Everett: The New Mexicans' Refuge

Authentic north-of-the-border cuisine finds an unlikely home.

With nothing left on her patrons' plates but tortilla-chip shrapnel and a few crumbs from a bun that held a humongous smoked hot dog, the server at The New Mexicans probably didn't need to ask whether everyone enjoyed their food. But since staffers at this modest restaurant are distinguished graduates of the "What'll it be, hon?" school of nurturing service, she pressed on. The sated couple, grinning and rubbing their bellies, assured her that dinner had "hit the spot."

Since opening two months ago, The New Mexicans—specializing, as the name says, in dishes from the yonder side of the western U.S. frontier—has been reliably shooting bull's-eyes. The menu is refreshingly true to Southwestern mom-and-pop traditions: If you're seeking green-chile cheeseburgers, Frito pie, or a range of other tarted-up icons that a less-secure restaurant might flaunt as proof of its authenticity, you might as well ride on.

The New Mexicans instead serves the homey dishes that owner Chrystal Handy knows how to make and make well, which is why you can start your meal here with killed lettuce, a hillbilly salad that's almost never allowed out of the house. In The New Mexicans' cheeky version, chopped mustard and turnip greens are tamed by bubbling hot bacon grease, vinegar, and dry mustard, with crisp nubbins of salty bacon playing textural understudy to the greens gone droopy. At the other end of the meal are generously frosted sheet cakes baked in beat-up aluminum pans. The restaurant's so guileless that had it opened on a two-lane highway outside of Truth or Consequences instead of on Everett's main drag, it probably would already have been the subject of a glowing paean from road-food maestros Jane and Michael Stern.

For New Mexicans adrift in Washington, though, the sudden in-state appearance of a restaurant serving decent sopaipillas is a stroke of incredible luck. New Mexico natives have flocked to The New Mexicans as surely as vegetarians stranded in beef country would beeline to an eatery called Kale. I listened in as a server and customer tried to drum up the names of mutual acquaintances at an Albuquerque high school. Yet for eaters whose family trees don't branch into the Land of Enchantment, The New Mexicans offers a really tasty way of learning what counts as comfort food 1,500 miles south.

 

Handy was born in the border town of Douglas, Ariz., to the daughter of a New Mexico hotel operator and the son of a former sheriff whose jurisdiction included Hatch, N.M., a tiny town holy to chile-heads. Handy's father was an accomplished bulldozer operator who cut roads through the Sandia Mountains.

"He was an artist with a Cat," she says. "Everyone would stand and watch him." But he jumped from job to job, taking his young family with him to gigs across the Southwest. Handy had enrolled in 26 different schools by the time she reached junior high school.

When Handy's children were small, she tried to create more settled circumstances for them, spending 11 years on a potato farm in Pasco. The farm had a milk cow, so Handy could cook up the farmhouse recipes she'd inherited from her mother, grandmother, and aunt Barbara, who'd taught her how to make cream pies.

Last year, a road-construction project derailed Handy's dream of opening a sandwich shop. Because work on Highway 99 would block access to the space she'd leased in Everett, "I lost the whole deal and $22,000," she says. But when she rebuilt her confidence and capital, she found a turnkey tavern on Craigslist.

Hence, The New Mexicans is more barroom than dining room, furnished with ticky-tacky high-top tables, black pleather chairs, and a few obligatory regional touches. Decorative elements include a horned steer skull, a pair of chile-pepper ristras dangling above the open kitchen, a stenciled state flag, and a wooden box branded "Hatch chiles." But the props don't add up to anything especially evocative: If I'd learned on my first visit that an antiques store sidelining in candles and potpourri had vacated the premises a few hours earlier, I doubt I'd have choked on my roll.

The tidy kitchen, which occupies more than half of the restaurant's indoor space (there's a patio out back), is arranged for home cooking on an expanded scale. It looks something like the small-appliance section of a Goodwill. In addition to the various slow cookers and other contraptions, there are three white refrigerators, no larger than what an average apartment might require.

It's an area that doubles as the back bar, which amounts to Jack Daniel's, Sauza, Stoli, and a few more bottles in limited rotation. The house martini comes spiked with olive juice, although the menu explains "We serve the dirty and the olives on the side so we can fill the glass with the goods!" The glass measures a whopping 16 ounces. If that offends your big-city sensibilities, you may not want to know that after the happy server/customer exchange described above, the server walked across the dining room and belched.

Maybe such folksy service isn't everyone's can of Bud Light. But homespun's the operative word around here, a fact not lost on anyone wise enough to order The New Mexicans' enchiladas.

In typical New Mexican fashion, The New Mexicans serves red- and green-chile sauces. (In New Mexico, it's common to mix both preparations on a single plate, Christmas-style. In Everett, the twain don't meet.) A brick-red bog, humming with the smoky, vegetal flavors of chiles, laps the edges of the red enchilada plate. The beefy sauce engulfs a stack of soft yellow corn tortillas, diced raw onions, iceberg-lettuce shreds, and grated cheddar cheese. Fleshy, salty pinto beans and two over-easy eggs, primed to infiltrate the gravy with the creaminess peculiar to yolks, round out the dish. The multidimensional sauce comes up short on heat, but The New Mexicans stocks most of the major hot sauces, so eaters with more resilient tongues can Tabasco or Tapatío their way to enchilada nirvana.

The stacked green enchiladas are similarly tame, but they're so good that griping about the spicing is as pointless as complaining about the mildness of Oreos or Cheez-Its. The creamy enchiladas, baked in a casserole until the peaks burnish, are as comforting and undemanding as an old friend's hug. Each serving's a tumble of sweet chiles, green onions, and coarse tortillas, topped with a mellow Jack cheese. In the lulling-food category, the green enchilada has a worthy competitor in the chicken and dumplings, which is more cream than chicken—a lone, stamp-sized piece of poultry bobbed in my bowl—but elevated by tender, free-form knobs of pastry.

A few other technical mistakes at The New Mexicans are more glaring. The nachos are napped with as much Monterey Jack as a football fan with a high-power microwave might apply, producing an oily pool of cheese from which the puffy, chile-sauced chips have to be extricated. (Honestly, it's not the world's worst rescue mission.) And the barbecue, including brisket drawn into curly meat strands, is dry and saturated with acrid smoke that the stilted housemade sauces can't hide. Better to focus on the accompanying baked beans, caked with ketchup and jalapeños.

Or move along to something sweet: The New Mexicans makes its own strawberry shortcake, chocolate cake, cherry cream-cheese cake, and sugar-glazed cinnamon rolls that are sturdier and breadier than the sloppy, syrupy concoction that's become a food-court mainstay. It takes 45 minutes for the rolls to rise, so Handy bakes them first thing every morning. "Usually we've got people waiting outside the door for them," she says.

The restaurant's defining sweet, though, is the sopaipilla, which New Mexicans don't save for dessert. The inflated squares of fried dough are a side dish, although the standard addition of butter and honey transforms the flaky, light pastry into a meal-capper. Handy makes them "by feel," which her two daughters find infuriating, since they're being groomed to take over the restaurant.

"The girls kind of have had a hard time with it," she admits, adding that she's not deviating from her plan to retire to eastern Washington in five years, even if loyal customers beg her to stay. Handy may make chicken and dumplings like her mother, but she roams like her father.

"I can't wait to get back there," she says. "My daughters will pick up here and run with it."

Price Guide

Sopaipillas $3

Red enchiladas $8/$10

Green enchiladas $5

Chicken and dumplings $4/$8

Brisket $8

Cinnamon roll $4

hraskin@seattleweeekly.com

 
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