Discovering the Original Frito Pie in Santa Fe and Breakfast in Taos New Mexico

The planning for my virtually spontaneous Panhandle-Plains road trip dead ended in Lubbock Texas, leaving a question of the route to be taken back to Colorado.  I love a good loop, preferring not to repeat a route if avoidable.  Somewhere between Palo Duro Canyon and Lubbock I caught wind that the first Frito Pie known to the culinary world was created in Santa Fe New Mexico.  After enjoying our Frito Pie at Robinson’s inAmarillo so much I could not resist a bit of investigative research.
I headed North West toward a city I’ve always loved, Santa Fe.  Last year I took a road trip all through New Mexico, eating, drinking and reporting along the way.  I’ve visited Santa Fe many times throughout my life and had no idea that the former Woolworth’s 5-and-10 cent store (a) had a snack bar, and (b) was the home of the first Frito Pie.  Arriving around noon we beelined for the (now) Five & Dime store on the corner of the Plaza which occupies the former Woolworth’s building.  It is the quintessential tourist shop with every possible souvenir one could want.  I felt better when learning a long time friend and Santa Fe resident was equally surprised to learn there was a snack bar in the very back of the store.
It was clear quickly that Frito Pie is a local favorite.  There were far more regulars than novelty-seeking tourists huddled at the small bar in the back of the store enjoying this walking food in a bag.  This Frito Pie was a completely different animal than what we enjoyed in Amarillo, which featured the brisket and a very light dressing of bbq sauce.  This dish was all about the New Mexican Red Chile sauce that is not for the faint of heart.
I ordered our Frito Pie which is served in a snack size Frito chip bag (completely loved that).  The bags are slit down the long side with Fritos in the bottom.  Over this is ladled freshly made red chile sauce, pinto beans, and shredded cheddar cheese.  The woman at the Snack Bar suggested I use some of the chopped onion targeted for the hot dogs on top.
I chatted with her about how the Frito Pie is made.  ‘You make a batch of red chile sauce fresh.  You can use it from a can but it’s not the same’, she told me.  ‘Make a batch of pinto beans too; from scratch’.  You add ground meat to the red chile sauce and ladle over the chips, then add the beans, add shredded cheese, chopped onion and chopped tomato and lettuce if making it yourself.  It’s a bit of a ‘walking taco’ I’d say. 
It was utterly delicious.   I love New Mexican spice so was in heaven.  If making it yourself you can definitely tame the heat to your liking.  I’ll share a few loose local recipes to allow making it at home and you can substitute the chile powder of your choosing.  New Mexican chiles have a very distinct flavor which gives this Frito Pie its unique, signature taste.
New Mexican Red Chile sauce
This version of red chile sauce does not include meat of any sort.  You can easily add ground beef, shredded beef or chopped beef.
Ingredients:
·         ½ cup red chile powder
·         2 ½ cups chicken stock or water
·         2 ½ tablespoons vegetable oil
·         ½ cup white onion, chopped
·         2-3 cloves garlic, diced
·         1 teaspoon cumin seeds, roasted and ground
·         1 teaspoon dried oregano
·         1/8 teaspoon ground cinnamon
·         Salt to taste
1.       Combine chile powder with 1 cup of stock or water; whisk to ensure it is smooth and set aside.
2.      In a large, heavy pan over medium heat sauté the onion for 5 minutes.  Add garlic and sauté a few minutes longer.
3.      Add spices and cook for 2 minutes stirring constantly also scraping the sides of the pan.
4.      Add chile mixture and remaining stock or water.  Stir to combine fully and heat to simmering stirring frequently.  Reduce heat to a low simmer; cook stirring often for about 20 minutes or until chile is the consistency of a thick sauce.  Salt to taste.  Note: it will not thicken like a cream based sauce but will not be watery either.
Pinto Beans
The pinto beans in the Frito Pie are not heavily seasoned nor do they need to be with the chile sauce.  Any surplus beans can be added to other dishes or frozen.
Ingredients:
·         1 pound of dried pinto beans
·         Water
1.       Sort dried beans to remove any small stones or shriveled beans.
2.      Soaking:  Place the beans in a bowl with double the amount of water to beans and allow to soak overnight, or place beans in a stock pot covered by 3 inches of water.  Bring to a boil, and allow to boil lightly for 15 minutes with a lid on.  Turn off heat and allow to soak for 90 minutes.
3.      Drain beans and replace water with fresh water to cover beans by about 2 inches.  Bring water to a boil, reduce to a simmer, partially cover and allow to cook 3-4 hours until tender.  Check periodically to ensure water is still covering the beans and that they are not sticking to the bottom of the pan.  Add more water if needed.
