September is Chile Month. New Mexican Chile Month to be precise — the time when towns from Hatch to Taos, New Mexico are thick with the pungent smell of the fragrant New Mexican (Anaheim) chile. Everywhere you look, you see ristras (strings of dried chiles) hanging in doorways, and the ones that don't end up as decorations become the starting point for the deeply soulful red-chile sauce that is to this cuisine what a mirepoix is to French cooking. (For those of you wondering, in New Mexico it's spelled chile and chiles — chili and chilies being something those dreaded Texans indulge in.)
Green chiles are the less-ripe brethren to the red, and no matter what your preference, each can either stand on its own as a vegetarian stew or provide the basis for a number of dishes that reach their finest expression in New Mexico. For years Downtown's El Sombrero was the only place you could find this idiosyncratic cooking (although it calls itself a Mexican joint, it's really New Mexican), but lo and behold, east of the airport, tucked into a slim little strip mall, Carlito's has become our first eatery to boldly go where no chiles have gone before, and announce itself as our first New Mexican restaurant.
True to its lineage, the cooking here centers around red or green chiles (or "Christmas" if you'd like a little of both). Newcomers should start with the relatively tame green chile and chicken quesadilla or good tamales before graduating to a steak-stuffed sopaipilla smothered in red that will kick your palate from here to Las Cruces. The heat we speak of is not that electric, tongue-searing capsaicin calamity that Thai or Szechwan peppers wreak upon your mouth, but rather a deep, more soulful heat that is unique to this roasted pepper. Posole — a hominy, red chile stew — is the mildest form of this heat on this menu, but depending upon the batch, even the green-chile stew — full of big, tender chunks of pork and potato — can bring the blaze. Chiles aren't just a crop in New Mexico, they're a religion. After a couple of meals here, you will understand why.