Eric See is the chef-owner of Ursula, a New Mexican café in Brooklyn. He’s also one of BA’s Heads of the Table recipients for 2021 and an Albuquerque native. We couldn’t think of anyone better than See to guide us through a food-packed day of eating through this high desert culinary gem.
New Mexico is the self-proclaimed Land of Enchantment, but growing up here we called it the Land of Entrapment—we wanted to escape the little-town feel of Albuquerque. Now that I live in Brooklyn, I can never wait to go back. For folks visiting for the first time, or those of us who return, the idea of entrapment takes on a much more magical meaning: Albuquerque’s serene beauty ensnares you in such a way that you want to stay forever.
This is one of the longest continually inhabited places in the Americas, and one of the oldest colonized regions in the nation. Its history is the amalgamation of thousands of years of Indigenous land stewardship, combined with the nearly 500 years it spent suffused with Spanish, Mexican, and, of course, now, American influences.
Through this combination of Mesoamerican, European, Pueblo, and American traditions, the state has developed a very specific and hyper-regional cultural and culinary identity. There is a dialect of Spanish spoken here that you won’t hear anywhere else in the world, along with 23 Indigenous Native communities or tribes: the 19 Pueblos, the Navajo Nation, and three bands of Apache tribes. My own family’s roots go back further than 400 years in the state.
The food in New Mexico, and Albuquerque specifically, is a representation of this history. In addition to the introduction of wheat and domesticated livestock to the Southwest, ingredients like safflower, a cheaper substitute for saffron, as well as anise seeds and citrus, arrived by way of Spain. The famous Hatch chile peppers we now associate with the region are ancestors of peppers cultivated by ancient Mesoamerican communities around 6,000 years ago, before they found their way north and were enjoyed by Pueblo inhabitants. The most notable elements of the food in New Mexico came by way of the American agricultural revolution, as dairy and cattle became two of the state’s largest industries. Cheddar cheese and ground beef, not typically seen as often in the cooking of our neighbors south of the border, are culinary cornerstones in this sunny city.
If you’re visiting New Mexico by air, you’ll land in Albuquerque, the state’s biggest city. Most visitors overlook this high desert gem, favoring its mountainous and picturesque northern neighbors of Santa Fe and Taos. But when it comes to sights and restaurants worth visiting, Albuquerque has a lot to experience. Don’t miss out on all that my very cute, quirky, and historical hometown has to offer.
- The best place to stay is… Los Poblanos Historic Inn & Organic Farm. It’s a lavender farm tucked into the Rio Grande Valley, with alpacas, peacocks and beehives, and a stunning view of the Sandia Mountains. One of my favorite Albuquerque restaurants, Campo, is onsite, and recently opened a new cocktail bar in downtown Albuquerque called Town and Ranch.
- Don’t forget to pack… Layers and outdoor clothing. As a high desert city, the temperature fluctuates quite a bit when the sun goes down—but you should still plan to spend as much time outdoors as possible.
- Don’t leave town without… Piñon candy from Buffett’s, a family-owned candy store known for their caramels and toffee, New Mexican chile, and traditional Pueblo jewelry and pottery. Make sure you are buying crafts from a seller that directly supports Indigenous artists, like at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center, or directly from the artists when they set up blankets to vend in Old Town.