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Last modified on October 2nd, 2018 at 12:13 pm
An obvious reason Southern New Mexican cuisine stands out is the type of chiles cooks incorporate into most dishes. But there’s so much more subtlety to the narrative than green versus red.
Goyita’s New Mexican Cuisine in Oro Valley has mastered the story of New Mexico’s Hatch Valley gastronomy. It’s a tale of Spanish, Mexican, indigenous, and contemporary American ingredients and techniques. The plot is thick with mythology, geography, and a cultural apprenticeship that binds it all together.
Today Hatch Valley farmers ship their seasonally roasted green and raw red peppers internationally. Their produce and its backstory is no longer fixed to a time or place — the Hatch chile craze blazes hot among foodies worldwide. But unlike some cuisines, Hatch-area New Mexican food doesn’t taste the same outside its origin — even with the same ingredients.
Goyita’s is a rare exception. The Meza family-owned restaurant is a four-hour drive from Southern New Mexico’s Hatch Valley. Their food, however, tastes like it was prepared yesterday afternoon under ristras hanging low in Caballo Mountain shadows.
The Mezas maintain weekly contact with their generational home base of Silver City, 65 miles west of the Hatch Valley, as the crow flies. They act as an extension of Southern New Mexico that just happens to be situated in Southern Arizona.
They’re not putting a spin on heritage food; nor are they fusing recipes with Northern New Mexican food or blending it with Mexican. They’re just cooking what their family has always cooked in a faraway building.
The Mezas get their most integral tangible ingredients — corn tortillas and the Hatch green chiles they roast onsite — from New Mexico every week. They got their most important intangible ingredient there too — cultural knowledge.
Matriarch-chef Goyita grew up in Silver and learned the regional foodways by watching her in-laws. No recipes were ever written down — she makes everything from memory.
Goyita’s son — and restaurant owner — Jose Luis learned restaurant operations when he was a kid. He observed his uncle, who still owns a Mexican restaurant in Silver. Jose thought he was going to stay in Silver and be a miner until he cast aside the profession to move to Tucson to go to Pima when he was 18. He said he guesses restaurants are in his blood. Southern New Mexican food obviously is.
So arrive at Goyita’s at magic hour, when the sun is sparkling off Pusch Ridge with the purple Catalinas in the background. The restaurant is in a corner of a white Spanish Colonial-style small strip mall, so it feels like New Mexico right from the get-go.
Someone will tell you to sit wherever you like — there’s no host standing in the medium-formal setting.
Note that you are surrounded by a nostalgic clientele that has either worked or gone to school in New Mexico and they know all about sopapilla, gordita, and roasted chile. And margaritas. They’re there because they’re homesick for the cumin, potatoes, and extra eggy rellenos you can’t get outside New Mexico.
First things first. Get a house margarita. They’re strong cocktails made with a mix and juice concoction.
Goyita’s also pours red and white Hatch chile wine from St. Clair Winery out of Las Cruces. They have Albuquerque beers on tap, too.
Then get the chips and salsa while you decide what to order. Your server will ask if you prefer hot or mild salsa.
Hot provides a Scoville SHOCK – consider yourself warned. The heat is slightly tempered by a hefty pinch of Mexican oregano that you seldom encounter in Sonoran salsa.
If you are vegetarian, you can ask the kitchen ahead of time to fry your chips in canola oil. The beans don’t have lard, and the gorditas can be made with potato flour and canola oil, too. Communicate any specific dietary needs from the start, and the chefs will do their best to oblige.
As an appetizer, try the gorditas. They’re Hot Pocket-sized stuffed soft fried corn puffballs — choose your filling. Menu options include potato, chicken, shredded or ground beef — all are good.
Definitely get the gordita sauce — kind of like enchilada sauce in color and spice. It’s very spicy but you’ll want this. Sour cream and/or some Kleenex might be necessary, but this experience is partially why you came.
Another suggestion is a meal with the red chile pork — Jose’s favorite. It seems counterintuitive that the green chile is secondary but it should come later. Jose’s sister Veronica Valdez said that Goyita only made it when Jose was coming home to Silver from Tucson.
“It’s because he’s the baby!” she laughed. She’s the one doing the driving back and forth from Silver, where she still lives.
The red chile is probably the best item on the menu, sacrilege as that might seem to an outsider who desperately wants Hatch green chile stew to fix a New Mexican spot in “authenticity.”
The smokey chiles de arbol flavor of the red has developed for days. It tastes like it’s been made in the same pot for generations. It’s a pot of love. And remember, the red chiles come from Hatch too, so you’re still en trend.
If you’re going the enchilada route, stay New Mexican traditional and order the flat chicken enchilada with corn tortillas. It has a Campbell’s soup-based sauce — see? Simple good food. The corn tortillas have chunks of corn in them versus corn flour and are picked up from Silver.
It’s very important that you order a sopapilla – the pillar, or a cushion, rather – of New Mexican cuisine. Like the gordita, the sopapilla is another item you can’t get outside a culturally informed New Mexican restaurant.
Goyita’s is releasing a new menu soon, and it will have a Hatch green chile pork sopapilla with beans stuffed inside. Imagine a Frisbee-sized bean-stuffed fry bread topped with stew. Maybe order the green chile plate and a sopa on the side.
The green chile is not as spicy hot as the red. And honestly, it’s not supposed to be. Hatch green chiles’ spice varies with the season, but after all, they’re genetically Anaheims grown in a different terroir. They’re supposed to have depth of flavor, not just heat. Goyita’s green chile is how it should be – vegetal, meaty, and homemade.
If you just can’t decide, order a sopa and request it “Christmas” — sometimes called “rainbow” — style. You’ll be pleasantly surprised.
Finish with a sopa and honey on the side for dessert. Pro tip: tear off a corner of the warm sopa, squeeze the bottle of honey inside, and eat.
Goyita’s doesn’t have to try. There is nothing to keep alive, nothing to revive. What they succeed at that’s magical is making a cuisine exist outside of a space and place where strict authenticity deems that it should not.
Mainstay New Mexican foods like gorditas, sopapillas, non-forced Hatch green chile stews and Hatch red chile stews simply aren’t found outside the 505 and 575 area codes. But here they are, thriving in Oro Valley, with Goyita in the kitchen stirring the pot, Jose in front, and sister Veronica heading back and forth to Silver for peppers and tortillas. For you.
Look forward to Goyita’s serving breakfast soon! They’re “flirting with the idea,” Jose said.