Believe it or not, it’s not always about green chili in the Land of Enchantment. We tracked down some spectacular variations on the most Southern classic.
There’s so much to love about this humble chicken shack in Albuquerque. For starters, it’s located in the lovely courtyard of the absolutely fabulous El Vado, a historic motel that dates back to the early days of Route 66.
That prime location means you and your hungry crew can order from a number of restaurants and grab a pint from the on-premise tap room. Sweet!
Even chef/owner Tony Chalenphonh’s brilliant fried chicken mission has a fun flip side just a couple of doors down in the form of Ikigai, “a sushi house with purpose.”
So, yes, you can start with a spicy roll stuffed with fried green chili before moving onto the red-hot main event in the form of gloriously golden chicken.
Chalenphonh’s signature creation on the menu is a nod to his homeland. His family relocated from Laos when he was 5 and he’s lived in New Mexico since. A few years ago, he decided to leave his long-time gig and launch a food truck. That led to the brick-and-mortar setup at El Vado.
The star of the short menu are the chicken sandwiches, with the Laosville Hot topping the must-try list. That tribute to the traditional hangover cure from Music City goes in a slightly different direction by bringing Thai chilis into the equation. The result is a blast of heat that keeps on burning after the last bite is finished. Yes, it hurts so good.
Watch this excellent short documentary film by Joe York for the origin story of the Nashville hot chicken.
Hold on a minute, don’t bring dinner just yet. There’s a sunset pic to be snapped.
Yes, this gorgeous Four Seasons resort 15 minutes from the famous Santa Fe Plaza is beloved for its spectacular setting, especially when the setting sun lights up the vast sky against the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. And like clockwork, the pretty patio off Terra glows extra bright from dozens of cell phones hoping to capture those magical moments.
There’s also plenty of drama on the plates emerging from chef Jose Fernandez’s kitchen since the native of Barcelona joined the team in July. Consider the pinon-crusted lamb with blue cornmeal and beet polenta, a steak that gets an updated Oscar preparation with a chipotle-infused Hollandaise and tempura-fied relleno. That stuffed poblano pepper creation is sauced in a yellow mole. Oh, my.
The list of tempting entrees is filled out with an all-star lineup of weekly specials, a mouthwatering calendar dubbed the Seven Nights of Terra.
On Sunday, fried chicken makes an appearance. This being the Four Seasons, it’s hardly a humble rendition but it’s also still homey enough to safely fall into the comfort food category. Especially with those velvety green chili mashed potatoes on the side.
The crunchy coating of the expertly seasoned pieces of chicken was softened slightly by the fiery finishing touch of a sticky sweet sauce that needs to be bottled and sold and served on everything. It’s that good. So instantly addictive, in fact, that I requested some more on the side so I could dunk the outstanding biscuit in it.
That biscuit deserves a special shout-out, its height easily taking it into the coveted cathead biscuit territory. In the South, it’s a sincere form of flattery to pronounce a biscuit as big as a cat’s head. This version goes into the French baked goods turf with its perfectly flaky layers.
Terra’s talented pastry chef David Flores makes those memorable biscuits in addition to filling the dessert menu with amazing treats. Don’t you dare leave Terra without ordering the stunningly good churros.
Everything about this meal was truly impressive, especially that sunset.
Chef James Crowther’s menu reads like a riveting recitation of all things that are good about chili-centric New Mexico: Chile-roasted squash, filet mignon accompanied by chile onions, duck breast served alongside roasted carrot and guajillo chile purée. The braised bison short rib chili relleno is bathed in a red chile au jus. A clever version of tartare — called steak and eggs — gets a little bit of heat from Calabrian peppers.
So, it’s not surprising that one of the most beloved creations on the menu is finished in a warm, welcome kiss of chili. What is a bit of a shocker is that Crowther takes quite a detour from the typical chicken and waffle trip to introduce diners to the delights of poussin. He calls that tender, young bird “the veal of poultry.” It’s sourced from Palmetto Farms in Sumter, S.C., an operation that stresses a stress-free environment, no growth hormones or antibiotics.
The chef — who was born and raised in Virginia before heading to culinary school at Johnson & Wales — said he prefers poussin because it’s got a mild flavor and an ultra-tender texture. “It’s got a sweeter flavor than most chicken,” he said in a recent phone interview.
The bird is seasoned with garlic powder, red chili powder, salt and pepper before being brined in buttermilk. It’s dredged in seasoned flour and fried to order, served with a blue cornmeal waffle and bacon-braised greens. The sweet-hot drizzle on the plate is a peach habañero maple reduction featured pepper sauce from Taos Hum, a local producer that grows its own peppers. Haute stuff, for sure.
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