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.

Sunday, July 24, 2011

The Unexpected Coolness of Cream City (aka Milwaukee, Wisconsin)

When I first saw that Milwaukee’s nickname was Cream City, I assumed this was a reference to the dairy industry. After all, the one thing I knew about Wisconsin is that cheese comes from there. (It is, in fact, the number one cheese producing state in the US, with more than 600 varieties of cheese produced.) But that’s not what Cream City refers to. It’s a special type of creamy-golden-yellow brick that was produced in Milwaukee in the 1800s and used to construct many of the city’s well-preserved historic buildings.

This revelation was one of many last weekend, when a group of friends convened in Milwaukee. I realized that not only did I know nothing about this metropolitan city of 1.5 million – apparently a shared condition given that I would tell people I was going to Milwaukee and they’d wish me a great time in Minnesota – but I really couldn’t explain why. It simply wasn’t on my radar. Inexplicably, Milwaukee has the same (lack of) appeal as say Baltimore or Detroit.

But the truth of the matter, as I’m prepared to set straight today, is that Milwaukee is a very cool place. First, Milwaukee has a lovely setting right on the western shore of Lake Michigan. That means vast ocean-like views, clear water, sailboats, waterfront parks and biking trails, and nice beaches within walking distance. Then there’s the wide Milwaukee River cutting through it, creating an impressive downtown River Walk area with stately riverfront buildings and tons of dockside eateries that you can visit by boat. I personally think it eclipses the San Antonio River Walk, which is far better known. As if that weren’t enough, there’s another smaller river – the Kinnickinnic River – which is quite fun to say.

Beyond this aquatic bounty, there are great urban areas like the Historic Third Ward, where industrial buildings have been transformed into hip lofts, food markets and rooftop restaurants; or the Old World Third Street area, where modern wine bars abut multi-generational sausage shops; or East Town, an upscale district full of parks and museums. Frankly, I didn’t see any downtown area that wasn’t comely, and I was looking for it. For a city with a declining population (another hallmark of a poor reputation), I saw no rundown areas, strangely. Instead, I found Milwaukee immaculately landscaped, carefully preserved and more lively than depressed.

The fact that the cost of living is so reasonable (e.g. luxury three-bedroom waterfront condos between $200-$300K) doesn’t hurt. Another major ingredient is that this is a young town, which I definitely noticed. The median age is 30.3 years, which is six years younger than the national average of 36.8 years. Fittingly, Milwaukee is only second to Las Vegas in the number of bars, clubs and restaurants per capita. It was also named one of the top ten best places to be single by Forbes. As a result of all these surprising things, as well as the fact that its population loss has slowed to a trickle in the last decade, The Street recently named it one of the “America’s Five Most Underrated Cities.” I couldn’t agree more.

Read Part II of my head-turning date with Milwaukee here.

Thursday, May 26, 2011

New Mexico Is One of America's Top Five Food Regions

That's according to Budget Travel magazine's May 2011 issue, folks.

In reviewing their roundup of the seven must-taste spots in "New Mexico Chile Country," I was surprised to learn that I'd only been to three. One of them, Golden Crown Panaderia, was a memorable highlight of my first visit to Albuquerque. I devoured several empanadas dulces while chatting with the charismatic owner and "bread artist" Pratt Morales and then brought home several loaves of his famous green chile cheese bread. (Order it online here.)

Unfortunately, the other two spots (El Rancho de las Golondrinas in Santa Fe and the Pueblo of Jemez west of Santa Fe) I've visited but not tasted. That means a re-do of those plus four more to try, with Mary & Tito's in Albuquerque being at the top of my hit list.

I've heard repeatedly that I must try the savory stuffed sopaIpillas (the New Mexican equivalent of a turnover) and carne adovada (pork marinated in red chile) at this 48-year-old institution, which was one of five restaurants to receive the "America's Classics" award from the James Beard Foundation in 2010. Watch their short video piece to see 87-year-old owner Mary and hear her story.

Wondering who else made the cut around the country? That would be Texas' Barbecue Belt, Portland's Farm-to-Table Movement, Louisiana's Cajun Country and Pittsburgh's Old World European Kitchens. Read the full article to send your taste buds traveling.

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

A Hoodoo Needs Its Hat

The title may sound like something out of a Dr. Seuss book, but I’m talking about magical place that is in fact quite real.