Stomachs full we set out on a beautiful spring day to peruse the Native American wares being sold along the perimeter of the Plaza, tour the St. Francis Cathedral Basilica which was open at the time we popped by and just stroll the streets for a bit of exercise and fresh air.
The final leg of the road trip provided an opportunity to pass through another well loved town I’ve not visited for years; Taos New Mexico.  Though both Santa Fe and Taos are close to the mountains, you can smell the mountains in the air in Taos.  The drive in is spectacular.  Sharp peaks rocketing to the blue heavens, providing a backdrop to the adobe town; a stark comparison to the sprawling plains and rivers seen driving in.
I’d done some quick sleuthing and targeted Gutiz restaurant on the north end of town which advertises Latin-French fusion cuisine that is also gluten free friendly leaving me intrigued.  They only serve breakfast (serve it all day) and lunch.  The reviews suggested a culinary experience highly worthwhile.
It was relatively unbelievable to be sitting outside on a patio in this mountain region in March enjoying a late breakfast.  Gutiz presents a unique and delicious menu, definitely demonstrating Southwestern flavors but not mainstream cuisine.
I am more of a protein fan for breakfast, loving some spice as well.  I chose the Saltado; a choice of chicken (all free range) or flat-iron beef, with red onion, tomato, cucumber in a (wheat less) green chile sauce topped with a poached egg.  Served with Gutiz potatoes and a salad.  It was perfect.  A great dose of protein, heat, some carbohydrates and loved having a salad as that often eludes my diet when on the road.  I was completely satisfied and was full the rest of the day.
Our party also tried the Taoseno (referring to a local from Taos); pinto, kidney and garbanzo beans, onions, tomatoes, potatoes, rice and cheese in a green and red chile sauce baked in a terra cotta bowl.  Topped with scrambled egg and served with a tortilla (we opted for corn).  This dish was sublime.  Filling, flavorful and the terra cotta bowl stayed piping hot all through the meal.  We loved the rustic preparation as much as the dish itself.
Gutiz offers a unique international-meets-local twist on breakfast.  It’s the kind of breakfast worth going out for.  Their food is ‘clean’ (meaning organic, ethically raised, as well as with a local focus) and utterly delicious.  Absolutely worth a stop.
Gutiz:  812B Paseo del Pueblo Norte, Taos.  (575) 758-1226.  Open Tuesday – Thursday, 8 a.m. – 3 p.m.
After dining we wanted to take a bit of a look around before the last driving leg to Boulder of about 5 hours.  As with Santa Fe there is a historic Plaza in the middle of town that is well narrarated for the rich history of the area.  I will say however it is lined with tourist souvenir shops which is not my thing.  After the first one strongly suggesting despite the Southwestern themes most of the goods are probably made overseas I was hungry for some authentic shops.  We did locate a small alcove on the south end of the Plaza with a charming store, At Home in Taos attracting attention.  It’s filled with home goods of all kinds, artisan wares, jewelry and other items.  It’s fresh, fun, extensive and feels ‘real’.
From there we were directed to Bent Street, a straight walk to the north residing behind the north side Plaza shops.  I loved this small area comprised of about a 2 block stretch of a cobblestone and the John Dunn Shops located there.  The buildings are not traditional Southwestern but more like something I’d expect in the central southern U.S.  We stopped at Coffee Cats for coffee and some gelato and immediately were smitten by both the venue, food quality and the ladies who run the place.  They have an outside window for ordering and lingering on the patio or an inside area which is the cheeriest place I’ve been in a long time.  All decorated in a bright, happy colors, mixed thoughtfully to create an uplifting, energizing café. 
There are a variety of shops from vintage maps to yarn, though two others I loved were Seconds Eco Goods that specializes in green wares and unique recycled goods.  Small bags made from woven fabric and the pull tops to soda cans immediately caught my attention, loving the modern day ‘chain mail’ effect.  Solar powered high tech crickets, plastic tote bags with Asian grain bag motifs, solar powered chargers and much more make it a very unique stop.
Next door is a fabulous Mexican folkloria shop with art and a variety of personal goods; Coyote Moon.  Cheery plastic beach totes, Milagros items, small folklorio shrines, tinwork and more.  The quality is good and the prices reasonable.  Authentic artisan goods too.

