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What Are the Differences between Southern and Northern New Mexican Cuisine?

I posted this on the Southwest board where it seems to have either stumped the cognoscenti or bored the living daylights out of them. A bit esoteric, but thought I'd give it a shot over here.

In any event, I'm more familiar with the cuisine of southern New Mexico than that of the north. For those of you in the know about both, what are the chief differences?

I gather that blue corn tortillas are more common in the north, and I get the sense, perhaps erroneously, that the food of the south is more down-home and traditional while that of the north is more innovative and sophisticated.

But what else?

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  1. After living in New Mexico for a few years way back when, I'm no expert, but my first thought is that you are definitely on the right track. I've always heard of the "Northern" style of food referred to as "Santa Fe" style - which (where I lived) was usually meant with a little derision because of the perceived "worthless fanciness" of the Santa Fe style of New Mexican food. For me, if there were two restaurants offering "New Mexican" fare and "Santa Fe" style fare, I'd more than likely go to the former over the latter.

    1 Reply
    1. re: gordeaux

      I'd tentatively agree with your concluding sentence, gordeaux. My impression--and it's little more than that--it that "Santa Fe" cuisine interjects a great deal of pretentiousness into food that does not support it easily. This is a phenomenon that happens to pizza a great deal, too, incidentally.

    2. To be honest, most of my "conclusions" are sort of educated guesses... it's hard to say what the real differences are, as from what I've experienced the food of both regions varies from town to town and even family to family or restaurant. But I spent my mid and high school years in northern NM and a few years in Las Cruces in the south, so I'll give this a shot.

      The blue corn tortillas that you mentioned are definitely not what I'd consider a staple of the north. I think they're more of the Santa Fe-style New Mexican... attempts to be more metropolitan/gourmet/"fancy," and from what I've seen, definitely catering more towards tourists or people with Bobby Flay-style thinking (ie. Oh, add some corn and black beans, its southwestern!) Not to mention the restaurants that serve this type of food seem to be almost completely exclusive to highly-touristy areas like Santa Fe and Taos, which is probably why most NM residents do tend to view it with derision, as gordeaux mentioned. There is definitely, in the smaller or more homey restaurants, and in the surrounding small towns, a more similar style to the south, and very rarely did I see blue corn. If you're ever looking for a slightly more upscale place that still tastes authentic (and is freaking delicious), I'd check out Gabriel's, which is not too far outside of Santa Fe on the way to Espanola.

      However, from what I've seen, the south is more influenced by its proximity to Mexico & Texas. I.e., its more common to find tortas and other fare that I'd consider more "Mexican" than "New Mexican," and definitely a tendency more towards steak (bistec) that I'm sure results from the large amounts of cattle ranches in the south and Texas (as an interesting side note, I noticed when I lived in Las Cruces that many of my friends from small southern NM cattle towns had a fairly strong Texan-sounding accent, not the distinctive Hispanic accents of the north, which may be why I think Texas has more of an influence).
      This, again, can vary WIDELY depending on place, but I also noticed that the south has more of a tendency to make green chile into a sauce similar to how red chile is treated, or occasionally even into a green chili with pork, rather than just dicing the chiles up as most places in the north do. I'd also say the north pulls a little more influence from the Native American tribes in the region, but again, that is sort of a stretch, because it's far from normative. (Though I did get a chance to go to a feast day at a pueblo in the north-- best posole I've had in my life).

      Anyway, I hoped this helped a little? Like I said, I've seen some restaurants serving what I'd consider southern-style food in the north, and vice versa, so it's really hard to say. I can make no promises as to the blanket accuracy of these statements! :)

      9 Replies
      1. re: laliria

        Also, apologies for the small novel! haha

        1. re: laliria

          Thanks, laliria! That was an informative post.

          So you would say that chili verde (with pork) is more of a southern staple than northern?

          And is red beef chili (Texas style) pretty much a rarity throughout New Mexico?

          1. re: Perilagu Khan

            It's a fine line, but Albuquerque and points north are more likely to have green chile stew (soupier, with smaller pieces of pork and, more often than not, potatoes) than chile verde.

            And yes, outside of the towns that border the panhandle (my old stomping grounds of Hobbs, Portales and Clovis), you don't see a lot of chili con carne in New Mexico.

