” refers to the mountainous route between Santa Fe and Taos. It winds through the Sangre de Cristo (“Blood of Christ”) Mountains, offers stunning alpine views and is dotted with centuries-old Spanish villages such as Cordova, Truchas and Penasco, to name a few. Conversely, the “Low Road” (Hwy 68) takes you through the valleys along the Rio Grande River. Both are beautiful drives, but the High Road has something that sets it apart: El Sanctuario de Chimayo.

Before I can tell you about this spectacular little church – considered the most important Catholic pilgrimage shrine in the United States and certainly one of the most photographed structures in New Mexico – I should first tell you a little about the history of the area. Chimayo and the other tiny villages along the High Road were settled by Spanish colonists, many of whom received Spanish land grants, in the 1600s. The area would remain part of Spain until 1821, when Mexico won its independence, and then in Mexico’s hands until 1850, when New Mexico became a US territory following the Mexican-American War. (Statehood would not come until 1912.)

As a result, the families of these early Spanish settlers in New Mexico go back some 11 or more generations – before the country of Mexico even existed. It’s a rich history that I’m just beginning to understand, but El Sanctuario de Chimayo is certainly an excellent place to start. Built between 1811-1816 (when the area still belonged to Spain), this handmade adobe structure is said to have been built by a devout Catholic – Bernardo de Abeyta – on the site where he witnessed a miracle. Today, it contains a special room for its holy dirt, believed to have curative powers. Visitors are allowed to take a small bag of holy dirt with them. Some simply rub it on their skin.

When you step outside of the holy dirt room, you find yourself in the prayer room, which is filled with symbols of suffering, healing and gratitude. I’m talking rows and rows of crutches, casts (from broken limbs), rosaries, baby shoes and photos of military men and women. These are the tokens of the more than 300,000 annual visitors to this National Historic Landmark, some of whom make the pilgrimage by foot. This is especially common during Holy Week, when thousands of pilgrims from the US and Mexico arrive seeking miracles of healing. Many carry wooden crosses or push wheelchairs. Others return in health to give thanks for having been healed previously.

I’ve failed to mention the lovely, rustic sanctuary, which is filled from floor to ceiling with incredible religious and folk art, including dolls, reredos (brightly painted wooden screens) and bultos (statues). The thing that struck me most was the striking contrast between the subjects’ facial expressions– usually one of suffering or sorrow, with eyes closed or looking down – with the incredibly vivid colors used in the artwork. I felt both saddened and uplifted.

Just a short distance away is the Santo Nino (“Holy Child”) Chapel, with perhaps even more impressive art. Recently renovated, it displays the striking contemporary work of artist Fernando Bimonte and others. It’s the “cheerier” of the two structures, aesthetically, with a feeling of innocence and gozo (joy). As the sign out front instructs, you should enter with “the heart of a child” to fully appreciate the chapel – and, of course, get into the kingdom of Heaven. I certainly felt more youthful and energized after as I headed to the gift shop. Need a car “bobblehead” of your favorite saint? This place is for you. My favorite item, however, was the “anime” version of The Virgin Mary pictured below. The only thing I can think to call it is “Catholic pop art.”

Between these two amazingly ornate adobe churches and their fantastic gift shops, you could easily make an afternoon of that part alone. But there’s even more to Chimayo, including art galleries, historic weaving shops and chile vendors. I recommend stopping into Medina’s Gallery (pictured below) to chat with Carlos Medina, a talented artist and highly entertaining raconteur known as “The Chile Man.” I tried several of his chile mixes, and they were incredibly piquant. They say the best red chile comes from Chimayo – an heirloom variety known as “Capsicum annuum Chimayo,” which was once used for medicine and currency as well as seasoning – and my taste tests did not dispute this. They did, however, make me hungry. So I headed to Rancho de Chimayo, a historic restaurant with a charming terrace for outdoor dining.

Once there, I ordered the carne adovada (pork marinated in red chile from Chimayo, of course), which was served with posole (hominy). It’s their signature dish, and I was expecting greatness. Sadly, it was not something I would write home about. The posole was far from spicy, and the carne adovada did not compare to the best I’ve had thus far, which was at El Bruno’s in Cuba, NM, where the pork was super tender and moist. Fortunately, I was tipped off to what may be the best food in the area a few days later. Unlike Rancho de Chimayo’s beautiful setting (see below), this humble food is served out the window of a roadside shack. I should not have been surprised. It’s the golden rule: eat with the locals, not with the tourists!

Located on Route 76 between Chimayo and Espanola, the original location of El Parasol (now a family-run mini-chain with five locations in New Mexico) is everything I’ve been looking for in New Mexican cuisine. It’s delicious, addictive and cheap. For $20, we feasted on four chicken tacos, two sopapillas (fried quick bread, as shown below at Rancho de Chimayo), a tamale and a frito pie. The friend who recommended El Parasol insisted we try the chicken tacos, and I see why. They’re fresh, deep fried tortillas filled with tender shredded chicken and homemade guacamole. Add a little El Parasol salsa and…perfection. The frito pie was also a knockout thanks to the high quality beef and generous infusion of green chile, and the sopapillas were my favorite of any I’ve tried yet – huge, thick and soft.

