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El Bruno’s Restaurante Y Cantina – Albuquerque, New Mexico

El Bruno’s Restaurante Y Cantina on Fourth Street in Albuquerque

At about 75 miles  each way, Cuba, New Mexico is almost equidistant between Albuquerque and Farmington. Regardless of starting point, the drive  to and from Cuba is  one of the Land of Enchantment’s most spectacular.  A preponderance of scenic vistas and an otherworldly, multi-hued topography make the drive a sightseer’s delight. The stratification of multi-hued earthen layers, will  remind you of colorful Navajo sand paintings while hulking hoodoos (columns or pillars of bizarre shape caused by differential erosion on rocks of different hardness) will inspire awe, none more so than the nipple shaped Cabezon Peak, a dramatic 7,785 foot volcanic formation that commands the skies.

I must admit that most of my enjoyment of those incomparable vistas has been on the return trip from Cuba.  For some reason, I always seem to be in a hurry to get there with a single-mindedness of purpose only a seeker with a yen to be sated can truly understand.  In my quest to fulfill that longing, I’ve even resorted to corrupting the innocent,  once convincing my friend Sandy that her new Prius could reach speeds of over 100 miles-per-hour on the long, straight stretches of U.S. Highway 550.  So what would drive two law-abiding, upstanding citizens of good repute to risk life and limb at the expense of enjoying the scenery?

One of several dining rooms at El Bruno’s Restaurante Y Cantina

The answer, of course, is El Bruno’s Restaurante Y Cantina, considered by the cognoscenti as one of the very best purveyors of New Mexican food in the Land of Enchantment. For nearly four decades–since 1975–savvy diners have made their way to Cuba for traditional and contemporary New Mexican food crafted from Hazel Herrera’s family recipes.  Hazel and her husband Bruno are the genial proprietors of this storied restaurant, the destination of hungry legions who, like me, probably wait until the return trip to enjoy the vistas which give New Mexico the sobriquet “land of enchantment.”

There’s plenty to see on the premises of El Bruno, too.  A colorful mural on an exterior west wall depicts a New Mexican woman carrying a basket brimming with green, red and yellow chile peppers while other field hands harvest New Mexico’s official state vegetable from fecund and verdant fields. The entrance to El Bruno’s is through a wooden bell gate into an expansive courtyard.  A large Spanish bell is poised above the gate as if to call in hungry patrons to a meal with its timbre and tintinnabulation.  On the wooden gate is carved the Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of the Americas.  To many New Mexicans there is no truer manifestation of welcome.

Salsa and Chips

Not surprisingly, the restaurant’s interior ambiance is superb (although what can truly compare to the unrivaled scenery on the way to Cuba). Being surrounded by the enrapturing art of Taos artist Miguel Martinez (renowned for painting beauteous women with almond-shaped eyes) as well as by charming antiques makes it an attractive milieu for any meal.  A canopy of huge vigas overhead and earthen-hued tones add to the New Mexican ambiance.  Ambiance not withstanding, it’s the food for which so many visit El Bruno.

For Albuquerque’s El Bruno’s enthusiasts, the news in August, 2010 that this terrific destination diner would be launching its first satellite, and in the Duke City, too, was as welcome as news that the Lobos had been invited to the big dance.  Notice that it wouldn’t open in December as originally announced was then akin to learning the Lobos had lost to BYU.  After a couple of false-starts, El Bruno’s finally opened on March 7th, 2011 in the spot vacated by long-time tenant Garduño’s of Mexico.  Ironically, the restaurant is situated on the intersection of Fourth Street  and Garduño Road.

Con queso with crispy tostadas

Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos, a long-time contributor and friend of this blog, was one of the very first Burqueños to visit El Bruno’s. He came away impressed by some things, but disappointed by others indicating “perhaps my anticipation, nursed by several delays in opening, created a mystique which set too high a bar.”  With an ease of words I admire, Bob also relayed that El Bruno’s “captures what folks expect of an inviting New Mexican cantina, but avoids a formality to a place.”

