New Mexican Food in Denver

The first time I was in a New Mexican restaurant in Baltimore. I warily looked at the menu and ordered the not-so-southwestern brie and apple cheeseburger. Much to the additional horror of my foodie-friend, I added a liberal amount of ketchup to my meal.

“You have got to get it together,” she said to me, shaking her head in a mixture of disgust and pity.

She was right. I was due to be in New Mexico for a press trip soon and this type of behavior would probably not acceptable. I’d better learn to eat chiles (green, red, and both) stat.

So I did. While in New Mexico I fell in love with Southwestern cuisine. I gobbled up green chile cheeseburgers, posole, lamb stew with cilantro, and Navajo tacos with the best of them.

Then I had to leave. I had to spend two months in Seattle and Las Vegas, pining for frito pies and those cheeseburgers. Luckily I’m in Colorado now, and cuisine from the state next door is readily available at several places around Denver.

Julia Blackbird’s New Mexican Restaurant

There is something different about people who love New Mexico: Their speech is peppered with words like “Earth and Spirit, global connections, beautiful soul” and especially the word “spiritual.” The earthy/new-age feel can be felt as soon as you get five feet off any interstate in New Mexico or as soon as you enter Julia’s restaurant in Denver’s West Highlands. Although the exposed ceilings of her restaurant fit in with Denver style, the rest of the place is all New Mexico. Mexican, Southwestern and Native art decorate the walls (which are painted to look adobe). On the menu is a note from Julia that closes by stating “…feasting and exchange of food reflect the depth of common ideals of reciprocity, community, and the relationship to all life…” It wasn’t just the language and decor that was New Mexico, the food was too. 

For dinner I had Taos style tacos: beef, lettuce, pico and queso on blue fried corn tacos. Delicious. Although the taco shells were just a tad on the soft side.  The Ancho Chili BBQ ribs, chicken cordon green and pecan stuffed acorn squash all sound interesting too, so I’ll have to go back. For desert I probably should have had the pastel de chocolate Diablo, but I went with the not-so-southwestern key lime pie instead.

Julia Blackbirds is open weekdays for lunch from 11 – 2. Dinner hours on Tuesday – Thursday are 5-9, Fridays they are open until 10. Dinner is not served Monday. The restaurant is open from 11-10 on Saturdays and noon – 2 on Sundays.

Jack-N-Grill

This is one of those “if you eat this million calorie gross thing, your picture goes on the wall” kind of places. Don’t come here if you are on a diet. I got one of their more modest burgers (aka it only had one patty) and could only finish half of it. And I can eat a lot. The vibe here is very “family roadhouse.” All the burgers and meals are named after the owners kid and grandkids. Apparently the family came from Albuquerque, started selling burgers, and the rest is history. Although the place doesn’t look particularly New Mexican (no adobe anywhere), the menu has the requisite sopapillas, posole, and green chile menu items.

I’m in the minority here, but I didn’t really like Jack N Grill. They’ve won tons of local and national awards, so go ahead and give them a whirl, but I wasn’t feeling it. I had a Jaxx burger, complete with onions, guacamole, bacon, cheese and green chiles. For some terrible reason, the bacon was infused with maple syrup, making the whole burger taste faintly of a pancake breakfast. The bun was a little weird too, too soft and sweet for me, although maybe I’m still reacting to the bacon.

My house

I made my first posole the other day, which was a little intimidating because my roommate is one kick-ass soup chef. I’m more of a baker, but armed with hominy corn and a recipe from, I was ready to go.

Even though the recipe was definitely on the “easy” side, I think I used like ten pots and pans to make this. I also splattered everything within a ten foot radius of the stove when I was frying up the lamb. The posole turned out great though. I mostly stuck to the recipe, but I did add half an onion to the recipe, and garnished with radishes. I also made cute little cornbread muffins to go with the posole (see above). Good stuff.

I still haven’t found a good place for Navajo tacos (open faced tacos on fry bread), but now whenever I need posole, green chile cheeseburgers, or a chance to ‘feast while reflecting on the common ideals of humanity,’ I don’t have to go all the way down to New Mexico.