Comments

    • says

      You might enjoy reading about my trip last year which wound through the entire state in a week. There are many things to see and visit. I included the sights as well as a food and drink trail so you can check out options before you go! To access the posts you can go to the menu bar at the top of my blog, select 'Travel' and you'll find them there. I did not go to Taos last year but did spend a few days in Santa Fe and recorded that. I definitely would like to go back to Taos. It's really beautiful and feels less trafficed than Santa Fe is.

    • Mo says

      I’m from Taos and I actually have been living out of state for a few years now and I tell there is absolutely no other food that can honestly compare to what you grew up on!!! I’m goi g back during fiestas which is on July 19 2013 20 th & 21st! I will stuff my face and gain a couple un-needed pounds but believe it will be worth it! I miss home so much but Taos is not a place to be when young bc there’s not much a life for young people most definetly a retirement place….. If you can afford it it is a second home market !!! Great place to eat Taoseno, Micheals kitchen breakfast on weekends ( get there early) lines are horrible!!! Montes Chow Cart great breakfast and frito pies are good! Fav & Orlando’s Resturant… for one of the best food carts that’s MaryJanes.. awesome till then tis tis!

  1. says

    Taos looks so colorful and inviting! I've never been there and after reading this post would like to go someday. I LOVE the last sign… it totally made me smile!!
    I'm off to the farmer's market to get some beets and red cabbage…. My daughter and I are going to try your natural dyed Easter eggs form a post that you did last Easter!

    • says

      Hi Lisa! I loved Taos even for the few hours we were there. It has a completely different feel than Santa Fe; a bit less 'worn' if you will. It is a manageable trip from here for a long weekend.

      I love that you are doing the eggs! My favorite definitely was the red cabbage as the outcome is so unbelievable and magical. The end color is fantastic. Do let me know how they turn out and Happy Easter!

    • says

      What was amazing is that there is the little Snack Bar tucked into the back of the store I've never noticed. Clearly the locals all know it and head straight for it when entering the store. The tourists become lost in the souveniers (of which there are so many from cookbooks to Southwestern spices to hats, ceramic riastras and more). It was like uncovering a treasure that is right in front of us!

  2. says

    Looks like the Frito pies are the New Mexican version of fish and chips just packed in a potato chips bag. Who wouldn't love this? My husband is obsessed with New Mexico's red chili sauce from “The Shed”. I think I have mentioned that to you before.
    I need that sign to set up at my son's soccer games!

    • says

      I think we need to make t-shirts of that sign and distribute them…..widely! You had mentioned your husband's love of the Shed red chile. This was similar in that it had the New Mexican chile flavor which is very unique, distinct and different from the 'chile' powder you buy mainstream. He'd love it. Incredibly filling too! Happy Easter to you and your family Kirsten!

  3. says

    Oh, I am so envious of your trip. I love Santa Fe and Taos. And, I have never ventured into that Five and Dime far enough to find the frito pies. I thought it was a tacky tourist trap. Cannot judge a book! Thanks for all of these finds that I am adding to our list for our next trip to NM. (We always like to take alternate trips home too. Safe travels!)

    • says

      I think the Five-and-Dime IS as you describe though must stay it IS a one stop for souvenirs from those you would find anywhere to some unique things like Pinon coffee, spices, cookbooks and more. It is such a dense store I too never knew of the Snack Bar; locals clearly do from the clientele that was dining. Think tourists never make it that far or assume its predictable Snack Bar food (it has that too). If you to Santa Fe check my Travel tab in the menu bar above for the details of last year’s trip all through New Mexico. Spent a few days in Santa Fe and tried 4 restaurants as well as listed a number of different shopping stops. Happy Easter!

    • says

      Well I think if you visited Jen you'd feel it had not changed much. In fact when I visited before last year I thought it still was Woolworth's but wondered why it had a new time (deciding the chain must have been acquired). It's in the exact same spot on the corner of the Plaza (what a stroke of genius that was when they originally put the Woolwoth's in!).

    • says

      Fabulous! Thank you so much for introducing yourself and your blog. I appreciate another resource for my travels as well as a local reference for my readers. I look forward to poring over your blog and your article. It was such a fun surprise to learn about the Frito Pie having been into the Woolworth's so many times without having a clue!

  4. says

    My first intro to real Frito pie was at a meeting for tutors at my college. The wonderful receptionist was a native New Mexican and she brought in crock pots of chile and beans and bags of Fritos, but she had to show most of us silly out of town students how to do it! Love the Five and Dime on the plaza, too.

    There's a restaurant in Westminster called Jack N' Grill that does a passable version of the Frito pie. It comes on a plate, not in a bag, but it's pretty darned tasty! http://laughinglemonpie.com/authentic-albuquerque-fare-at-jack-n-grill/

    • says

      I think what these past two road trips have taught me is there are gems to be found everywhere; you just have to be in the mindset of discovering them. I would guess there is uncharted territory in your own backyard! No need to travel to find it.

    • says

      I'm glad to hear that Mimi about the shops. When you breeze through somewhere unfamiliar it can be hard to lock in on what is the authentic core of a place; especially when there is a city center that has become more tourist-oriented. Bent Street and the At Home in Taos shops really felt 'real' to me. I'm sure there is more to be discovered though we left after our available few hours feeling we'd stumbled onto some great food and finds.

    • says

      Thank you Jaime for your kind comments! The red chile sauce is great. Very rustic, earthly spice flavor in a way only found in New Mexico I think. So love the food there! Glad you enjoyed traveling along!