An inviting New Mexican cantina is an apt description for El Bruno’s which straddles the line between casual and formal dining with a motif that includes bright earth-tone colored walls, earthenware sconces, tin light fixtures and other Southwestern accouterments.   Immediately to the left as you walk in is the bar-dining room and beyond that is an elongated  north-facing room bathed in sunlight.  The equipales furnishing (tables and chairs) in both these rooms  are crafted from fibrous materials removed from maguey cactus and fixed with leather bands.  The restaurant includes several other dining rooms including one in which intimate booths are partially shielded by purplish drapes.  The art of Miguel Martinez festoons several walls.

Traditional Shrimp Ceviche

The menu is extensive.  All the favorites from the original El Bruno’s are available.  A separate menu depicts lunch specials, all of which are named for Albuquerque area locales: Placitas, Bernalillo, Los Lunas, Corrales, Ranchitos, Rio Rancho and the Cuba plate (one cheese and one beef enchilada, red and green chili (sic), beans, rice and melted cheese).  Appetizers range in price from eight to fourteen dollars and include such surprises as camarones Mexicanos marinated in El Bruno’s pinon sauce and traditional shrimp ceviche.  There are seven creative salads on the ensaladas section of the menu.

Enchiladas and tacos occupy an entire page on the menu.  Shrimp and crab enchiladas (topped with chile con queso and fresh green chile) are just one of the six different enchilada offerings, all of which can be made with blue corn tortillas.  Platos de pollo (plates showcasing chicken), de la parillada y del mar (from the grill or the sea) and fajitas y carnitas share a page on the menu.  The other two sections of the menu showcase Antojitos Mexicana and Platos de Combinacion on one page and burritos, chimichangas, los burgers and “para los niños” on another.  The menu is replete with surprises, some items of which you won’t see at other New Mexican restaurants in Albuquerque.

Carnitas and papitas

As you ponder the menu, the friendly and accommodating wait staff will deliver your first bowlful of salsa and a basket of red and yellow corn chips. My initial impression, one shared by Bob the Villager, was that the salsa lacked the piquancy of other Fourth Street New Mexican restaurants.  There was discernibly more heat in the salsa during my second and third visits when the medley of rich, red tomatoes and the jalapeños combined to titillate my taste buds with the heat they crave.  This is good salsa and the chips are thin and crisp yet substantial enough for Gil-sized scoops (though they’re quite salty).  There’s no chip-dipping in my table.  In its September, 2012 edition, Albuquerque The Magazine named the salsa at El Bruno the very best in Albuquerque from among 130 salsas sampled throughout the city.

13 March 2011: Alas, one of our very favorite dishes in Cuba, the magnificent chile con queso, was a disappointment in Albuquerque.  In fact, it was downright “dumbed down,” lacking the piquancy the Cuban con queso contained.  Though the queso was flecked with green (ostensibly green chile), it was as punchless as the University of New Mexico football team under coach Locksley.  Without piquancy, the queso was reminiscent of the gloppy Velveeta genre.  Instead of conventional chips, El Bruno’s con queso is served with crispy tostadas (fried flour tortillas).  These “chips” are magnificent!

Carnitas a la Mex with two enchiladas and a flour tortilla

29 March 2015: El Bruno’s menu pays homage to Old Mexico with several items you don’t often see in New Mexican restaurants.  Among those is “traditional” shrimp ceviche, a mariscos favorite throughout Mexico.  The quotation marks around “traditional” are there because El Bruno’s shrimp ceviche wouldn’t pass for traditional shrimp ceviche in Mexico.  In fact, it resembles something akin to a cross between Campechana (a Mexican seafood cocktail) and ceviche.  Where El Bruno’s ceviche (avocado, fresh lime, jalapeño, yellow hot, fresh cucumber, red onion and a special marinade sauce) lacks the tangy citrus prominence of Mexican ceviche, the freshness of the avocado, jalapeños and special marinade are quite good in their own right.  Our only other complaint with the ceviche is the relative sparsity of seafood.  There just wasn’t much of it.

