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Lewis Barbecue owner travels to New Mexico seeking inspiration for new downtown Charleston food trailer

MESILLA, NEW MEXICO — When it comes to claims to fame, the Double Eagle has a real good hand.

The steakhouse is housed in an adobe hacienda in Old Mesilla that went up in 1849, which means its inhabitants could have peered out their front windows to watch the announcement of the Gadsden Purchase, putting this swath of northern Mexico under the American flag, or to see Billy the Kid marched to jail. On top of that, the Double Eagle’s café serves what’s billed as the world’s biggest green chile cheeseburger, approximately the width and weight of a stadium seat cushion.

But not every potential guest is a history buff or a glutton, so the Double Eagle has also sown a ghost. Known only as Senora Maes, the one-time resident apparently had the misfortune of killing her beloved son with sewing shears when she intended to attack his lover. The woman never spoke again, but she still haunts the site of her filicide, breaking glasses and rearranging tables in the Double Eagle’s private dining room.

John Lewis, who grew up in nearby El Paso, loves this story. He also kind of believes this story, or at least isn’t ready to rule out that people and things can be moved by spirits. While the logical explanation for the room’s flickering lights is a switch flipped by a Double Eagle server, the owner of Lewis Barbecue prefers the more romantic interpretation.

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John Lewis visits New Mexico in August seeking inspiration for new downtown Charleston food trailer. Hanna Raskin/Staff

Now it’s late on a Tuesday night, and Lewis and Lewis Barbecue chef de cuisine Philip Powers are the last diners left at the Double Eagle. They’ve hung around so long that they’ve been allowed to smuggle their oversized cheeseburger into Senora Maes’ parlor without paying a rental fee.

By this point in the night, though, the employees are done with ghostly games: They unsubtly turn the light off and on with a sarcasm that no immortal could muster.

Yet Lewis can still pretend otherwise. “What was that?” he asks Powers. He’s brought his kitchen partner all this way to experience the magic of New Mexico, from its jagged mountain peaks to its unparalleled pinto beans, and he’s not about to miss a chance to enchant Powers. The success of their next project depends upon it.

Looking for New Mexico

Lewis, 40, opened Lewis Barbecue in Charleston in 2016, four years after taking over the pitmaster position at the newish La Barbecue in Austin. With Lewis in charge, the operation upgraded its beef, started making its own sausage and won the approval of Texas’ notoriously hard-to-impress barbecue loyalists. The esteem followed him to South Carolina.

Because of the backstory and the brisket, Lewis is most frequently associated with central Texas. But when Lewis moved to Austin after high school, he felt very far from home.

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John Lewis visits New Mexico in August seeking inspiration for new downtown Charleston food trailer. Hanna Raskin/Staff

“I hated the Mexican food, because it wasn’t this,” he says at Kiki’s in El Paso, waving his hand over a plate of beef enchiladas and refried beans, dosed with hefty ladles-full of red chile sauce and coated with an opaque layer of shredded Muenster cheese. “As you get farther out, it gets dumbed down.”

It’s necessary to pause here to deal with terminology, which becomes a sticking point when a chef takes an interest in food from the area surrounding the nation’s most contested border. (Lewis and Powers landed in El Paso two days after the Walmart shooting; while they were parsing salsa and dried meat at Kiki’s, CNN’s Chris Cuomo was at the next table over, posing for employees’ cellphone cameras.)

If you tell people that John Lewis is opening a New Mexican trailer in the Lewis Barbecue courtyard, they invariably hear “new Mexican trailer” and picture tacos al pastor. The confusion is compounded by restaurants in far west Texas and southern New Mexico referring to their cuisine as “Mexican,” even though nothing quite like it exists in modern-day Mexico: The green chile that defines it was developed at New Mexico State University in the early 1900s.

So it falls to Lewis and Powers to figure out how to describe what they’re serving. First, though, they have to figure out what they’re serving. They started this research-and-development trip with the basic outline of a menu, but also carried with them at least a dozen unanswered questions: How much butter should they apply to flour tortillas? How much lard belongs in the beans?

And, most crucially: Will Charleston embrace unfamiliar, unhealthy dishes that generally look terrible on Instagram?

