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The Charm is in the Chile

Why New Mexico smothered burritos are in a class of their own

By Teresa Dovalpage
Published on LatinoLA: July 20, 2011


The Charm is in the Chile


When I asked Raquel Troyce, a native of Guadalajara who lived most of her adult life in Mexico City, if she knew anything about smothered burritos, she thought I was talking about some poor little donkeys that drowned. She was familiar with regular burritos (a flour tortilla folded around chicken, beef or beans), but had never heard of "smothered" ones.

Regular burritos are mostly popular in the northern part of Mexico and it is said that they originated in Ciudad Juarez, in the state of Chihuahua. As for the "smothered" kind, they are an American creation. Maybe even a New Mexican one.

Orlando's New Mexico Caf?®, located in 1114 Don Juan Valdez Lane, is known for the quality of its food. It offers four kinds of smothered burritos: beef, chicken, vegetarian and shrimp. They are covered with chile--red, green or caribe--, topped with Jack and Cheddar cheese and served with beans and posole.

Orlando's walls are decorated with red-pepper ristras, paintings by Barbara Brocks and Berlin Padilla, and the numerous awards that the restaurant has gotten since it was opened in 1996. A large, wood carved image of San Pascual Bail??n, (patron saint of cooks) presides over the kitchen. There are also other santos that local artists have brought here to display.

Roberto Zabala, a young man from Guanajuato, is one of the five cooks currently employed by Orlando's. He has prepared over two dozens smothered burritos today.
"The New Mexico smothered burrito is unique," he said, "and it's the kind of chile we put on top that makes it different because it is so flavorful and fresh."

The other cook, Patsy Vigil, a Taos native, agrees. "Our chile is handmade from scratch," she said. "All the ingredients are cooked here, not canned or processed."

Orlando himself came up with the green chile recipe. His grandmother, Delfina Archuleta, invented the one they use to make vegetarian red chile.

Orlando started his business selling handheld burritos (the regular kind, smaller than smothered ones and with no chile on top) from a cart in Cabot Plaza. When he opened the restaurant, he added smothered burritos, enchiladas, chiles rellenos and the other delicious items now listed on the menu.

"I believe people like the smothered burritos better," said Vigil. "They have the chile flavor, the hot taste."

As for what makes a good smothered burrito, having the right texture for the tortilla is imperative. "You have to warm it up before," said Vigil. "Then, you put cheese, onion, beans, and cooked chicken, beef or shrimp inside it. Roll it up nicely and add a little bit of whatever chile you want to use, and cheese on top. Put it on the salamander briefly and let the cheese melt. Bring it out, pour more chile over the burrito and garnish it with lettuce and tomatoes, and beans and posole on the side."

The burrito must also be wrapped up properly. "Some people fold it up as if it were a tamale," said Zabala, "No! A good smothered burrito should be presented like a work of art, nicely wrapped up and covered with a thin blanket of chile."

I took Raquel to Orlando's and showed her the menu. She chose the vegetarian smothered burrito, tasted it and smiled.

"I'm sold on it," she said. "And I am relieved, too. A smothered burrito doesn't look at all like a donkey, dead or alive."

Smothered burritos recipes here.

About Teresa Dovalpage:
Teresa Dovalpage is the author of the English-language novel novels A Girl like Che Guevara (Soho Press, 2004) and Habanera, A Portrait of a Cuban Family (Floricanto Press, 2010). She has also written and published three Spanish language novels.
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