Eating (with a) Local

Lessons in history at El Paragua

When it comes to some of the most authentic New Mexican food around these parts, you'll find few who disagree El Parasol is among the best. With six locations in Santa Fe, Los Alamos, Española and Pojoaque, it's frequently found in SFR's annual Best of Santa Fe issue, voted so by none other than you.

The mothership of the enterprise, El Paragua (603 Santa Cruz Road, Española, 753-3211), which opened in its current location in 1966, is also considered among the best in the whole of the Southwest. It's kind of a no-brainer when it comes to traditional New Mexican cuisine.

So, when I got an email from a guy named Rainbird telling me I needed to review El Paragua, I was lukewarm on the idea. I mean, everyone already loves it. What more can I say about it that hasn't already been said? Thankfully, though, he piqued my interest: "At El Paragua you will find a menu that is filled with authentic Southwestern food from 400 years ago. … As a Native American, I appreciate the food they have that is strictly from the pueblos."

I've always wondered, beyond the three sisters of corn, beans and squash, what specific New Mexican dishes carry the heaviest pueblo influence. So I trekked up to Española to get some schooling.

On a Wednesday afternoon, El Paragua's front door is opening more with people coming in than leaving, and lines are already forming at El Parasol outside. You can't help but smile at the design history of the place—a mashup of vintage New Mexico meets alpine ski lodge meets turn-of-the-century mining shack meets old-school pizzeria.

"Before we get started, I just have to say, this is the best Southwest food in all of New Mexico," Rainbird says as we shake hands. "I have travelled the whole state, and it is hands-down the best, from Las Cruces to Chama, Clayton to Gallup."

Paul Rainbird, who hails from San IIdefonso Pueblo, is former director of the IAIA Museum of Contemporary Native Arts and former president and CEO of the Southwestern Association for American Indian Arts. Obviously, he knows a lot about a lot, and he's also a self-proclaimed foodie with fond memories of the smells and tastes from his family's kitchens. His maternal grandmother was originally from Trinidad (the island, not the Colorado town) and lived in New York, where she learned to cook from all cultures.

"Everything from plantains, corn fritters and pizza to curry, pot roast, and a gravy that was so amazing we put it on everything," Rainbird explains.

His paternal grandmother, Rose Gonzales, in addition to being one of New Mexico's most celebrated potters, was also a star chef in Rainbird's eyes.

"She knew everything about every food in the Southwest," he says. "My quest in life has always been to find people who cooked as well as she did. And they do that here. … El Paragua doesn't dumb down their food. It's truly authentic."

He also relates some of her methods.

"Grandma would grind chiles from ristras we had made—on a metate with garlic from the garden—and for breakfast she would toast deer meat in a cast-iron pan on a wood stove, with a little lard, then add the chile pods and we'd put it on eggs," he tells me. I can almost smell the rich aromas filling their kitchen.

These days, Rainbird's favorite homestyle dishes at El Paragua include chicos, posole, chicharrones and, oh yes, carne adovada.

Chicos are an "ancient pueblo process for preserving corn," Rainbird points out. Dried for storage by slow-roasting, the kernels are rehydrated and slow-cooked, then added to dishes for flavor. Their intensely sweet and smoky flavor turns El Paragua's pinto beans into something else entirely, and are definitely my favorite pintos on the planet ($11.95 a bowl).

Posole, sometimes an overlooked side at many New Mexican restaurants, is light but rich at El Paragua, made so by the addition of chicken.

"Posole is like the sister to chicos," Rainbird says. "We would have it with deer, rabbit or wild birds, and the corn absorbed the flavor of the meat. We also added dried red chile pods for flavor."

Chicharrones, slow-fried cubes of pork fat, specifically fat from between the skin and meat, were a constant source of excitement, or sometimes even great disappointment.

"They're so easy to burn if you're not paying attention," Rainbird says with a laugh. "So much work goes into getting the fat off the pig correctly, so if you burn it, everyone's going to be mad at you."

El Paragua gets this classic dish right. Their chicharrones ($5.25 per side) are airy, crispy, and dissolve in your mouth like porky astronaut ice cream.

And the moment you've been waiting for: the carne adovada. Traditionally a method of preserving pork, essentially fermenting it in red chile, this dish has become perhaps one of New Mexican cuisine's best-known. El Paragua's tender cubes of pork come coated with an intense, smoky sauce of red chile ($5 per side). When I can't find a word for how refined its flavor is, Rainbird suggests "pure."

It's an apt descriptor for a flavor, and also for this legendary spot up north.

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