It’s a rite of passage in New Mexico to experience the tongue-burning sensation of the state’s prized green and red Hatch chiles. The ubiquitous pepper is found on nearly every New Mexican menu, served in myriad ways: as a spicy sauce ladled over enchiladas, or as the main vessel in chile rellenos, or even as a topping on a burger at fast-food chain Blake’s.
Every fall, the air in the Land of Enchantment is permeated with the smoky aroma of peppers roasting in cylindrical metal cages in supermarket parking lots and at roadside stands. New Mexicans will store their blistered chiles in their freezers to use for the rest of the year, like squirrels saving nuts for the winter.
In other words, Hatch chile season is kind of a big deal.
The obsession with New Mexican chiles has extended to greater Los Angeles, as chefs throughout the city are currently paying homage to the pepper by including the ingredient on their menus this harvest season. But before we get into where to sample these locally, we wanted to demystify the state’s complex pepper with the help of chile expert, Dr. Paul Bosland, who’s the founder and director of the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University (NMSU).
What exactly is a New Mexican chile?
While “Hatch chile” is a popular phrase that often gets thrown around, Bosland explains that it’s actually not a chile pod type, like how we would classify jalapeños or bell peppers. The pepper pod folks are really referencing is the New Mexican-type chile that’s grown all over the state. The ones that are farmed in Hatch Valley, which is located in New Mexico’s southern region, get the most attention because of the terroir of the land, in the same way wine is affected by where its grapes are grown. “When you grow [chiles] in Southern New Mexico versus San Diego, you do get a big flavor difference,” Bosland says. “That’s because chiles are a little more stressed here. When you stress chiles, they’re more flavorful.”
Bosland describes the flavor notes of New Mexican chiles as fruity, with earthy tones, sans the bitterness (aka “grassiness,” as chile aficionados would say). When roasted, they have a distinct smokiness that adds to its complex flavor. In terms of heat, it’s one that dissipates rapidly and strikes the middle of your palate with a flat heat, which essentially feels as if your tongue is being paint-brushed with the spice. In contrast, a habanero will have delayed heat and then linger in the back of your throat.
The origins of the New Mexican chile
Hispanic farmers originally grew these peppers in Northern and Southern New Mexico in the 1600 to 1700s, but the modern New Mexican chiles we know today were bred by horticulturist and chile pioneer Fabián Garciá, according to Bosland. García began his research at NMSU in 1888, breeding chiles that were milder in spice and more uniform than their parent peppers. Before García came along, it was like playing Russian roulette with the heat level of these chiles. It wasn’t until 1913 that García unveiled to the world his now famous New Mexican chile pod type. He then began breeding different varieties for different levels of heat so it would be predictable for consumers.
“The way to think of [New Mexican] chiles is to think of [them like] apples in the store,” Bosland says. “You have different kinds [that are all] labeled as ‘apples.’ With [these] chiles, they all look very similar [and have the same flavor profile], but they all have different heat levels.”
For example, the “NuMex Joe E. Parker” variety is mild, while the “New Mexico 6-4” has some medium spice, and the “NuMex Big Jim” and “Sandia” lean toward the hotter end of the spectrum. And fun fact: The milder “New Mexico No. 9” variety is what Californians have come to know as the Anaheim pepper because it’s grown in the Orange County city.
Red or Green?
New Mexico even has an official state question that plays into its love for its native peppers. At restaurants, servers will ask you, “Red or green?” in reference to which type of sauce you’d like your food smothered in.
Both the green and red come from the same plant. The green chile is the first crop that gets harvested in late July to late September, and then the fruits on the plants ripen and begin to turn red from the end of September to October.
“Red is sweeter than green,” Bosland says. “As the fruits mature, they [get more sugary].”
When people ask what’s hotter, the green or red, it’s hard to say because it depends on the chile variety, he says.
The “red or green” question is also a contentious topic. To say one is better than another is to use “fighting words,” Bosland says with a laugh. Everyone is loyal to their own preferences.
