In sleepy Hatch, a red-hot time

In sleepy Hatch, a red-hot time
Chile-themed doodads, including red chile ristras, are a fixture at the Hatch festival. Freshly dried chiles are also widely available. (Rose Palmisano / AP)
The rush begins at midday, heralded by an unseen rooster crowing the noon hour.

Of the dozen or so tables in El Mexicano Café, only four have customers. Two mainly are filled by men in jeans, plain cotton shirts and sweat-ringed hats. A couple of young mothers with infants in strollers talk animatedly at a third table. I'm alone at the fourth, the only non-Latino and an obvious out-of-towner.

So much for the lunch crush.

This is the measured pulse of life about 80 miles north of where the Rio Grande slices eastward to form the Texas-Mexico border. But come Labor Day weekend, the pace will quicken as about 30,000 people descend on Hatch (population 1,660) to celebrate the town's best-known commodity — red and green chile peppers.

What began 35 years ago as a one-day local harvest celebration has blossomed into the two-day Hatch Chile Festival, drawing chile lovers from as far away as East Texas and Southern California.

Equal parts country fair and kitsch, the fiesta includes what Mayor Judd Nordyke describes as "dumb things" like chile-tossing and eating contests as well as country and Latin music, the crowning of a chile queen and, of course, vendors selling chile-themed doodads. The red chile ristra is the local answer to the Hawaiian lei, and purists can buy freshly dried chiles by the bag or pick up a gas-fired barrel roaster for the patio.

The party has become too big for Hatch itself, so it's held beyond a low hill just north of town that hides the local landing strip. (The airport is still open; pilots are warned to watch out for parked cars.) There's now a cooking contest and an array of booths, but the festival initially served up a single plate from the school cafeteria — chiles rellenos, red and green enchiladas, rice, beans and tortillas.

"For years, there was no other food there," Nordyke said. "It's kind of lost the flavor of the old country fair."

Maybe, but the trade-off put Hatch on the map. The festival has been featured on the Food Network, national TV news shows and magazines targeting food aficionados, many of whom believe the local soil content, climate and summer heat give Hatch chiles a distinctive balance of heat and flavor.

If there is a bad plate with chile sauce to be had here, it missed me. The green sauce over carnitas enchiladas at El Mexicano had enough heat to raise a sweat but enough richness to make you not care. During the next four days, I ate chile sauce up and down this stretch of the Rio Grande, and each was as good as the last.

Truth be told, there isn't much to Hatch beyond the Chile Festival, reflecting the town's role as a service center for the farms that make the Rio Grande an improbably verdant ribbon of life meandering through the northern Chihuahuan Desert. But there are rewards for the patient and curious.

Las Cruces, my base, is about 45 minutes south of Hatch along Interstate 25 or about an hour following New Mexico 185, the preferred route. Where the freeway keeps an aloof distance east of the river, 185 follows the Rio Grande in an intimate tango, dancing cheek to cheek for a few miles before twirling apart, only to come back together for a kiss. The land shifts from green farmland in the flatlands to narrow passes through hills eroded down to the rock, as though the Earth's bones were showing.

Midway between Hatch and Las Cruces lies Ft. Selden, a former home to the famous Buffalo Soldiers. The fort has crumbled to ruins, but a state-run information center has displays on life at the fort and its role in protecting settlers from Apache raiding parties as the U.S. government wrestled the West into submission in the decades after the Civil War.

The mountains and La Mesilla

IN Las Cruces, West Picacho Avenue holds a strip of antiques shops, including the Glen, a vintage clothing and costume store, a far-removed slice of Manhattan's campy East Village. But most of Las Cruces has been colonized by chain restaurants and local services that define so much of American architecture. The "anywhere" feel of the city contrasts sharply with two nearby gems: the Organ Mountains rising to the east and the old Mexican trading post of La Mesilla.

First, the mountains. There are two ways to get there. The western access is by way of an eponymous road that leads to the Dripping Springs Natural Area (named for intermittent waterfalls). A $3 fee buys access to six miles of trails that in this hypersensitive environment climb through three ecological zones in several hundred feet.

The walking is relatively easy and the discoveries a delight, especially for kids. In an hour of poking around, I saw a set of high-flying hawks, Anna's hummingbirds, painted grasshoppers (they look like flying jewelry), bright blue tarantula hawk wasps and dozens of lizards.

The eastern access lies off U.S. 70 after it cuts through the San Agustín Pass. The ambitious can take an arduous hike up and through the wall of mountains. I settled for the view of a startlingly surreal meadow of flowering yuccas at the desert's edge.

La Mesilla, although only a short drive away, is a world removed. The original town square is surrounded by refurbished adobe buildings, including the courthouse where gunslinger Billy the Kid was convicted of murder in 1881 and sentenced to hang. (Moved to another city to await his fate, he escaped and was later gunned down by Sheriff Pat Garrett in Fort Sumner, N.M.) Most of the buildings, including the courthouse, are now shops and restaurants.

La Posta is a classic Mexican family cafe, well worth the 20-minute wait for a plate of chicken enchiladas (with green sauce, naturally). Nearby is El Patio Cantina, an unpretentious neighborhood watering hole with live bands on weekends. For Latin dancing try El Palacio, a sprawling club with dueling mariachi bands in the front and a Latin music band in the back.

I stayed at Meson de Mesilla, a pleasantly understated boutique hotel. For the last night, I headed south to El Paso, again bypassing the freeway for local country roads, letting the Rio Grande be my guide. After poking around the downtown bazaar near the pedestrian bridge to Ciudad Juárez, Mexico, I took in a seasonal treat — minor league baseball.

El Paso Diablos, an independent team several rungs below the majors, play in the open Cohen Stadium overlooking the Texas countryside. A $7 ticket got me a front-row seat behind the plate. The lure of minor league baseball in an unfamiliar town, with unfamiliar players, is that you watch the game for what it is, a drama with its own traditions that unfolds at its own pace.

A muggy monsoonal flow had triggered a thunderstorm less than an hour before game time, and as I took my seat the sky turned purplish, the sun filtered by rain sheets off to the west. A local opera singer sang the national anthem. Then, two teams of young men played out their dreams and, for a couple of hours, slowed the pace of life on a sultry summer night.

The fest and all the rest

El Paso, Texas, is the closest airport to Hatch. From LAX, Southwest flies nonstop; America West, Delta, United, Continental and Frontier have connecting service (change of plane). Restricted round-trip fares begin at $224.

Hotels: The one motel in Hatch is usually booked during the Hatch Chile Festival. The best bet is to stay in Las Cruces, 45 miles south, which has an array of chain motels and local options. The Hilton, 705 S. Telshor Blvd., (505) 522-4300, , is convenient to restaurants and Interstate 25. Doubles $70-$129. The Meson de Mesilla, 1803 Avenida de Mesilla, Las Cruces, (505) 525-9212, , is a relaxing 15-room boutique hotel near the old adobe town. Doubles $65-$140.

The restaurant at Meson de Mesilla (above) focuses on gourmet tastes and budgets. Entrees start at $20. In Hatch, the chile is the reason to go. The portions, prices ($5-$10) and flavors were just right at El Mexicano Café, 360 Hall St. In Las Cruces; Dick's Café, 2305 S. Valley Drive, (505) 524-1360; and Chilitos Restaurant, 3850 Foothills Road, (505) 532-0141.

The Hatch Chile Festival is set for Sept. 3 and 4. Information: (505) 267-5050, .

— Scott Martelle