13 March 2011: Fortunately one of the dishes we enjoyed most in Cuba is also on the menu in Albuquerque.  That would be El Bruno’s fabulous carnitas, some of, if not THE best carnitas in New Mexico. Celebrated among patrons who have sampled these cubed carnivore’s delights, the carnitas are available in two dinner combinations: the poetic sounding carnitas con papitas and the carnitas a la Mex which come with rolled enchiladas, refried beans and homemade tortillas, all of which are wonderful. What makes these carnitas incomparable is the quality of the sirloin (yes, sirloin, not pork as seems to be the case with most carnitas) which has the charbroiled taste of an outstanding steak. The papitas are silver dollar-sized, dusted with fiery red chile and on par with those served at Sadie’s in Albuquerque (meaning they’re the best).

Carne Adovada

13 March 2011: At many New Mexican restaurants when an entree includes a side of, but does not necessarily showcase, enchiladas, the enchiladas are an after-thought, generally not very good. That’s not the case at El Bruno’s. While carnitas may be the starring attraction of the aforementioned Carnitas a la Mex, the enchiladas are main entree quality. They are engorged with cheese and topped with your choice of red, green or Christmas style chile.  The chile won’t set off any fire alarms with its piquancy, but it’s got a good flavor.  The beans and rice are topped with melted yellow and white Cheddar. Garnish includes not only the perfunctory lettuce, but large sprigs of parsley (which has wonderful flavor ameliorating qualities and should not be solely relegated to plate decoration). 

29 March 2015: My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, recently took umbrage with a “top five carne adovada” list compiled on Newscastic by a culinary novice.  Larry’s own list begins with the sublime carne adovada at the incomparable Mary & Tito’s Cafe followed by the superb carne adovada at El Bruno.  Larry describes it as “very tasty and succulent marinated pork was fork tender, and among the best in the city.”  How can you argue with that?  El Bruno’s carne adovada is indeed fork tender and delicious, each tender tendril of marinated pork falling apart at the press of a fork.  My Kim enjoys the carne adovada with two fried eggs.

The Chaco Burger – a half-pound burger with blue cheese crumbles, caramelized onions and chipotle mayo

16 March 2011: The “Los Burgers” menu features six half-pound burgers, including one served on a tortilla with green chile.  Just as it’s not every great Italian restaurant that can make a decent pizza, not every great New Mexican restaurant can char-grill a decent burger.  My frequent dining compañero Bill “Roastmaster” Resnik and I arrived at that conclusion after a couple of bites each of our burgers, both of which arrived at medium-well though we requested medium-rare and medium respectively.  Mine was a Chaco Burger which is embellished with blue cheese crumbles, caramelized onions and chipotle mayo.  The combination of caramelized onions and chipotle mayo is very sweet (much like a caramelized onion relish) and there weren’t enough blue cheese crumbles to provide any contrast (and I like my blue cheese breath-wrecking strong).  If there was any bite to the chipotle, it, too, was obfuscated by the sweet caramelized onions. 

4 December 2011: Growing up in Northern New Mexico, fishing the pristine cold-water streams was a favorite pastime, but my brothers and I were pescatarian snobs.  During camping trips into the wilderness where we subsisted solely on fish we caught, we threw back any rainbow trout which had made their way upstream from where they were stocked.  Our taste buds craved New Mexico’s official state fish (yes, we do have one), the cutthroat trout, the most delicate and delicious of all fish you can find in the Land of Enchantment.   Rainbow trout, we believed, were strictly for tourists and if we did take them home, we fed them to our neighbor’s chickens who pecked them to pieces and chased each other around the coop playing a combination of take-away and tackle.  It was great fun at the time.

Piñon Crusted Rainbow Trout: Pan-seared, topped with mango salsa and served with mango salsa, red chile-dusted papitas and a salad

4 December 2011: Thanks to a recommendation from the professor of the perspicacious palate Larry McGoldrick–or more accurately, his better half Jane who became besotted of an entree showcasing rainbow trout, my own opinion may have been forever changed. El Bruno’s  piñon crusted rainbow trout is butterflied and pan-seared to a golden-hue then topped with a mango salsa–not enough to make the trout “fruity tasting,” but just enough to provide a light contrast to the delicate, fresh taste of the trout.  The piñon crust is also delicate with barely a hint of the woodsy tasting nut.  The trout is served atop a bed of fried spinach, a unique dish first created by the brilliant entrepreneur Tom Hamilton of the sublime Hamilton Chop House outside Durango.  It’s served with a generous mound of red chile-dusted papitas and a garden salad (make sure you request the green chile ranch dressing). 

