Hot on the Trail of Red Chile Sauce

Two years after we rolled through Jerome, Arizona and sucked down a plate of pulled pork nachos doused in red chile sauce, I’ve finally cracked the code on my taste memory of the trip.

15 quince, jerome arizona
Sure, I could simply email the chef of 15.Quince (where we were so famished after a day of climbing hills and clambering around ghost town junkyards that we sped through the nachos so quickly I didn’t even snap a shot) and ask for his step-by-step recipe. But cooking from memory, while leaky with imperfections and inauthentic inclusions, brings a trial-and-error excitement to the process. Every taste is a click of the dial, feeling for the combination that unlocks the safe.

Plus, the beauty of building this recipe—as it is for so many preparations—is that everyone makes their chile sauce a little differently. Some use whole dried chiles, some use powder as their pepper base. Cafe Pasqual’s in Santa Fe, where I had my first taste of red chile sauce almost 15 years ago, picks ’em fresh for their green chile sauce. Some roast the peppers before pureeing. Most recipes simmer raw onion, garlic, cumin, and other spices to extract the flavor, and then thicken the reduced liquid with a roux.

Simply boiling the onions, garlic, and spices wasn’t doing it for me, lacking the depth of flavor my mind hazily remembered, but luckily, I know a Texan. Tex-Mex chili gravy as interpreted by my gal Amber Bracegirdle by way of the estimable Robb Walsh calls for making a chili- and spice powder-infused roux with lard. Hell yes, lard. Bathing my onions and garlic in gorgeous pig fat until soft and golden did the trick.

red chile sauce
When handling chili peppers—even dried chiles like the ones this recipe calls for—I strongly urge you to wear disposable gloves. You’ll find boxes of gloves in restaurant supply stores and at hardware stores in the painting supply section. If you do choose to go barehanded with chiles, make a paste with baking soda and water and scrub your hands scrupulously and immediately after handling, then wash thoroughly. As a contact lens wearer, I’ve learned this lesson the hard, tearful, painful, and expensive way.

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    • Casey BarberCasey Barber says

      The Chipotle red sauce does make me cry with happiness, but this sauce might be a little less spicy than their version. Usually my sauce is all mashed up with sour cream, corn, roasted peppers, rice, beans, and lettuce, so I haven’t really examined it on its own. Maybe a late burrito lunch today, in the name of research?

  1. says

    Yum! I make red chile frequently, but I’ve never thought to do nachos covered in red chile (although nachos with chopped green chile is a staple in my house). I will be making this! I am passing your great recipe along to my readers. Thanks for sharing!

    • Casey BarberCasey Barber says

      Lynn, I’ll take my nachos with whatever chiles I can load onto them. (I’ll also take my nachos with pulled pork whenever I can manage it too!) I can’t wait to hear what you, as a New Mexican, think of my East Coast version.

  2. says

    Hi Casey! The verdict- your version is very good! I don’t often cook with chipotle so it was a nice change of pace. We will be having red chile nachos frequently. Have a great weekend!

  3. Sheryl says

    Yes, contact lenses…they do seem to pick up anything from your hands. And I find, when I’m cutting onions, the fumes (gases?) seem to travel quickly and grab onto my lenses, as well. Ouch.

    • Casey BarberCasey Barber says

      Sheryl, it’s funny that you have problems with your contacts when cutting onions. I’ve noticed that I don’t cry when cutting onions with my lenses in—but when I’m wearing my glasses, it’s a waterfall of tears. I always figured the plastic creates a protective barrier. Who knows??

  4. Gregg says

    Hi Casey;
    Made your sauce and found it to be a little sour & bland. Any suggestions on what to add to get it back on track?

    • Casey BarberCasey Barber says

      Gregg, you may want to try more tomato sauce to sweeten, but since I made it for my tastebuds, I suggest you experiment to fit your own preferred flavor profile.

  5. debb says

    Casey Barber Wow my mother has never done all that prep for her red chile sauce and she was born and raised in new mexico Navajo indian
    flour red chile powder cook until its golden brown than she adds water allows all to mix and boil that’s it