It is a sad truth: Southwestern food in the national consciousness is stripped of everything that makes it special and unique. Part of this comes with the territory of operating a chain restaurant which, by its very nature, must offer food that is quick to make and universally palatable in order to sell. It is always broken down into the most standardized ingredients, so most people eating burritos at Chipotle across the country have no idea what one with New Mexican green chile might actually taste like.
Not that New Mexico in particular can claim to be the origin point of the burrito—it evolved in Mexico, out of the eating habits of the Mesoamerican people who wrapped beans and meat with corn tortillas as early as 10,000 BC. Now it is a staple food in Mexican, New Mexican and Tex-Mex cuisine across the country. But it's hard to deny the close connections between Mexican and New Mexican cuisine, and the options for the best possible iterations of foods that can't exist in the same way anywhere else in the country.
It's also hard to deny that since the 1980s, marketing a menu item as "Southwestern" inauthentically associates it with the great food traditions of this part of the country. Maybe that explains why many chain restaurants have trouble establishing themselves here; because the local options are just too good. So, if you ever find yourself craving something that is undecidedly Santa Fe, as opposed to the bastardized corporate versions sold elsewhere, maybe these selections will offer some consolation.
Recently, Boathouse Beverages came out with a spiked seltzer water in prickly pear flavor. It is a faintly sweet, low-calorie concoction with a slight fruity flavoring. But there are plenty of quality prickly pear-flavored drinks floating around the area; for example, Marble Brewery recently came out with an excellent small-batch Prickly Pear Gose that sold out fairly quickly, although a new batch is in the works. The best choice for a local New Mexican prickly pear-flavored drink would be the Desert Wanderer ($10), a recipe from locally owned Santa Fe Spirits, available seasonally at the Santa Fe Spirits Tasting Room (308 Read St., 780-5906). It's a drink made with their Wheeler's Western Dry Gin, orange-infused apple brandy and prickly pear juice. Santa Fe Spirits frequently incorporates uniquely Southwestern flavors into their bottlings, such as how their Colkegan single-malt whiskey substitutes mesquite for peat to a powerfully successful effect. In fact, all of their small-batch cocktails at the tasting room are worth a try, although I wouldn't recommend drinking through them all at once.
There is no Chipotle in Santa Fe, probably because the competition in this category is too stiff. It's hard to narrow down just one place for burritos and tacos that reigns supreme, but with countless locations across the country, Chipotle has become synonymous with food thanks in part to that the current selection of meat fillings including barbacoa, sofritas and carnitas. If multiple meat fillings are your thing, think Adelitas (3136 Cerrillos Road, 474-4897), whichhas one of the most varied selection of taco fillings in town. Barbacoa and carnitas are available by the pound for $16.50 and $15.50, respectively, and taco fillings include buche, lengua and tripas (those would be pork stomach, cow tongue and various livestock intestines), all for $9.95 a pound. The menu is extensive and full of gems for the more adventurous eater, and though prices run a little more expensive than Chipotle (only by a few dollars) the experience is well worth the upgrade.
The Cheesecake Factory operates restaurants in 36 states, and their Santa Fe Salad of chicken, lime, taco strip and bean "Mexican-inspired" salad has been ever-present. Try the taco salad at Valentina's (945 W Alameda St, 988-7165), available with vegetables, chicken or beef ($11.25). For a little restaurant in the Solana Center next to a laundromat and a grocery store, Valentina's cooks up some of the most enjoyable New Mexican and Mexican food in town. Owner Alberto Aboytes, originally from Querétaro, Mexico, offers options ranging from enchiladas and tortas to menudo and beyond, and the results are undeniably satisfying. While everything at Valentina's is consistently delicious, if you're looking for something that satisfies a Southwestern salad craving in all the right ways, you won't be disappointed here. Bonus factors include some of the best green chile in Santa Fe and fresh sopaipillas for dessert.
I have no problem with Taco Bell in a pinch—like when the bills are due, or I need a quick fix late at night and there are no options anywhere else. Or even for no reason other than craving cheap, fast junk food. But their version of a chalupa borders on propaganda designed to trick the nation into thinking that a chalupa is a glorified taco. There was even a Santa Fe Gordita option available at one point, which again speaks to the instant marketability of associating a menu option with our fair city. If you ever have the yearning to experience a fried mold of corn tortillas stuffed with meat or vegetable fillings, the chalupas ($13.25) at Mucho Gusto (839 Paseo De Peralta, 995-8402) scratch that itch admirably. Unfortunately not nearly as cheap as Taco Bell's, they are well worth springing for the extra cash for the right occasion. They come stuffed with veggies, creamed chicken or shredded pork, and even manage to satisfy some of the ever-present cravings for delicious junk food.