4 December 2011: It stands to reason that because of the pride El Bruno takes in preparing its carnitas, the fajitas would be something special and indeed they are.  Sizzling strips of sirloin arrive at your table on a hot metal plate.  The fajitas are served with sauteed onions and bell peppers, grated white and yellow Cheddar cheese, guacamole, lettuce, sour cream and flour tortillas.  It’s the sirloin which stands out most because it’s a much higher quality cut than skirt steak which is typically used for fajitas.  It’s chop house quality steak and it goes very well with whatever other ingredients you wish to use in crafting your meal.

Fajitas sizzling on a plate

Driving a few miles through the concrete urban jungle to get to El Bruno’s isn’t nearly as scenic as the 75-mile drive along Highway 550, but it’s a drive many Duke City diners have already started to make.  The parking lots are as full now as they were during the halcyon days of Garduño’s and the food is so much better.

El Bruno’s Restaurante Y Cantina
8806 Fourth Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 897-0444
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 29 March 2015
1st VISIT:  13 March 2011
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Carnitas con Papitas, Carnitas a la Mex, Chips and Salsa, Fajitas, Piñon Crusted Rainbow Trout, Carne Adovada, Shrimp Ceviche

El Bruno's Restaurante y Cantina (ABQ) on Urbanspoon

Teofilo’s Restaurante – Los Lunas, New Mexico

Teofilo’s Restaurante on Main Street in Los Lunas

Several years ago award-winning Albuquerque Journal columnist Leslie Linthicum (since retired) penned a wonderfully evocative column entitled “Spanish Names Fade into History.”  Leslie observed that if you frequent the obituaries, especially those published on the Journal North and Journal Santa Fe, you may have observed  and lamented the passing of another great Spanish name.   The lyrical names with which the scions of Coronado were christened–Leocaida, Elfido, Trinidad, Pacomio, Seralia, Evilia, Amadea, Aureliano and others– have become increasingly rare in the Land of Enchantment. 

Leslie noted that “just about every day in New Mexico, another great old Spanish name passes on as a family loses a viejo.”   Former state historian Estevan Rael-Gálvez believes the disfavor which has befallen once-honored given names can largely be attributed to  “the stigma against the use of the Spanish language, which stretched from the 1940s into the 1980s.”   It’s a shameful stigma that “extended into many families as they welcomed babies into the world.”

Salsa and Chips

Today, instead of bestowing their children with such culturally-rooted names as Prudencio, Malya, Natividad, Onofre, Celso, Andreita, Ramoncita and Piedad, young New Mexican parents tend to favor more “homogeneous” names as Noah, Elijah, Jacob, Aiden, Daniel, Jayden, Josiah, Ethan and Michael for boys and Sophia, Emma, Isabella, Olivia, Emily, Sofia, Ariana, Ava and Abigail for girls. According to the state Bureau of Vital Records and Health Statistics, in 2014, the most popular names for newborns in New Mexico were Liam for boys and Mia for girls followed by the aforementioned names. Coronado would not recognize these names.

Having grown up daily hearing the mellifluous and traditional Spanish names of a bygone era, I can now appreciate their distinctively melodic qualities and like Leslie, mourn the passing of friends, relatives and strangers alike who brought honor to those names.  It makes me cringe when young Hispanos mispronounce (butcher would be a more appropriate term) names those of my generation hold sacrosanct.  Because their own parents were taught to eschew Spanish, it’s entirely inappropriate to blame young Hispanos for any linguistic malapropisms.

Breakfast Quesadilla (Cheddar-Jack Cheese, Avocado, Bacon) with Papitas

Leslie recalls the appropriate recitation of these names by former state historian Estevan Rael-Gálvez as “somewhere between a poem and a lullaby.”  Were she to visit Teofilo’s Restaurante in Los Lunas, Leslie would probably first celebrate the perpetuation of a time-honored, traditional Spanish name on the restaurant’s marquee.  She would probably then shudder the first and subsequent times she heard a server answer the phone “Tio Philo’s.”   Servers aren’t the only ones employing this aberrant mispronunciation, but even more than their customers, they darned well should know better. 