I may have used more napkins than I care to admit during the meal, but as we sat at our picnic table watching streams of locals rolling in, I knew I’d finally found the spot for crave-worthy New Mexican food. And that, I realized, is another pilgrimage completed.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Milwaukee Part II: From Cheese Curds to Custard

(Read Part I, “The Unexpected Coolness of Cream City,” if you haven’t already.)

I wasn’t alone in having my comeuppance on Milwaukee. Our whole group did, with the exception of the friend who’d suggested it. Her parents had moved there recently, and she enthusiastically vouched for it. The rest of us were, as you can guess, deeply skeptical. But ultimately her proposal (a free lakefront condo and car to use) was too good to turn down. Even then, though, I was still scratching my head about why I was buying a flight to Milwaukee. Electively, no less! I kept thinking about all the “geographic crushes” I’d yet to visit.

Happily, the confusion started to wane the first night, when we strolled through East Town’s massive, four-day Bastille Days festival, hit up the $6 wine stand and nibbled on fried cheese curds while lounging in a grassy park listening to a great blues band. Don’t know what cheese curds are? I didn’t either. Turns out they’re the solid parts of curdled milk. It sounds gross, but they are a big Wisconsin specialty. You’ll see them in all sorts of varieties (as the photo above shows), and you’ll also see them fried with marinara or ranch dipping sauce. They’re a little chewy, a little sour, and a lot of tastiness.

By the next day, I couldn’t even remember why I’d been confused. Randomly, I picked a hike and a lunch spot that were both winners. The Seven Bridges Trail in South Milwaukee’s Grant Park Beach took us past forests, streams, meadows and an isolated beach (pictured above). Everything you’d want in a little nature detour. From there, we drove back along the quaint neighborhoods along scenic Lake Drive, which hugs Lake Michigan, and headed to Barnacle Bud’s on the Kinnickinnic River. The Milwaukee Express, the local weekly, had called it “the place to be in summer…if you can find it.”

They weren’t exaggerating. Hidden on an industrial street that looks abandoned at first, Barnacle Bud's is the offshoot of Skipper Bud’s, a boat storage facility. Delightfully ramshackle with picnic tables and beer served in buckets of ice, Barnacle Bud's was serving up its Friday Fish Fry to everyone arriving by car and boat. I opted for the outstanding crab cake appetizer (voted Best in Milwaukee for good reason) and a brat (aka bratwurst sausage) on a bun instead. As we clinked our cold beers together, things were seriously looking up.

That night, we perused Glorioso Brothers Italian Foods market, picked up some provisions (including cheese, of course) and enjoyed a delicious spread on the porch of our lakefront condo. By Saturday, we were refreshed and fully in vacation mode. With a new zeal for exploring this now-intriguing city, we headed to the Historic Third Ward, home to tons of new, happening places to eat. We settled into a rooftop table at Benelux and studied their menu, which focuses on the cuisine of Europe’s Lowlands (Belgium, The Netherlands and Luxembourg). We started with Bloody Marys, which in Milwaukee all come with a refreshing beer chaser (it IS a beer town, after all), and decided to split two Pannenkoekens (huge Lowlands-style crepes).

From there, we walked along the nearly-three-mile-long River Walk to downtown and took our obligatory tourist photos with “The Bronze Fonz” (aka a statue of actor Henry Winkler). As you may recall, the classic television sitcoms “Happy Days” and “Laverne and Shirley” were both set in Milwaukee, and TV Land apparently commissioned the statue in 2008. (A rerun ratings strategy?)

We then crossed the river into the charming Old World Third Street area before swinging back to East Town for one last walking tour. We cut through Juneau Park to the waterfront to see the modernist architecture of the Milwaukee Art Museum, originally designed by mid-century legend Eero Saarinen, with an amazing “movable sunscreen” and outdoor pavilion area later installed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. This wing-like structure opens every morning at 10 a.m. See the photo below of it rising upward, halfway open. It’s a perfect analogy for Milwaukee, a city rising to a comeback in shocking (and striking) fashion.

Nightfall brought us to a wine tasting event at Bastille Days, where we took in more great bands while sipping wines from around the world. A perfect ending to a big day. On Sunday, with only a few hours (and a tiny bit of energy) left, we relaxed at Bradford Beach, a beach right in East Town where you can rent cabanas and beach chaises. On the way in and out, you can also grab burgers and custard at Northpoint, the famous custard shack located right in the beach parking lot. While the custard was cold and creamy, I have to say the burger was the thing that struck me: a truly mouth-watering hamburger on Cioppino bread with pickles, my favorite classic condiment.

An hour later, I left Milwaukee full in all senses. Not only was it a fantastic reunion with old friends, but it was a great “blind date.” Out of left field, I discovered another place I think I could live. The only downside I can see is that teensy weensy detail called winter, as I was reminded when I saw a license plate that read, hilariously, H8WNTRS. But the upside of a serious winter region like the Midwest is that nobody does summer quite as exuberantly. I noticed this when I was in Michigan the summer of 2009. After such a long winter, you can tell how uber-grateful everyone is for summer. Just look to the zillion festivals crammed into every summer weekend.

In Milwaukee, and the upper Midwest, there’s an urgency and passion to summer. I really like that, and I just wonder if someday I might need to have a seasonal pad in Milwaukee. For example, a cool riverfront loft in an old industrial brick building with its own boat slip.

You just never know.