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You know you're in a food-conscious place when the local newspaper uses chiles (and onions) to rate movies, as does Santa Fe's New Mexican. A large part of that city's cachet as a chic destination derives from its famous cuisine, while Taos, Albuquerque, and Las Cruces are developing notable reputations themselves. The competition among restaurants is fierce, which means that visitors have plenty of options from which to choose. Aside from establishments serving the New Mexican and New Southwestern cuisine that the region is famed for, you can also find French, Italian, Asian, Indian, and interesting hybrids of those. Luckily, not all the top restaurants are high-end; several hidden gems satisfy your taste buds without emptying your wallet.

Reservations are always recommended at the higher-end restaurants and are essential during peak seasons. Only a few restaurants serve late, so be sure to plan dinner before 8pm. Most restaurants are casual, so almost any attire is fine, though for the more expensive ones, dressing up is a good idea.

At the beginning of each city's dining section I give more details about the dining scene there.

Food here isn't the same as Mexican cuisine or even those American variations of Tex-Mex and Cal-Mex. New Mexican cooking is a product of Southwestern history: Native Americans taught the Spanish conquerors about corn -- how to roast it and how to make corn pudding, stewed corn, cornbread, cornmeal, and posole (hominy) -- and they also taught the Spanish how to use chile peppers, a crop indigenous to the New World, having been first harvested in the Andean highlands as early as 4000 B.C. The Spaniards brought the practice of eating beef to the area.

Newcomers have introduced other elements to the food here. From Mexico came the interest in seafood. New Southwestern cuisine combines elements from various parts of Mexico, such as sauces from the Yucat√°n Peninsula, and fried bananas served with bean dishes, typical of Costa Rica and other Central American locales. You'll also find Asian elements mixed in.

The basic ingredients of New Mexico cooking are three indispensable, locally grown foods: chile, beans, and corn. Of these, perhaps the most crucial is the chile, whether brilliant red or green and with various levels of spicy bite. Chile forms the base for the red and green sauces that top most New Mexico dishes such as enchiladas and burritos. One is not necessarily hotter than the other; spiciness depends on the type, and where and during what kind of season (dry or wet) the chiles were grown.

Beans -- spotted or painted pinto beans with a nutty taste -- are simmered with garlic, onion, cumin, and red chile powder and served as a side dish. When mashed and refried in oil, they become frijoles refritos. Corn supplies the vital dough for tortillas and tamales called masa. New Mexican corn comes in six colors, of which yellow, white, and blue are the most common.

Even if you're familiar with Mexican cooking, the dishes you know and love are likely to be prepared differently here. The following is a rundown of some regional dishes, a number of which aren't widely known outside the Southwest:

biscochito -- A cookie made with anise.

carne adovada -- Tender pork marinated in red chile sauce, herbs, and spices, and then baked.

chile rellenos -- Peppers stuffed with cheese, deep-fried, and then covered with green chile sauce.

chorizo burrito (also called a "breakfast burrito") -- Mexican sausage, scrambled eggs, potatoes, and scallions wrapped in a flour tortilla with red or green chile sauce and melted Jack cheese.

empanada -- A fried pie with nuts and currants.

enchiladas -- Tortillas either rolled or layered with chicken, beef, or cheese, topped with chile sauce.

green chile stew -- Locally grown chiles cooked in a stew with chunks of meat, beans, and potatoes.

huevos rancheros -- Fried eggs on corn tortillas, topped with cheese and red or green chile, served with pinto beans.

pan dulce -- A sweet Native American bread.

posole -- A corn soup or stew (called hominy in other parts of the south), sometimes prepared with pork and chile.

sopaipilla -- A lightly fried puff pastry served with honey as a dessert or stuffed with meat and vegetables as a main dish. Sopaipillas with honey have a cooling effect on your palate after you've eaten a spicy dish.

tacos -- Spiced chicken or beef served either in soft tortillas or crispy shells.

tamales -- A dish made from cornmeal mush, wrapped in husks and steamed.

You Say Chili, We Say Chile -- You'll never see the word "chili" on a menu in New Mexico. New Mexicans are adamant that chile, the Spanish spelling of the word, is the only way to spell it -- no matter what your dictionary may say.

Virtually anything you order in a restaurant is likely to be topped with a chile sauce. If you're not accustomed to spicy foods, certain varieties will make your eyes water, your sinuses drain, and your palate feel as if it's on fire. Warning: No amount of water or beer will alleviate the sting. (Drink milk. A sopaipilla drizzled with honey is also helpful.)

But don't let these words of caution scare you away from genuine New Mexico chiles. The pleasure of eating them far outweighs the pain. Start slowly, with salsas and chile sauces first, perhaps rellenos (stuffed peppers) next. Before long, you'll be buying chile ristras (chiles strung on rope).

Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.