That not everyone in the village of Los Lunas can correctly pronounce the name Teofilo is probably attributable to the fact everyone calls Pete “Teofilo” Torrez, Jr. by his first name.  Everyone in Valencia county pronounces the Torrez name correctly and with a bit of reverence.   To put it mildly, the dynastic Torrez family is restaurant royalty in Valencia County. In 1949, Pete Jr.’s father and mother Elijia (another melodic New Mexican name) founded the legendary Pete’s Café in Belen, which (ask Arnold Schwarzenegger) is still going strong.  In 1986, Pete, Jr., and his wife Hortencia (more music to my ears) launched Teofilo’s in Los Lunas. 

T’s Huevos in a Bowl (Blue Corn Tortilla topped with papitas, T’s red chile carne adovada, two over-medium eggs, chile, Cheddar-Jack cheese piled high in a bowl

Teofilo’s is situated on Main Street where it faces the historic Luna Mansion which Pete, Jr. purchased in 2009.  Both are historic properties.  The venerable complex which houses Teofilo’s dates from 1913.  It was built for Doctor W.F. Wittwer who was enticed to stay in Los Lunas for the princely sum of fifty dollars per month.  The distinctively old New Mexican architectural design showcases period-specific architecture, including terron (thick slabs of earth rather than adobes) walls and a high-pitched, corrugated tin roof. 

Step into Teofilo’s and you’re not only walking into history, you’re walking into a warm and beckoning interior with period pieces throughout.  It’s akin to walking into someone’s home and in a very real sense, you are.  The small waiting room, which is often standing room only, includes a number of black-and-white photos of Doctor Wittwer and his family.  There are a number of small dining rooms, the most popular of which is probably the enclosed porch area where historic artwork festoons the wall.  The east-facing windows let in both heat and sunlight.

Red Chile Carne Adovada on Blue Corn Tortillas with refritos and arroz

You’ll also find plenty of heat on the salsa.  The salsa is a rich red jalapeno-based salsa with as much heat as it has flavor. Your first serving of salsa is complementary. After that there’s a small charge. Freshness, flavor, piquancy and a little bit of smokiness are hallmarks of the very best salsas and this one ranks near the very top. Aside from jalapenos, you’ll discern the boldness of chopped onions and fresh cilantro. The chips are over-sized and delicious with little salt to get in the way of your taste buds enjoying them with a scoopful of the salsa.

Rather than lamenting Sunday as the day preceding the start of a new workweek, savvy diners in Los Lunas and beyond celebrate Sunday as the day in which Teofilo’s offers a Sunday breakfast menu unlike any in the area. Available only from 9AM until 2PM, this is a Sunday breakfast the good doctor would have ordered. Start with a breakfast quesadilla (Cheddar-Jack cheese, avocado and bacon) with a side of papitas. It’s not only a good way to obtain another portion of salsa, it’s a way to treat yourself to as good a quesadilla as you’ll find anywhere. You’ll love the way the buttery richness of the sliced avocadoes, sharpness of the Cheddar and smokiness of the bacon nestled within a grilled flour tortilla all combine to form an eye-opening, mouth-watering flavor combination. The lightly-sheened papitas are thinly sliced and are fried to perfection.

Flawless Sopaipillas

If the breakfast quesadilla doesn’t have you praying for Sunday, T’s Huevos in a Bowl (blue corn tortilla topped with papitas, T’s red chile carne adovada, two over-medium eggs, chile, Cheddar-Jack cheese piled high in a bowl) certainly will. At first glance, T’s Huevos in a Bowl might appear to be a gloppy, cheesy mess, but as your fork peels back layer-upon-layer of concordant flavors, you won’t care what it looks like. To your taste buds, this is a masterpiece, a convergence of ingredients that complement one another very well. The carne adovada is among the very best in New Mexico. It’s silky smooth porcine perfection marinated slowly in a superb red chile. The blue corn tortilla has a sweet, nutty flavor that plays off the sharpness of the cheese very well.

