It's spring and wanderlust is in the air. It's the perfect time for a road trip to explore the Land of Enchantment's wonderful world of food, with stops at old mining towns, haunted hotels, a vintage Route 66 diner and an opera house that dates to the days of the Wild West. Here are a few recommendations based on my past road trips, but by no means does this list scratch the surface. I'd love to hear about the great eateries you've discovered in our food-filled state!
Southern Food in Madrid
First stop on the tour is The Hollar, a perfect fit with Madrid's funky vibe. Housed in a ramshackle building with a great outdoor patio, The Hollar offers an eclectic blend of good, old-fashioned Southern comfort food like fried tomatoes and grits along with chile rellenos and other authentic Mexican fare. Try the ocean scallops with corn fritters or the fried chicken and grits for dinner and don't forget order the fried dill pickle chips and fried okra. It's easy to imagine that many of the foods served here were once staples for the miners and their families who came here during Madrid's mining heyday and lived in DIY kit houses the mining company ordered from the Sears' catalog.
A Los Lunas Mansion
Next stop, Los Lunas, for a visit to the Luna Mansion, an elegant steakhouse in a historic mansion built as gift from the Santa Fe Railway to the powerful Luna family in exchange for a right-of-way through the family's land grant holdings. The mansion is the only known Victorian Southern Colonial structure made with adobe, and its apparently been haunted for decades by the spirits of former residents, including Josefita, daughter of the founder of the Santa Fe New Mexican, who's been spotted rocking in a chair at the top of the stairs before she vanishes.
The food at Luna Mansion gets rave reviews, from the 21-day aged beef, hand-carved by local butchers to the chef's specifications, to the seafood, pasta and salads, including the Maytag Wedge, made with crisp iceberg lettuce leaves, tomato, bacon and blue cheese crumbles.
South to Las Cruces
From here south all the way to Las Cruces and the historic town of Mesilla , where the acclaimed La Posta has been serving steaks and traditional New Mexican specialties since 1939. The restaurant is located in a compound built in the 1840s as the office for a freight and passenger train that serviced nearby Los Altos. Later, it was a stop for the Butterfield Stagecoach Line.
The rambling building has more than a few ghost stories connected with it, and played a central role in the town's Wild West history. When Katie Griggs, daughter of a renowned La Mesilla merchant, opened her “chile joint”— initially just four tables on a dirt floor—she quickly became famous for her New Mexican food, made from family recipes handed down through generations. Everyone from movie stars to presidents came to taste her acclaimed food, and many of her original dishes are on the menu today, including "Tostada Compuesta," a toasted tortilla cup filled with frijoles, red chile con carne,chopped lettuce, diced tomatoes and cheddar cheese.
Silver City Gems
Journey north to Silver City, where Billy the Kid lived when he was a kid. The town's Wild West past remains visible in its old saloon and the surrounding ancient cave dwellings of the Mogollan people in the New Mexico Gila National Forest. Here, you'll find one of the most famous restaurants in the state— The Curious Kumquat, helmed by chef Rob Connoley, winner of Saveur magazine's award for the most far-flung modernist cuisine. Located on Bullard Street in a historic house that dates to the 1870s, the restaurant offers eclectic rooms and a front patio, surrounded by lush gardens with a great view of the town's main drag. The menu features local foods prepared in a contemporary style, with a nod to the historic Apache diet, Try the lamb chop, purchased from 4H youth, or the prickly pear ancho rabbit, mole negro cauliflower, Korean duck and spring vegetable roast.
Just down the street, you'll find the famous Diane's Restaurant, serving up acclaimed hand-carved steaks, seafood and pasta since the 1970s. Diane has since been joined by her two sons, both skilled chefs, and the house specialties include Crab Cakes San Diego style, with a chipotle sauce; portabello mushroom ragout with white beans, spinach, leeks and yellow squash served on bruschetta; and sesame-crusted salmon with teriyaki stir fry and jasmine rice.
Gold in Pinos Altos
Just a quick jaunt from Silver City lies Pinos Altos, where gold was found in the mid-1800s, creating a gold rush. Here, you'll find the infamous Buckhorn Saloon & Opera House, which opened in 1860s to accommodate all the panhandlers and gold-seekers who arrived. Today, the place is a popular steakhouse offering Cowboy-Cut Ribeye, prime rib and surf and turf as well as miso-rubbed Chilean sea bass, pan-seared Muscovy duck, buffalo burger and more.