            1. re: BarmyFotheringayPhipps

              Forgive my ignorance, buy what is the difference between green chile stew and chile verde? I'd always thought of them as basically one and the same.

              1. re: Perilagu Khan

                In my experience, GCS has pieces of green chiles, potatoes, pork and onions
                while CV is tomatillos, green chiles, pork, a citrus accent, (at least in Arizona) and no potatoes. in a much more blended concoction.

                1. re: bbqboy

                  Gracias. And a related question: which one of those is commonly made in Colorado? I gather that there is some sort of tension between Coloradoans and New Mexicans when it comes to chile verde or green chile stew.

                  1. re: Perilagu Khan

                    interesting. I'm no expert, just relating personal experiences, from Kansas thru New Mexico to Arizona, all Mexican food fluent in different ways. I remember Wyoming having a tasty bowl of GCS or two also.
                    I would believe Colorado to be GCS oriented.
                    Tomatillos are grown at low elevations, relative to the Rockies.

                    1. re: Perilagu Khan

                      Based on threads by people trying to replicate their Colorado memories, the usual Colorado version is a pork and chile 'gravy' that is served on top of all kinds of things. Neither potatoes or tomatillos.

                    2. re: bbqboy

                      Just so. You rarely if ever see tomatillos in green chile stew and you rarely if ever see potatoes in chile verde.

            2. Is there a real geographic bright line, or is it more a cultural one?

              5 Replies
              1. re: bbqboy

                I've always thought of everything from Albuquerque northward to be northern New Mexico, which makes that more of a cultural distinction inasmuch as Albu is not at New Mexico's central latitude.

                1. re: Perilagu Khan

                  How about a 7 way split?
                  Albuquerque
                  Eastern plains (like Texas, OK)
                  Old Spanish north (Santa Fe to Taos)
                  southern Rio Grand valley
                  SW
                  NW Navajo (and Apache Reservations)
                  Pueblo

                  I suspect the N-S contrast in this thread is more between the central north area that was settled during Spanish and Mexican days, and the southern Rio Grande (Las Cruces etc).

                  1. re: paulj

                    Interesting set of divisions. Would you be so kind as to draw 'em up on a map? ;)

                    And, FWIW, I suspect you're right--the area just north of Albuquerque up through Espanola, Santa Fe, Taos and Chama may well constitute a distinct cultural zone that differs from the rest of New Mexico. Los Alamos, however, is probably the exception within that exception.

                    Nothing is ever simple, eh?

                      1. re: paulj

                        Nah I think that its pretty much a north south split. You have two population centers, Alburquerque, with its 'suburb' of Santa Fe, and El Paso (yeah it aint in New Mexico, but it really should be) with its 'suburb' of Las Cruces. Everything else is kinda small. As far as food goes I think there is Santa Fe (which can be annoyingly pretentious) and everybody else...

                        Man I miss the chiles, the sopapillas, the chile rellenos made from those chiles... heck I miss it all!

                  2. Tortillas are too damn thick in the north, almost like greek pita. Personally I prefer the NM cuisine to the south from Hatch west along I-10.

                    1. I just noticed this post and it caught my attention. I've been fascinated with New Mexican food and red/green chile since I've tasted it. One thing I noticed in Northern NM was that it was some of the hottest spiciest foods I had eaten.
                      I lived in SW Colorado for 2 years and found the green chile stew to be a combination of pork chunks, green chiles, tomatoes, onions and chicken or pork stock. I always liked it over western omelettes, biscuits and gravy, chicken fried steak gravy or about anything else.
                      There seems to be a lack of understanding about the origins, regions even among residents of the rockies in general.
                      There are some good little ma and pa places in the north that serve very tasty fare. I've always found a strange vibe in that area as an outsider.
                      Though I suspect that northern regions tend more toward native American where the south leans more Mexican. I don't recall any tomatillo sauces even around El Paso and Las Cruces. Nothing against tomatillos but I sure miss green chile or green chili.? Those sauces seem to blend into the air and landscape as you can almost taste it upon landing in that area. Green chile is an addiction for which there is no cure.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: crippstom

                        http://chowhound.chow.com/topics/615142 is a Denver green chile thread that reappears periodically.