A Taste of San Luis

The small town of San Luis in southern Colorado is steeped in history – but that’s what you’d expect from the oldest town in the state. San Luis was founded in 1851 by descendants of early Spanish settlers who came to Colorado by way of northern New Mexico. 
With its old Spanish architecture, the quiet San Luis Valley hearkens to another era. An adobe chapel sits on the hill overlooking town at the Shrine of the Stations of the Cross, while in town you can stay at El Convento, a bed and breakfast housed in a former convent. 
Until a few years ago, there were two restaurants on Main Street that had been around as long as most folks could remember: Emma’s Hacienda and Sam’s Covered Wagon Cafe. Emma’s closed after more than six decades in business, but Sam’s is still hopping, serving tacos and green chile to locals and passing motorists alike.
Theresa Medina is the co-owner (with her husband, Sam) and cook at Sam’s Covered Wagon. As if she didn’t keep busy enough with that, Medina also is the town’s mayor. Her famous green chile comes from a recipe handed down from her mother-in-law, from whom she inherited the restaurant in 1970. We asked her for that recipe, but she says she was sworn to secrecy. She hasn’t even shared it with her own children.
Medina was happy to share the recipe for her carnitas, which she learned from her mother. The flavorful pork, perfect when shredded and enjoyed in tacos, has an unusual ingredient: cola. Medina adds two cans of Coca-Cola or Pepsi to the roasting pan before putting it in the oven.
Though Emma’s Hacienda is closed, you can still find Emma’s daughter, Theresa Lobato, minding the desk at the San Luis Visitor Center. Lobato was a cook for 35 years in her mother’s restaurant, where the red chile enchiladas were one of her favorite dishes. Red enchilada sauce is a hallmark of San Luis cuisine, having evolved differently from New Mexico-style cooking. Lobato shared her mother’s take on this local favorite.
When Lobato’s daughters watch her cook, they notice that she can’t help smiling. That’s because you have to cook with love, she says. “You can’t be grumpy and do it out of having to do it,” Lobato said. “You have to enjoy it.”

Carnitas Tacos
Theresa Medina, Sam’s Covered Wagon Cafe – San Luis

1 pork roast
2 Tbsp garlic salt
salt to taste
1 large onion, chopped
2 cans cola
taco shells
Serves 20

Pico de Gallo
1/2 medium white onion, diced
2 cups diced tomatoes
1/4 cup chopped fresh cilantro
1 Tbsp minced jalapeño 
Kosher salt

Trim fat from pork roast. Put pork roast in covered turkey roasting pan. Add two cans of cola, onion, garlic salt and salt. Add water until roast is completely submerged. Add more cola or water as cooking if needed to submerge roast. Cover roasting pan with lid. Cook at 350° for several hours until roast is tender and falls apart under a fork. Serve shredded meat on taco shells with lettuce and tomato. Add cilantro, sour cream, avocado, lime or pico de gallo if desired. Meat can be frozen in juice to enjoy later.

Red Enchiladas

Theresa Lobato – San Luis

8 corn tortillas
4 Tbsp vegetable oil                                                                                     
1 medium onion, diced
1/2 lb grated cheddar cheese
Serves 4

Red Chile Sauce

1/4 cup flour
3 Tbsp red chile powder
2 Tbsp vegetable oil
1 tsp fresh garlic, grated
1/4 tsp salt
4 cups water 

Sauce: Cook flour in pan with oil on low heat until a light golden color. Add chile powder and stir away from heat while adding water. Return to heat, add garlic and salt and continue stirring on low heat and simmer slowly for 20 minutes.

Enchiladas: Heat oil in pan on stove. Dip tortillas in oil one at a time and drain. Fill tortilla with cheese and onion and roll. Place two rolled tortillas in middle of plate and pour red chile sauce over them. Sprinkle grated cheese over the sauce and put in a 350° oven until cheese melts. Optional: Garnish with lettuce, tomatoes, diced green onions and a dollop of sour cream.

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