Chili Express, on the easternmost stretch of Gibson, marches to its own beat. Its spelling of “chili” seems out of place in New Mexico, and even its claim to serve “Mexican food” would be believable anywhere else but here—this is New Mexican to the core. Luckily, this same peculiar approach goes into crafting comfort food with a meticulous sensibility, not to mention the decor of one of the funkiest eateries in town.
Various objects and knickknacks crowd every inch of available space. A stuffed parrot roosts on a hanging perch above a gum ball machine. Native American fetishes hide behind a television tuned to CNN. While Christmas lights flicker, posters of divas, old advertisements and Norman Rockwell spinoffs crowd the walls. A saddle rides an interior half-wall. Statues, a sewing machine, an alarm clock, an old-fashioned meat grinder, a few sombreros and a street sign that says “Los Angeles Lakers lane” complete the busy picture. Everything is doubled by the floor-to-ceiling mirrors on the restaurant’s west side. And you could film a porno movie in the bathroom, with more mirrors, a corner sink and snazzy ’70s disco tiles.
Don’t be late, because when the salsa runs out for the day, it’s gone.
The food is inexpensive but made with care. The french fries are hand-cut and freshly fried. The green chile cheeseburger, on a braided sesame seed bun, stands as tall as in promo photographs of what some burger joints want you to think their burgers look like. The tortilla chips are fresh. The salsa bar (available to dine-in customers only) stocks a chunky, housemade pico de gallo, a smooth red salsa, a tomatillo salsa and a very hot “chapulin” salsa. Creamy and garlicky, you’d swear this green puree has mayo or sour cream in it. But it doesn’t; just serrano peppers, garlic and salt. Mixed with ketchup or any of the other salsas, the chapulin elevates a burger or fries to mythical status. But don’t be late, because when the salsa runs out for the day, it’s gone.
The menu sports the standard array of items you’d order with either red or green. The chicharrón inside a burrito steals the show like chicharrón is supposed to. The tamale is flat and dense with a sweet red inside. The relleno has great flavor, if somewhat standard.
The green chile stew is more stew-like than I’m used to around these parts, with multiple chunks of soft beef, carrots, celery, potatoes and tomato, and not a lot of roasted chile flavor. But it’s delicious.
The posole teems with juicy, falling-apart chunks of pork, and it comes in a rich red sauce whose heat delivers the perfect amount of bite. It’s a spot-on rendition of that indispensable New Mexico comfort food.
Homemade limeade (made from bottled lime juice, by the taste) provides a refreshing alternative to the usual fizzy suspects. And the free refills appear to be inexhaustible.
Chili Express strikes me as a good place for a first date—and not because of the porn-set bathroom. The decorations give plenty to talk about and the location feels out-of-the-way and anonymous, the sort of place where quirky romance blooms. And the food is good and cheap. If you’re looking to go red, green or Christmas, Chili Express will deliver.