“…an overly large platter of mixed messes.” I had to smile as I dug into my combination plate in one of Santa Fe’s terrific New Mexican restaurants. I was remembering that quote, famous — even infamous — in food circles. It was made many years back by Diana Kennedy, a recognized authority on Mexican food. I respected the late author on many food topics, but I completely disagreed with her disdain for the north-of-the-border combination plate.
I love the chance to sample multiple dishes when dining out. When I can’t choose among preparations I know I already like, or I’m trying a new restaurant where lots of different items tempt me, I find the combo route is the most satisfying way to go.
MIX IT UP with Combo Plates
The notion of combining some mix of enchiladas, tacos, tamales, rellenos, maybe some carne adovada or carne con chile, and more, is very much a dining-out deal, too. It’s rare that home cooks have all these dishes, or more, sitting around at one time. Since a combo eliminates the need to order multiple dishes to enjoy great variety, I think of it as an extra-good value too.
Combo plates are so common today, we don’t think much about them having a starting point. The tradition probably began in Texas about a century ago, when a San Antonio restaurant called the Original Mexican Restaurant allowed patrons to combine items. The idea really took off, though, after the proprietor of the El Fenix in Dallas gave his combo plates numbers to further simplify the process for the staff and customers.
To this day, I enjoy the Tex-Mex combo plates served to our east, under blankets of brick red chile gravy. However, I most love our New Mexico version of these, found from Las Cruces to Farmington. In addition to at least some of the dishes mentioned above, our combo plates usually have a side of pinto beans, either whole or refried. In the north, posole will also come on the side, and in the south, rice might replace the corn specialty.
These days, it’s not uncommon to get beans, posole, and rice. A fluffy flour tortilla, or an even fluffier sopapilla or two, will likely show up on the side. Oh . . . and honey . . . we must have honey to go with that sopapilla! Yes, it’s a carbo-palooza, but it’s so delicious.
RED, GREEN, OR CHRISTMAS?
Of course, here in the Land of Enchantment, there’s the choice of red or green chile. In a new restaurant, I typically opt for “Christmas,” to get both. That way, I can judge what I think is best or most harmonious with the dishes ordered, so I can choose that one on my next visit. In restaurants where I already know the food, I might opt for one chile over the other. If I know I like the chiles equally, I’ll simply have both ladled on the sizzling platter.
Sometimes my chile choice, though, depends completely on what’s on the plate. If I’ve chosen a combo that has — say — a red chile pork tamale, and carne adovada, I’m going to stay in the red wheelhouse. If there’s a chile relleno front and center, I’m going green.
Even that standard little shower of iceberg lettuce and chopped tomato, garnishing the platter, gives me a smile. It’s one place where sturdy iceberg is especially good for the job.
Whether your favorite is called a Number 3 or 5, or the Plato Grande, enjoy the mix a great combo offers. Just so you know, I did talk one time with Diana Kennedy about all of this. She wasn’t swayed in the least bit by my argument. Oh well, that just leaves more combo plates for me . . . and you!
Story and photos by Cheryl Alters Jamison.
Four-time James Beard Foundation Book Award-winning author Cheryl Alters Jamison is the host of Heating It Up on KTRC and is now the “queen of culinary content” for SantaFe.com. Find new stories about the Santa Fe food scene each week on SantaFe.com.