In the west, "Mexican" is often the blanket descriptor for any type of cuisine that seems Latin in nature. It’s not entirely accurate, especially in New Mexico.
New Mexican cuisine is its own delightful culinary genre, and there’s one simple way to differentiate it from its counterpart south of the border: rich, delicious chili sauces made from Hatch, N.M., green chili peppers. There may be no better place to experience the bold, saucy flavors of New Mexican green chili (or red, for that matter) than Taos.
The town, just 15 minutes from the epic steeps of Taos Ski Valley, smothers just about every burrito, enchilada or relleno in the spicy sauce. The good folks at Orlando’s New Mexican Cafe have achieved legendary status in the green chili world at their blink-and-you’ll-miss-it restaurant along Highway 54, halfway between the old-school resort and Taos itself.
For many, the green chili—one of three sauces made from the famous green chilis of Hatch—is the benchmark of judging New Mexican cuisine. Orlando’s makes it a little different than others, forgoing the chunky pieces of pork that line so many bowls for a simple, fresh and zingy green chili.
Green Chili is the signature item on Orlando's menu and you can find it on many of the dishes. Photo Courtesy of Orlando's New Mexican Cafe.
“The less ingredients the better,” Owner Orlando Ortega said.
The native New Mexican is not kidding. His recipe—learned in part from both of his grandmothers—is nothing more than green chilis, garlic, salt and cumin. Ortega lets the pepper do the flavoring, and he avoids meat because he doesn’t want to fight the flavors of the chicken, shrimp or beef in any of the dishes it tops.
The red chili, made from ripened green chilis that have changed color, and chili caribe, a dried red chili sauce, are made in the same, simple way too.
Each has its own flavor profile, which Ortega matches to the protein on the plate. Green is for white meats, red is for dark meats and the caribe is for fish and cheese.
“It’s almost like drinking red wine with red meat and white wine with white meat,” said Ortega, who opened the restaurant in 1996 after several years of running a hot dog cart and burrito stand with his wife, Yvette.
The decor in Orlando's is as colorful green, red and caribe chilis that they serve. Photo Courtesy of Orlando's New Mexican Cafe.
The restaurant itself is as colorful as the rich, artistic and adobe architecture of Taos. It’s vibrant and a great place to unwind after a day at the mountain—a ski area that is one of the best in the States, yet lacks a major, built-up base area for food and drink.
Lines at Orlando’s can stretch out the doors on weekend nights, but there’s an outdoor fire pit and a warming hut to keep waiting diners warm on cold winter evenings.
Once seated, order a beer or margarita and get ready for flavor country with the Los Colores ($9.95). It’s chili three ways—a trio of blue corn enchiladas smothered with caribe on the cheese, green on the chicken and red on the beef.
“That’s the best,” Ortega said. “You get all three chilis.”
That’s also a little bit of aprés ski culinary heaven.