A change of just one little letter turns a chili pepper — an ordinary spicy restaurant garnish — into a chile — an authentic, traditional New Mexican treat. The green Hatch chile packs a unique flavor profile, and West Asheville’s Zia Taqueria is one of only about 20 restaurants in the country where diners can find it.
Founder Kevin Grant (who runs the original Zia Taqueria in Charleston, S.C.) calls the green Hatch “without a doubt the most flavorful chili pepper out there.” His partner, Robert Tipsword, maintains the Asheville location. The two were lucky enough to establish a relationship with an authentic green Hatch chile supplier in New Mexico and have been consistently using the fiery fruit in dishes since mid-November. So far, notes Tipsword, the response from customers has been great.
Right now, the green Hatch chile stew is the restaurant’s main feature. A unique blend of spices, potatoes, corn and carrots (available either with pork or vegan), the stew is just the right kind of spicy to be a seasonal favorite. “The recipe isn’t all that hard,” says Grant. “The hard part is getting the chile. It’s the only one with this kind of flavor. The stew is a way for people to understand there’s a lot more than just heat in a chili.”
“It’s almost an unprecedented taste for Asheville and the Eastern Seaboard,” adds Tipsword, who’s excited about playing with new green Hatch chile recipes and flavors that will soon be featured on Zia’s menu.
Tipsword is also looking forward to creating a community-driven hub of dining, with specialty cocktails and entertainment. With one successful year under his belt, he hopes to begin hosting sports events, movies, bands and more at his prime location. “We’re fortunate to be on Haywood with parking surrounded by fences. I feel like with this property comes a sense of responsibility to do something that involves the community, and that’s definitely something we’re looking forward to.”
Tipsword’s passion for community involvement doesn’t end at Asheville’s city limits. New Mexico’s nearly 350 days of sunlight, he explains, have made chili peppers a primary export, and he says, “with Asheville’s growing economy, we should support and buy this world-renowned American product.” In 1992, he notes, 40,000 acres in the state were devoted to growing chilies; by 2010, that number had dropped to 9,500. “Unfortunately, 82 percent of chili peppers bought are from other countries now, and there’s no telling how they preserve it, package it — and what some restaurants put on it to make it look good again,” he points out.
Originally developed at the University of New Mexico, the green Hatch chile is a true American fruit — so American, in fact, that several McDonald’s restaurants in New Mexico regularly serve green-chile burgers. Zia Taqueria now has year-round access to this prized condiment, which surprisingly is never frozen despite its long journey. “Our supplier found a way to keep that backyard flavor, roasting them first and then using lime juice to preserve them in jugs,” Tipsword explains.
This particular pepper is definitely worth the hassle. “There’s nothing else we could use that would even get close to the flavor of this chile,” says Grant. Chili peppers are naturally packed with vitamins, fiber and capsaicin (which many claim blocks the production of cancer cells), making the green Hatch chile stew a nutritious seasonal dish. Served with tortillas on the side to cut the spice while enabling diners to soak up every last drop, the stew will be served through the winter and is sure to get Zia Taqueria customers wondering what the next green Hatch chile menu item will be.
Zia Taqueria (ziataco.com) is at 521 Haywood Road and is open 11 a.m.-9:30 p.m. Sunday-Thursday and 11 a.m.-11 p.m. Friday and Saturday. 575-9393.