Where to find Hatch chiles in greater L.A.
The following local restaurants have both green and red Hatch chiles on their menus, and will be serving these dishes as long as the peppers are in season, which will likely play out through the month of September.
Panxa Cocina, a Southwestern-influenced restaurant in Long Beach, is going all out honoring the pepper with a special Hatch green chile menu that runs all month long. Chef and co-owner Arthur Gonzalez consulted with Bosland for his dishes, like a prawn-stuffed chile relleno covered in a frothy walnut sauce; Wagyu chicken fried steak smothered in Hatch chile gravy; heirloom blue corn quesadilla paired with a roasted Hatch chile jam; and for dessert, sopapilla filled with pear and Hatch chiles, accompanied by smoked vanilla ice cream.
Gonzalez, who previously lived in New Mexico, has been working with these peppers for over a decade. One of his favorite items is the chile relleno. “The preparation is similar to a dish my grandmother used to make called en nogada, which is from Oaxaca, Mexico,” Gonzalez says. “I took the same principles of that dish and used a different chile instead, that being the Hatch. I love this dish because it’s so nostalgic for me and reminds me of my childhood.”
For folks who want to get their hands on their own Hatch green chiles, Panxa Cocina will be hosting a traditional chile roasting event outside the restaurant on September 15 and 16, from noon to 5 p.m. A portion of the proceeds from Panxa’s monthlong celebration will be donated to the Chile Pepper Institute.
3937 E. Broadway, Long Beach.
At celebrity chef and meat whisperer Adam Perry Lang’s new Hole in the Wall takeaway window—a casual sibling to his fancier APL steakhouse—he employs Hatch chiles in his double-beef chili dog topped with sweet onions, cheddar, and pickled jalapeños. The chili is elevated with hand-cut prime beef chuck and a Hatch chile puree.
“Dried Hatch chiles have almost a dark, deep-cherry fruit-roll flavor and appeal to me,” Lang says. “Rehydrating and pureeing [them] offers another dimension that suspended chile powder often does not.”
1680 Vine St., Hollywood.
This Atwater Village wine bar and restaurant is featuring a special Hatch chile flatbread with sweet corn, smoked mozzarella, and squash blossoms. “Hatch chile and corn is the greatest duo!” says executive chef Mike Garber. “I cook the corn with leeks, butter, and a little cream until it is soft, and pulse it in a food processor so it still has some texture. This more or less becomes a sauce for the flatbread. Smoked mozzarella is stuffed into squash blossoms before it goes in the oven so it just slowly melts and oozes onto the flatbread—and all over the grilled-till-they-blister Hatch chiles.”
Good Measure’s owner and wine director Matthew Kaner also pairs the flatbread with a German white Pinot Noir from Gutzler.
3224 Glendale Blvd., Atwater Village
New Mexico-born chef Nick Erven says Hatch chiles are “kind of in my blood.” When he decided to create his Hatch chile carne asada fries, he decided to incorporate the pepper into his twist on Texan favorites: barbecue and queso. The base is his crispy, house-made masa fries, which are topped with strips of grilled and marinated skirt steak, a chili made with chorizo, and a queso with Hatch chiles.
“Together it tastes like the most fancy-pants version of Frito chili pie that anyone has ever had,” Erven says. “I enjoy this dish with an ice-cold Lone Star Beer.”
ROW DTLA, 787 S. Alameda St., #154, downtown.
British chef Brendan Collins has visited the Land of Enchantment on many occasions, and it was there that he came across the Hatch chile. He’s since been using it in his dishes every time it’s in season. “It’s amazing how the flavor changes when you roast them over fire. They are really unique and a true culinary blessing,” Collins says.
At Wilshire, he serves his roasted Hatch green chiles in a duck posole. The complex soup has duck-fat broth, beef-and-veal stock, chicken, and hominy that’s accompanied by duck legs and garnished with roasted chiles, Chinese cabbage, and strips of crunchy corn tortillas.
