||A Texan's drive to the mountains of New Mexico is somewhat ritualistic as we mainly go there for one of two reasons. Either we're burning up in the summer and the mountains provide relief, or we're in search of the snow that eludes most of our towns in the winter. On each and every trek to New Mexico, my family anticipates the end of the fertile, flat plains west of Amarillo on I 40. In one mile, the scenery changes dramatically as we descend the plateau that drops us onto a desert complete with mesas and cactus. The air starts to smell different. We await the first major outcropping, Tucumcari Mountain. From there, we know we have little more than two hours before we make visual contact with the Carson National Forest range.
(clockwise from upper left) El Paragua's menu cover; farolitos on Christmas Eve in Santa Fe; Taos Pueblo; NM Highway 287
At that point, the in-car discussion changes from familial babble to such important issues as where we plan to go hiking, is there enough snow to ski or where do we plan to eat our first green chili enchilada. On most trips, El Paragua gets the nod on the last issue.
From a distance, Luis Atencio appears to epitomize the human spirit indigenous to Northern New Mexico. A stoic Hispanic, he maintains a family owned and operated restaurant, guiding it through the best and worst of times with a countenance that says, "Not so good today? ... maybe better tomorrow..." as he takes another sip of his house Margarita, a masterful concoction in it's own right. The only problem with this assessment is that it is only from a distance, as I have no first hand knowledge. Still, over the years he has reached almost mythical proportions in my mind. Every day in the little town of Espanola, Luis makes his way across the dirt driveway from his home next door to his restaurant, El Paragua, currently my favorite dining and drinking establishment in New Mexico. Once there, he briefly disappears into his kitchen, seemingly to confirm that the food will be as impeccable today as it was yesterday, then perches in a chair that will afford him the best view of the television presiding over the bar. From this vantage point he will man the remote control until he has had enough at which point he will get up and walk back across the driveway to his house to spend the rest of the evening. Such is my perception of life in northern New Mexico. Slower, easier.
Tourists now invade northern New Mexico en mass in an attempt to carry home with them a piece of that mystical serenity and beauty that they encounter on their visits. Others stay in hopes of becoming part of it. Some survive while others leave disillusioned that the nirvana they thought they were buying into wasn't all it was cracked up to be. The battle rages on between those impassioned with the preservation of the past and developers who lick their chops at what is yet to come. Santa Fe, appropriately self-dubbed "the City-Different", seems more like an enormous dysfunctional family. But for all of its confusion, it is still one of my favorite places in the world. The unrest it experiences today is actually little different than the unrest it has experienced throughout its rich history, with people constantly jockeying for position. Hispanics, native Americans, anglos and foreign traders alike all have an agenda. But remarkably, all these factions unwittingly combine their two cents worth to provide a spectacular multi-cultural environment surrounded by some of the most beautiful country that North America has to offer. These people have a spirit that keeps them there, alive, working for their respective goals.... a spirit that seems to transcend itself into all aspects of their lives. And if one can experience even a portion of the Christmas season in northern New Mexico, he cannot help but feel that real Christmas spirit that seems to have disappeared from much of our country. Christmas Eve on the eastside of Santa Fe could still convert the staunchest of scrooges. Block after block of snow-laden sidewalks and rooftops covered with luminarias (brown paper bags with candles inside) set the backdrop for an uncommercialized celebration of spontaneous Christmas carols being sung around strategically placed bonfires. This idyllic experience afforded me a reverence, a peace and quiet, I had not experienced before on Christmas Eve.
The Anasazi Indians left some of their most notable marks in and around Los Alamos. While there are many places to see the remains of their lifestyle, none is more beautiful than Tsankawi. This day hike is probably my favorite place to "getaway" in New Mexico. Its highest point offers unparalleled vistas of the mountains surrounding Santa Fe, Los Alamos and Taos, as well as the Rio Grande river valley below. From its lower points, one can sit and ponder the life of the Anasazi from inside one of their cliff dwellings. Also, it's close to El Paragua. A close second getaway is Tent Rocks, not far from the Cochiti Pueblo. Make sure you go to the top there too, it's worth it.. I'll give no directions for either. If you want to go badly enough, you'll find them, just like we did.
Tequila has now become the number one imported liquor in the U.S., a tribute to the Margarita. Serving a bad Margarita in the southwest is not cool. And some of the finest in the country can be found throughout northern New Mexico. Clearly, Mark Miller at The Coyote Cafe has spent some quality time on a lime juicer in an attempt to perfect different versions of this nectar of the gods. While I'm not a big fan of their indoor restaurant (too fu-fu for my taste), one of my favorite places to go in Santa Fe is his outdoor grill and cantina. He has created the feel of an authentic Mexican outdoor taqueria (taco stand), complete with a multitude of excellent salsas, tacos and margaritas. The folks at Maria's also have logged some serious hours on their lime juicer, going so far as to print a rather interesting recipe book, Maria's Real Margarita Book. You should also give La Tertulia's house Margarita a shot, served the traditional way... up. And don't forget to try what is probably my favorite, the house margarita at El Paragua.
Although the infusion of Californian, Texan and even international culinary skills has changed the landscape of Santa Fe's restaurant scene, eating one's way through Santa Fe is still primarily based around the age-old question... "Red or green?" New Mexico is famous for two basic chiles and their derivative sauces that go on everything from enchiladas to eggs to hamburgers. It is actually the same chile, shaped like an Anaheim chile, but much better tasting. The majority of these chiles come out of Hatch, N.M., hence the "Hatch chile". When they are harvested in late August, they are a bright lime green. About half the harvest is roasted and frozen for use throughout the year. The other half is allowed to ripen and dry. It turns a deep red color. Hence "red and green". Where I go to find some of the best?.... try The Shed downtown, a place I've been going to on every trip to Santa Fe since I was five years old. If the wait is too long, try their sister restaurant, La Choza, where the locals go. Other great chile stops are: Posa'a Tamales (possibly my favorite tamales anywhere), Tia Sophia's, Maria's, Dave's Not Here, Rancho de Chimayo and, of course, El Paragua. Even though it's in a shopping center on Cerrillos Road, Old Mexico Grill still has some of the best food in Santa Fe. There are many others, so we'll keep you posted.
God's presence is abundant throughout Northern New Mexico, but no more so than in and around The Santuario in Chimayo. This small church, nestled in the hills that look upon Truchas Peaks to the southeast, promises, for those who believe, a path to healing through its holy dirt, found in a small room off to the side of the sanctuary. Every year, in the spring, thousands make the pilgramage to find comfort from ailments by taking the holy dirt from a small hole in the ground, and rubbing it on the part of their body that is causing them discomfort. I've watched people rub dirt on literally every part of their body, most often their heart. The adjoining room is covered with testimonials, crutches, offerings and more that all profess to the power of healing in those who believe. Its simple grounds is one of the most peaceful settings I've ever encountered. It doesn't hurt that one of the most beautiful restaurants in the state, Rancho de Chimayo, is less than one minute away. This old Hispanic hacienda is another of those authentic establishments that has endured through the years. The stuffed sopapilla is excellent as is, of course, their margarita.
At this point, Santa Fe remains a place to get away for us, although one day we hope to make it our home. It is as close to paradise as we've found. All of it's social and political problems simply prove that there's still trouble in paradise.
There's a big-wig corporation mining down a mountainside.
There's a man making money by floating down a river
and he's giving all the folks a ride.
There's a fifteen dollar artist painting people in the square.
There's a guy building condos.
Everybody's angry but he says that he really don't care.
So that's the way it goes....
living in the land the first man once did roam.
So that's the way it goes....
living in the land the first man once called home
from First Man