The New Mexico heraldic crest, if it had one, would probably feature Christmas chiles, a West Side Locos tag, hot air balloons and a bolo tie. And don't forget the Frito pie, surrounded by fleur-de-lis to class it up a little.
After living in New Mexico for 3½ years, I had never eaten one—never, that is, until today.
I lost my Frito pie virginity at El Parasol on Cerrillos Road—well, technically, it happened while sitting at my desk in the SFR offices, where I typed priceless observations, like "good beans" and "could be hotter."
Everything I've ever had at El Parasol is killer, and the Frito pie is certainly tasty. The pinto beans, ground beef and red chile are topped with freshness-adding lettuce and tomato, unlike some iterations.
Not to rain on anyone's parade, but a Frito pie seems like basically a taco salad with a lot less lettuce. (Also, how is it a pie?) I think its popularity probably owes more to native New Mexicans' nostalgia for a food dished up at every church fundraiser and political rally they got dragged to growing up; it's the perfect simple, cheap thing to feed a lot of people.
I guess we should be grateful that the Frito pie, unlike many classic New Mexican foods, has stayed basic and unpretentious. As far as I know, there's not a California-style pie with goat cheese and arugula, and it's not the kind of food that lends itself to a lot of questions about how locally the meat was sourced and who grew the iceberg lettuce. Any dish that can be deemed inauthentic if served outside of a foil chip bag has a better-than-average chance of keeping it real.
This was only my first Frito pie, but using Fritos—rather than, say, Tostitos "Scoops!"—seems critical to the recipe. They stand up to the chile and get delectably soaked, but not soggy, possibly owing to their thickness and sturdy shape. One story of the Frito pie's origin is that the Fritos creator's mom dreamed up the pie to help drive the chips' sales, perhaps after the demise of Fritos' culturally insensitive former mascot, Frito Bandito.
The Frito pie may be losing ground, however, to another popular semi-authentic New Mexican dish: the Navajo taco. Chefs in Gallup made a 10-foot-wide version of it this September, using 90 pounds of cheese and 65 pounds each of beef and beans. They earned Guinness World Records recognition, even though they were the first to attempt anything in the world's biggest Navajo taco arena.
The Frito pie earned its own distinction last year, however, when it was deemed the state's fattiest food by Health Magazine. At that rate, might as well just have a chimichanga.