Las Vegas to Las Vegas

Anytime I get to drive east from Las Vegas and don’t have to dip down into Phoenix, it’s going to be a good drive. I don’t know how half of one state can be so gorgeous while the other half is basically hell on earth. Of course anywhere in New Mexico is sure to be awesome. If you are ever taking the twelve hour Las Vegas, Nevada to Las Vegas, New Mexico drive, make sure you stop a lot along the way.

It used to be that you’d get 40 minutes out of Vegas and you’d find yourself in a two hour Hoover Dam traffic jam. Not anymore, as the new bridge whisks you over the top. Of course, you are missing driving across the New Deal Monument (sorry…teaching American history now – we are just getting past the Depression), but if you’ve seen it a million times, be happy for the bridge. Before you get to the Arizona-Nevada state line, be sure to pull over and check out Lake Mead. It’s not much to swim in, but the surrounding mountains always look cool. There is plenty of space to pull over, read plaques, and take pictures. The Lake Mead Visitors Center is closed for some pretty major renovations, so snap your picture and move onward.

Flagstaff is a next good stop. This pine-tree and university town is lucky enough to get great weather in the summer and enough snow for skiing in the winter. Drive down the historic Route 66 and do some shopping and/or drinking in the streets just east of N Humphreys and north of E Santa Fe. If it’s summer and you are doing things leisurely (which I hope you are!), dip down highway 89A and check out Slide Rock State Park and Sedona.

Forty five minutes down I-40 is Winslow, Arizona. Pull out your “Hell Freezes Over” CD and drive down to E. 2nd street to check out the Standin’ on the Corner Park. If you are in the mood for gourmet southwestern cuisine, The Turquoise Room at La Posada Hotel is a rare shining spot in this depressed little town.

I crossed the Arizona-New Mexico border at nighttime, which is sad. The slabs of red rock are an appropriate welcome to the state, even though they are decorated with statues of Native warriors and teepees. The whole scene is about as authentic as a dreamcatcher (um, that would be not very), but the scenery is so striking, I usually don’t care.

When you hit Gallup stop at Blake’s Lotaburger for a green chile cheeseburger. Or anywhere really, they are deliciously addicting. If you will be in this corner of New Mexico for more than a day or two, give The Blue Desert Guide Company a call for an authentic New Mexico experience. Amanda and Vino (former Navajo Reservation teachers) LOVE to show off their favorite part of the world. If you are only here for a few hours, make sure the sun is either going up or down. Southwest sunsets and rises are the best here.

Albuquerque gets a bad rap, which is good for cheap hotel rooms (usually less than $50 by the airport. I mean “Sunport”), but the Sandia Mountains are nice, as is the area around the University. Luckily, Santa Fe is on the way to Las Vegas. Santa Fe is not as cool as most people say it is, but the central plaza is pretty cute. Do some window shopping, (but if you are serious about buying Native goods, head back to Gallup where they are half the price), take a picture of the missions and the adobde buildings. Just don’t lose you pictures when your computer crashes (it’s been a fun week).

The quick drive between Santa Fe and Las Vegas, NM is really nice. I did it when the sun was rising in the morning, which I highly recommend. The Santa Fe National Forest, the low mountain passes, the mountian homes in the hills and the tiny little towns make for a nice drive.

As you coast off the exit and head down into Las Vegas, you won’t find any half-naked dancers, Elvi, or screaming blackjack tables. This Las Vegas is a great place to spend a couple hours though. Grab some posole and poke around the parks, shops, and museum on Grand Ave. Revel in the quiet and be glad you aren’t down $500.    

 

 

People You Should Find in New Mexico

My favorite moment in Egypt wasn’t seeing the pyramids or cruising down the Nile. It was drinking sugar cane water with an Egyptian woman who’d just wrapped a headscarf around me and proudly announced, “Now you look like Muslim woman.”

In China it was staying up late talking with Elaine about guys, family, and life. In Mongolia it was the taxi driver who could have so easily ripped me off, but didn’t. And the reason I’m so attached to Norway is probably because of all those nights drinking and dancing with my favorite Scandinavian.  

New Mexico was no exception. Of course I loved the green chile cheeseburgers, the Navajo pottery shards that littered Oso Vista Ranch, and the pueblos atop mesas that people still live in. But it was the people that made the trip. If life (or a plane) takes you to the Four Corners/New Mexico area, I highly recommend you find these people and the restaurant/pueblo/company/ranch/canyon that they are connected to.

