As the local T-shirts put it, “New Mexico: It’s not new, and it’s not Mexico.”

Even the food here is its own thing. Between sopapillas, calabacitas, carne adovada, and Hatch Valley chiles (and ordering things “red”, “green”, or “Christmas”): it’s not Mexican, and it’s not Tex-Mex either.

Pueblo cave homes in Bandelier National Monument Apache mountain spirit dancer, outside the Museum of Indian Arts & Culture in Santa Fe, NM

Mountains and high desert of New Mexico Lone Butte, NM is little more than a general store

New Mexico can probably even lay claim to its own state of mind, defining the term high desert. Anywhere you turn starts from at least 6,000 feet of altitude. The combination of the altitude and arid climate can leave you with mild headaches and nosebleeds for days after arriving. Any notable breeze will result in red dust and grit in your teeth.

I last visited this region one winter in the 1990s, passing through one bleary-eyed day in the high-desert driving across I-40 from Flagstaff, AZ to Oklahoma City as part of a marathon trek across the country. Even back then I found Albuquerque more than a little odd, with the entire stretch of the town littered with “experimental speed limit” caution road signs. Experiencing it close up two decades later, it’s far stranger than I could have imagined.

Butte near Los Alamos, NM Valles Caldera National Preserve, NM

Albuquerque aka ABQ aka The Duke City

It seems rather apropos that humanity’s nuclear era started in the neighborhood, just up the road at Los Alamos. The town of Albuquerque strikes you as a post-apocalyptic world where someone entered a typo in their nuclear launch codes and accidentally overlooked this place. Add the many locals who convincingly impress you as veterans of earlier (and multiple) alien abductions, and to this day there is perhaps no better movie that captures the essence of Albuquerque than the 1984 cult film Repo Man:

Repo Man:This could easily have been set in Albuquerque, NM
Yes, even more than No Country for Old Men and the excellent TV series Breaking Bad and Better Call Saul. While New Mexico may not directly feature in Repo Man, it’s the film’s origin story and its influence permeates throughout. (Sorry, L.A.)

The residential areas are typically a criss-cross of wide East-West-bound boulevards littered with strip malls, with North-South streets (like Washington St. NE) jaggedly intersecting like misfit puzzle pieces so there’s never a continuous line through the many lots of ranch homes, covered car ports, and gravel landscaping.

Old Town Albuquerque, NM KiMo Theater, downtown Albuquerque

On the subject of food, simply eating here reminds you that Albuquerque is not your typical American city. The most exclusive restaurant in town — universally voted the biggest “splurge” restaurant in ABQ — is run by a three-time James Beard nominee. In true ABQ style, it resides in a local strip mall, next door to a hydroponics shop and across the street from a drive-thru emergency loan shark/cash station called Fastbucks. That’s how ABQ rolls.

Among friends I’m known for identifying the TV trope of the generic “fancy restaurant”: high-end dining establishments that have zero distinguishable interior design. Meanwhile, real-life restauranteurs often bleed ridiculous amounts of money to heavily brand their high-end dining room experiences so you always know exactly where you’re eating. For all that Better Call Saul gets right about the town, there was a scene in an episode last month where they dine at one such generic “fancy restaurant” in Albuquerque. If you spend any time in ABQ, you’d immediately recognize that no such place could exist in town.

This restaurant from Better Call Saul simply could not exist in Albuquerque

Better Call Saul does, however, nail the region on lawyers. Albuquerque is overflowing with courthouses and law offices, with the billboards of personal injury attorneys lining Interstates 25 & 40 with come-ons such as, “Hurt? Call Bert”. Is it any wonder why Bugs Bunny should have turned left?

Downtown ABQ gets even stranger. There’s a vast sea of multi-story parking garages, largely filled with cars, scattered among the remains of aging U.S. Route 66 kitsch and the tinted glass monoliths of more modern-yet-nondescript bank and energy company towers. And yet walk the downtown streets on a weekday afternoon a couple hours before rush hour and it is eerily devoid of pedestrians or even traffic. Which gives downtown ABQ the feel of a giant long-term airport parking lot for alien abductions: nobody is here, and yet everyone has left their cars behind.

We’ve written before about Austin, TX and their “Keep Austin Weird” motto. But the people here, although very friendly, are simply just too weird for Austin. More to the point: they’re blissfully unaware of their weirdness, thriving as an amalgamation of teen and adult runaways, Native Americans, silver-toothed street urchins, and the progeny of prior vehicle breakdowns along U.S. Route 66 to California.

Interstate billboard, Albququerque, courtesy of Outside Magazine Albuquerque skyline from I-25

Parking garages and glass towers in downtown Albuquerque Breaking Bad RV tours, Albuquerque

All of this makes Albuquerque a more than unusual base for developing a quality coffee culture, which most cities typically identify with urban hipsters. The bizarro culture of ABQ essentially renders a hipster’s raison d’être as pointless and irrelevant. If anybody from Portland, OR ever ended up here, I’d put them on a suicide watch.

