I didn't walk into Casa Chimayó with all my best food critic senses intact. Although I'm a regular drinker, I try hard not to drink in excess. Sometimes I fail. And the night before my dinner date with friends at Casa Chimayó, I failed spectacularly.
Eyes bloodshot, movements lurching and brain function low, I walked into my meal as a desperately hungry zombie. Unlike people who believe everything tastes better when they're starving, I become increasingly judgmental, bitter and cranky. Honestly, in order to remain an ethical reviewer, I should bar myself from eating while hungover because the finest restaurants become humdrum and the most preciously prepared meals feel like personal insults.
It just ain't fair.
And yet, Casa Chimayó, rather than stirring my characteristically bitter soul, miraculously cured my hangover.
The miracle may or may not be related to the fact that the various owners have ties to the town of Chimayó—home of Santuario de Chimayó, where suddenly cured invalids hang their crutches. As a natural-born disbeliever, I can't imagine ever hanging my crutches and screaming "Hallelujah!," but I now know for certain that I can hang my hangover on the wall at Casa Chimayó and scream, "I'm a believer in something!"
First things first, Casa Chimayó—located in the recently renovated, just-off-downtown location that used to be Los Mayas—doesn't have a full bar in, but a tasty Negra Modelo is better hair-of-the-dog than whiskey any day (no lime—that's a misconstrued convention).
My friends and I began with chips and salsa, complemented by the chile en nogada entree as an appetizer. The chips are made in house from fresh corn tortillas, a Russian Doll exercise that results in agonizingly luscious chips on the border of crispy and sensually soft, despite a notable difference between hours-old chips and chips right out of the oil. The salsa, made fresh daily, is an addiction-forming non-chunky, perfectly heated concoction of chile, tomato, spices and classic Norteño family sensibility.
Not only is the location's history deeply evidenced on the restaurant's walls and mantelpieces—the heirloom photographs provide a visual CliffsNotes on the history of El Camino Real de Tierra Adentro—but the dishes and presentation tell the same story. Unlike almost every other New Mexican restaurant promoting its cooking schtick under the mantle of a distinctive New Mexican cuisine, Casa Chimayó seamlessly presents Mexico and New Mexico as collaborative partners rather than separate marketing strategies.
A somewhat discreet truth of global culinary culture is that Mexican chefs and cooks—from the nation's finest restaurants to the lowliest, most country-ass taco or gordita stand—are born with the instinct for plating excellence. Food in Mexico is always beautiful, and that traditional standard translates to Casa Chimayó. When eating recipes passed down through multiple generations of New Mexicans, the presentation is as good as it is in the most alluring restaurants of Ciudad Oaxaca, which is saying more than is technically reasonable.
The food is good enough that it's not required to cite specific dishes, but you may stake your ordering on this: Do not fear the chile en nogada; do not be afraid to order a vegetarian combo plate (even if you are a habitual meat eater—you will be astonished); and save room for dessert—it's the most creative aspect of the menu and the most unexpectedly satisfying way to finish the night, even if it started with a hangover.