I am lucky enough to have gotten to live in New Mexico for nearly 4 years. They weren’t 4 contiguous years; I actually lived there twice, due to being called back onto Active Duty after September 11th.
I lived there long enough for it to become a part of me, but the truth is that it didn’t take long for me to learn to love the High Desert.
I remember when I first found out that I would be stationed in Albuquerque, back when I was still going through training for the US Air Force. You see, the Air Force cleverly pits you against your classmates (great way to inspire teamwork, don’t you think?) by allowing whomever is first in the class to have first pick of assignments. People got pretty cutthroat about this, but my attitude was always one of “one person’s good assignment is another person’s bad assignment” and I turned out to be exactly right. The number one guy in our class? He picked Dayton, Ohio. Yep. No offense intended to anybody living there, but I have to say that this isn’t exactly where I dream of going. He picked it because his wife didn’t want to have to live far from her mom and dad. I get it, I really do, but when you marry a military guy and insist that you can’t go far from home, well, I have little patience with you. So this poor guy worked his behind off and picked… Dayton. And me, smack dab in the middle of the class- not kidding, out of ten people, I got to pick 5th- I got to choose to go live in the mountains. Sadly, there wasn’t anything as interesting as Korea or Europe in our class drop, but the mountains of New Mexico made me very happy. I recall one of my classmates smugly sneering at my assignment, informing me of how hot and miserable I would be, living there in Albuquerque…
He couldn’t have been more wrong. I found Albuquerque to be a quirky and interesting city, and the weather in that part of the country? It suited me just fine. It still does. I recall having a 3rd floor apartment, the nicest one I had ever had and I was so proud of it, with a kind of off-to-the-side view of Sandia Peak, and I rarely turned on my air conditioning, preferring instead to sleep with windows open and fans running in that dry, high-altitude climate. My then-boyfriend now-husband would visit me often, and he grew to love the area as well. We would explore as much as we could together, and then, when I wasn’t working or traveling for my job I would explore as much as I could on my own. I have such good memories of New Mexico, driving on a Saturday morning in the fall up to Taos, taking the High Road to Taos, stopping frequently to buy apples and chile. I remember stopping at one little roadside stand to buy a bushel of apples and commenting to the lady that I would love to know how to make green chile, and the next thing I knew, I was standing in her kitchen getting a lesson in New Mexico cuisine.
I still make green chile stew the way she showed me. And I still dream of the smell of green chiles roasting in the fall.
Those apples I would buy? I used them to perfect pie-making the way the lady I rented a room from in New Britain, CT, showed me. My office loved that particular obsession of mine; what’s not to to love, except perhaps the calories, about a freshly made apple pie each week during the fall?
We still try to get back to New Mexico every year or every other year, but this is the first time we’ve made it out in the fall, and it was heavenly. We missed the balloon fiesta by one day, but that was probably for the best because of our standby travel habits- things get a little crazy getting in and out of Albuquerque during the fiesta, for good reason, because it is an incredible experience and some day I do want my family to see it. When I lived there, I worked balloon chase crews every year- I was hoping for a free balloon ride, which I got, once. But mostly we go back for the hiking, for the views and the crisp, dry air and the skies so blue that they don’t seem real. And for the food. It always comes back to the food for us. I even bring a freezer bag so that I can bring home as much red and green chile as I can carry! I’ve even perfected a recipe for Carne Adovada so that I can taste New Mexico back home in Atlanta. I’m rather proud of it.
If you ever travel there, I hope you love it the way we do. To help that along, I’ve included here our list of Albuquerque musts when we are there:
Flying Star Cafe on Juan Tabo: There are multiple locations of this local chain, but this is our favorite because of the patio. Having their Huevos Rancheros, smothered in green chile that is just the right amount of heat, has become a first day in NM tradition for us. Of course it must be under those impossibly blue skies, which is why we love the patio.
Frontier Restaurant: Not really a “must” for me, but definitely is for my husband and son. It’s a New Mexico thing, though, and they do a lot of green chile and these Frontier Rolls that appear to be a sort of cinnamon roll. Lots of food for cheap. It’s no coincidence that it’s across the street from the University of New Mexico campus.
Monroe’s: Best Carne Adovada I’ve found that I don’t have to make myself. This is a diner- it’s not posh, not fancy. Just delicious homemade New Mexican food.
The Palms Trading Co.: Conveniently, Monroe’s is located right next door to this place, which is your go-to if you want some pueblo pottery or turquoise or baskets. While the square in Santa Fe is beautiful and a place you have to see as well, if you want to buy, buy from here. I’ve watched ladies from nearby pueblos bringing in their handmade goods in laundry baskets, covered in towels. It’s the real deal.
Sandia Crest House: While we of course adore taking the tram up to the top of the mountain (and my husband loves to hike La Luz trail to the top), fewer people know that you can drive around the back side of Sandia Peak and access the Sandia Crest House. One year I watched the balloon glow of the Balloon Fiesta from up here- a sight to see. But the views are amazing even without balloons, and the green chile cheeseburgers PLUS the views make this one of our perennial favorites. Be prepared- it’s almost always chilly and windy up here. It’s at over 11,000 feet in elevation, after all.
Weck’s: If we don’t eat brunch at Flying Star, we go to Weck’s. You don’t go here for the atmosphere or the views; you go here for the food. Specifically, you go for the breakfast. I love the Bowl O’Papas, which is New Mexico slang (I guess?) for potatoes*. It’s just a bowl filled with hashbrowns, topped with a fried egg and smothered in red or green chile. If you have this for breakfast, you should definitely hike La Luz trail to the top of Sandia. Or just hike somewhere, for goodness’ sake. It’s not exactly light fare.
Betty’s Bath and Day Spa: This is where I go when my husband and son are ascending the 5K vertical feet to the top of Sandia Peak. I think I make the better choice.
And there you have our list of absolute favorites while in Albuquerque. It’s only taken us 21 years to perfect this. You’re welcome.
* The word papas is apparently also slang for food, though not being a Spanish speaker I don’t know if this is just a New Mexico thing or applies elsewhere. I only know as much as I do because it was my daughter’s first word. When I was called back on Active Duty, she was 9 months old and her caretakers on Kirtland AFB spoke Spanish to her. I just wish I could have kept that going. She would be fluent now. Sigh.