A recent survey, conducted extensively among people on my speed-dial list, has uncovered a startling finding. The entire state of New Mexico is nothing without its chiles.
A half-dozen people answering the phone can't be wrong. When asked what the cuisine of New Mexico is comprised of, all my study subjects quickly answered, "green chiles." The response was unanimous, except for the control subject dozing next to my desk, who thought the answer was "woof."
My scientific conclusion: No other geographic area is so uniformly identified by a single edible product than the fertile valley of the Rio Grande.
Blue Adobe Grille
144 North Country Club, Mesa
Lobster queso: $9.95
Adobe salad: $2.95
Tucumcari tenderloin: $13.95
Chorizo chicken: $10.95
Fish taco plate: $7.95
480-962-1000. Hours: Lunch and dinner, daily, 11a.m. to 9p.m.
This limited view of an entire region's cuisine is a unique phenomenon, but one that's justified. The area has been flying a chile as its state flag ever since the average consumer discovered that Mexican food has many more nuances than found at Taco Bell. All Mexican food generally contains chiles, sure, but no chiles so revered as the special fruits propagated in the Albuquerque area.
It's a worthy reverence. Southern New Mexico, in fact, grows more green chiles than any other area of the world, and of an unparalleled quality. Hatch Valley is so fruitful that it's called the chile capital of the world, and also the chile belt. More than a dozen varieties are cultivated here, ranging from mild tam jalapeños to medium Mexi-bells to sandia. Serranos are even hotter, and then there are the hotter-than-hell barkers and Santa Fe grandes. Supposedly, the sun-soaked fields, the mild climate and the abundant water from the Rio Grande make these chiles the most flavorful to be found anywhere.
All of which lead us to the food served at the six-month-old Blue Adobe Grille in Mesa. The siren song of New Mexican chiles was enough to seduce Adobe Grille's owners, Paul Bigelow and Jose Leyva, to give up long-standing careers with the Valley's Hops! Bistro & Brewery and embark on a specialty restaurant in Mesa -- an area of town more used to steak and potatoes than Tucumcari tenderloin. Bigelow, after living in New Mexico for several years, became convinced that the cravings he developed for Hatch chiles would bring him a Valley following rivaling the Pied Piper.
The risk appears to have paid off. On any given day, Blue Adobe Grille is buzzing with the feel-good sounds of a clientele pleased to have discovered quality food, comfortable ambiance and a neighborhood place with a kick-back attitude. Over several visits, I notice a clutch of what must be regulars, tossing back appetizers and beer, or a glass of wine from Blue Adobe's impressive-for-its-digs wine list.
A former Italian restaurant, the space has been converted to a casual, Saltillo-tile-strewn cafe centered around a bar and dotted with Spanish antiques. It's dark, no matter the time of day, the windows hung with earth-toned wool blankets against brick walls. How dark? No kidding, at lunch one day, a woman enters with a seeing eye dog, and she has to drag the pup past the hostess podium before its eyes can adjust from the bright sun outside.
The hostess assists, of course, helping the woman with her baby, bundled in a car seat, and getting the trio settled into a table. But it's not overly special treatment, I find, because on later visits, I see that most Adobe diners seem to receive above-average attention. It doesn't hurt that staffers turn our heads by complimenting me on my jewelry, my dining companion on his hairstyle; and on another visit, me on my sweat shirt, my companion on his sense of humor. Dinner and all the fawning we can swallow? And at prices averaging about 10 bucks for an entree? Oh, yeah, we can eat that up.
It works because it all seems sincere, as honest as the straightforward food served here. This isn't the often amazing New Mexican cuisine found at Los Dos Molinos or Carlsbad Tavern, but it's a welcome change from everyday burritos. Bigelow admits his and Leyva's is a loose definition of traditional New Mexican, blending the cuisine with flavors of the Southwest, including Mexico, Arizona, Colorado and California. This means, with a few exceptions, flavors aren't the searing, pepper-flamed blowtorches we might expect -- and be frightened by. Chipotle, a medium-spicy green variety, arrives more frequently than blistering red chili, and even when dishes are hot, they're still easy to eat. For this neighborhood, this is a good thing.
