The 643-mile stretch of Interstate 25 between Las Cruces, New Mexico, and Denver skips across time and terrain like few other American trails.
The highway passes through settlements that date back to before Columbus and through brand-new housing tracts with Subarus in the driveway. It cuts through lush valleys and staked plains, metropolises and ghost towns, tree-blanketed mountains and punishing deserts. Through majority-Mexican villages, and suburbs whiter than the Rocky Mountain snowpack.
Travelers have trekked this passage for centuries, always with care. Conquistadors named the area around the southernmost section the Jornada del Muerto — Journey of the Dead Man — because of how unforgiving it was. To this day, drivers try to rush over the Ratón Pass (elevation 7,834 feet) that separates New Mexico and Colorado before sunset, lest they get caught in bad weather. And that weather: It can switch from sleet to fog to dust storm to snow to rain, all in the space of a couple of miles.
It’s not a route for the faint of heart. But I did it. And my fuel was the one thing that unites the disparate communities along the way — chile.
Chile peppers are the Southwest’s most famous gastronomic expression: grown and packed and used for decoration, grilled and dried and frozen, and eaten all year in the region. On I-25, however, “chile” is as varied as the land and people. It’s the pepper, for sure, but also a salsa that can be as thick as gravy or as thin as water, mellow or scorching. “Chile” also appears as a cheeseburger, a snack, a meat rub. A full meal or an appetizer. A bowl or a plate. A soup or chicken-fried steak or burrito drowned (“smothered” in local parlance) in it. Red or green chile or both, a style called “Christmas.” Dessert. Heritage. Life.
Over three days, I saw and tasted how restaurants along the Chile Highway approach their spicy muse. The dishes here rarely venture far from what’s now I-25 because their essence is tied to the chiles grown along the route. No other peppers in the world will do, so home cooks and chefs and packing companies roast freshly harvested green ones every fall to use immediately (and freeze leftovers for the future), or dry the red ones to make powders, flakes, or ristras (vertical bouquets of dried peppers). Either way, a guaranteed, year-round supply is always near.
From this shared ingredient bubbles up a dazzlingly diverse food scene that stretches way beyond Santa Fe and Hatch, the two stops on the Chile Highway that food media focus on at the expense of the rest. Great grub at American Indian-run gas stations. Burger empires. Hyper-regionalism — Cruces-Mex, Den-Mex, Pueblo-Mex, and so much more. (Read Eater’s Definitive Guide to Santa Fe Green Chile.)
I ended up eating “chile” 38 different ways — and I could’ve done more. But caution to the curious: Take the trip in doses, not in one fell swoop like me. Like Icarus, I flew — or rather, ate — too close to the heat. At times, I felt like the trip might actually turn me into a living Human Torch. But like the Phoenix, I rose from the proverbial ashes, spitting nothing but fire.
And the ordeal was worth it.
To outsiders, the food of the Southwest is synonymous with Mexican, mostly because the cuisines share the same foundation: tortillas, combo plates, an emphasis on meats, and especially chiles. But over the past 400 years, residents have fused the traditions of the region’s three main ethnic groups — Mexican, white, and American Indian — to create a gastronomy that belongs to all three yet stands on its own.
These foodways found their most lasting expression in New Mexico, where the state’s Hispanics (known as Hispanos, because many trace their ancestry to conquistadors) settled the northern part of the Land of Enchantment in the 1600s, remaining in relative isolation until the federal government began to pave roads connecting Albuquerque and Santa Fe to the greater U.S. after World War II. Removed from constant replenishment from Mexican migration like, say, Cal-Mex and Tex-Mex, much of New Mexican food remained largely frozen in time.
Or so I thought.
Before my expedition, I vowed not to commit the sin of so many before me: to think of New Mexico as a place where time ran slower than in the rest of the country, and the culture was fossilized, and therefore ripe for exotification.
“It is the Great American Mystery — the National Rip Van Winkle — the United States which is not United States,” wrote Charles Fletcher Lummis in his 1893 book Land of Poco Tiempo. “Why hurry with the hurrying world? The ‘Pretty Soon’ of New Spain is better than the ‘Now! Now’ of the haggard States.”
Even when Southwestern cuisine had its national heyday in the 1980s — when chefs like John Rivera Sedlar and Mark Miller garnered attention for fusing local ingredients with French techniques — reporters and critics depicted the movement’s acolytes as necromancers resurrecting dormant, overlooked riches long forgotten by the locals.
That idea, however, robs the Chile Highway’s denizens of their agency. The people here easily change with the times while keeping true to their chile heritage — it all depends on who’s doing the eating and where. That pride and flexibility characterized my first day.
My journey began in Belen, a city of about 7,000 near the geographical center of New Mexico. At Sandra’s New Mexican Restaurant, I ordered a bowl of posole, which called back to the old ways, spelled with an S (like Spanish friars wrote it out in the 16th century) instead of a Z (the way you find it written out today across Mexico). There was no oregano or cabbage or even lime as toppings — just pork chunks and hominy. And the posole came white, with red chile on the side.
I wasn’t familiar with this presentation, but it didn’t matter: Sandra’s posole was porkier than ramen — the chewy meat, the unctuous broth, the fat kernels. Splashes of red chile opened up its flavors further.
But before I could romanticize New Mexican cuisine as an atavistic treasure, I next gorged on Milly’s Burrito Plate at Alejandro’s Café, five minutes down the street: a great beef burrito buried under french fries and smothered in a fine green chile. It was heavy for breakfast, but it didn’t take long for me to realize that hefty, hearty breakfasts are common throughout New Mexico. Mornings are chilly all year, and there’s nothing like spice and starch to insulate your insides.
My next stop was about 45 minutes south, at San Antonio Crane, named after the small city of San Antonio, as well as the sandhill cranes that migrate to the nearby Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge every winter. The restaurant, a converted house, was slammed, which explained the slow service for my open-faced smothered hamburger, topped with more fries.
There were no arguments about authenticity or heritage at Sandra’s, Alejandro’s, or San Antonio Crane; there was chile. And that was all I needed.
Two hours later, I rolled into Las Cruces and La Nueva Casita Café, which has served New Mexican classics since 1957. Families fresh from church or dressed in Dallas Cowboys gear sat around the ample dining room slurping menudo with toast on the side, an unusual pairing — and another nod to mutability.