The Lodge Resort, a historic lodge in the mountain town of Cloudcroft, is known for its ghost, Rebecca, a red-haired chambermaid who disappeared in the early 1900s after finding her lover in the arms of another. Since then, her ghost has been spotted in the hotel rooms, and strange events have taken place—furniture moving, lights turning on and off, doors opening and closing, ashtrays sliding across tables, all by unseen hands. Flames have mysterious ignited in fireplaces, as well.
Rebecca's, the lodge's restaurant and many famous people have dined here since the resort opened in 1899, built by the Alamogordo and Sacramento Railway. Guests included Pancho Villa, Clark Gable and Judy Garland and hotelier Conrad Hilton worked as the lodge's manager in the 1930s. Named after a resident ghost who's long haunted the resort, Rebecca's offers breakfast, lunch and dinner as well as an elaborate Sunday champagne brunch with carved meats, seafood, salads and desserts. Take a seat in the lounge at a bar once owned by Al Capone, then dine on the restaurant's Continental fare, including chateaubriand for two and pistachio-crusted ruby trout.
Billy the Kid Country
Head east to the Billy the Kid Trail and drive to old Lincoln and the Ellis Store Country Inn, 35 miles north of Ruidoso The Ellis Store played a central role in the Lincoln County War in the late 1800s, when Billy the Kid holed up here during a five-day gun battle. He was caught and kept under house arrest in the store, awaiting a pardon he never received from Gov. Lew Wallace. Here, you can stay in a room that the Kid really did sleep in, and enjoy one of the best meals in New Mexico prepared by Jinny Vigil and served in a candlelit dining room known as Isaac's Table. The inn boasts a wine cellar and the food is Continental with a focus on French cooking , including rack of antelope, chateaubriand with roasted vegetables and green chile apple pie with homemade ice cream. Reservations are required.
In Roswell, you'll find Big D's Downtown Dive an eclectic diner serving fresh, local ingredients in the heart of UFO country. Some fans firmly believe this diner deserves to be featured on Guy Fieri's Food Network show, Diners, Drive-ins and Dives. Try the Bangkok Chicken Wings spiked with garlic, lime, cilantro, sesame and sirachi and served with chipotle dressing. Then have the crispy pork belly sandwich, the Catfish Po'boy or the Texas BBQ Burger, followed by Soul Food Momma's Bread Pudding.
The Spirits of Cimarron
Up in Cimarron, once a stop on the Santa Fe Trail, Frenchman Henri Lambert opened the St. James Hotel in 1872, serving everyone from lawmen to outlaws. Before moving to New Mexico, Lambert cooked for many notables in Washington, D.C. and the list of guests who enjoyed his food and hospitality at the St. James reads like a Who's Who of the Wild West—Jesse James, Black Jack Ketchum, Billy the Kid, Buffalo Bill Cody and even the Earp brothers and their wives. Having heard of alarming ghost stories connected to this hotel, I went for a visit, and wasn't disappointed. There are bullet holes in the tin roof of the old dining room, a creaky staircase and vintage chandeliers that reportedly tilt. Stand outside the padlocked door of Room 18 and you'll feel a cold breeze through the keyhole. The room hasn't changed since the day cowboy T.J. Wright died there, having been shot after winning a high-stakes poker game. Spend the night across the hall in Room 17, the former bedroom of Henri Lambert's wife, Mary and you may suddenly smell roses, Mary's favorite perfume and the scent she uses to announce her presence.
Today, the St. James' menu includes prime rib, grilled rainbow trout, Santa Fe Chicken as well as enchiladas, stuffed sopapilla and other northern New Mexico specialties including a burger smothered in red or green chile and a bison half-pounder.
Route 66 Fare
Head west to Gallup, where Earl's has been serving the people of Gallup as well as travelers along Route 66 since 1947. Famous for Navajo tacos, chicken-fried steak, breakfast plates piled high with sausage, hot cakes and waffles and the requisite banana cream pie, Earl's is a slice right out of New Mexico's past, and place where you can get your kicks on Route 66.