Some like it hot: green chile tour of New Mexico

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New Mexicans love their chile. Welcome signs on the interstates feature huge red and green chiles, red ristras hang from adobe homes, and even McDonalds offers green chile on its burgers.

To fully appreciate New Mexican green chile, visit in the late summer or fall, when acres upon acres of chile fields throughout the state begin to ripen and farmers hand-pick the fragile pods before they turn red. This fiery green trail of chile hot spots takes you to local favorites.

For a tasty cup of java and the hottest green in Albuquerque, head to the decidedly crunchy Java Joe's, hidden in a residential neighborhood off old Route 66 - the chile on its chicken burrito packs more punch than a triple espresso.

If you still haven't found your idea of chile perfection, consider cruising about an hour south on I-25 to blink-and-you-miss-it San Antonio. Here, the dark lil' Owl Bar serves up no-frills chile that's the subject of statewide debate. Some folks drive miles for its green-chile cheeseburger, while others gripe that the reputation is undeserved. The best in New Mexico? You decide.

In Albuquerque, folks head to Wagner's Farm, a seasonal farm stand that sells produce grown in their fields throughout Corrales. They bring their coolers or garbage bags, select a bushel for roasting at the cylinder roasters on site, and drag home bags of the blackened pods. Enjoy a fresh-made peach turnover, watch 'em roast the chiles, and pick up a gallon of apple cider.

If you're like most visitors to New Mexico, you'll hesitate to buy any chiles because, to the average cook, they're mysteriously alien. No worries. Swing by Santa Fe train depot to pick up some extra-hot green at the year-round Saturday and Tuesday morning farmers market, and take an afternoon class at the Santa Fe School of Cooking. Classes are offered just about daily, and they have an excellent collection of Southwest cookbooks and green chile products.

From Santa Fe, it's an easy hour and a half drive along the Rio Grande River to Taos. Pedestrian-friendly downtown Taos boasts excellent art galleries and fantastic hiking trails wind through the aspen and ponderosa of the surrounding mountains. For lunch, stop at riverside Embudo Station for a green-chile stew with a kick. At the other end of the day, go for a pint of green-chile beer and a green-chile smothered burrito at Eske's Brew Pub & Eatery. The vegetarian chile, with huge chunks of carrots, zucchini and other goodies, is unusual even in this vegetarian-friendly town, and just the smell of the beer is ecstasy to a green-chile addict.