Lately I’ve been feeling like Goldilocks, that obsessive-compulsive home invader who must try every available bowl of porridge before she finds one that’s up to her standards. In my case, though, the porridge of late has been green chile stew, a staple I find myself craving every fall as the aspens turn gold and parking lots emit the nose-tickling aroma of roasting chiles. Over the past few weeks, I’ve been combing Santa Fe for exemplary versions of the dish, a deceptively simple simmer of meat, potatoes, and chile that is as endemic to New Mexico cuisine as sopaipillas and carne adovada. This has been no mild undertaking — green chile stew appears on menus all over town — but I’ve settled on a few standouts that are just right, each in their own way.
I weighed several factors: Which meat is more suitable (pork, chicken, or beef); should potatoes be small or chunky; what’s the party line on additions like carrots, tomatoes, beans, or red peppers; and is there an ideal heat level? After the first round of contenders, I settled on my preferences. Pork, most traditional, seems particularly appropriate for green chile’s vegetal fire, though chicken or beef can be revelatory. Big potato cubes are best, but they shouldn’t be unmanageably large. And a wider variety of ingredients is welcome, though not necessary. Broth should be on the thick side, incorporating rich flavors that have become intimately acquainted, having brought out the best in each other during their simmer together. Most important, it’s not quite green chile stew if you haven’t developed at least a mild sheen of sweat or a runny nose after several spoonfuls. A sterling stew is a more substantive — and transportive — experience than a mere bowl of spicy soup.
The village of Chimayó is well known for its superior chile. And just as the funky, santero-chic vibe of Casa Chimayó Restaurant’s digs on Water Street presents a microcosmic representation of that locale, the kitchen does a superb job of maximizing its most famous export. This stew features a smoky brown broth jam-packed with big, juicy hunks of pork, potatoes, tomatoes, and carrots. The chile’s heat lingers, tingling on the lips, the broth is addictively savory, and Casa Chimayó also serves an especially fine tortilla. Thick, fluffy, and very slightly salty, it made a good vehicle to sop up the dregs of this exquisite concoction.
The Tesuque Village Market produces a broth that encapsulates the magic of commingled ingredients cooked low and slow. This muddy stew is big on flavor, with a gravylike texture and large pieces of tender pork, potatoes, and carrots. The market is a good spot to take out-of-towners to soak up its mellow country-store ambience (we spotted Hilary Swank there on our outing); if I were looking to introduce a first-timer to a robust, complex stew that wasn’t overbearing in its spiciness, I’d head to Tesuque.
Over at Palacio Café II, the Alameda Street offspring of Palace Avenue’s well-regarded Palacio Café, the heat is on in a rust-colored broth that showcases flaky bits of beef. The distinctive chile had flecks of red, and the stew included tomatoes and small potatoes. The flavor starts somewhat sweetly, but the chile slowly flares, creeping along with an eventual blaze. The overall effect is singular: I could easily pick this contender out of a lineup.
El Parasol’s riff on the classic is slightly unorthodox. Using a more tomato-based broth, savory pork and medium-sized potatoes, it incorporates extras like green beans, corn, and red peppers. The chile has a warming effect that isn’t overwhelming. This manageability, along with the idea that you might be getting in an extra serving of veggies, makes it easy to go back for seconds.
Still, I sought a baptism by fire — I had had some righteous stew, but I craved a truly religious experience. The Holy Grail was delivered unto me at La Choza: a well-seasoned bowl of fearsome pale green chile, delicate chunks of pork, and, best of all, an earthy medley of red, yellow, and purple baby potatoes. In all my wanderings, I sampled none better than this trio of elemental ingredients, which required some perseverance to finish due to the blazing-hot chile. It may have been the fault of the strong margaritas, but after my companion had scraped his bowl clean, he turned to me, mopping his brow, and whispered, “I feel like I just had sex.”
At Caffe Greco on Canyon Road, the grass-fed ground beef hails from a pasture near Lamy, according to the cook I asked. It’s quite tasty, too, soaked in Greco’s fiery green chile elixir and accompanied by yellow potatoes and pinto beans. This one had a clean, homespun flavor; a fellow sampler remarked that it reminded him of his childhood friend’s grandmother’s version.
Mouth aflame, belly warmed, heart gladdened, and sodium levels surely elevated, I feel satisfied that I’ve found my favorites. But we’re all like that high-maintenance brat Goldilocks, aren’t we, with our idiosyncratic tastes? Try these, but seek on. This is the season — and the town — for green chile stew.
Honorable mentions: Estevan (at Hotel Chimayó de Santa Fe), Posa’s, The Shed, Tia Sophia’s. ◀