  5. says

    You're killing me with all this great Mexican Food! You just don't know how much I miss it…sigh

    We serve something similar to the frito pie, called walking taco's using a bag of fritos, the girls love it!

  6. says

    Thanks for the tour and glimpses of all your wonderful dining experiences! Those Frito pies remind me of the walking tacos that Katie had at Girl Scout camp…I think the ones you had were a bit more refined :) Hope you had a wonderful weekend, Toni~

    • says

      Now that I've published this I'm hearing more about 'walking tacos'. I am intrigued to learn more! These were great street food I'd say. Completely filling at at first their $5 price tag seemed more than I would have guessed but it was like eating a full dinner!

  7. says

    It sounds like you had a great time and went to all sorts of interesting places. The walking tacos look pretty good to me! I like going somewhere I've been before and still discover something new.

    • says

      I agree Caroline. The fact that a friend who lives there did not know about the snack bar or the Frito Pies said something too. A great locally kept secret! Hope you are well!

    • says

      Thank you The Educational Geek for ringing in. As I understand it there is a bit of controvesy over this point. I will maintain a 'Switzerland' position on this one as I heard many compelling points indicating the origin to be the Snack Bar at Woolworth's. Appreciate you taking the time to share your view.

    • says

      So glad to surprise someone else with this discovery! You won't be sorry when you try it. It costs about $5 and will fill you up completely. I hope you'll 'report back' after you try it! Also if you are interested I did a week road trip through New Mexico last year and you can find the details of dining explorations and shopping for a number of things in the Travel section of the menu bar at the top of the blog (click it and you'll find the posts). You might find some other things of interest!

  8. says

    Well, I'm Southern (Okie) and my hubs is from Texas, and we were eating Frito Pies long before the 60's when some of the articles say they were invented in New Mexico! Here's the link to Wiki that tells about the inventor of Fritos and how she invented the FP. I remember eating them at Sonic since they are one of the staples there, and have been for many years. One of the finest foods on God's green earth honey!
    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Frito_pie

    • says

      Thank you Mamafrog for ringing in! It seems (as does say the article you provided a link for) the true origins of this dish remain a mystery, clearly adding to its mystique! I also wondered in reading this if the dish was different in the two regions lending itself to the 'claim of origin' question? I know the Frito Pie we had in Amarillo was remarkably different than the Frito Pie we had in Santa Fe. Whichever the case, it's clearly a well loved dish! Thanks again for taking the time to add more insight to my findings.

  9. Mary says

    This post made me grin. As a native of NM, I love seeing the sites through traveler's eyes. I'm ready for a visit back home now!

  10. says

    I want you to know I just re-read this post and drooled all over my computer screen again. I am chile hunting for some Cinco de Mayo recipes and you better believe I will have extra NM chiles in the cart. (sorry to comment twice but I am really excited about this post).

    And I wish I could say there was good food around me, but I live in a chain food college town – we drive a minimum of 30 minutes in any direction before we even think of ordering. (there are some good ones though after the drive) :D

  11. Another.Point.of.View says

    There were recipes for Frito Pie similar to this one published in the Dallas Morning News in the early 1930's. Obviously the little Fritos bag hadn't been invented yet. But the dish was basically the same. I've been to the five and dime and had their Frito Pie and even the locals know that it's not the original. But, it does make for fun conversation.

    • says

      Thank you for leaving your insight. I have to admit the mystery around the origins of this dish do add to its charm! I certainly loved the version I had at the 5-and-Dime. You've inspired me to do some poking around about earlier recipes! Thank you.

  12. says

    I'm about 36 days away from our next visit. Frito pie is now on the list. We walked past that store at least a dozen times last year. Will not make that mistake this time. Thanks for the tip!! :)

  13. says

    Your blog is beautiful! Just an FYI the chile in NM is rarely gluten-free. Almost all chile in the restaurants, including the chile at Five and Dime is made with wheat-flour. Growing up in Santa Fe and having celiac disease, I have only found a couple New Mexican restaurants with gluten-free red or green chile sauce.

    • says

      Thank you Lisa. I definitely asked everywhere we went as my kids are gluten-free too. When I spoke with the woman at the 5 and Dime she listed all the ingredients in that particular chile and wheat was not one. I found at the restaurants I visited too (did another series of posts on a New Mexico centric food trip the year prior) they were knowledgeable about the gluten content and able to steer us away from gluten chile. Green chile I’ve found is almost always perilous, red chile sometimes yes, sometimes no (and that is everywhere not just NM). All this to say thank you for the reminder that it’s important to ALWAYS ask, remember recipes at a given restaurant can change over time and if unsure speak to a manager. I have found I can usually tell if someone is not sure of their gluten information and always speak to someone I’m sure IS sure before ordering! Thanks for the prompt!

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