Over the summer, Long Beach chef Art Gonzalez drove to New Mexico to meet with the state’s foremost academic expert in Hatch chiles, the seasonal sweet-then-hot peppers that have come to define the region’s complex history and cuisine.
Every September, as New Mexico’s hot days and cool nights begin to turn into harsh winter, a harvest takes over the Rio Grande-fed Hatch Valley, bringing pop-up roadside roasting operations, to which people drive from hundreds of miles to stock up on pounds of fire-licked green peppers.
“Hatch chile is a fix,” says Gonzalez, a SoCal native who spent a large chunk of his career cooking at fine-dining restaurants in Albuquerque and Santa Fe. “We crave it. That’s what they say chile does to you.”
In preparing for his own traditional Hatch chile roast on Sept. 15 and 16—the first in Long Beach since the opening of his modern New Mexican restaurant Panxa Cocina in Belmont Heights three years ago—Gonzalez visited New Mexico State University’s Chile Pepper Institute in Las Cruces. There, he discussed the history and nuance of the state’s 150-plus native chile varietals with co-founder, director and world-renowned chile-pepper breeder Paul Bosland. The goal? To find a local farmer who could supply him with a few thousand pounds of fresh chiles for the roasting and to collaborate with the institute on a special tasting menu for Panxa’s first official Hatch Chile Month.
“I wanted to go straight to the source,” Gonzalez says. “It was important for me to meet the grower and make a relationship with them.”
Though Panxa has been importing Hatch chiles to use in everything from a spicy salad dressing to its signature New Mexican-style stacked enchiladas, they’ve come through a reputable distributer, not direct from the source.
But while drinking his nightcap at a hotel bar in Las Cruces, he met a local who connected him to a family-owned farm in the Hatch Valley. It’s the only place in the world where the mineral-rich water from the Rio Grande infuses the volcanic soil just so, creating the precise conditions needed to grow the in-demand varietal. A few days later, he was sitting under a tree at a small Hatch chile farm, sipping on a Coors Light and chatting with Hector Mendoza, a second-generation farmer whose dad first came to the U.S. to till the land in the 1930s. Mendoza doesn’t sell to large accounts, preferring to pick his chiles when they’re at peak ripeness, then let local restaurants buy their share.
In California, local grocery stores have been hosting Hatch chile roasts since August, but Mendoza knows that the true Hatch season doesn’t start until September. “It’s like growing grapes,” Gonzalez says. “There’s terroir involved. There’s the dirt and the water, and it all creates an exact perfect time to pick it. You don’t know about any of this until you go down and talk to the people who grow it.”
Gonzalez recently returned from Mendoza’s farm with 2,500 pounds of Hatch chiles. On Panxa’s menu for the entire month of September are new Hatch-inspired dishes, from an heirloom blue corn quesadilla with roasted Hatch jam to a Wagyu country-fried steak with Hatch chile gravy. A prawn-stuffed Hatch chile relleno takes a nod from the Mexican-style chile en nogada, and a dessert sopapilla uses the infusion of spicy into sweet (plus piñon!) to form a playful end to any meal.
“The dishes might seem heavy, but that’s the way food is there,” says Gonzalez of the southwestern state. “The winters are good, so the food is comforting. I wanted to use this opportunity to push the chile to do things that aren’t being done, even in New Mexico.”
Hatch Chile Roast-Out at Panxa Cocina, 3937 E. Broadway, Long Beach, (562) 433-7999; panxacocina.com. Sept. 15-16, noon-5 p.m.
Sarah Bennett is a freelance journalist who has spent nearly a decade covering food, music, craft beer, arts, culture and all sorts of bizarro things that interest her for local, regional and national publications.