Quality coffee is a relatively new thing in this town that normally celebrates commodities, down to its streets named after mining and minerals. Hence it is surprising to see a few $3 espresso shots here without the “moral outrage” you’d normally expect from most cities that love to gripe about the cost of a cup of coffee.

In Albuquerque, the espresso shots tended to run a bit thin on body and were often served in various presentation contraptions involving carved wooden blocks (or serving trays) and sparkling water on the side.

One of the local oddities I came across was piñon coffee. Much as New Orleans has been known for blending regular coffee with chicory for a unique local variation, piñon coffee is made by combining regular coffee with nuts of the piñon pine tree (the official state tree). Native Americans traditionally harvested these pine nuts. Once roasted and brewed, it exhibits a sweet, spiced smell like an amped up Arabic coffee, but it tastes more like regular coffee with an earthy, nutty edge to it.

Because... Albuquerque New Mexico espresso is heavy on presentation

Santa Fe

An hour up I-25 from Albuquerque is the town of Santa Fe. Founded in 1610 by Spanish colonialists, the New Mexico state capital carries a lot more history — including one of the oldest houses and the oldest church in the U.S.

Very much unlike Albuquerque, Santa Fe is a deliberately preserved town. This makes the stark contrast between the two not unlike the city of Napa versus St. Helena in the Napa Valley: one grows through big-box-store sprawl and lower costs of living while the other prefers a controlled aesthetic gentrification that makes it attractive to tourists with money.

San Miguel Mission in Santa Fe: the oldest church in America Downtown Santa Fe in the Pueblo architectural style

De Vargas Street House: one of the oldest homes in America, since 1646 Santa Fe architectural style

This means that Santa Fe, like New Orleans, is one of the few places in the U.S. where you know exactly where you are — i.e., not in some random urban center lined with all the same chain stores. Sure, there are many fancy restaurants and massive hotels and spas about town, but everything is harmoniously dressed up in Pueblo or Spanish style. Every building is some variation of an earthtone and the architecture is remarkably consistent.

Despite the million-dollar Pueblo homes near the old city center, there are still plenty of tourists parading through town in rumbling two-story pickup trucks with tinted windows, Oklahoma or Texas plates, and blasting some variation on death metal out their windows. Yet at the same time there’s an extensive arts community and even the relocation of many Tibetan expatriates in town.

Snow in Santa Fe Tibet comes to Santa Fe

The Old Santa Fe trail leading into town Santa Fe Railyard beneath the Sandia Mountains

Although Santa Fe is where locally roasted coffee was first introduced to New Mexico, the coffee culture here has generally been slow to evolve — with more options growing in just the past few years. Like Albuquerque, there’s often an unusual emphasis on an inventive rotation of specialty drinks. But here there is also a strange validation of the Paleo diet as something more than the snake oil fad that it is: a few places place their own buttered coffee knockoffs prominently on drink menus.

Synesso espresso machines can be found in uncommon locations — cart services, ice cream shops, etc. — which makes us suspect there’s a local distributor with service and influence in the area. If you’re going to cover this high desert service area, my advice — based on ample empirical evidence — is to listen to a lot of Guadalupe Plata on the car stereo:

Guadalupe Plata may be from Andalucía, Spain, but if it was good enough for The Good, the Bad and the Ugly

I originally noted a lack of sweetness in the coffee of Santa Fe and Albuquerque, which I partly blamed on the altitude at first. But I eventually found examples that broke that stereotype, such as the excellent Iconik Coffee Roasters — easily one of my more favorite coffee house finds of the past couple of years.

In conclusion, fallout from the Manhattan Project and Trinity tests may have left behind one unusual place and its residents, but the global advance of good coffee has infiltrated even here in just the past few years. Though for the record: Los Alamos scientists still drink pretty crummy coffee for the most part.

Espresso Ratings in New Mexico
Name Address City Espresso [info] Cafe [info] Overall [info]
Deep Space Coffee 504 Central Ave. SW Albuquerque 8.10 7.50 7.800
Humble Coffee Company 4200 Lomas Blvd. NE, Ste C Albuquerque 7.50 7.80 7.650
Zendo Coffee 413 2nd St. SW Albuquerque 7.50 7.50 7.500
35° North Coffee 60 E. San Francisco St. Santa Fe 7.40 5.50 6.450
Holy Spirit Espresso 225 W San Francisco St. Santa Fe 7.10 6.50 6.800
Iconik Coffee Roasters 1600 Lena St., Ste A2 Santa Fe 8.10 8.20 8.150
Ohori’s Coffee Roasters 505 Cerrillos Rd., Ste B103 Santa Fe 5.80 5.50 5.650
Santa Fe Espresso Co. 56 E. San Francisco St. Santa Fe 7.30 7.00 7.150