Burritos Are Just the Beginning

Chef Dave Samuels puts the new in New Mexican and the green chili into everything

What’s new about Mexican food? It’s a question that Dave Samuels patiently answers often. That’s New Mexican with a capital N, he’ll say before explaining how this American cuisine is different from that coming from south of the border.

“The correct definition would be that it’s the mix between Native American and Spanish foods,” he says, “but to most people it just means green chili sauce.”

Samuels is the owner and chef of Carlito’s Burritos (3345 E. Patrick Lane, Suite 105 547-3592, CarlitosBurritos.com), one of the only New Mexican restaurants in town. Instead of tomatoes, jalapeños or tangy tomatillos, here you’ll find the fire comes from the green or red chili sauce that New Mexicans mix into or ladle over almost everything, from eggs and enchiladas to mashed potatoes and pizza (the Wednesday special at Carlito’s).

Tips for a trip to Carlito’s

The meaning of Christmas. Green sauce is typically a chunky gravy made from chili peppers picked and roasted before they ripen. If the pepper is left to ripen until it turns red, it is then dried and ground into a powder, for a smoother sauce. Can’t decide? Ask for “Christmas” and you’ll get your enchilada or burrito smothered half and half.

The other chilies. New Mexicans further distinguish their cuisine by using the secondary spelling of “chile” for the pepper. If you see a side of “chile” on the menu in New Mexico, you’ll get the roasted and chopped peppers. “Chile sauce” gets you the aforementioned chunky green sauce. “Chili” gets you get the tomato-based beef/bean stew. It would also be wrong to think you can substitute a tomatillo salsa for green chili sauce. Don’t even think about it.

On posole. On supermarket shelves, you may have seen the canned hominy kernels that make the basis of this hearty soup. Samuels uses the hard-to-find frozen posole. It’s less salty and a little firmer in the bite than the canned stuff.

Wash it down. Carlito’s beer and margarita bargains are “more of an amenity rather than a profit center,” Samuels said. Hence the $1 Miller High Life on tap. But if you need to cool your mouth, grab a glass of milk (or add some sour cream to the dish).

Sweet ending. Doughnuts, churros, zeppole—every culture seems to have its version of a fried dough. And in most New Mexican restaurants, you’ll end the meal with sopapillas. A hint: Tear off a corner and drizzle some honey inside.

In the fall, Carlito’s trucks in 45,000 pounds of green chilis and roasts it in the parking lot for customers to peel and freeze on their own. Or if that’s too much work, you can buy prepared chili year-round from Carlito’s freezer. Just remember that you’ll need a lot for your own chili sauce. “The reason a good green chili sauce eludes most people is that they don’t realize how much chili you need. And they also tend to add spices like cumin,” Samuels says. “My sauce is just onions, garlic, a little water and a lot of chili.”

Samuels grew up in Los Alamos, N.M., best known for its role in the making of the nuclear bomb. After graduating from Cornell University’s School of Hotel Administration and working in a friend’s family restaurant in San Francisco, Samuels eyed booming Las Vegas for his own business. He moved here in 2008 with plans to open a kosher bagel shop, something he found lacking here.

“But then I started eating the Mexican food around town and I was so disappointed—not because they aren’t great Mexican restaurants, but because it wasn’t New Mexican, it wasn’t what I had growing up. I wanted a smothered burrito with real chili, not some sort of enchilada sauce with too much cumin in it,” he says.

“Really, when it comes down to it, I opened this restaurant because I was craving green chili.”

Fortunately, he found that Las Vegas had plenty of transplanted New Mexicans suffering from the same withdrawal. But by the time Carlito’s Burritos opened in February 2009, the local economy was tanking. Already halfway invested, Samuels maxed out his credit cards until, nine months after opening, he was able to pay his bills with cash.

“A month longer and we wouldn’t be here right now,” Samuels says. “Our customers did our marketing. They seemed to have a vested interest in making sure we survived so they could get their green chili fix.”

And it is addictive. Spicy-hot isn’t one of your primary tastes, so when you eat something with heat, your brain senses pain and releases euphoria-inducing endorphins. “The New Mexican chili is middle-of-the-road in heat, so you get that endorphin-release along with the good flavor of the pepper,” Samuels explains.

If you want to dabble in New Mexican food and not get burned, Samuels recommends the tacos. He’s also been expanding with open-pit barbecue days. The rotisserie prime rib, served in the restaurant with green-chili mashed potatoes and calabacitas (corn, squash and green chili), is also available for catered events. A final note: The restaurant is small (think bagel shop), so if you hit the mealtime rush hours, the line may extend to the door, a harbinger of the good things to come.