A year and four months after relocating to New Mexico, I finally made it to Kasha-Katuwe Tent Rocks National Monument, about an hour and a half north in the Pueblo of Cochiti (tribal land). Kasha-Katuwe means “white cliffs” in the pueblo’s traditional language, while Tent Rocks is the anglo way of describing the unusual pointed hoodoos that number in the hundreds here. (Another famous example of hoodoos would be Bryce Canyon National Park in Utah.)

Towering up to 90 feet in height, some of them have hard caprocks, or “hats,” which keep their cone shape and softer layers intact. Those that have lost their hats, however, are slowly crumbling right before your eyes.

The 1.5-mile trail takes you through shady slot canyons at the bottom (which were slightly eerie after watching Aron Ralston get stuck in one in the film 127 Hours), up a steep 630-foot climb, and finally, out onto a panoramic cliff where you are literally on top of the world. You can see the Sangre de Cristo Mountains overlooking Santa Fe to the north all the way to the Sandia Mountains of Albuquerque to the south. You can also look down at the posse of hoodoos below you for a whole new perspective on these otherworldly rocks.

In case you’re wondering, these pumice, ash and tuff deposits were created by volcanic eruptions six to seven million years ago, and you can still find round black pieces of translucent obsidian (aka volcanic glass, or colloquially, “Apache tears”) mixed into the sandy bottom of the canyon. It’s tempting to take a six-million-year-old sample home, but it’s prohibited. So I took a photo instead.

As a final nerdy factoid, I read in the Trail Guide that the Spanish conquistadors who arrived in New Mexico in the mid-1500s (and brought green chile with them, as I wrote about in my last blog post) made note of this place in their diaries. It surely must have looked like a serious contender for one of the Seven Golden Cities of Cibola. But no, it’s just a breathtaking living geology laboratory that’s captivated humans for over 4,000 years.

And I can go there anytime I want. That’s pretty cool.

Friday, April 15, 2011

Green Chile + Anything = Amazing

If you know anything about New Mexican cuisine, you know it centers around green chile. (And yes, that’s how it’s spelled here. Not chili/chilies, but chile/chiles.) Today, I learned even more about the state’s largest agricultural crop from Santa Fe Travelers' blog post, entitled “Were chiles always in New Mexico?”

According to the New Mexico Department of Tourism, wild chile plants originated in Brazil, and like many things (both agricultural and cultural), they were brought to New Mexico by the Spanish, who first arrived in the 1540s looking for the mythical Seven Golden Cities of Cibola. (They, ahem, found no such thing.) Centuries later, a pioneering horticulturist from Las Cruces, NM, helped cultivate the more hardy varieties that are ubiquitous today: Big Jim, Joe E. Parker, Sandia and Española Improved.

When I say green chiles have become a cornerstone of our gastronomical life here in New Mexico, that they mark the harvest season (when you can smell them roasting outside grocery stories here) and that they can enhance just about anything you eat, you may think I’m drinking the green chile juice. But before you question my sanity, let me ask – have you actually eaten green chiles? If you have, you know they’re mildly spicy (meaning pleasantly, bearably spicy, and not too hot) and incredibly flavorful.

As further evidence, let me cite three ways green chiles have been unexpectedly added to dishes with killer results. The first, as mentioned in the Santa Fe Travelers article (with a recipe), is Green Chile Apple Pie. This one has actually caught on so much that you can now find it outside of New Mexico, as I did in November when I bought one at Green Chile Kitchen in San Francisco. (Here’s the New York Times review of their version of this unique pie.)

The second is adding green chile to sushi. My favorite example of this thus far is the Amex Roll at Samurai Sushi in Albuquerque, which combines green chile with spicy tuna and cucumber. Absolutely delicious and an explosion of spicy goodness. You’ll also see green chile tempura as an appetizer or a specialty role in a number of Japanese restaurants here, showing that it’s not just a condiment but the headliner in many dishes.

Finally, my most recent discovery on the “surprising uses of green chile” front would be the utterly addictive Green Chile Pecan Sandia Cookies from AlbuqCookie, a company founded by a New York transplant who also realized that in New Mexico you can combine chile with about anything. Another product I'm eager to try is his Chocolate Pepper Chile Cookies, which also demonstrate the happy marriage of sweet and spicy.

So there you have it - my trifecta of proof. Feeling the need to come up with your own wild and crazy combination? Order green chile online (either roasted or frozen) from Hatch Chile Express, as everyone from New Mexico will tell you the best green chiles are grown in Hatch, NM. Or, you can also snag a jar of 505 Southwestern All-Natural Diced and Flamed Roasted Green Chiles in many supermarkets. (They too source all their green chiles from Hatch, and their name is a reference to the New Mexico area code, 505.)

