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Hatch chiles spur a walk down sense memory lane

Posted 6:56pm on Tuesday, Jul. 31, 2012

For three years in the late 1980s, I lived in Las Cruces, N.M., about 40 miles south of Hatch, "The Chile Capital of the World." In the late summer and early fall, just after harvest time, the aroma of roasting chiles would fill the air. It didn't matter where you were -- if you stepped out into a strip-mall parking lot in one of the busiest parts of town, you'd get hit by that smoky, mouth-watering fragrance.

Along with the Organ Mountains and the friends I made, it's one of the things I miss most about Las Cruces.

But I never went to the Hatch Valley Chile Festival, which will celebrates its 41st anniversary this Labor Day weekend. The festival has drawn as many as 30,000 people to Hatch, an otherwise quiet town of 1,600 or so. That's a lot of chileheads.

Maybe it was the crowds that kept me away, but it's more likely that I just took it all for granted.

In the El Paso/Southern New Mexico area where I grew up, chiles were just a fact of life. I rarely went through a week without having some sort of chile dish, whether it was a relatively mild but tangy chile relleno or a mouth-burning chile con carne -- not chili, in the way a lot of people think of it, but a stewlike dish consisting of sliced beef and green chiles. The chile verde at Salsa Fuego in west Fort Worth is a good version of this dish, and the Fuego Burger is -- dare I say it, considering where I grew up -- the best green-chile cheeseburger I've ever had.

You can find chile gems like these on other DFW menus, but the fajita-centric Tex-Mex so popular around here often reduces chile to a supporting role. In New Mexico, it's the star. And for my first several years here, too often I felt as if I was getting an acceptable substitute rather than the real thing. But it was also a Tex-Mex restaurant that brought it to DFW.

Austin-based Chuy's had been doing Green Chile Festivals since I lived in Las Cruces, but the chain didn't reach DFW till the mid-'90s. I began making pilgrimages to the Chuy's on McKinney Avenue and was glad when Chuy's opened Fort Worth a location last year, bringing the chile festival even closer to home. Of course, by that time, Blue Mesa Grill had long been doing its own fest, and that became a place to grab green chiles, as well as chile scones and chile ravioli. And Central Market has been hosting its Hatch Chile Festival for 17 years, since before it moved into DFW, so that became part of the journey, too. (Chuy's and Blue Mesa haven't announced dates for this year's fest yet, but Central Market's is Aug. 8-21.)

At this point, I should probably make clear that "Hatch" isn't a kind of chile, but simply refers to an area known for flavorful chiles. "The town of Hatch ... has marketed their Hatch grown chile peppers over the years in a way that 'Hatch' chile peppers are in high demand all over the world," according to the Chile Pepper Institute at New Mexico State University. Green chiles and red chiles come from the same plant -- the red chiles are just harvested later, after the plant has ripened, and have a sweeter flavor but can be just as hot, depending on the levels of capsaicin in the fruit.

Both can be bred to be hotter or milder; I'm partial to a medium-spicy green chile that has a decent amount of heat but allows the chile flavor to come through, but that doesn't mean I can't savor the firepower of such dishes as a green chile stew that nearly seared my earlobes at Chuy's a couple of years ago.

A few years ago, Terry Chandler at Fred's Texas Cafe got into the act, roasting Hatch chiles outside the original Fred's on Currie Street. That chile aroma came rushing back to me. And as chile season approaches this year, I can't help but feel a pang of nostalgia.

"Smells detonate softly in our memory like poignant land mines hidden under the weedy mass of years," Diane Ackerman wrote in A Natural History of the Senses. "Hit a tripwire of smell and memories explode all at once."

I have a lot of great memories of Las Cruces, but I can always count on the scent of roasting chiles to trigger even more.

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