Santa Fe’s pleasure trifecta—otherwise known as the strip mall in the 2800 block of Cerrillos Road—that houses Cheeks, The Locker Room Sports Bar and Arcade News, recently got a little more gangster and a lot more delicious thanks to the arrival of Ortega’s Jerky.“It’s good, it’s picking up,” Carlos Ortega says of the unique locale, which joins his family’s operation at the Nambé Falls Travel Center and their Española mother ship.
Housed in a small white trailer and manned by Ortega himself, the setup is anything but fancy: seven-ounce servings of jerky are sold inside gallon Ziploc bags that dangle gingerly from a pegboard display. They retail for $10 a bag and range in flavors from red chile to pepper.
“The chile ones,” the jerky heir says when asked what the most popular product is. Feeling adventurous, I settle for a package of pepper and one of Ortega’s favorite, green chile.
Leave your Slim Jim expectations at the arcade’s booth number seven. This jerky is in the carne seca tradition.
A staple in the cuisine and snack culture of the states of Chihuahua and Sonora, carne seca is just that—beef that’s been dehydrated to perfection. Its long shelf life and fabled taste ensured the northern Mexican treat be included in the WWII M-Rations.“There’s no preservatives,” Ortega says of what differentiates his jerky from store-bought. “It’s homemade—even though we’re certified,” he continues, pointing at a business license, “it’s still homemade.”
According to Ortega, “the love for it” is what makes his jerky standout.
His father Jorge agrees.
“It’s made with joy,” the elder Ortega replies when probed about the recipe. “Salt, garlic, the simple things,” he continues.
“Some jerky makers will brag about their marinade, but I prefer to use table salt, native chiles and that’s it,” he adds.
A native of Torreón, Coahuila, Ortega has been jerking it for 40 years or “since fourth grade,” as he puts it. “My sons were raised on carne seca,” he says proudly.
Ortega’s jerky comes in the shape of generous strips of meat that are fibrous and easy to snap off. The pepper variation is seasoned just right and the spice serves its complimentary/not overpowering purpose.
A business card stapled to the plastic baggy echoes Ortega’s honest food claim and lists the ingredients simply as “beef, salt, black pepper.”
Its green chile counterpart shares the same texture, with the distinction of being generously flecked with Hatch seeds.
It has a definite kick that makes your nasal passages tingle, but it won’t have you racing for a glass of milk (which, considering your surroundings, is a good thing).
As unappetizing as it might sound, the saliva generated from chewing through the dry strips of meat creates an instant sauce in your mouth, much like those magical growing capsules you played with as a kid would dissolve in water and voilà create an awesome sponge zebra. The green chile variation has this nostalgic effect in spades.
Intrigued by the phenomenon, I take both bags and head back to Reporter headquarters where SFR’s official taster, ace reporter Joey Peters, awaits.
Just like Life cereal had Mikey, we have Peters, and no true taste test would be complete without his assessment.
Studiously, he stares at the jerky for a minute and then sticks his hand in the bag.
He hesitates at first, as this is not the jerky of his Minnesotan youth.
“Oh, wow,” he says. “This is, like, dry.” Intrigued, he bites into a strip of pepper. “It’s almost like a potato chip,” he notes, chewing diligently. “It’s thin and crispy, and most beef jerky is chewy.”
“Alright, hold on,” Peters says, as I urge him to taste the green chile.
He gazes at it and takes a bite. “It’s sweet,” he says, letting out a grin. “You can definitely taste the chile—you know, in a way, it’s almost sweeter and not as spicy as normal jerky.”
The bag’s contents would soon be depleted. Joey likes it.