Times have changed. While a decade ago food trucks were the outliers in the culinary scene, these days you’re likely to read about a cart or mobile eatery in the latest issue of Bon Appétit or on Zagat.com — or see one take center stage in films like Jon Favreau’s crowd-pleasing Chef. Food truck groundbreakers like Roy Choi of Kogi in Los Angeles started a revolution that changed the culinary scene forever — and probably for the better.
One of the stalwarts in Santa Fe is El Chile Toreado, which for years has occupied a sunny open spot in a parking lot across from the South Capitol state government complex, between a now-defunct tire shop and the “mini” Whole Foods. Chile Toreado’s hearty, bold, flavorful food is some of the best in Santa Fe, no white tablecloths and tome-like wine lists required. So what if your quesadilla’s served on a paper plate or you have to eat your Polish sausage standing up?
El Chile Toreado offers breakfast burritos stuffed with eggs, potatoes, cheese, and your choice of meat (sausage, bacon, chorizo, ham, or Polish sausage). For vegetarians, owner Luis Medina or any of his very cheerful employees will add a mix of vegetables and beans instead. They’ll scoop this veggie blend out for tacos and quesadillas too.
Even if you choose not to add anything to your quesadilla, by the way, it will be a glorious thing, with a generous quantity of asadero melted into a thick, stretchy, milky layer. The griddle turns any cheesy overflow into a mouthwatering salty, nutty, crunchy ring around the edges.
Otherwise, the menu’s a lot about meat. Chile Toreado offers four types of dogs and sausages as well as burritos and tacos in an impressive list of variations. Beef takes the form of barbacoa, carne asada, deshebrada (shredded beef), lengua (tongue), and picadillo (a tomatoey hash). Pork shows up as adobada, al pastor, buche (stomach), carnitas, cueritos (pickled skin), and chicharrón. Chicken is offered “plain” and en adobo.
Let’s say you opt for the juicy chili dog with cheese. You could probably pick up the soupy, bean-and-cheese-smothered thing, which is swaddled in a soft oversize bun, but grab a fork just to be on the safe side. However you get it into your mouth, pause to revel in its mild smokiness, its heady meat flavor, and the rich stewiness of the toppings.
Toreado’s tacos are terrific unadorned — the chicken is juicy, smoky, and lightly saucy, and the al pastor pork will give you a nice warm burn along with just a hint of pineapple’s fruity sweetness. You’d be remiss if you didn’t ask for some of the bitter and hot red chile or the mysterious, mind-blowingly complex green sauce, which manages to be simultaneously herbaceous (cilantro?), seriously spicy (serranos?), and coolingly creamy (crema?). Or you could load up your plate with fresh, genuinely picante pico de gallo, leafy-green cilantro, crunchy shredded cabbage, and squirts of juice from a wedge or two of lime. You’ll find all those things in stainless-steel bins perched outside the window.
One of those bins holds roasted whole jalapeños (the chiles toreados from which the place takes its name), which have an intoxicating smoky-spicy aroma. They’re a pretty generous freebie if you ask me; almost every time I stop by Chile Toreado, some guy is piling five or six of them on his plate. That kind of confidence always make me think I should eat one while I wait, and every time, I end up with a mouth on fire — once I got the hiccups after a single bite. Albert Einstein defined insanity as “doing the same thing over and over again and expecting different results.” What does that say about my inability to learn from repeated mouth-searing experiences? Maybe my obstinacy makes me crazy, but going back to eat at El Chile Toreado is one of the sanest things I do. ◀