Wednesday, July 04, 2007

Return to a Kansas summer

Last night. Our bedroom is stuffed with cases of salsas and spices, camera gear stacked in a corner, duffels packed. There is one last thing to do and that’s eat, so it’s off to another restaurant, one my brother swears is the best in the known universe. I suspect he wouldn’t know a good chile relleno if it bit him on the nose, especially considering the stories he’s regaled us with about how he helped the owners of the place acquire their citizenship papers. The husband is Iranian, the wife Mexican, and the combo sounds suspicious. What does an Iranian know about chile rellenos? I’m reminded of my maxim that any Mexican restaurant owned by white folk should be avoided at all costs. I could add that any Mexican restaurant in Kansas should probably be avoided, too, but there are a few surprises floating around the state so I’ll keep my thoughts to myself.

Here in Albuquerque the opportunities for splendid food are astronomical, leaving one such as me salivating at the prospects and wishing my belly would hold more. It shouldn’t be unreasonable for the traveling gourmand to consume five main courses in the space of a day if it’s the last such food he’ll eat for a long time to come. We crowd in as many memories as possible during a vacation, so why not food? Dieting can come later.

The restaurant is across town, but we all squeeze into Wes’s monster truck. Reece is absent, having disappeared into the rocky hills above San Ysidro to photograph a lone gnarled pinyon pine he saw several years back. On the way we stop at the fairgrounds where we locate New Mexico’s Merci Train. Some classy event is being held and well-dressed kids are boogying on the raised stage with the train as a backdrop, but we’re able to sneak around behind and snap a few photos. Merci Trains were sent over from France after WWII in appreciation for Americans helping feed them during the war through the Friendship Train program. Each state received one boxcar bearing gifts to be distributed among the counties. Kansas’s train resides at Hays behind a tall chain link fence topped with barbed wire. It looks like a detainee.

El Norteño Restaurant appears unassuming. The parking lot is mostly empty which is never a good sign. When we dined at Garduño’s earlier in the week the place was packed, the décor dazzling, the food heart-breaking. I’m here only because I love my brother and I was outvoted anyway. We sit down to read the menus but I already know what I want. Down here in the Land of Enchantment it’s always the same thing: chiles rellenos, or stuffed green chiles. There’s no reason to eat anything else.

What my fellow codgernauts failed to understand during our ramble across New Mexico and southern Colorado last October was that my craving for green chile cheeseburgers and Mexican restaurants wasn’t a simple culinary penchant but something much deeper. It was, in fact, a belief system, a religion if you will. And as all religions have their Holy Land, mine is New Mexico, and the Holy of Holies is a food dish. All this week I was a disciple following the stations of the chile, my faith strengthened at each stop, and now that we’re at the end I yearn for an epiphany. I want visions, outpourings of the Holy Chile. Actually, I want Garduño’s, which surpassed my previous favorite, La Loma in Denver.

A lot can be told about a place by the salsa and chips. These chips are still piping hot, salty, thin and crisp, and instead of one salsa we have a choice of five. Each is better than the last. My pulse quickens with the aromas wafting from the kitchen. Grudgingly I concede that perhaps my brother knew what he was talking about. But, oh, the humiliation!

When our entrees are served I make one of the biggest mistakes in my life. Rather than bolt for the truck I sink a fork into the relleno and take a bite. It isn’t good. Good has nothing to do with it. It’s perfect. It’s unsurpassable, incomparable, the consummate blend of chile, cheese and sauce. I take another bite, my eyes closed in ecstasy, and another, until the plate is bare. And then it hits me—I should’ve got a photo to hang above the computer, a salivant memento of the ultimate dining experience.


We flee in dark and fog. Fourteen hours of 70-miles-per (75 on I-40), several detours forcing a hopscotch pattern across the state of Kansas where tornados tore a deadly swath, two quick stops for food and we’re home before dark. I would never have thought it possible had I not painstakingly calculated the mileage for the shortest possible route and arrived at a number that was within the bounds of possibility. My entire body thrums with road vibration and I can barely hear from road noise, and the shift between the pinyon-covered slopes of the Sandia Mountains to the verdant hills of Kansas leaves me discombobulated. Compounding it is an inability to recall much of the trip itself other than a few way-stations and a lackluster meal in Liberal, our unfortunate welcome to Kansas.

An indigo bunting sings us home. Grass is deep, hills in flower, trees in full leaf, the air heavy and damp. Summer returned in our absence. I pause for a moment looking out across the fields we know and realize Kansas will never play second fiddle to New Mexico. This green river valley is where I belong. Inside the house is a rabbit who missed me as fiercely as I missed her, and I climb the stairs and unlock the door and call out “Sheba, we’re home!” and so we are.

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