Calvin: Since the Canyon de Chelly National Monument is on Native land, visitors that want to go down into the canyon can only do so with a Navajo guide. There are about 60 guides available to give tours, but Calvin Watchman should be your man. Not only did he regal us with stories of his adventures climbing through the ruins that are tucked in high canyon crevices (he also fell several stories off said ruins), but he also pulled our car out of the mud. Calvin has a pretty deep connection to the place, and still has land there. It’s the same land that his grandmother resided on when she raised him. Calvin grew up solely in the canyon until he was twelve, wherein the government realized that he wasn’t in school. He did have some initial success escaping the confines of school at Fort Wingate, but now he frequently returns to his home without what I picture as cowboy-style-school-policemen hot on his heels.

Watchman’s tour company is called Tseyi Trails. Call 928-349-8528 to arrange things. The exact price of a tour depends on what you want to do (hiking, horseback riding, overnight camping) and if you will be driving your own car or his.  Without a guide, visitors can still enjoy scenic overlooks and hike the White House Trail.

Jim and Barbara: Scenic overlooks are a bit more nerve wracking if you are hanging out with Jim and Barbara. Instead of causally enjoying a view I was listening to Jim telling me to hang my heels off the edge of this cliff and casually sit back. Like, into thin air. It took me awhile, but I did it. As the owner of Kokopelli Adventures, Jim is used to coaxing people up and down rock walls. Working with at-risk kids is his specialty. He brings portable rock climbing walls to schools, takes groups hiking and canoeing, and teaches team building and leadership skills to kids through climbing and other activities. “My hope is that some of them will put me out of business pretty soon,” he says. If clutching rock faces sounds like fun (and it is!), check out Kokopelli Adventures here or give Jim a call at 505-863-9941.

Tahama:  Definitely the spunkiest person (spunky: not my favorite word, but describes Tahama perfectly) that I met in New Mexico, Tahama was our guide through the Acoma Pueblo at Sky City. Continuously inhabited since the 1100’s, the 300+ buildings atop the mesa still serve as the cultural hub of the Acoma people. Although most families live elsewhere, many, like Tahama, return to their mother’s ancestral home for special events and festivals.

Sky City is between Albuquerque and Gallup off of highway 40. If you want to visit the pueblo, mesa, and surrounding areas, you must check in at the visitors center and sign up for a guided tour. Tours are given between February and November. Check their website ahead of time for tour times and a calendar of non-tour dates. Though I can’t promise Tahama will be your guide (she was finished with college, studying for her real estate license, and hanging out part time in Albuquerque at the time of my tour), hope for her anyways. She answered all questions and related the stories and history of the Acoma people ease and humor. Plus she had a few questions of her own. When she took a picture of Amanda and I, we told her that we’d met for the first time a few hours ago at the Albuquerque airport. She looked horrified. “How do you know each other aren’t serial killers?” she asked. We both smiled for the camera in response.

Amanda: I didn’t turn out to be a serial killer, and Amanda definitely wasn’t one either.  Instead, she’s a former Navajo teacher who can’t quite stand being away from the Four Corners area of New Mexico. She’s been to about a million different countries (ask her about getting to the islands off the coast of Panama – funny story), but ever since she was seven, New Mexico has felt like home. With her connections to the area, in-depth knowledge of the culture, and contagious love for the San Juan Flats surrounding Tohatchi, she’s a natural tour guide. Plus she makes awesome posole. Check out Blue Desert Guide Company’s website for different tour packages and gorgeous pictures of the area.

Margaret: Of all the great people that Amanda and BDGC is associated with, Margaret is definitely the kindest. There is no way I can ever picture her saying a mean thing. It’s just not possible. Like Amanda, Margaret came out to New Mexico to teach. She describes the same sense of coming home as soon as the Zuni mountains and mesas came into view. Margaret owns and maintains Oso Vista Ranch where we stayed. I could go on and on about the house (adobe windowsills, local art decor, great views, cozy fireplaces…) for awhile, but the teacher in me also has to mention the fact that Margaret opens up the ranch for several weeks during the summer while she runs an outreach program for local kids. Check out the Oso Vista Ranch Project’s website for more details. If you are interested in booking a stay at the ranch, information on how to do that can be found here.

