The week chef Art Gonzalez moved to Santa Fe, New Mexico — to start work at James Beard award-winning chef Eric DiStefano’s acclaimed Southwestern fine dining restaurant Geronimo — the Southern California native hit up the city’s main farmers market.
There, he spotted a local chile grower, who was tumbling a recent pull of long green peppers around a grated barrel. As flames shot up from underneath, licking the waxy skins into a sweet char, the farmer asked Gonzalez a life-changing question: Have you ever tried a Hatch chile?
Molded by nutrient-rich soil and the state’s warm days and cold nights, Hatch chiles are a ubiquitous native ingredient that nearly define New Mexico’s complex combination of colonial history and indigenous culture. As summer winds down, the annual harvest brings pop-up roadside roasting operations, where the faithful flock to stock up for the winter.
Yet despite its local popularity, the pepper remains relatively unknown, underappreciated and unavailable outside of the Southwest region.
Gonzalez — who is half German and half Oaxacan — grew up in chile-deficient Cerritos, a place where the closest thing to Hatch is its punier, milder cousin, the Anaheim, or Ortega. So when the farmer handed him a just-pressed flour tortilla then pulled a smoking tube out of the open-air roaster, it was his first time trying Hatch in its purest form. Topped with nothing more than a sprinkle of kosher salt, the warm, still-peeling chile hit first with its meaty sweetness, then with its heat.
“That’s when I knew that this was serious,” Gonzalez says. “There’s a flavor profile you don’t get out of any other chile. That’s the root of the food culture there. They pay so much respect to chile.”
A few years later, Gonzalez found himself back in SoCal, with a Santa Fe native for a girlfriend and an executive chef gig at Long Beach steak-and-seafood staple McKenna’s on the Bay. But he could never get that chile, or the rest of New Mexico’s unique regional cuisine, for that matter, out of his head.
With the help of girlfriend and business partner Vanessa Auclair, Gonzalez opened Panxa Cocina in Long Beach just over three years ago. It’s currently one of only two Southwestern restaurants between here and Phoenix and the only place you’ll find elevated takes on specialties like Navajo tacos, blue corn pinon pancakes, and Hatch chiles year round.
Roasted, peeled, pureed, and combined with garlic, salt, and a little bit of flour, Panxa’s spicy Hatch chile sauce (as well as a red counterpart made from imported Chimayó chiles) tops knife-and-fork burritos, a half-pound burger, and the classic New Mexican favorite — stacked enchiladas, which, when crowned with a fried egg, are barely recognizable from the rolled Mexican ones.
Other New Mexican flavors abound: A side of Hatch cornbread comes with whipped honey butter; margaritas can be made with a spicy tequila instead of the boring regular kind; and a happy hour menu includes deep-fried chimichangas and Frito pie, two rare overlaps with nearby Tex-Mex.
Despite being the western terminus of the Southwest, Southwestern food has remained elusive in Los Angeles. For nearly four decades, chef John Sedlar infused French cooking with New Mexican flavors at his high-end restaurants like Sainte-Estèphe and Abiquiu, moving into broader Latin American territory in his final years with Rivera and Playa (he moved back to Santa Fe and opened a restaurant there in 2015).
In the late ’90s, LA and Orange County had a handful of restaurants dedicated to America’s most historically Spanish-influenced regional cuisine, but in the time since, all except one brand has closed. The Green Chile in La Mirada still subsists on its many variations of sopaipillas — a light, puffy fried dough native to New Mexico — and makes a mean Hatch chile sauce for its enchiladas. There’s also the 505 Food Truck, which launched a few years back with decent red and green sauce and ground beef that would need more seasoning to be up to Santa Fe snuff.
Panxa is the first kitchen in local history to launch a midrange Southwestern-inspired kitchen that pulls as much from tradition as it does from fine dining, offering familiar New Mexican meals crafted from ingredients both imported and grown exclusively for Gonzalez by local urban farms.
It’s an ethos the chef also abides by at his other Long Beach restaurant, Roe Seafood, which does everything from pristine sushi to al pastor swordfish with seafood sourced from Michael Cimarusti’s Dock to Dish program.
“Someone’s got to push Long Beach forward on the food front,” Gonzalez says, “and the farm-to-table thing is something I learned from my time cooking in New Mexico. In Santa Fe, you talk to the farmers and you realize they’re only 20 minutes outside of town, raising goats for cheese, growing chile, and making their own cheese. It’s such a little microclimate of food.”
Beyond the food, Gonzalez and Auclair also tried to transplant the art, ambience, and decor of their favorite Santa Fe hangouts into their low-key corner spot, tucked into a mellow residential section of Belmont Heights.
The brown booths are reminiscent of the diners where homestyle New Mexican food is usually served. The branch of a real Aspen tree is mounted on a turquoise blue wall draped in authentic Navajo jewelry beads. And every year, the couple returns to Santa Fe to buy goods at the famous Spanish and Indian markets, where American Indians weave baskets before your eyes (the most recent purchases are hanging on the wall by the bathroom). Ristras of dried red chiles — for sale year-round at roadside stands throughout the state — hang from the doorways. A wall-sized portrait of a Pueblo Indian chief watches over the small dining room, a reminder of where the squash and corn and chile on your plate comes from.
“We’ve had people plan vacations to New Mexico because of Panxa,” Gonzalez says. “As a chef, I’d love to get a Michelin star and win all these awards, but at the end of the day that’s what really keeps me going — getting people interested in and intrigued by a new cuisine, making them want to go out and explore.”
Panxa Cocina. 3937 E. Broadway, Long Beach, CA 90803.