Alas, this job has me eating more fried fat and grease than I'd otherwise choose, and sometimes even loving it in spite of myself. But as I've grown older and wiser I've realized that I don't always have to swallow, and I can learn everything I need to know from just a bite or two. My dog, who ends up eating ribs on a regular basis with no evident angst, may be my professional dilemma's happiest beneficiary.
Albuquerque, where I review restaurants, has more New Mexican restaurants than any city in the world—a distinction worthy of note in culinary circles. After all, how many gastronomes get excited at the mention of Florida-style food, Idaho cuisine, or the delicacies of New Hampshire? The mere mention of green chile can induce visceral pangs of longing, in and outside of New Mexico.
New Mexican food—at least what they serve in restaurants—epitomizes my love-hate relationship with restaurant criticism. At its best, New Mexican food is an expression of this region's landscape and culture, a song of corn, chile, and pinto beans. But in the American economy, the selling of food is greased by the insertion of commodities like cheese, flour, pork bellies, and sugar.
Still, I can see profound elegance in a green chile cheeseburger. But all too often I also see potential unrealized. Most cheeseburgers, even expensive ones, amount to patties of industrial feedlot meat on bleached white buns stuck together with melted squares of orange-stained cheese made from the mammary secretions of incarcerated, drug-addicted cattle. Even a green chile can't change that.
A similar dilemma exists regarding chicharrones. In the southwest, chicharron is a broadly defined term that refers to a spectrum of deep-fried pork possibilities. Chicharrones come in all sizes, with varying ratios of meat to fat. Some chicharrones are made from sections of belly flab normally turned into bacon. Others are made from chewier chunks of shoulder meat. Chicharrones can be boogie board-sized sheets of waffle-textured pig skin, or even whole pork chops. At any particular restaurant, my readers will want to know if the chicharrones burrito is best smothered in red or green chile.
If I were paying my own way, and eating my way, I'd at least ask them to hold the cheese on that burrito, because in addition to hating the thought of where the cheese came from, it gives me heartburn. I'd eat those chicharrones because they're so irresistible, while whining softly to myself about how much better the chicharrones would probably taste if they were made from local pork.
The same basic conflict appears when I review fancy restaurants that drench everything in butter, thicken it with flour, and sweeten it with sugar. Even if they braise the pork belly with five-spice rather than deep-frying it, it's still from the factory farm.