My trip through New Mexico was sponsored by the Blue Desert Guide Company. The opinions expressed here are solely my own.

Coming Home and Leaving

Since August I’ve had three oil changes in three different states. I’ve gone from Seattle to Wisconsin to Vegas to Key West to Boston and back. I’ve heard Maroon 5 and Christina Aguilera’s “Moves like Jagger” approximately 700 million times on radio stations across the country. (My car and my iPod are apparently not compatible).

So when I got home last night and threw my first load of clothes into the washer, I was only thinking one thing: Thank God I’m leaving in three days.

And I am beyond excited about this next trip. This past month I’ve been screaming “I can’t wait for New Mexico!” in inappropriate places (Philadelphia’s Independence Hall, for example) because not only do I love hiking through red canyons, but this will also be my first press trip.

The opportunity to horseback ride through the Zuni Mountains came about by my participation in MatadorU’s travel writing program. I knew enrolling in the course was a good idea after seeing my instructor’s byline in National Geographic Traveler, but tons of magazine contacts and a plethora of press trips are also definite bonuses.  

This trip to New Mexico comes from the Blue Desert Guide Company. Started by two former teachers (teachers! my favorite kind of people!), my trip with BDGC means visiting pueblos, hiking in the Bisti Badlands and the Chuska Mountains, staying at the Oso Vista Ranch, exploring the Canyon de Chelly, watching Zuni dancers, rock climbing, and horseback riding. And I’m only seeing a small fraction of what BDGC can offer. Guides Amanda and Vino have lived and worked in New Mexico for several years, and their connection to the area means that they can take travelers to reservations, ancient destinations, and off-the-beaten-path locations not accessible to most people. Their website is full of stunning canyon and vista shots, proving that there is no better combination than red rocks and blue sky.

I already know that the area is gorgeous. A trip last summer from Mesa Verde, CO to Las Vegas took me though the Four Corners region. I was dying to stop and look around, but the rock stuck between my brake pads meant that my car was hell-bent on screeching its way to the nearest auto repair shop. I can’t wait to return in someone else’s vehicle. Mine needs a rest.     

I’m most excited (okay, and a little bit nervous) for the rock climbing. I’ve always wanted to be surrounded by ropes and mountain cliffs, but never had the chance (aka, I’ve never dated a guy who’s been into rock climbing. Now I don’t have to). Kokopelli Adventures is going to swoop in for this part of the trip, and I hope my arm strength will not disgust them.

Excuse me while I do a set of push ups.

I’m excited to flex my writing muscles as well. After re-reading press trip advice on Kaleidoscopic Wandering (my go-to blog for travel and writing advice) and talking to Julie Schwietert from MatadorU, I have a list of publications to pitch to. Plus I have twelve different people telling me to take pictures of everything I see, collect contact information from everyone I meet, and write down even the minutest of details. So if this blog is suddenly inundated with 342 pictures of the bathrooms at the Albuquerque airport, you’ll know why.   

So I’m off to go buy another memory card, get my climbing arms in shape at the gym, and get another oil change. Maybe I’ll hear “Moves Like Jagger” on the way to the store. Maybe I’ll forget I’m home and check into the hotel down the street. I kind of hope so. I already miss being on the road. New Mexico cannot come soon enough.

Hiking above the Santa Fe Tourists

I spent two days in Kansas City and easily wrote four blog posts about the city. The fountains, the jazz, the Royals, the barbecue, the Spanish architecture…there was so much to write about.

 I spent three days in and around Santa Fe, and I’m writing…one post. I just didn’t fall in love with the city. And I thought I would! Everyone always raves about this southwest town. Plus the red rock forests of New Mexico are stunning, and adobe buildings make great pictures, AND I like Mexican food.

 

Don’t get me wrong, New Mexico’s mountains and small towns I immediately fell in love with (hellooooo, Pie Town!), but I just couldn’t get attached to Santa Fe or Taos. The adobe was gorgeous, but the towns seemed a bit on the touristy side. I can’t wait to head back to New Mexico next month, but I’m glad I’ll be exploring the northwestern deserts, mountains, and pueblos with the Blue Desert Guide Company instead.

