2000s Archive

Bowlful of Dreams

Originally Published October 2002
At the Manhattan lunch counter of Calvin Trillin’s reverie, some things never change: It's always New Mexican Day, and the blue plate special is posole with a side of chile, red or green.

I want you to know that when I had the idea of opening a Northern New Mexican restaurant in Manhattan, I was way ahead of the curve. This was, after all, in 1971. I had returned to New York after a summer in New Mexico, much of it spent in the high-desert country from Santa Fe north. Northern New Mexico is well known as a singularly beautiful place that has always been an inspiration to people of artistic bent—Georgia O’Keeffe and D.H. Lawrence, for instance, not to speak of generations of eastern remittance men who, gazing out of their exquisitely restored adobe houses toward the surrounding mountains, must be moved now and then to compose deeply felt poetry on the subject of their trust funds. After just a couple of months in New Mexico, I myself had been inspired to hatch a scheme for creating a steady source of quality posole in Manhattan. Posole is made by boiling corn kernels in a lime solution (lime as in limestone, not lime as in the juice you have in the Margaritas you drink while you’re waiting for your posole) and then drying them. It is often served in a bowl as a sort of stew, with the addition of pork or chicken and chiles. It has an earthy taste, and a texture that can make you forget your troubles. In Northern New Mexican homes, posole is traditionally served during the Christmas season. My restaurant scheme was based on the desire to eat it every day of the year.

In 1971, of course, the restaurant scene in New York was considerably less open than it is today to the introduction of new American regional cuisines. When residents of Manhattan thought of American regions, they simply divided the country in two—New York and Out of Town—and, unsurprisingly, there were not a lot of restaurants that featured out-of-towners’ cuisine. Restaurant menus did not boast about having acquired their mussels from Puget Sound or their morels from Michigan; the menu word that justified tacking an extra couple of dollars on the entrée was still imported. In Louisiana, Cajuns shoveling down crawfish and boudin and tasso and crabs the way they always had were blissfully unaware that, through no fault of their own, they would someday become associated on New York menus with burnt fish. Chez Panisse had just barely opened its doors in Berkeley. If a restaurant in New York had included the word California in its name, the public would have expected a drive-in with blond carhops. Imagine the impact on this scene if someone had opened a Northern New Mexican restaurant called Taos County.

That’s right: The name of the restaurant was to be Taos County. That would set it apart from Mexican restaurants—although in 1971, long before New York finally got a serious wave of immigration from the area around Puebla, there weren’t that many Mexican restaurants in Manhattan to set it apart from. The name hinted at the décor. I’m pretty sure, though, that my original vision of the décor has become adulterated over the years by images that I acquired later: What I see now when I think of Taos County looks uncomfortably like one of those exquisitely restored adobe houses inhabited by the remittance men, or maybe a little like an advertisement for Ralph Lauren Southwest Home Furnishings.

On the walls, there are huge photographs of Indian pueblos and the Sangre de Cristo Mountains and the adobe churches in villages like Truchas and Las Trampas—villages that, years before anyone in the East had thought of writing the Declaration of Independence, had been founded by Spanish-speaking pobladores, or settlers, who must have turned their attention almost immediately to figuring out creative ways to use blue corn. (The cuisine that emerged from the blending of Spanish and Indian traditions is sometimes said to have been based on “corn, beans, squash, and chile—and not all that much squash.”) The floors of Taos County, as I can still see them, have stunning rugs from Chimayó, woven by descendants of the people who brought weaving to the Navajo. In the niches of the walls and in glass cases are Pueblo artifacts and maybe a few santos. The furniture is the color of Northern New Mexican buttes, unless those things are mesas.

That’s not exactly the look of restaurants in Northern New Mexico that are likely to have a decent bowl of posole. They tend toward rough wood and exposed beams. In fact, the possibility once occurred to me that posole wouldn’t come out right in a restaurant whose beams are covered, in the way that mayonnaise is said not to thicken properly if there’s a thunderstorm approaching. Whatever the design of Taos County was, I remember being confident that it would knock the critics dead, even before they had a chance to bite into a sopaipilla or taste a blue corn tamale covered with green chile. At least that’s what I kept telling an acquaintance of mine I’ll call Irwin—the person I was hoping to persuade to launch Taos County. No, I wasn’t going to do the restaurant myself. I’m more of an idea man. I just wanted a place to eat.

Irwin, who left the city years ago, was then in real estate. He had acquired control of a building he was turning into co-op apartments and he was trying to decide what sort of restaurant he wanted in the commercial space on the ground floor. Taos County, I kept telling him. Nobody in New York had tasted posole. Nobody had tasted sopai­pillas. Nobody was familiar with the pure pleasure that a chile fancier in Santa Fe gets from settling in at the counter—yes, in that era before sushi bars had made counter-eating respectable in upmarket New York restaurants, Taos County was going to have a counter where you could eat like a gent, the way Musso & Frank’s in Hollywood or Tadich Grill in San Francisco had counters where you could eat like a gent—and saying, “Give me a bowl of green” or “I’ll have the enchilada with red.”

I think Irwin, who was not a traveler, had New Mexican food mixed up in his mind with Tex-Mex food. I tried to explain to him that even though New Mexican cooking included some of the dishes Americans were used to finding in Mexican restaurants—tamales, for instance, and chiles rellenos, and enchiladas—even those dishes had a different taste than the Tex-Mex equivalents, particularly if they were turned out by a cook who had the touch with a green or a red. Once New Yorkers tasted the difference, I told Irwin, he’d have to hire large men with electric cattle prods to control the crowds clamoring to get in. As I remember how all of this turned out, Irwin opened a steak joint in the building instead.

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