2454 Wilshire Blvd., Santa Monica.
Yardbird chef Ryan Ososky puts a spin on Yukon Gold mashed potatoes at his Southern-inspired restaurant with the addition of a Hatch-chile crème fraîche on top.
“I chose to incorporate Hatch chiles into the dish because of their versatility. They are spicy but also a little sweet, so they add a natural complexity,” Ososky says. “They are only at their peak for a short time, so I try to use them as much as possible when they are available. On top of mashed potatoes they add a great depth of flavor, but I also love using them in a chimichurri sauce for steak.”
Beverly Center, 8500 Beverly Blvd., Ste. 112, Beverly Grove.
Spartina chef and owner Stephen Kalt has a special chile relleno on his menu with an Italian twist. His are Hatch green chiles stuffed with fontina and mozzarella cheese, and then baked and dressed in a San Marzano tomato sauce.
“A decade or more ago I was in Truth or Consequences, New Mexico, during Hatch chile season and ate the most delicious chile rellenos I ever had at a tiny cafe run by a mother and daughter,” Kalt says. “[The] Hatch chiles were filled with runny, melting cheese, and covered with a light tomato sauce. It stuck with me for years and I decided to make it my own in my Cal-Ital way at Spartina.”
7505 Melrose Ave., Fairfax.
One of Freedman’s prized schmears is its smoked Hatch chile cream cheese. It’s a permanent menu item that shows up in a number of ways at this modern Jewish deli. It’s found in its bagel, egg, and fried green tomato sandwich, as well as in its signature hot dog, which is an all-dressed-up Hoffy wiener with onions, mustard, and everything-spice furikake. And in its purest form, it’s also featured in Freedman’s brunch Bagel Tower as one of the spreads.
Owner Jonah Freedman says they roast the Hatch chiles and then smoke the cream cheese separately. “I would say that the smoked flavor of the cream cheese and the natural smoke and subtle spice of the Hatch chiles work well in tandem. The fat of the cream cheese mellows out them both to create a really lovely spread.”
2619 Sunset Blvd., Echo Park.
The new Es Todo walk-up window from Sarkis Vartanian (formerly of the Daily Dose) celebrates street foods from different cultures around the world. One of its breakfast sandwiches, the Sin Fronteras, which means “without borders,” is Vartanian and his partner Javier Magallanes’s take on Mexican food. It’s stewed cactus, scrambled eggs, refried beans, cheese, and a spicy red sauce made from Hatch chiles, sandwiched between two buns. It was symbolic for them to employ nopal cactus, “an ingredient that is abundant and nearly free in the [Sonoran Desert] region,” Vartanian explains, and the Hatch chile because “there is no other seasonal pepper that’s just perfect for such a sauce and [also happens to be] native [to] New Mexico.”
The dish’s properties express the idea that there are no borders. As an extra do-good bonus, 10 percent of the sales of this sandwich will be donated to Kids in Need of Defense, an organization that gives legal representation to unaccompanied immigrant and refugee children in deportation court cases.
1801 E. 7th St., downtown.
Executive chef Christena Quinn, whose mother is a New Mexican native, brings fresh Hatch green chiles into Brack Shop Tavern and roasts them herself when they’re in season. She then adds the smoky peppers to her slow-stewed pork verde sauce that’s made with roasted onions, garlic, and tomatillos. The sauce is ladled onto her loaded chile verde fries as well as her chile verde tacos.
525 W 7th St., downtown.
Queso fundido is a mainstay on Border Grill’s menu, but during Hatch chile season, the peppers get added to this dish. It’s made with a variety of melted Mexican cheeses and paired with warmed flour tortillas.
“The Hatch chile is, for me, one that is delicate, with a bit of sweetness and then spice,” co-owner and chef Susan Feniger says. “As it ripens, it becomes even earthier and develops a hint of smokiness. Many people like that little bit of heat and depth without burning their taste buds.”
Union Bank Plaza, 445 S. Figueroa St. #100, downtown.
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