Carne adovada is the hottest dish we sample, with pork simmered in nuclear red chili. The typically torrid-tasting tempter is high range without being hurtful, and best when subdued by soupy whole pinto beans and large-grain rice, all wrapped in tears of flour tortilla. Posole is another spice-of-life dish, simmering chunked pork roast with potatoes and hominy (dried corn) in a spicy, thin broth. The soup is topped with shredded cabbage and lime chunks, to be dunked with flour tortillas.
Blue Adobe's signature potato dish celebrates fiery New Mexican chiles in arresting form. This stuff is feisty, tucking twice-baked potato in a bottom-blackened green chile, the spuds spiked with red pepper, fluted and browned on top. It comes as a side dish, but is also offered à la carte -- a great bar snack at just $2. For another take on the hotter chile, try the tenderloin relleno, lightly filled with beef and gooey with cheese, thinly battered for crunch and served with red sauce.
I like that Blue Adobe offers a variety of sampler plates -- lots of flavor opportunities. The New Mexican platter is a satisfying presentation of tenderloin relleno, pork tamale, cheese enchilada, rice and beans, and a choice of red or green chile sauce. The puffy tamale is much improved over the dry-as-socks version I sampled when Blue Adobe first opened, topped with moist chopped jalapeños and stuffed with lots of shredded pork. Want it all? The Land of Enchantment combo brings a team of tender marinated tenderloins, a trio of good-size pecan-grilled shrimp glazed in chipotle, a chicken enchilada, green chile potato and vegetables. I could eat this chicken enchilada endlessly -- there's none of that often scary, shredded, vaguely poultry product I find, but real chicken breast that's done time on the grill.
Chef Leyva gives us the bird with the corn chowder, too. This is comfort food to the max, blending a thick cream-of-corn base with smoked chicken chunks, roasted kernel corn and mild Hatch chiles. As an entree, a breast comes split, grilled and stuffed with softly spiced chorizo, poblano peppers and cheese. A lot more chorizo is needed, but an amaretto mushroom sauce wins raves for its intriguing sweet, creamy, complex character. This is a dish I never would have ordered off job duty, with the weird-sounding sauce, but holy cow, it's delicious, spiked with fresh mushroom slices.
Sauce also surprises with the Tucumcari tenderloin, named after a New Mexican city. Jalapeño béarnaise isn't necessarily classic, lacking its distinctive egg yolk finish as far as I can tell, but it dresses up the meat nicely. A side of pasta is even better, thanks to its creamy, orange-colored chipotle cloak. I only wish the meat itself were better -- on one visit, the beef is mushy and geriatric tasting; on another, it's just okay. The plate sure looks pretty, though, served atop a crisp tortilla with green chile potato and julienne veggies.
Adobe salad looks good, too, with dots of goat cheese mixed among field greens, roasted red peppers and tortilla frizzles, but lacks oomph due to a weak orange chipotle dressing. I even order more dressing on the side, dipping each leaf, but taste little more than oil.
There's no mistaking the green chile sauce served on the side of a fish taco plate, however. Big chunks of chile are suspended in a thin base dotted with cilantro, and are oh so good drizzled on marinated pecan-grilled ahi tuna. The cooked-through fish chunks are stuffed in doubled-up corn tortillas, stuffed with cabbage, crème, jalapeños, little bits of blue tortilla frizzles, cilantro and tomato chunks, then scooped with dry rice and whole, soupy beans. Red chile sauce is also an option, but stick with the green -- the thin, one-dimensional blend works better with beef or pork than dainty fish.
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While Blue Adobe doesn't offer many culinary surprises, there is one dish I'd gladly drive across town for: a new-to-the-menu lobster queso. I simply can't stop spooning the glutinous clump of hot spinach, chopped onion, scallion and parmesan, splayed with a sunbeam pattern of dynamite crispy tortillas.
For dessert, there's a warm chocolate chip cookie topped with ice cream. If there's jalapeño in the raspberry sauce, as advertised, I can't tell.
There is a final sting when the bill comes and we're charged for chips and salsa. It's no hardship paying $1.75 for tri-colored (not really, just blue and yellow, each time we visit) chips and murky orange-brown chipotle salsa, yet free chips are an Arizona institution. I bet we'll see that menu policy change soon.
While Blue Adobe Grille isn't the roller-coaster ride of heat and spices we've come to know and love with New Mexican food, it is a very welcome addition to the Valley's growing collection of Hatch chile halls. And just as Bigelow predicted, he's already got a loyal following. Behold the power of chiles.