Southwestern food spices up palates across America

March 03, 1993|By Daniel B. Wood | Daniel B. Wood,The Christian Science Monitor

SANTA FE, N.M. — The breads tonight are buckwheat-walnut and cranberry with red chilies" says our waiter, Todd, seating me in a cowhide-covered wicker chair. A light jazz mingles with the smell of cilantro.

Mexican All Soul's Day skeletons adorn high, ocher walls as if peeping at the menus of patrons below. In keeping with a trend that has been building across the Southwest and beyond since the mid-1980s, the appetizers, side dishes, entrees, and even desserts are increasingly laced with diverse combinations of chili peppers: red-brown poblano, sweet habanero, smoky chipotle, piquant pequin, fleshy serrano.

Today's menu includes a roasted duck tamale with tropical fruit salsa;pecan-grilled chiles relleno, with black-bean jicama salsa and chive oil; winter-squash soup with hatch green-chili applesauce; chili chicken sausage and swordfish habanero.

"Chili is hot, no pun intended," says Mark Kiffin, head chef of the Coyote Cafe, which has been called the nation's leading exponent of chili-spiced cuisine. Led by the demand for true American cuisine, for lighter foods, for versatility and plain old diversion, chili has become a $3 billion business in the United States.

"Americans are finally catching up to the world," says Dave DeWitt, editor of Chile Pepper Magazine, a bimonthly with a circulation of about 80,000. In recent years, Americans have traveled more within and outside the country, raising their level of consciousness about non-European-based cuisines, says Mr. DeWitt. The influence of changing immigration patterns, especially in the Southwest, has brought increasing percentages Mexican, Central, and South Americans who are bringing both new demand and new twists on spicy, Latin American cuisine.

There is also more global awareness and sophistication by home cooks, who are taking advantage of thousands of ethnic cookbooks that have flooded the market over the past decade.

"Once the momentum of all these influences gets going, they begin to snowball and feed upon each other," says Mr. DeWitt. But the move to chilies is not a fad, he says. "The history of cuisine shows that once a population shifts to spicier cuisines, they never go back."

Actually, chili is far more than just hot. It can be alternately sweet, pungent, salty, astringent, bitter, and sour. As evidence that chili is where the American palate is headed, chef Kiffin points to statistics that show salsa (main ingredient: chilies) surpassed the all-American ketchup by $40 million in sales last year.

According to Time magazine, that makes it the country's most popular condiment. Statistics from the U.S. Chamber of Commerce show that chili imports have tripled since 1988 from $12 million to $36 million.

That demand is being sparked by other well-known Southwestern restaurants spicing up the American palate: New York's Rosa Mexicano, Dallas's Mansion on Turtle Creek, Cafe Annie in Houston.

But the leader of the pack, by most accounts, is the Coyote Cafe, and its new sister in Washington, Red Sage. Both restaurants were founded by chef and chili expert Mark Miller.

Last fall, Esquire magazine named Red Sage the country's best restaurant of 1992.

"Mark Miller and the Coyote Cafe have transformed the traditional cuisines of traditional Amerindian and Latin America -- beans, corn tortillas, and meat-filled burritos and tacos -- with the classical knowledge of reduced sauces and the high-gourmet considerations of subtle cooking," says Judith Hill, food critic for the Albuquerque Journal North and author of a new Berlitz guide to New Mexican restaurants.

"His cuisine is introducing a whole new generation of restaurant owners and goers alike to the incredible variety and subtlety of chilies." Born in Boston, Mr. Miller studied Chinese art and the history of culture at the University of California at Berkeley. Teaching himself to cook by studying books by celebrated chefs James Beard and Craig Claiborne, he worked at Williams-Sonoma before landing a three-year stint at Chez Panisse, where he helped create 500 new dishes.

In 1979, he helped pioneer mesquite cooking while integrating ,, non-European elements at his own restaurant, the Fourth St. Grill, in Berkeley. In 1980, he opened another famous Berkeley hangout, The Santa Fe Bar and Grill, where he concentrated on Louisiana-style and Southwestern food.

He credits other non-Southwesterners with helping him put modern Southwestern cuisine on the map: John Sedlar and Steve Garcia at St. Estephe in Manhattan Beach, Calif.; Brendan Walsh at Arizona 206 in New York; John Makin, Dean Fearing, and Amy Ferguson in Dallas.

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