The (New Mexican) Chile Special

Or why skiing and spicy food have the same effect on your brain.

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Since early season snow took the “Turquoise Trail” into New Mexico, those headed in and around the Land of Enchantment this winter should know what else to look for aside from the white stuff: the red and green. Ski areas like Taos might give this state recognition, but its spicy chile peppers are what makes it famous. Let’s take a peek at what makes chiles and their brightly colored sauces so addictive, and the ski town spots to find the tastiest dishes.

After a day working up a sweat on the slopes, the first lesson in navigating the après chile heat is how to answer the question, “Red or green?” What the server is referring to is what color chile sauce you’d like atop your burrito, burger, bagel – or just about any food; New Mexicans add chile to everything short of toothpaste. A swinging diner will reply “Christmas,”— which means both—while others are partial to one color or the other.

What’s the difference? All chiles start off green, then as they ripen, turn to yellow then red. Green chile is made with fresh chilies that are roasted, peeled, then chopped, while red chile is made with the dried chile, reconstituted with water, and ground to a powder. Which is hotter? The answer is unanswerable. Green is often considered a bit hotter, while red is said to be milder but more pungent. But again, it varies pepper to pepper.

Turns out, eating chile peppers can produce a similar experience in the brain as skiing, giving them addictive qualities. The active component in the chiles that brings the heat is capsaicin (pronounced “cap-say-uh-son”). A 1998 study published in the American Journal of Physiology – Endocrinology and Metabolism concluded that in the brain, capsaicin causes stimulation of catecholamines and release of endorphins. This neurological effect is the same as caused by adrenaline sports.

This season, if you’re looking for as many endorphins you can find, New Mexico might give Alaska a run for it’s money. Here we have three ski areas, and three après spots to get your fill of powder and chile.

Taos: This is where to start. After skiing the notoriously steep terrain all day, head to the Stray Dog Cantina, located at the base. The meal to order: “Mexican Suzie Sushi” which consists of a blue corn battered chile relleno with grilled chicken, tomato, sour cream, rolled in a flour tortilla and cut like sushi –served on a bed of red chile.

Santa Fe: This ski area is next, with 660 acres of great skiing, it is also a mere 16 miles from downtown. A short drive, and après at the Atrisco Cafe & Bar is the spot. The Meal to Order: “Roast Leg of Lamb Burrito”. A locally grown leg of lamb from Talus Wind Ranch is roasted and thinly sliced and served with a choice of red or green chile.

Cedar Crest: At the base of Sandia Peak (the opposite side of the Tram), Albuquerque’s local ski area, is The Green Side Café. Opt for a classic “Turquoise Trail Green Chile Cheese Burger” that comes with cheddar cheese and chopped green chile atop a 1/3 pound Angus chuck patty—and try the homemade potato chips.