TV spotlight on Frito pie sparks wider interest, sales boost at Five & Dime

Lori Gobioff of the Queens borough of New York City enjoys a Frito pie Friday with her husband, Ben, at the Five & Dime General Store on the Plaza. The Gobioffs are in New Mexico for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta and came up to Santa Fe for the day to try the Frito pie, now famous after controversy surrounding an episode of Anthony Bourdain’s show, Parts Unknown. Luis Sánchez Saturno/The New Mexican

Anthony Bourdain’s public dissing of the Frito pie and his subsequent apology have prompted a surge of interest in Santa Fe’s oddly iconic little dish, helping to double its sales at the Five & Dime General Store on the Santa Fe Plaza, according to the store’s owners.

And as it turns out, there’s a lot more to the history of the dish than Bourdain knew.

Combining meat, chile and corn tortilla chips was an early fusion of Native American and Spanish cuisines, long before it became a popular fast food at the Woolworth’s store on the Plaza, which was succeeded by the Five & Dime.

The history of the Frito pie will be one of the highlights of the FUZE.SW 2013 food conference Nov. 8-10 at the state Museum of International Folk Art, with a panel discussion at 3:15 p.m. Nov. 9 called “New Mexico’s Favorite Indulgence: Frito Pies.”

Steve Cantrell, public information officer for the Folk Art Museum and two other state museums, said he has invited Bourdain, who disparaged the Frito pie in a recent episode of his CNN show Parts Unknown, to join the discussion.

Bourdain later apologized for claiming that the “Wold Famous” Frito pies sold at the Five & Dime were made with canned Hormel Chili, an apology that came after the cook at the snack bar demonstrated on videotape to The New Mexican that the ingredients are made from scratch.

“There are going to be a lot of people who, I’m sure, want to weigh in,” Cantrell said, “And we hope that Mr. Bourdain weighs in also. But I honestly don’t expect a response.”

Panelists will include Rocky Durham of the Santa Fe Culinary Academy; Marciel Presilla, who owns two Latin fusion restaurants in Hoboken, N.J.; Dave DeWitt, who runs the Albuquerque Fiery Foods & Barbecue Show; Paul Bosland of New Mexico State University’s Chile Institute; Estevan Arellano, journalist, historian and chile grower at his family farm in Embudo; Gustavo Arellano, author of the nationally syndicated column “Ask a Mexican”; and Earl Potter, an owner of the Five & Dime.

Cantrell said he added Gustavo Arellano, who turns out to be a cousin of Estevan Arellano, to the panel at the last minute because the columnist agrees with Bourdain on at least one issue — that the Frito pie is not traditional to New Mexico, but to Texas.

Cantrell said that, according to one source, a dish made with ingredients similar to what goes into a Frito pie originated in the early Spanish colonial days. Before the Europeans came, Native Americans didn’t mix meat, chile and corn tortillas, he said. Not until domesticated livestock were introduced did these mixtures became popular.

“The premise of this whole food conference is that when you really look at a lot of foods, they actually came from New Mexico because we were such a melting pot of Native cuisines and Hispanic cuisines because of all the missions,” Cantrell said. “A lot of the rough ingredients came up from South America and from Europe, and they got mixed into the mission kitchens here, went back down to Mexico City, and from there were shipped to Asia, where they took the chile and you ended up with hot Chinese food.”

Potter, who helped open the Five & Dime at 58 E. San Francisco St. in May 1998 in space originally occupied by Woolworth’s, said this week that sales of Frito pies at his lunch counter have increased significantly since Sept. 28, when The New Mexican was the first to report on Bourdain’s errors.

“The level of outrage on the part of New Mexicans is very high,” he said. “We try actually to calm people down a little bit because we feel it’s been very beneficial for us. …

It’s hard to tell how much the Frito pies sales have increased, he said, “because we just report the snack bar sales and we don’t weigh them up separately, but it’s certainly significant. You could probably say double. We’ve been getting calls from all over the world. We’ve tracked in the neighborhood of 250 different mentions of it in at least 15 different countries.”

Lori and Ben Gobioff of the Queens borough of New York City were in Albuquerque for the International Balloon Fiesta, which begins Saturday. But, with their curiosity aroused by the publicity surrounding Bourdain’s comments, they decided to drive up to Santa Fe on Friday to sample a Frito pie at the Five & Dime.

“I don’t know why he would say that,” said Ben Gobioff as he and his wife shared a single Frito pie.

Contact Tom Sharpe at 986-3080 or

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