Red or green? In Santa Fe, it's all about the chile - the ubiquitous red and green peppers that locals seem to put on just about everything. With more then 21,000 acres under cultivation in 1998, New Mexico is the leading state in pungent chile production. The majority of chile pepper production occurs in the southern part of New Mexico, concentrated along what many people call "The Chile Trail". Going west to east, this trail takes us through New Mexico's three largest chile producers, Hidalgo, Luna, and Dona Ana counties. Just a tad north, you'll find the "chile capital of the world", Hatch. Known as the mecca for designer chile, the farmers in Hatch are always developing new breeds of peppers and different taste, which are enjoyed by "Chile-Heads" all over the country.
Most Santa Fe green chile sauces are made from peppers from Hatch. "Green chile" refers to roasted fresh peppers, often chopped and made into a sauce. Green chile can range from "sweet with an edge" to "pretty darn hot." And it's true: locals put it on everything, from eggs and enchiladas to steaks and pizza. A substance called Capsicum, which is found in the membranes surrounding the seeds of the pepper and extending down the pod like veins, gives the chile pepper its spicy "punch". You can reduce the heat of the chile by removing these membranes and seeds when preparing the peppers.
"Red chile" is a smooth sauce made from peppers that have been dried after being allowed to ripen. Chimayó, a small agricultural community north of Santa Fe, is locally famous for its flavorful red chile. Often ristras, or hanging strands of red chile, adorn homes in New Mexico as a sign of hospitality. Red chile has a sweeter, smokier flavor, and while it's usually not as hot as green chile, it can still be plenty spicy. If you like your chile hot enough to make you cry or prefer it on the milder side, ask your waiter which is hotter, as the spiciness of different batches can vary.
Insider tip: order extra sour cream on the side. An enzyme in the dairy product counteracts the heat of the chile.
If this is your first time in Santa Fe, ask for your chile "Christmas" (both red and green) on the side. Be sure to try them both: if you haven't tried the chile, you haven't really been to Santa Fe! Before long, you'll be ordering your "chicken enchilada with green" like a native.
Warning: Chile is addictive. Why do you think visitors keep coming back to Santa Fe?