With recent travels and photography work, I am well behind in sharing a few delights found along the way. As I walked into Kellys Brew Pub in Albuquerque two Friday’s ago, the wait staff was busy setting up extra tables and hanging green banners in anticipation of the big crowds that would make the most of the Saint Patrick’s Day weekend leading right into the big green day on Monday.
Kellys (with no apostrophe) was the perfect spot for such a blowout. It consumed a major portion of a prime chunk of land across the street from the University of New Mexico campus. Beautifully aged wooden tables, massive enough to seat 18 people, lined the two expansive rooms of the pub with wonderful open seating areas just outside the entry doors. There certainly would be good times in the brew pub for all “wearing the green” over the weekend.
Me? I was there to “devour the green.” There was a time I would have been right in the mix knocking back beers with the raucous crowd, but that was a long time past. The green I was looking for was the bar’s highly recommended green chili soup.
The soup was just the luncheon part of my three meals honoring the esteemed New Mexican cuisine that is a melding of Mexican, Mediterranean, Native American and chuck wagon. Quite a mouthful, but the key ingredient is always the use of native chili peppers, which comes either in red or green depending on when the pepper is harvested. In New Mexico green chili peppers rule.
My knowledge of the state’s beloved green chili pepper and where I needed to enjoy the best came from the kindness and knowledge of Stephanie Mahal. A former rower at KU, and one of the students Laura helped guide through her classes, Mahal returned to KU’s athletic department to work with at-risk student-athletes and the softball team after years working with New Mexico’s basketball program. With her list in hand, I was off to New Mexico for the NCAA Indoor Track & Field Championship.
Walking along the sidewalk in front of Frontier Restaurant the next morning, I felt I was out in the wide-open spaces of the old frontier. To get to the entrance, I kept passing room after room, all of good size, that stretched for most of a block. Once inside, I stared up at a menu above the kitchen that spread so wide that making a decision on my breakfast choice was difficult. I settled on a breakfast burrito brimming with chorizo sausage, eggs, onions, cilantro and topped with cheese. Naturally, when I looked inside, there carefully lining the tortilla were slice after slice of green chilies. I topped it all off with heated red chili sauce and dug in while looking around the old establishment.
The green chili peppers provided the right amount of bite while the warm red chili sauce kept the cheese just gooey enough. I worked my way slowly through most of it before setting my fork down to watch the wonderful mix of college students lit by the glow of their laptops while older men sat back reading the morning newspaper or engaged in conversations filled with laughter. Before I left, I made sure to walk through all five of the large seating areas that clearly brim on weekends. Signs banning study groups and meetings on Saturday and Sunday from nine in the morning until one in the afternoon was all the proof needed.
While the green chilies settled well on my stomach, the quantity of my breakfast fare meant a long and torturous workout was needed before lunch. Even before walking into Kellys with track and field’s media contact, Brad Gilbert, I pledged to restrain myself. I settled on a soup and sandwich combo with half a tuna sandwich, again lined with tasty green chilies, and then the highly recommended green chili soup. By lunches end, the soup joined my list of food favorites.
I would love to slurp down a bowl of that soup every day, but like so many of my favorites, I would soon look like a roly poly. The green chilies blended perfectly in the cream-based delight. I wish I would have ordered a bigger bowl of soup instead of the combo. However, I was even happier to have avoided the massive sandwich platter flanked with regular fries and sweet potato fries Gilbert consumed. Thankfully, Gilbert is still blessed to live in that age range when the metabolism of youth means no quantity of food is off-limits.
Word of my food journey began to spread through the track and field group. By the time the day’s practice concluded, trainer Zach Sanchez, masseur Kyle Rodgers, active release chiropractor T.J. Hackler and Gilbert, squeezed into my compact Nissan rental car for the journey to Sadie’s, the number one dinner spot Mahal recommended.
The time had come to get into the Christmas spirit. Mahal made sure to inform me that to truly enjoy the food at Sadie’s, I needed to get both green and red chilies on my order of Sadie’s classic enchiladas. The only true insider way to do it, though, was to ask for my chilies “Christmas” style.
Despite the warnings on the menu that the heat of the peppers could be dangerous, I savored every bite along with the sight of the heavily porked-up orders of the group. The only person in danger was Rodgers, who chose what seemed to be the safer nacho platter.
Instead, the nachos came carefully layered and heaped epically high requiring two platters to handle the weight. Watching Rodgers try to work his way through the monstrosity brought on such laughter, we all could have easily seen our dinners coming back up on us.
This was a challenge worthy of the popular Man vs. Food series and one that Rodgers could not come close to conquering. Despite all his efforts, the boxed portion of his leftovers amazed us with its heft that easily reached four pounds. The next day Rodgers had us roaring again with his tales of trying to sleep through the night with such a load weighing on his stomach.
My tour was complete. I had to pass on many fine eateries on Mahal’s extensive list the rest of the weekend due to work and my desire to return with Laura for round two. For now, I felt I did justice honoring New Mexico’s savory green chili pepper.