WHAT BEGAN 30 years ago as a homesick restaurant from two Albuquerque transplants who missed the chili-fired New Mexican fare has become a Northern Virginia institution, and one that, in this polyglot region, can turn Anita Tellez's family recipes into "mom's home cooking" in almost any language. And now, as one of the primary concessionaires at the Smithsonian Folklife Festival, Anita's "New Mexico Style Mexican" restaurants can fairly claim to be giving this indigenous sub-cuisine at least a brief appearance on an even larger multicultural stage.
There are a half-dozen Anita's now, the newest on the east side of Vienna (the original site is closed). None is either fancy nor pretentiously un-fancy, usually former franchise restaurants with the basic booths intact and easy parking. At Vienna, for example, the glass around the upstairs balcony has been frost-painted with murals of roadside Americana -- old trucks and gas stations, cactuses and the like -- and the walls are hung with a mix of native American artifacts and those brilliant Southwest-fest posters of girls in skirts of many colors.
What is distinctive (or at least different, as it's relatively subtle) about New Mexican fare is the role the chilies take in the cooking. Red, green, dried, smoked or ground, from slightly sweet to intensely hot, chili peppers are employed throughout the cooking process, as marinades, tenderizers and texturizers as well as seasonings. This is true in authentic Mexican cuisine, of course, and also true of so-called modern Southwestern fare, which is a more elaborate style that looks to the arts-trendy Santa Fe as its mecca rather than the more middle-class Albuquerque; but not so much in Tex-Mex, where jalapenos are generally tossed on after cooking. The food is somewhat lighter than most Tex-Mex as well, particularly fast-food versions, with more restrained use of cheese (drizzles rather than ladles) and butter.
Tellez and her son Tom, who started out cooking from her mother Rose's recipes in a vacant doughnut carryout in Vienna, still use chilies from New Mexico -- from the town of Hatch, which bills itself as the "Chile Capital of the World" and which hosts a festival and cookoff every Labor Day weekend that annually turns the town of 2,000 into an outdoor diner of 30,000. Everything is fresh-cooked, though some sauces and so on come from a central concessionary kitchen, but "nothing is from a can except the jalapenos," according to Tom Tellez. (The chili never drops far from the vine: Tellez's older son Larry Gutierrez has his own half-dozen Little Anita's restaurants in Albuquerque and California.)Anita's menus have always been family-friendly in budget terms: Most dinners are under $10, and even the largest combo platter, which piles on fajitas, a chile relleno, a taco, rice, refried beans, guacamole salad and flour tortillas, is only $13.49. The menus are startlingly extensive, with two dozen burrito choices, from BLTs to "cheese steaks" to grilled chorizo and potatoes. (Tired of bagels? How about a cream-cheese-filled enchilada?) And Anita's is time-friendly, too: Service is easily as quick as at the major franchises, without having quite the production-line pushiness. But behind the short wait-time is some long prep. The pork for the carne adovada is marinated in red chilies for at least 24 hours, and while the green chili pork enchiladas are not so marinated, the meat is incredibly tender, and shows off the kitchen's patience. Anita's is also more healthful than the average Tex-Mex, more reasonable in terms of portions and happy to replace refried beans with whole beans at no charge.
Among popular appetizers are the taquitos; the green chili bean dip with cheese; and a bowl of chili beans (what most people call chili, i.e. pinto beans with ground beef) with red chili sauce. Nachos come in a sort of Goldilocks variety: (baby) nachos with cheese, jalapenos and one topping; "gringo nachos" with the works -- beans, chorizo, cheese, olives and such; and nachos grandes with mixed meats and jalapenos. There are what might be thought of as crunchy quesadillas, crisp tortillas with cheese and chicken or veggies, as well as the more familiar soft kind. There is also a direly tempting version of cheese fries, french fries topped with chile con queso, chives and either chorizo or chili beans. The complimentary salsa is non-chunky but nicely tingly; "Roseanne's dip," on the other hand, tastes exactly like homemade French onion dip, the kind with dried soup and sour cream, only with some ground red chilies added.
The "Hollenbeck" burrito is sort of a cross between a fast-food taco dinner and a family casserole, a flour tortilla stuffed with seasoned ground beef, refried beans and rice and then layered with green chili sauce, red chili con queso, olives and tomatoes. (Hollenbeck is a neighborhood in Los Angeles, where the Tellezes lived before moving to Washington.) The Anita's version of arroz con pollo is not the casserole dish more commonly served but pulled chicken meat sauced with the red chili and then turned out over the rice, not cooked into, and then topped with a little Monterey Jack; at the restaurant, it's served with a chicken taco, sort of chicken two ways. Despite the name (which refers to Anita's husband, Phil Tellez), the "Mr. T Special" fajita is nothing to pity, strips of chili-rubbed pork grilled and smothered, along with potatoes and beans, in red sauce.
The breakfast burritos -- scrambled eggs, cheese and red or green chili in a flour tortilla, either "dry" for carrying or smothered in more chili sauce -- is so popular it's available all day long (and will be available for the first hour every day at the Folklife Festival, as will the enchiladas rancheros, though with scrambled rather than fried eggs).
And though it may not be from Mama Rose's cookbook, just looking at the "Southern-style" steak breakfast, with three eggs, potatoes and biscuits and sausage gravy, is enough to make me homesick.