For many of us, enchiladas are the benchmark we use to measure just how good a New Mexican restaurant is. While they may appear rather simple in their construction, when you consider the vast diversity of ingredients with which they can be created, enchiladas can be a rather complex dish. Teofilo’s creates enchilada plates from which dreams are made. Picture a blue corn tortilla canvas topped with carne adovada and a fried egg over-easy slathered with a rich red chile and served with sides of refritos and arroz. Quite simply, Teofilo’s enchiladas are poster child quality, as good as they can be made. “As good as it can be made” aptly describes the red chile which may tempt you to lick the plate so as not to leave any behind.

Award-winning Natillas

Sopaipillas are, very often, the way most meals at New Mexican restaurants end. Most of the time, it would be criminal to consume anything after reveling in the hot, puffy pillows of dough. Doing so is generally anti-climatic. As wonderful as the sopaipillas are at Teofilo’s, you’re forgiven if you choose to indulge in one of the rich, delicious desserts. For many diners, a meal at Teofilo’s wouldn’t be complete without finishing it off with natillas. In its “Best of the City” issue for 2008, Albuquerque The Magazine named them the “best natillas,” indicating they’re “worth driving for.” These rich, creamy, cinnamon custard delights are absolutely addictive.

If there’s one dessert which may top (yes, it’s blasphemy, I know) the natillas, it’s Teofilo’s Toledo Crème Cake, a three-layer coconut-buttermilk cake studded with pecans and thick, rich cream cheese frosting. Served Fred Flintstone slab-sized, it’s an addictively rich, calorific indulgence you’ll have to share and even so, will probably take much of it home with you. This is the type of cake few restaurants endeavor to prepare and serve any more.   Lucky for all of us, Teofilo’s isn’t like other restaurants.

Toledo Creme cake (three-layer buttermilk, pecan, coconut cake layered with cream cheese frosting)

While so many mellifluous New Mexican names are going by the wayside, we’re comforted in knowing that wonderful family restaurants such as Teofilo’s continue to prepare and serve the traditional foods of New Mexico the way they’ve been prepared for generations.  Teofilo’s is a Land of Enchantment classic!

Teofilo’s Restaurante
144 Main Street
Los Lunas, New Mexico
(505) 865-5511
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 15 March 2015
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Natillas, Toledo Creme Cake, Blue Corn Enchiladas, T’s Huevos in a Bowl, Sopaipillas, Breakfast Quesadilla, Chips and Salsa

Teofilos Restaurante on Urbanspoon

Ortega’s New Mexican Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Ortega’s Mexican Restaurant on Wyoming just north of Comanche

If you were raised in New Mexico  thirty or more years ago, chances are you weren’t raised on the healthiest of diets.  New Mexican food, while incomparably delicious, isn’t exactly a dietician’s dream.  Even our beloved frijoles, the healthiest of carbohydrates, were prepared in lard…and many of our dishes which weren’t prepared with lard, had enough cheese to keep Wisconsin fiscally afloat.  It’s no wonder the Land of Enchantment’s population is rife with caloric overachievers.

You’ll forgive those of us who survived such overindulgence to somehow reach middle age if we’re skeptical when a New Mexican restaurant boasts that “you don’t have to be health conscious – because we already are!”  To support that contention, Ortega’s New Mexican Restaurant in Albuquerque:

  • uses only all-vegetable oil in their fryers and food preparation,
  • serves whole wheat sopaipillas with every meal, 
  • doesn’t use MSG or any other food preservatives,
  • offers all its sauces and dressings on-the-side,
  • serves whole beans, not mashed–or refried,
  • prepares its food fresh daily.

View from dining room at Ortega’s

Reading all of this, we’re even more skeptical of Ortega’s claim that “our food tastes as good as (if not better than) homemade.”  Better than homemade?  That an audacious, if not heretical, claim.  The proof, as it’s long been said, is in the eating.  A lot of Duke City diners have been eating at Ortega’s for the entirety of its twenty-seven years.  For many of them, it truly is a home away from home.  Yelp reviews are replete with four- and five-star ratings while 88 percent of Urbanspoon reviewers like it. 

As Ortega’s approaches its third decade, this venerable restaurant is understandably showing some signs of age.  The wall paneling is a bit dated and there’s a little wear and tear on the furniture, but that only adds to the restaurant’s charm.   Besides, even if the ambiance is a bit of an anachronism, Ortega’s menu has more than kept up with the times.  In fact, the menu at this beloved local favorite offers some items you probably won’t find at any other New Mexican restaurant in town.

