When you’re from New Mexico, there’s really only one important question ever asked: “Red or green?” We’re talking about sauce, and there are actually three possible answers (“red,” “green” or “Christmas” which is both), but for Carrie Fountain, it’s red all the way. The accomplished poet and novelist grew up watching her grandmother cook in the family’s Mexican restaurant and bar in Mesilla, New Mexico. Red enchiladas were a customer favorite, but Fountain, a picky eater as a kid, always chose something else. “I’d have a cheese burrito with cheese on top,” she says. “Until one day, I tasted this dish and thought, ‘Why haven’t I been eating this?’ It was amazing.”
When Fountain moved to Austin to study writing at the James Michener Center at the University of Texas, she soon met her future husband, Kirk Lynn—also a student at that time but now a UT professor, a playwright and a founding member of the adventurous local theater group, Rude Mechs. Suddenly, Fountain’s way of cooking opened Lynn’s eyes. “Kirk’s from San Antonio,” she says. “So he learned about New Mexican food, which is so different from Tex-Mex.” And native-Texan Lynn is willing to trade in his roots for this dish.
“I am fairly loyal to the greasy powers of Tex-Mex,” he says. “But I gotta say, the first time I tasted authentic New Mexico chile prepared by an authentic New Mexican with a family history that includes a restaurant and bar on the plaza in Mesilla, I was sold. I would burn down my favorite Tex-Mex joint for a plate of Carrie’s enchiladas.”
Fountain continues her family’s tradition of making red enchiladas for Christmas Eve dinner as well as when the couple has guests over. “I only make them occasionally because it’s a really long process,” says Fountain. “And when I want to wow [guests].” She prepares the dish inside her quaint kitchen that opens into a big cozy living room with expansive windows that overlook a large tree-covered backyard. It’s a place she loves because she can cook and keep an eye on her kids at the same time. Even the lasagna dish Fountain uses to prepare the meal is special: It was a wedding gift for the couple.
That aforementioned wow factor comes directly from the specific dried New Mexican red chile pods used to create the sauce. When Fountain isn’t in New Mexico to buy the pods, she hurries to the only spot in Central Texas she’s been able to find them—an H-E-B in San Marcos. Coaxing the unique flavor from the pods takes some work. “Start by softening the chiles in warm water for a few hours,” she says. “Then load up a blender with garlic and puree the two together.” But to get the right, velvety consistency in the sauce, Fountain runs the puree through a food mill to remove the skins. Also, she takes precautions. “Because you’re dealing with something bright, red and hot, I wear latex gloves when doing this.” Finally, she makes a roux to thicken the sauce. “It’s entirely smooth…and it’s almost like the experience of eating mole—at least the texture—but the flavor is very unique.”
Then begins the layering process of corn tortillas, cheese, raw onion and red chile sauce. “I sometimes even cook the tortillas in a pan with some oil to soften them,” she says. “It adds another flavor to the dish.” Fountain notes there are a few secrets to this dish: keep the onions raw to allow for a little crunch with each bite and (surprisingly) never roll the tortillas; they’re always layered flat.
While the dish is a hit with the adults, the couple’s two kids—self-described picky eaters—aren’t exactly fans yet. “It’s a complicated flavor you can’t find in Austin,” Fountain says. “We’ve decided we’re going to continue to eat it even if our children choose not to.” She’s confident they’ll come around when they get older, just as she did. Lynn concurs. “I think they’ll grow out of it,” he says. “I used to never like conceptual art or European novels or glitch music, but given time, you realize that the world isn’t built of chicken nuggets, culturally or gastronomically. Plus, until they get wise, there’s more enchiladas for me!”
This dish has even inspired Fountain’s writing. Her first novel (sold in June to a publisher) features a father who learns how to cook by making enchiladas—a loving nod to her days growing up in the family restaurant, when the food was plentiful and everyone came together to eat. Sadly, the family restaurant closed in the ’90s, but the family still runs the bar that was established in 1934. “My heart still lives in New Mexico,” says Fountain. Luckily, her family’s red enchiladas have found a new home in Austin.
By Kate West • Photography by Melanie Grizzel