When I need a reminder that Santa Fe is not necessarily the land that time forgot, I think about tacos.
When I want desperately to shop locally but no one in a 200-mile radius sells what I'm looking for, I think of handheld burritos. When I'm hungry for culture, I think about Frito pies.
A genuine sense of urbanity in Santa Fe isn't found in museums or galleries. It isn't found in capital city politics or at the opera or among top-ranked restaurants. It's on the side of the road, in junky trucks, churning out chili dogs.
The increase in Santa Fe food carts over the past five years is the City Different's surest sign of sorority with the streets of other cities.
Street food is booming from Manhattan to Marfa and has become the epicenter of culinary inventiveness. From innovative ice-cream makers to Korean and Turkish mash-ups, exploratory epicureans are finding the low cost, mobility, easy customer access, and pure style of carts, trucks, trailers and vans to be leaner and meaner than opening a burdensome brick-and-mortar restaurant.
Santa Fe's food carts, as populous as they have become, are still mostly stuck in conventional categories: tacos, burritos, burgers, hot dogs, sandwiches. We do have Cajun and Middle Eastern carts, however, and the presence of carts at the farthest edges of town indicates that the door is open to some enterprising food entrepreneurs.
Among outlying carts there are a couple that do things against the grain, even if the fare isn't breaking the mold entirely. Hot Chile Express, located across from the new state building that houses the Public Employees Retirement Association, serves New Mexican food rather than Mexican, which is far more common among carts. Oasis Munchies, which stands alone on a quasi-desolate strip of Airport Road near the municipal golf course, is part food cart and part corner store, with uncommon earnestness wedged into its tiny space along with everything else.
Hot Chile Express is a fire-engine red trailer surrounded by penitentiary-chic razor wire. If anyone's been wondering what it would be like to get a plate of carne adovada after the apocalypse, HCE provides a convincing setting. The south side of the trailer has a makeshift greenhouse that provides shelter from winter weather as well as a combination of plastic tables and floral-print chairs that, presumably, were heisted from the set of a David Lynch film.
Beyond the accidental surrealism, however, it's a special kind of awesome to get a smothered burrito, complete with rice and beans, from a roadside food cart. Authentic New Mexican? The green chile stew ($4) answers that question with a resounding claro que sí! Both the red and green chile at HCE are abuelita-style: rich, flavorful and just spicy enough to make a white boy break a sweat.
For a departure from touristy New Mexican, try the torta de huevo con chicharrón burrito ($6.95). The crispy pork in combination with a chile-doused corn tortilla and a liberal nesting of hash browns tastes like coming home after a long journey.
Meanwhile, over at Oasis Munchies, owner Julian Perales is the nicest guy anywhere on earth to ever operate a food cart. And that niceness translates into a bizarre kind of camaraderie. Let's say he's making you an extra-large Frito pie ($5.50) and you think you're in a hurry. Perales will pull you into his time-warped world and end up riffing on his own dish as he pulls your particular likes and dislikes from you. A custom-seasoned chorizo burrito ($5) made before your very eyes? That's just the Oasis Munchies way.
With luck, not to mention some aggressive entrepreneurship, food cart innovation will begin to move inward to the city center. My personal request? A cart serving up local ingredients and only meat that comes from regionally pastured, humanely raised animals.
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Hot Chile Express
27742 W. Frontage Road
Airport Road at State Route 22