Head and heart

Lewis and Powers have plenty in common. Both are lanky white men apt to do more and speak less than most chefs who get written up in magazines. When they need something at the restaurant, their inclination is to build rather than buy it. The trailer, for example, is coming from Georgia, but Lewis will install the electrical and plumbing systems.

What they don’t share is a common approach to problems, which may partially account for why Lewis Barbecue has done so phenomenally well that Lewis and Powers need another place where promoted employees can work and customers can spend their money. When faced with, say, the conundrum of popularizing chiles rellenos in coastal South Carolina, Lewis leads with his heart and Powers leads with his head.

It’s obvious to Lewis that people will love the dishes he holds dear because they are delicious. At Little Diner, a tortilla factory a few blocks east of the Rio Grande with a cactus-shaped boot scraper instead of a welcome mat, Lewis looks admiringly at a brittle bronzed gordita, its fried masa maw open to reveal savory hunks of stewed beef.

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John Lewis visits New Mexico in August seeking inspiration for new downtown Charleston food trailer. Hanna Raskin/Staff

He puts forth his fork and tastes happiness. If he could only conjure Canutillo, Texas, for Charlestonians, they’d be instantly charmed.

Powers isn’t so sure.

Maybe he just overdid it at El Hut on their first night in town, partaking of a burrito that grows weightier in his mind as the week rolls on. “That felt like late-night food and death,” he recalls later. But he’s struck again and again by the faintness of the bright chili flavors that he and Lewis have chased across the country; the preponderance of cheese and the iceberg lettuce on every plate.

His skepticism peaks at Chope’s Bar & Café in La Mesa, New Mexico, a much-loved little restaurant tucked into the pecan groves that populate the state’s southwest corner. Lewis grew up on Chope’s chile con queso, a dish truer to its name than the more common Tex-Mex version, made with Velveeta and red peppers.

At Chope’s, chile con queso is a bowl of chopped green chiles in broth with a scattering of white cheese. It looks a bit like potlikker, and tastes of garlic and bouillon (or, if you’re a Chope’s devotee: home).

What stays, what goes

“This is how I want to make our queso,” Lewis announces almost as soon as the dish arrives, looking to Powers for confirmation.

“I think that …,” he starts. That’s all Lewis has to hear.

“What don’t you like?”

“I think the chiles could be cooked less.”

“Yeah.”

“Maybe a little less garlic.”

“Yeah.”

“Like, I’m having a hard time seeing people eat this.”

“Really?”

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John Lewis visits New Mexico in August seeking inspiration for new downtown Charleston food trailer. Hanna Raskin/Staff

It’s not just the over-seasoned broth and weakness of the chiles that troubles Powers. He’s constantly thinking about logistics, and isn’t sure how to present something so soupy from a trailer window. If he and Lewis are going to demonstrate the glories of a cooking tradition that doesn’t even have a proper name, they may have to forgo one of its signature dishes. (Powers allows he “could see a variation working really well.”)

Just one, though. As they hopscotch across the Hatch Valley, visiting a succession of independent restaurants with essentially the same menu, Lewis and Powers bump up against flashes of brilliance suitable for export.

There’s the zesty green chile lemonade at Sparky’s, owned by Lewis’ friends Josie and Teako Nunn, a Jeff Bridges-lookalike with a penchant for putting vintage fiberglass statues all over Hatch. Also in Hatch, where New Mexicans flock to buy roasted chiles when chiles are in season, and chile ristras when they’re not, the tomato-tinged rice at The Pepper Pot impresses.

Nellie’s Café in Las Cruces, N.M., is a standout. Lewis and Powers take mental notes on the depth and freshness of the family recipe chile sauces swamping their breakfast plates, conveying heat without the astringency that afflicts so many of the sauces on their tour.

“I want it to taste like this,” Lewis says excitedly.

Caliche’s Frozen Custard is out of vanilla custard when the pair navigates around road construction for pre-dinner sundaes, so they take their green chile syrup and salted pecans over chocolate. The dessert is such a superlative combination of sweetness and heat that Lewis wonders out loud if they should spike their planned full menu and deal in nothing but green chile burgers and custard.

“It would sell great,” Powers says. “But I don’t want to be a burger joint.”

