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How to Eat Like a Local at New Mexican Restaurants

One of my most favorite things in the entire world is eating New Mexican food. Not Mexican food, not Tex-Mex, but New Mexican food. It’s my comfort food; it’s my happy place, and I need to share it with you.

Eating at New Mexican Restaurants can be confusing—let's fix that! If you want to eat like a local during your next visit, this post is for you!

New Mexican food is in a whole category of its own—there are a lot of different components to it, and I’m here to debunk them and give you some tips for eating at New Mexican restaurants, because things are little bit different in the Land of Enchantment.

First things first: Chile

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Let’s just jump right in, shall we? Chile in New Mexico refers to a chile pepper, and at New Mexican restaurants you’ll have a choice of topping your food with red chile or green chile.

Red chile is a sauce, but green chile can either be chopped, left whole (like in a relleno), or as a sauce.

When you’re eating at restaurant, your server will ask you, “red or green,” and your answer determines what color/type of chile will be smothered all over your food.

If that freaks you out or makes you nervous, ask for the chile on the side. Also, feel free to ask for a sample to taste it first if you’re curious about the heat—not all chile is created equal, so make sure the heat level works for you. *I still do this even if I’m a “regular” at a particular restaurant. Each batch tastes different.

There’s also the option of requesting, “Christmas.” This means you want both red and green chile on your food…at the same time. Get it? Red and green = Christmas! We’re a clever bunch.

How to Beat the Heat at New Mexican Restaurants

Say you take a bite of your food and the heat level from the chile is way hotter than your tolerance can handle. Whatever you do, do NOT, reach for a glass of water or soda.

You want something cream-based (so sorry if you’re lactose intolerant!!), so take a gulp of cold milk, spoon on some sour cream, eat a handful of cheese, or drizzle some honey (it’ll be on your table) on your chip and cool the heat.

Trust me. Skip the water, go for dairy, and your mouth will thank you later.

Chips and Salsa at New Mexican Restaurants

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You know how Italian restaurants bring out yummy bread and olive oil before a meal? In New Mexican restaurants you get chips and salsa.

One thing you should note, though, is that sometimes refills aren’t free, so make sure you ask if it’s complimentary before ordering another basket of chips.

Salsas also vary from restaurant to restaurant. Some serve it hot, some serve it cold, and some will give you more than one varieties of their signature recipe.

Salsas are a restaurant’s calling card, and it’s sometimes your first impression of the food that’s about to come. It’s amazing what you can tell by that little bowl sitting on your table!

Also, as addicting as that salsa is, keep in mind that you’ll have a meal on its way, so don’t spoil your dinner—the best is yet t ocome.

Get Your Roll On: Enchiladas

Enchiladas are my FAVORITE. I loooove them, but you can get them one of two ways: rolled or stacked. I prefer my enchiladas rolled, but some restaurants serve them flat and stacked on top of each other. Try them both ways and see how you prefer them—I’ve never come across a place that say “stacked” on a menu, but wouldn’t make them rolled for me, so don’t be afraid to ask for one way over the other.

Also, this tip may sound strange, but it’s totally normal in New Mexico. If you get enchiladas, consider asking for a fried egg on top. It’s a delicious game changer, and your server won’t even bat an eye to that request. Trust me.

Saving the Best for Last: Sopaipillas (soap-ah-pee-ahs).

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So here’s a pretty big tip: when you’re dining out at New Mexican restaurants, save room for dessert.  Sopaipillas are little fluffy pieces of bread, typically served at the end of the meal, and they almost always come complimentary with your meal (if you order an entrée).

The best part about sopaipillas is how many different ways you can enjoy them. Here are just a few:

  • Order them as a main course and get it stuffed with your favorite ingredients (beef, rice, beans, chile, etc.)
  • Sopaipillas come out towards the end of your meal, so if you have food left on your plate, tear your sopaipilla in half and stuff half with the food left on your plate. Then use your other half to….
  • Drizzle honey inside the sopaipilla or scoop up leftovers
  • Repeat the process above and add some cinnamon sugar.
  • If all else fails, just eat it plain. It’s crispy, fluffy, chewy, and perfectly delicious.

Time to Eat!

New Mexican Restaurants

Is anyone else hungry for some New Mexican food now? Hopefully these will help you with your New Mexican restaurant dining experiences in the future. Have you been to New Mexico and have a pressing question about something that happens during a meal? Let me know!

See more posts about New Mexican food here.

13 Comments

  1. OMG I love this guide! As a latina living in Houston, TX… I get my fair share of mexican food of all varieties. You’re so right about judging a place based on their salsa/chips 🙂 I definitely want to try that fried egg on the enchilada tip you mentioned. Sounds amazeee.

  2. Stumbled upon your blog and just had to agree – while visiting some family out in New Mexico sopaipillas with honey will always hold a special place in my heart!! Those, and hatch green chilis… which are extremely hard to come by on the east coast! Mmmm!

    1. Thanks for stopping by and taking the time to comment 🙂 I live out in Georgia now, so I know all about not being able to find the chile—kinda makes you appreciate it even more when you’re out here (and crave it even more when you can’t find it)! I’m glad your visit was memorable…gotta love sopaipillas with honey 🙂

  3. YES!!!! To green chile and sopaipillas ! I’m so glad you mentioned sopaipillas! I actually scrolled down before reading the rest of the post to make sure you included them. 🙂 My husband introduced them to me and I have been obsessed ever since!

  4. My wife called me at work today because she wants to find a Mexican restaurant to go to. You mentioned that salsas are a restaurant’s calling card, and it’s sometimes your first impression of the food that’s about to come. Do most restaurants offer different types of salsa options? Finding a reputable Mexican restaurant might be our best option.

    1. My apologies for a late response, but most restaurants only serve their own signature salsas. Some may provide a sampling of a few different varieties, but only two places come to mind for that. HOpe that helps!

  5. Thanks for the tips when taking a bite of something delicious but too hot at a Mexican restaurant. I know I always reach for the water to no avail. It’s good to know that creams can help ease the burn better than our drink.

  6. As a born and bred New Mexican I loved this. It was totally on point. One additional thought… don’t be afraid of something called blue corn tortillas or chips. They are delicious!

  7. I recently went to New Mexico and experienced the green Chile on everything! It was delish! Do you know what the seasoning is that they put on the table alongside the salt & pepper? It’s used to put on your tortilla chips. The waitress said it was chip powder. I need to know what it’s called so I can get my hands on it! LOL
    Many thanks for your tips!

    1. I’m glad you loved it here! I’m actually not sure exactly what the seasoning is; it may have been pretty unique to whatever restaurant you visited. I know I’ve seen it at a few before, but I honestly go straight for the salsa and bypass everything else on the table!

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