Photo by Anne Fishbein
If you grew up in California in the ’80s, chances are pretty good that you first experienced New Mexican food not in a roadhouse outside Taos, but in the restaurants of John Sedlar and Mark Miller: mythical creations of finely tuned sauces and elaborate vegetable constructions, enchiladas stuffed with venison and chiles rellenos stuffed with mushroom duxelles, blue-corn everything and cactus-fruit sorbet. Food magazines burst with recipes for truffled tamales and radicchio tacos with crab. Santa Fe became a vacation destination to not only opera freaks and shaman aficionados but for the gastronomically obsessed, and a tour through the city’s kitchens became almost obligatory for ticket-punching line chefs and pastry cooks. New Mexican cooking had become a touchstone of regional American cuisine.
Of course, Sedlar’s exquisite dishes may have owed more to his training at L’Ermitage than to his Abiquiu childhood, more to Paris than to Albuquerque. The first time I drove around New Mexico, I suppose I was expecting — not the tasting menu at St. Estephe, exactly, but something like its rustic kin, chile con queso saucing pork instead of its highbrow sweetbread equivalent maybe, or bowls of chiled duck posole whose effect depended rather less on the kind of dense, sticky demiglace available in better French kitchens. What I found, of course, as anybody who has been to New Mexico could have told me, is that outside of a three-block radius of the downtown Santa Fe plaza, the culinary questions boil down to one: red chile, or green?
A truck stop in Tucumcari? A bowl of red, or a bowl of green. The coffee shop at a Gallup motel? Red enchiladas or green enchiladas. A burger stand in Las Vegas, a dive bar in Dixon, a cafeteria in Albuquerque, a gas station outside Las Cruces? Red or green in all of them, sluiced over eggs, rolled into burritos, sloshed onto stacked enchiladas, smeared onto cheeseburgers, ladled into big bags of Fritos, puddled around expensive ahi ceviche dressed with yuzu vinaigrette, and even served by itself in a bowl. After a couple of days in the state, I was inured to the bicameral New Mexico universe: rosy or verdant, fresh or dried, pungent or spicy as hell. Hatch, which bears essentially the same relationship to New Mexico chile that Napa Valley bears to California wine, might as well have been the center of the world.
Oddly, although California was probably the birthplace of what Sedlar called New Southwest cuisine, it has always been hard to find unmodulated New Mexican cooking in Los Angeles. Enthusiasts of the Hatch chile, the stacked enchilada and the sopapilla with honey have had to drive north to Zia’s in Santa Barbara or south to Anita’s in Fullerton, which is kind of a long way to go for a bowl of stew.
For a couple of years, the faithful have been going to Santa Fe Station just north of the Long Beach Airport, which supposedly goes through Hatch chiles the way McDonald’s goes through McNuggets. It is an unlikely destination: the shiny, blue-roofed restaurant looks more like a pancake house than a place where one might reasonably order a serious bowl of red. The dining room has state flags hanging from the steeply pitched ceiling, beer signs flashing in the windows, and fancy model trains whirring along tracks mounted just above eye level. You will find fajita platters on the menu, and fried zucchini, and Cajun shrimp.
Stacked enchiladas, tortillas piled on one another like LPs on an old phonograph spindle, are awash in chile and molten cheese, and garnished with a couple of fried eggs in case the bulk of the dish isn’t quite enough. There are fat burritos bursting with grilled meat and red or green chile, a real queso fundido with spicy sausage, and a strangely appealing steak topped with green chile and laminated with a leathery coating of cheese. You will not find the drippy, irresistible carnitas that vendors sell from carts on Santa Fe’s plaza, but the house’s unorthodox version is kind of tasty, pork rubbed with chile and steamed to pillowy softness in a banana leaf like Yucatecan cochinita pibil.
And here is the green chile, the real stuff, a fairly magnificent bowl of earthy, pungent, roasted Hatch peppers, coarsely puréed, stewed down with pork and thinned with a little broth, edged with spice but not quite so hot as to melt your fillings, and served with a couple of sopapillas, a kind of New Mexico fry bread, for ballast. The dish is the work of a purist, almost brave in its frank plainness. The musky, gravylike red is fine in its way, but Santa Fe Station is all about the green.
Santa Fe Station, 4101 Lakewood Blvd., Lakewood; (562) 492-8700. Lunch and dinner, Mon.–Fri., 9 a.m.–10 p.m.; Sat. and Sun., 7 a.m.–10 p.m.. Beer and wine. Lot parking. AE, MC, Visa. Lunch or dinner for two, food only, $14–$30.