Knowing beans

Still, they can’t find the perfect role model for their envisioned trailer, which, like their short-lived Tex-Mex stall at Workshop, will go by the name Juan Luis.

Every restaurant they visit has one or another unmissable flaw: They encounter dried-out beans and bland tortillas, as well as salsas with no verve at all. In search of a touchstone they can reference when they experiment with spices and make menu decisions, they’ve instead gathered a smattering of strewn-out ideas.

Their itinerary isn’t all restaurants, though. Lewis and Powers also need to secure suppliers, and arrange for someone to cart their beans and chiles to South Carolina.

Harvey Morrow has been farming in Hatch since 1987. He has a pair of farms, which together add up to about 400 acres. Morrow grows watermelons, beans and the long green chiles pioneered a century ago by Fabian Garcia, New Mexico State University’s first Mexican-American alumnus.

“It’s kind of cute,” says Danise Coon, a senior research specialist at the school’s Chile Pepper Institute. “Garcia wanted more gringos to eat green chiles, so he wanted to tame down that heat and have a much bigger audience.”

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John Lewis visits New Mexico in August seeking inspiration for new downtown Charleston food trailer. Hanna Raskin/Staff

Chiles aren’t native to New Mexico: The region’s landrace varieties were traded north over time. But once Garcia hybridized the Capsicum annum, conveniently around the time that New Mexico was granted statehood, the green chile became an emblem of civic pride. Italian restaurants in Las Cruses stir chopped green chiles into their spaghetti sauce, and Subway outlets offer them alongside cucumbers and pickles.

Morrow’s pepper crop is respected, but he’s known foremost for his pinto beans.

“This is primo virgin land, so that makes a lot of difference,” he says when asked why his beans are so robust. “I don’t know. I think our water’s real good.”

Because Lewis had hoped to debut the new trailer at Lewis Barbecue's annual chile roast in October, he explains to Morrow that he’s on the cusp of needing 6,000 pounds of beans.

“That’s a problem,” Morrow warns, not looking too broken up about it. All of the remaining pintos from his recent harvest are a shade darker than he likes.

“They’re better than most people’s pretty stuff, but they’re darker,” he continues. “I sell my pretty stuff first: The Mexican housewives are bean connoisseurs. For a restaurant, it wouldn’t even matter.”

For a restaurant, it wouldn’t even matter. Lewis and Powers suddenly realize they weren’t going to the wrong restaurants in pursuit of inspiration: They were wrong to go only to restaurants.

'This is awesome.'

“You look at any plate, it’s the same 5-10 ingredients,” says Keith Whelpley of Ol' Gringo Chile Co., who joined Lewis and Powers at Nellie’s. “Red sauce looks like red sauce. But it all starts with family tastes and expands from there.”

In other words, New Mexican cooking is home cooking. Taking it out of the family kitchen is a risky maneuver.

In order to get a better read on New Mexican food’s South Carolina’s prospects, Lewis and Powers would have to reverse engineer what they sampled in restaurants. They needed to tease out what the commercial kitchens were trying to replicate and work directly with the ingredients that Morrow’s best customers demand.

In short, to captivate eaters who have no notion of green chiles, they had to simplify recipes until the flavors of a household bean pot shone through. They had to go home.

Nearly two weeks after flying back from Texas, they prepared dinner at Lewis' house for fellow chefs. It was the first time that McCrady’s pastry chef Katy Keefe, who’s married to Powers, tried any of the dishes developed for the trailer.

The meal was served without any pretensions, or individual plates. Powers put the enchiladas and salsa on Lewis’ living room coffee table, around which their guests sat cross-legged.

“Maybe we’re thinking about this too hard, because it’s going to come out of a trailer,” Lewis said apologetically after polling his guests for their opinions on the thickness of the tortilla chips; the saltiness of the beans; the coherence of the red sauce and the heat of the green sauce.

“Oh, I would be so pumped if I walked over to a trailer and got this,” one of the chefs said. “This is awesome.”

Keefe immediately agreed. And Powers did, too.

Juan Luis is slated to open in late October. The exact date is contingent upon the arrival of Morrow's beans.

Reach Hanna Raskin at 843-937-5560 and follow her on Twitter @hannaraskin.