Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Frito Pie: It’s in the Bag

The Gods of early America swiped large, powerful hands over the desert of New Mexico, clearing it like spilled salt from a table, then handcrafted Santa Fe’s low adobe landscape at the foot of the Sangre de Cristo mountains from soft clay. The city is beautiful. At dusk in Santa Fe, the blinding sun sinks and blends the colors of the sky, sand and city into a fine pink. At the heart of the small city is the Plaza: a small benched filled park, flanked on all sides by shopping, food and drink. The Plaza is why people come to Santa Fe. The last weekend in October, Plaza restaurants like the famous Café Cantina, close their rooftop seating and feed indoor fireplaces. Reddish leaves fall from the Aspen trees to create crunchy puddles along the stone paths which wind through the Plaza. Visitors here speak in Polish and Japanese as often as Spanish and purchase cowboy hats, turquoise jewelry and landscape paintings from local artists to spruce up their urban lifestyles. Native American craftsmen sell one of-a-kind goods on the South side of the plaza, replacing each item with an identical replica minutes after each sale. Santa Fe sells the American Southwest as Memphis sells Elvis—noticeably cheap and mass-produced or surprisingly out of your price range.

Santa Fe, known as “The City Different,” is just that. This fourth largest city in New Mexico expresses a unique attitude and architecture. In recognition of its status as the oldest U.S. capital city, an ordinance in 1912 mandated all structures be built in the historic Pueblo style. About 70 miles from the ski-town of Taos, the city is surrounded by mountainous views. There are more art galleries than ATMs. Amidst the myriad shops, galleries, cafes and saloons of the historic Plaza is the Five & Dime, the most famous of the Plaza’s landmarks. Located between a jewelry store and a Häagen-Dazs on San Francisco Street, the Five & Dime is home of toy wooden guns and slingshots, tacky Santa Fe t-shirts, and the most heartburning of all afternoon snacks: the Frito Pie.

The Challenge: A two-ounce bag of Frito corn chips cut gingerly along its side. A large ladle of spicy, meaty chili riddled with beans, poured directly into the bag. Topped with heap of shredded cheddar cheese. Eaten with a plastic spork.
The Rules: Don’t put it down. Finish before the chips lose their crisp. Grab plenty of napkins.

At $4.58 with tax, this is a meal not to miss. The “pie” is spicy, so don’t forget a beverage. Choose any member of the Coca-Cola family, available from the fountain -- even Nestea and Barq’s root beer. If soda doesn’t suit you, check the front of the Five & Dime for a cooler of bottled beverages from Perrier and Gatorade to Starbucks bottled Frappachino. You can sit along the counter’s six bar stools, at one of three small square tables or take your mobile lunch back out to a bench on the Plaza for some mighty fine people watchin’.

According to the apron-clad women dishing out the Frito-chili-goodness, there is debate about whether or not it was invented here. Some say it was invented in Houston and made popular in the Woolworth’s that once stood here in the 1960’s. Others stand defiantly that its creator is a Woolworth’s employee named Teresa. Either way, the Five & Dime is proud. Before it became a Five & Dime, the store’s history goes back to the beginning of the Plaza, pictured on its walls in black and white photos of the storefront surrounded by rugged men on horses in 1866, approximately 100 years before the Frito Pie appeared behind its Coca-Cola branded snack bar counter.

The sign above the snack bar brags about the 30,000 Frito Pies served annually, but these folks serve up more than the famous snack. Visitors can also find dehydrated looking hot dogs spinning on heated wires in a glass case, burritos born frozen and warmed by microwave, and of course classic buttery popcorn and dangling, salted pretzels with a side of nacho cheese. No price on the menu surpasses $5.00, and a single or double scoop of ice cream always awaits you for dessert.

Santa Fe has more to offer than messy, spicy eating. You’ll enjoy the clear and crisp mountain air while you shop, and visit nationally acclaimed galleries, or hiking trails, but when you start to feel hunger coming on, remember the Five & Dime. None of your other options are as unique and delicious as the heart-attack-in-a-bag Frito Pie, and in the American Southwest, visitors are divided into two categories: those who have eaten the fabled Frito Pie, and those who haven’t lived.


courtney said...

you should write for santa fe's tourism website.

hands - er - hooks down.

Eating The Road said...

Frito Pie!!!