“What would people do in a world without green chile?” my editor asked rhetorically over the staff’s weekly luncheon at Duran’s (1815 Central NW). She wasn't expecting an answer, but I gave her one anyway. “They eat lots of pork chops and corn,” I said. “That world does exist. It’s called the Midwest, and by and large, it’s very boring.”
For me, living in the quasi-mythical land of Albuquerque for the past month and a half has been a baptism by fire of chiles (both green and red), dry summer heat and women in painfully short skirts. It is mythical because in many ways, Albuquerque is what it is not. It's a city based on a river that’s mostly dried up, with a baseball team that was named after the “Simpsons” fictional team, and it is referred to by a zip code—the 505—that applies to every city in the state of New Mexico. The 505, however—and everyone knows it—applies solely to ABQ, with enough pride so that while sitting in a Los Cuates (8700 Menual NE), my girlfriend was able to point to a biker dude with ‘505’ inside a bleeding heart tattooed on the back of his neck, right next to a skull and crossbones.
Image is everything in Albuquerque, more so than I’ve found in my old hometowns. If you’re not ghetto, then you aren’t allowed to act ghetto in public. “You’ll get shot,” my girlfriend explains, and I don’t think she’s kidding. One night, this guy walking around UNM’s campus came up to my dad, who was wearing a University of Michigan windbreaker, and said, “I’m from Illinois. They call us the ‘Fightin’ Illini.’ You know why they call us the ‘Fightin’ Illini?’ Because we kill people.” Then he just walked off. “Weirdest night of my life,” my dad says of the only time he’s ever been to Albuquerque. True story.
The city is trying to change its image by getting people to refer to it, or at least its expensive parts, as simply “The Q.” They inadvertently spawned a counter-revolution (go to soydeburque.com for details).
There’s an endearing quirkiness that Burqueños embrace that's infectious. It's not possible to be assimilated into the collective without learning to appreciate this arid sprawl of half a million people. Despite its size, this enchanting city has an authentic small-town feel, so much so that living here can be equated with belonging to a special club for outcasts and resilient existentialists.
In a very short time, I've come to feel accepted into this fraternity, and for the rest of my life, I will feel a connection to this city and my dear friends at the Alibi. But you have to be willing to look beyond the fake Indian art, the congestion, sprawl and the night life that keeps a large police force steadily employed, and see instead its hidden wonders, fabulous art houses, exceptional food and the wonderful people that give Burque its true identity.
If you wish to access many of these places without a headache, you will need to learn to ride the bus, bike and walk. Biking is the recommended way to get about town. All the city buses are equipped with bike racks. These will save you from the ass-pain of driving and running the very real risk of hitting every single wretched stoplight en route to wherever you're going.
It's imperative to realize that Albuquerque is in the middle of nowhere, surrounded solely by Indian reservations, mountains, and hundreds of miles of plains and desert. This is a good thing. I know it’s hot, but think of how far the rest of the country has to travel to discover the great outdoors, which happens to literally be in the city's backyard. I’ve been able to do some backpacking in the Pecos, and the land is beautiful, truly pristine, matched only by the beauty of the Big Tits up in Wyoming.
Whites are the minority here in this largely Hispanic land, and while one could extensively examine these statistics and come to conclusions about socioeconomic classes and achievement gaps, the simpler solution is to realize what this really means is a lot of fantastic food. You are not allowed to patronize Taco Bell. This is an unspoken understanding, and you quickly realize that there is some rationale to this sentiment. While us Midwesterners think Taco Bell is a great alternative to McDonald's or Wendy’s, when you have the real thing available to you, you'd better take advantage of it.
New Mexican food is not Mexican food, and while I don’t really know what this means, I know that it is very, very important. The main difference is green chile, alluded to earlier, which, when properly roasted, looks like seaweed that could slice each of your taste buds in half while you turn to your friends, inflicted with a temporary twitch and a contorted face, and say, “Yeah, it’s really good.” The key? The seeds are not the hottest part, as commonly believed, and the skins need to be removed before eating. (Can't stress that last one enough.)
But where to get such a delicacy? Well, even McDonald's in New Mexico has green chile as a condiment, but you should travel to a diner with some class. If you’re on a budget, I’d suggest either Ortega’s (3617 Wyoming NE) for dinner or The Frontier (2400 Central SE), where you can discover it as part of a whole other monster—the legendary breakfast burrito. New Mexicans are smart. Why eat your breakfast of eggs, potatoes and bacon conventionally when you can wrap it up in a tortilla, add green chile,and a $2 premium? It’s genius! And you will eat many, many, breakfast burritos.
Another thing: New Mexico and art go hand in hand. While Santa Fe may be la maison de choix for many visual artists, musicians tend to flock to Burque. The Atomic Cantina, Burt’s Tiki Lounge, The Sunshine and El Rey theaters, and the Launchpad are just a sampling of great places to go, the only problem being that you usually have to be 21. Several great local bands have sprung up within city limits, and while a number of CDs have come across my desk during my tenure as an Alibi intern, I'd personally like to recommend Partly Dave, a Oregon-based rock band whose lead songwriter-guitarist Loren Depping is a former Burqueño. Their prophetic “No Guarantees” off the recent up-beat LP Own Up is my new favorite song.
I'll be leaving New Mexico on Monday, Sept. 3, and I must say that day will be bittersweet. While I will be leaving for my ‘other’ home in Ann Arbor, Michigan, and soon thereafter returning to school at Kalamazoo College, I'll be leaving behind a city whose people, culture and strange beauty have deeply impacted me in a way I never expected. I am a Midwesterner, who wishes in many ways he was a Southwesterner, and not just because of the green chile.