Thursday, February 10, 2011

When Farolitos Fly: Christmas Eve in Santa Fe

[This is rather late, I know. But I just got my hands on our photos from Christmas Eve, and I was reminded what a special thing this is!]

Imagine it’s a cold winter night in a 400-year-old city, and the only lights you see are candles placed inside paper bags (aka farolitos) and bonfires in front of some homes. The glowing farolitos line the narrow streets and rugged adobe walls, while the crackling bonfires provide warmth, a distinctive holiday fragrance (thanks to the aromatic pinon logs) and interaction with fellow revelers.

This is Santa Fe on Christmas Eve, and you’re here, walking around the city’s oldest neighborhood in your warmest coat, hat and scarf (not to mention your long johns), because this is what New Mexicans do. It’s a longstanding tradition rooted in religious practices (the farolitos are meant guide baby Jesus to shelter) that’s become an opportunity for Santa Feans and tourists alike to come together for strolling and caroling and, quite frankly, marveling at it all. Santa Fe is postcard pretty as is, but at night, by candlelight, with all the electric streetlights dimmed for the occasion, it’s magical.

Artists have joined in on the Christmas Eve tradition by making Canyon Road, with its 100+ art galleries and studios, a featured stop on your stroll. Most galleries stay open late and tempt you inside to see their latest collections with hot cider and cookies. (The lovely mermaid above was enough to get us into one shop.) Holiday music spills out of every doorway, and lighted sculptures and kinetic art call you over for a closer look. There are also roving bands of carolers and other curious processions (like the chariot built with camping lanterns pictured below) heading up and down Canyon Road, amidst the throng of people who’ve replaced the cars on this famous, winding street.

For me, the festive scene on Canyon Road was certainly something to take in, but I most enjoyed wandering the quiet little lanes that branch off of it. You feel so far from modernity and all its loud and busy ways. Some of Santa Fe’s oldest homes are in this area, and being on foot, it was an unprecedented opportunity to peek in the windows and see what it’s like to live in a historic adobe (among the priciest real estate in town). The shot below shows a glimpse of the extensive collection of religious art we spied in one home.

In the stillness of the Canyon Road side roads, you also have the attention span to notice something else. The flying farolitos. Yes, believe it or not, an ingenious solar energy expert developed a way launch a kite-like version of the farolito, which rises comet-like across the sky until gets smaller and smaller and eventually burns itself up in a falling cascade of ashes. (Check out this YouTube video showing a flying farolito from “launch to loss” – forward to 1:30 to see it start to go up.) If you didn’t know about this little twist on the tradition, you would rub your eyes and wonder if you’d seen an UFO.

But no. It’s just Christmas Eve in Santa Fe, a place like no other on a night like no other.

Saturday, January 8, 2011

The Truth About Truth or Consequences, NM

I had planned a relaxing, romantic, semi-adventurous, warmer weather getaway. And I had done it in stealth. It was my Christmas present to Kevin, and I was determined to keep the cat in the bag. That part, at least, was a success. The trip, however, turned out a little differently than I had imagined.

The first omen was logging onto the Virgin Galactic website two days beforehand, with the intention of buy two tickets for the Hard Hat Tour of Spaceport America (still under construction). If you haven’t heard, that’s the brainchild of Sir Richard Branson, the place where starting next year, the average wealthy-as-all-get-out citizen will be able to take a commercial flight into space for $200,000.

Credit card in hand, ready to book our three-hour tour, which I was sure would be the highlight of our trip, I instead find myself confronted with the following message: Due to the safety implications of increased construction activity on the spaceport site, we are unable to accept new Hard Hat Tour reservations until further notice. We anticipate tours to resume shortly.

Nooooooooooo. Okay, I think – this is disappointing, but not the end of the world. I’m sure there are plenty of other things to do over two days in Truth or Consequences, NM (formerly Hot Springs, NM). Certainly a town that renamed itself after winning a 1950s game show contest had all sorts of kooky stuff to get into. (And if you count drinking $4 cocktails at the bar at a bowling alley called Bedroxx as one of them, maybe I was right.)

As we pulled into T or C (as the locals call it), approximately three hours south of Albuquerque, I will admit that I was a bit startled, especially given some of the descriptions I’d read. An East Village vibe in the Southwest,” New York Magazine had called it, as well as "a town with a low-key, ambient weirdness.” The New York Times had talked about the “stark beauty and quirky local vibe.” And Budget Travel magazine, to which I swear loyalty, had named it one of their “10 Coolest Small Towns” in 2008.

