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Charleston's Hatch Chile Evangelist Trucks in 3,000 Pounds

Eastbound and down

John Lewis of Lewis Barbecue will be trucking in 3,000 pounds of chile peppers all the way from Hatch, New Mexico, for his Oct. 10 chile roast
John Lewis of Lewis Barbecue will be trucking in 3,000 pounds of chile peppers all the way from Hatch, New Mexico, for his Oct. 10 chile roast (Lewis Barbecue)

By Stephanie Barna

You could say John Lewis has Hatch chile flowing in his veins. The Charleston restaurateur and pitmaster grew up in El Paso, Texas, just down the road from Hatch, New Mexico—the chile capital of the world—where even McDonald's and Subway feature the local ingredient. His great-grandparents had a farm and cultivated Hatch chile peppers, and they were always on the family dinner table. They’re his favorite ingredient, he says, because there's nothing else like them in the world.

A native of El Paso, Texas, John Lewis says the chiles from nearby Hatch, New Mexico, are his favorite ingredient
A native of El Paso, Texas, John Lewis says the chiles from nearby Hatch, New Mexico, are his favorite ingredient (Lewis Barbecue)

Lewis’s favorite time of year is the few weeks in early fall when the chile crop is harvested and the area surrounding Hatch comes alive with the smell of roasting peppers. Since opening Lewis Barbecue in 2016, Lewis has been replacing Charleston's signature smell of jasmine with that of roasting Hatch chiles—at least for a day or two every fall during his annual Hatch Chile Roast.

This year, Lewis will personally truck in the fresh chiles. "I'm flying out on Sunday to El Paso, renting a Ryder truck, and driving it back with 3,000 pounds," he says. "The harvest only happens a couple weeks out of the year." For him, it's worth it to get his hands on the fresh ones.

"They'll be picked before the sun's up in the morning. I'll be getting down there around 7:30 in the morning, packing them on the truck, and then hitting the road and getting here as fast as I can," he says. "It's a 26-hour drive."

What could possibly make any chile pepper worth such an effort? Lewis says it's the terroir of Hatch. "Much like wine grapes taste different depending on where they're grown," he says. The peppers grown in Hatch develop a signature taste due to the really long, hot and dry summer days. "It stresses the plant and makes it produce a more flavorful chile," says Lewis, who points out that Hatch chiles are not just one variety of pepper. Farmers cultivate NuMex, Big Jim, Joe E. Parker, NuMex Conquistador, Espanola Improved, Sandia, and Anaheim, a variety you'll find in just about any grocery store.

"You get one of those from the grocery store and they taste just like water," he says, but the ones grown in Hatch are different, with intense flavor and varying levels of heat.

And not every pepper labeled Hatch chile is from Hatch, New Mexico. Lewis says the name has been co-opted by other brands, so it's important to know that you're getting the real thing and not just some canned pepper from Mexico, where some of the same varieties are grown.

Lewis uses authentic Hatch chiles year-round at his restaurant for menu items like green chile corn pudding, green and red chile cheeseburgers, fire roasted Hatch chile cheese fries, Hatch red chile ketchup, and Hatch chile frozen custard. You can bet his new restaurant Rancho Lewis, which will be opening in the former Workshop space on the upper peninsula later this year, will heavily feature the ingredient. Lewis has cultivated close relationships with producers who roast, chop, and bag peppers for him that he keeps in the freezer. But it's the fresh roasting that he loves the most.

The first time Lewis held a chile roast in 2017, he brought in 1,000 pounds, since Charleston eaters weren't overly familiar with the ingredient. He's steadily increased that amount each year. Last time, he brought in 2,500 pounds and sold out in an hour. His evangelism seems to be successfully converting new followers. Even the local Harris Teeters have started selling them in the fall.

This year, he's hoping 3,000 pounds will last a little longer, but he advises you to pre-order online if you want to make sure you get your hands on some fresh-roasted chiles. During the Sunday, Oct. 10 event, Lewis and his team will be roasting the peppers over open flames.

They'll be roasting them 50 pounds at a time in a basket roaster at Lewis Barbecue's 2021 Hatch Chile Roast
They'll be roasting them 50 pounds at a time in a basket roaster at Lewis Barbecue's 2021 Hatch Chile Roast (Lewis Barbecue)

"We've got these two big giant basket roasters and we roast 50 pounds at a time for about four minutes," he says. "And we dump them out and bag them up in one-pound bags. You tell us how many you want and take them home and throw them in your freezer and you can have them for the whole year."

While you wait on your freshly roasted peppers, you can partake in the day's festivities. Lewis has invited a group of local restaurants to create bites with Hatch chiles that will be served up alongside green chile margaritas, red chile Micheladas and Bloody Marys, and a Hatch green chile beer made special by Revelry Brewing. Lewis Barbecue will also be selling pre-made hot sauces and sausages.

You can follow Lewis on his journey from Hatch, New Mexico, to Charleston next week via his Instagram.

Lewis Chile Roast
Oct. 10, 1-4 p.m.
Lewis Barbecue
Free

About the Author

Stephanie Barna

Stephanie Barna has been covering the Charleston food scene since she co-founded the Charleston City Paper in 1997, where she served as the editor for nearly two decades. Today, she is a freelance journalist and digital marketing specialist. Her favorite things to eat are smoked fish dip on crackers and tomato sandwiches with plenty of mayo.

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