But even in Santa Fe and Taos, mountains salvaged my trip. After I got bored shopping I hit some trails. Here are a few day hikes if you are in town and are NOT in the market for dried chili wreaths or miniature adobe doll houses. 

Santa Fe

Luckily, Santa Fe is at the base of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains. An easy, 4-mile day hike in these mountains is the Borrego Loop. This is a hike that starts by heading downhill, follows a creek, and then climbs back uphill for the last two miles. Hikes that start off downhill can scare off some people, but don’t let a tougher ending dissuade you – it’s a pretty east hike. Actually, it’s a popular place for trail runners as well. For directions, specifics, and other hiking options, check out www.sdcmountainworks.com/hiking. The website claims that there is a meadow near the creek that is perfect for a picnic, but I would disagree. Scratchy, patchy grass is actually not perfect for a picnic. Take your eats to Fort Marcy Park after the hike instead.

Taos

Now to be fair, Taos isn’t only for shopping and trying to spot Julia Roberts (does she still live there?). The other touristy thing to do in Taos is to head just north out of town to the historical Taos pueblo. However, it was closed when I was there in late August. So again, up the mountains I headed. There is not a lot of online information about Taos hikes, so I went to the Camino Real Ranger Station, which is on highway 64 East/Kit Carson Road. They introduced me to several hiking options in the Taos Canyon and Carson National Forest. I decided on the Devisadero Loop Trail #108. (5.1 miles, 1,114 elevation gain, moderate difficulty). The trail head is on highway 64 just beyond the Ranger Station. You have to park in the lot on the right side of the road, but the trailhead is across the street on the left side of the road.

 This trail was long. It seemed longer than its 5.1 miles. Perhaps that’s because you actually climb about four peaks in succession before looping back down. I really enjoyed it though. The stubby trees provided scenic greenery but didn’t block views of Taos (a bigger city than I’d thought), the surrounding mountains and valleys, and rain storms headed my way. The trail was well marked and just challenging enough. The trail is open in the summer and spring for hiking, biking, and horseback riding. In the winter you can head up the trail on your cross country skies or snowshoes.

 Albuquerque

I hit a trail in Albuquerque too, but that wasn’t to escape trendy boutique shops. I actually didn’t get the chance to explore ABQ at all, so it could be nothing like the northern towns. I’d come here solely to tackle a trail. On my way to New Mexico I signed up for the Dirty Lil’ 10K, aka my first trail run. Signing up for a race a week in a half was uncharacteristically forward thinking of me. I was so unused to planning ahead that I forgotten that I’d signed up for the race and tried to sign up again. The system was idiot-proof and wouldn’t let me pay twice.

The Dirty Lil’ 10K starts at the base of the Sandia Mountains where the new Sandia Tramway (and the associated museum) is. This was a very scenic trail, I suppose. I looked up once to take stock of the city below me, glowing gold as the sun rose over the mountains with hot air balloon dotting the sky. Then I almost tripped over a tree root, reminded myself that I was running on a trail, and my eyes never left the trail again. Later on I was perusing the race website and they corroborated my observation with the following trail explanation:

“…trail of the Sandia Foothills with beautiful views if you have the ability to look around. Most single track with plenty of dbl track and opportunities to pass with a handful of small technical sections. Course is challenging and the last mile will definitely be faster than the first mile!”

This was true. The first ½ mile was pretty much straight uphill. We didn’t even get four minutes in before people were walking, swearing, and yelling “whose bright ideas was it to do this race?” at their friends.

It was fun though. Check out http://www.trisportcoaching.com next summer to sign up. The race was September 11th this year (a veteran who was at the Pentagon ten years before gave a speech to commemorate the day, and all the participants softly sang The Star Spangled Banner after), and will hopefully take place next year around the same time. The 10K was $35, which proceeds going to fund the Juvenile Diabetes Research Foundation. There is also a Half Marathon run ($55) if you are so inclined. The race is capped at around 100 people, so beware. I signed up in late August, but the race did close a few days later.

So here’s to the Sandia Mountains, the Carson National Forest, and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, for salvaging my New Mexico vacation and saving me tons of money that would have otherwise been spent on touristy items (sorry New Mexican economy…)