But I wasn’t really seeing any of that – the funkiness, the coolness, or even enough live human beings to get a clear vibe. It appeared rather deserted and thus jived most with Sunset magazine’s phrase: a dusty one-stoplight town on the banks of the Rio Grande.” (We had to look around to find the river, but we did finally - here's a shot of a pretty stretch of it below.)

It didn’t help that we arrived in the heels of a cold snap that had lowered temps from 75 degrees the previous week to the 30s, with lots of blustery wind. Or that it was Wednesday of the week between Christmas and New Year’s Day, apparently a dead zone of activity in a town that locals told me comes alive on the weekends. Or that we arrived around 4:30 p.m., and all the shops closed by 5:00 p.m.

We checked into our hotel, scheduled our complimentary 30-minute hot springs soak in one of the private tub rooms for 9:00 p.m. (you get one free soak every day of your stay as well as hot springs water piped directly into your bathtub), strolled around downtown long enough to get thoroughly frozen, and thus, not sure what else to do, headed off to dinner at 5:15 p.m., just like my parents would do.

This shockingly early meal was the harbinger of the sleepy feeling that would engulf our trip – yet without any actual restful sleep. (More on that later.) The meal itself at Café BellaLuca, just a block away, was good. We had a crabcake, a salad, a bowl of carbonara pasta. We sipped our glasses of wine and then an apertif. But after all that, it was still only 7:00 p.m. What to do now? We asked the waiter for a suggestion, and she sighed and told us there wasn’t much nightlife. The hip kids go to the bowling alley, she said.

So at 7:15 p.m. on a Wednesday night, we found ourselves at the Leopard Lounge at Bedroxx Bowling Alley, wondering what twilight zone we’d entered. Bowling a few games might have passed the time, but it was league night. No dice. We drank our bargain cocktails, watched music videos on the TV and eventually found it was time for our soak back at the hotel. Great.

After changing into our robes back at the historic Sierra Grande Lodge (built in 1926, and the only hotel in a town of retro motor court motels), we headed to the spa for our private soak in a lovely stone tub. Things were looking up. The water felt great, and they even had a pitcher of ice water with two glasses set out for us.

And boy did I gulp it down. You see, the geothermal hot springs that sit just 30 feet below the town are hot. Real hot. Like 107 degrees hot. The kind of hot that gives you a flush feeling and elevated pulse when you get out. I found it very relaxing at first – and nearly unbearable at the end. (I was reminded of a motel I saw downtown called "Fire Water Lodging," pictured below.)

Back in our room, our bodies refused to cool down, and our heart rates wouldn’t slow either. Combined with an incredibly hard bed and thin pillows, this led to the first of two nights of tossing and turning. When Kevin told me he’d slept like crap as well the next morning, I couldn’t believe it. The whole point of a relaxing spa getaway was to sleep better than at home. Also, this was supposed to be the “nicest” lodging in town. True, the staff couldn't have been friendlier, and the exterior and grounds of the hotel as well as the spa were nice, but the creaky bed could not have been more uncomfortable. WTH?

Clearly, I had to readjust my understanding of what “nicest” means in a health-spa-boomtown-gone-bust that was trying to revive in an economically depressed region. Yes, there were big city transplants opening stores, giving massages and teaching yoga. But even with the New Age set, this was still a rough n’ tumble place with “kicker bars” (aka, “where shitkickers start fights,” as one local told us), and any notion of “luxury” really has no audience. Or at least not yet.

Perhaps when the millionaires start showing up for their trips into space, that will be the tipping point. I can only imagine the seismic impact that will have on this sleepy little town, which, with some preservation efforts and an economic infusion, definitely has potential. It certainly has all the history. (Geronimo soaked here!) Not to mention some of the most striking cacti I've seen in New Mexico - including the "fuzzy" kind pictured below.

Until then, I have to tell my truth. T or C really wasn’t the right getaway for this particular trip. Retro romance,” as New Mexico Magazine called it, was not what we found. But after reflecting on the experience, we both agree that we’d give it another chance if spaceport tours resume. We’d stay at Blackstone Hot Springs, a restored motel with kitschy theme rooms that’s about half the cost of the Sierra Grande Lodge, we’d avoid soaking at night (and soak for shorter periods), and we’d go on a weekend so that hopefully we’d encounter some of the cool folks that clearly do frequent this place.

Oh, and maybe we’ll bring our own pillows, just like a fellow we saw in the parking lot of Blackstone Hot Springs.