A couple of Saturday mornings ago, I strolled into Rancho de Chimayó, the hacienda-style restaurant in the namesake village near Santa Fe, New Mexico. It was early, the light still soft, with only a handful of other patrons busy with their breakfast burritos. I was hoping the brief winding drive into the country, and some blue corn pancakes might clear my head of a few personal concerns. I perked up right away, because proprietor Florence Jaramillo, ever gracious and smiling, was already sitting at what I think of as her central command center. Mrs. J has been the guiding light behind the restaurant for its entire 57 years. Now well into her eighth decade, she misses nothing and waved when she saw me enter. When she asked how I was, I realized I actually was fine, and that my problems would work themselves out. And that was even before the pancakes!
AN AMERICA’S CLASSIC
Florence and her husband, Arturo, a Chimayó native, started the restaurant in his ancestral home in 1965. The plan was to showcase the foods of the area and to help offer economic opportunities to the village. It wasn’t easy in the beginning. Back then, people weren’t conditioned to drive miles out of their way for meals, especially the chile specialties thought of purely as home cooking. Banks declined to help with what they judged to be a crazy investment. Food service companies wouldn’t deliver to the remote location. Florence routinely bought much of the food in Santa Fe grocery stores, stuffed her car full, and hauled the bags back to the village.
An early break came when Craig Claiborne, the legendary New York Times food writer, made his way here and wrote enthusiastically of his experience. Today, that kind of attention would cause a stampede through the door. The Jaramillos heard about the article days later, through the governor, who was one of the few New Mexicans of that era who had the New York paper shipped to his door. Business began to pick up gradually, with additional media praise and word-of-mouth enthusiasm.
Over the decades, the restaurant became beloved in the community, as well as with visitors from around the world. It received one of the culinary world’s greatest honors in 2016, a James Beard Foundation America’s Classic award. Those are given to restaurants that have stood the test of time and that reflect the food culture and heritage of their area. I was thrilled to be in the audience that evening to see the outpouring of affection for Mrs. J and her life’s work.
Weekend breakfast here is a bit of a secret. Now you know to go. You should also know that the first thing to do, even before getting coffee, is to order “sofa pillows.” These are baby bite-size cinnamon-sugar rolled sopaipilla bites. I think you should check out those blue corn pancakes, nubbly from the corn, and heavily scented with vanilla. I’d understand though if you opted for the hefty breakfast burrito, in a sea of red or green. There are plenty of other options, both with and without eye-opening chile. Sure, you can get bacon on the side with any order but go gutsier and get some of the restaurant’s signature carne adovada. It’s made with the famed local Chimayó red chile, the same ones that adorn the eaves of the restaurant as ristras.
Of course, Rancho de Chimayó makes a tasty lunch and dinner destination. Any of the preparations with that piquant carne adovada are excellent choices, as are the crispy chicken flautas. This time of year, I forsake those favorites for the rellenos of fresh-roasted chile from Hatch. (While the local chiles have incomparable flavor, they are small and wrinkly, with thin skins, so aren’t good for stuffing.) Flan or natillas custard will cool you down. Prickly pear lemonade and margaritas are popular for sipping, but I’m a sucker for the cinnamon-rimmed Chimayó cocktails, a heady blend of tequila and apple cider. The drink was developed here decades ago as a way of helping use the local apple crop.
I love eating at Rancho de Chimayó anytime, but perhaps most of all, as summer cedes to fall. Soon, the vibrant ristras or strings of fresh red chile will line the hacienda’s roof, pumpkins will be stacked on the patios, and golden chamisa will fill the grounds. It’s a singular experience.
Rancho de Chimayó Restaurante
300 Juan Medina Road, Chimayo, New Mexico
Open Tuesday through Sunday. Breakfast is served Saturday and Sunday.
Reservations are strongly suggested.
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.