Salsa and Chips

While every New Mexican restaurant in town will gladly top your chile relleno with either red or green chile, to my knowledge, Ortega’s is the only restaurant which will stuff a roasted red chile, in-season, of course.  Ortega’s will also stuff your sopaipillas or prepare your enchiladas with a barbecue quality brisket.  Then there’s the Nachos Grande (fresh tostada chips topped with beans, seasoned beef and melted cheddar cheese along with guacamole, sour cream and pico de gallo) which were named among the Duke City’s best by Albuquerque the Magazine

The tostada chips which form the base for those award-winning nachos are served with your complimentary first bowl of salsa.  You’ll be charged a pittance for additional bowls.  The salsa (tomatoes, garlic, onions, cilantro) is very good, albeit not especially piquant.  It pairs very well with the large, thick, formidable chips which are only lightly salted.  Should you order a la carte tacos, they come with a small ramekin of salsa, enough for any remaining chips you may have.

Beef Fajitas

The Spanish rice and red chile (including carne adovada) are made with cumin.  For those of us who would rather our chile not include this distinctively aromatic spice (trying to be nice here), it’s a great excuse to order Ortega’s green chile or to indulge in something sans chile.  Fortunately there are many alternative options on a very interesting and inviting menu.

One of those alternatives is fajitas, marinated chicken tenders or beef strips served sizzling over a bed of sautéed onions and peppers and served with fresh guacamole, shredded cheese, sour cream and pico de gallo on the side along with four warm flour tortillas.  The menu describes these fajitas as “que bueno” or “that’s good.”  You’ll be echoing that sentiment.  The beef strips are grilled to a tender consistency permeated by a pleasant smokiness.  The onions are grilled to a pearlescent sheen and impart sweet notes that contrast the sharp cheese and richness of the sour cream.  Add Ortega’s to the short list of New Mexican restaurants which serve very good fajitas.

Stuffed Sopaipillas with Beef Brisket and Green Chile

Ortega’s stuffed sopaipillas can be tailored to your exacting tastes.  You can have them stuffed with shredded beef, carne adovada, beef and beans, all beef or all chicken, carne adovada or brisket.  That’s a lot of variety.  Alas, if you order your sopaipillas stuffed with brisket, you’re likely to order it again and again.  This is excellent brisket, maybe even barbecue-quality brisket.  We all know brisket is one of the least tender (or toughest, if you prefer) cuts of beef, but it can be made tender.  It’s worth the investment of time Ortega’s takes to braise (similar to a pot roast) a very tender, very delicious brisket.  Top it with green chile and melted, shredded cheese and you’ve got a real winner.  The accompanying whole beans and potatoes are also quite good. 

If for no other reason than an additional portion of salsa, you should order an a la carte taco or six.  So good, in fact, they don’t even need the salsa.  Crispy hard-shelled corn tortillas are engorged with ground beef, lettuce, shredded cheese and chopped tomatoes.  Clear out some of the excess lettuce and make room for the salsa, but not until you try it sans salsa so you can appreciate the nicely seasoned ground beef.

Two A la Carte Tacos

Ortega’s gives its guests the choice of having their whole wheat sopaipillas with their meal or afterwards as a dessert.  They then prepare them to order.  Regardless of when you choose to enjoy them, you’ll want to indulge while wisps of steam reach towards the heavens when you puncture the pillowy dough.  The differences between whole wheat sopaipillas and traditional flour-shortening variety are discernible just as the differences between whole wheat bread and standard white bread are discernible.  These sopaipillas are quite good, probably too good for the honey flavored syrup with which they’re served. 

Ortega’s is the first New Mexican restaurant in which I truly enjoyed natillas, the custard-like dessert made from milk, sugar and eggs cooked together, whipped and chilled until the consistency becomes thick and creamy.  There are two readily apparent qualities which distinguish Ortega’s natillas from the rest.  The first is the “bowl” in which they’re served–a fried tortilla shell generously sprinkled with cinnamon.  The second is the “egginess” of the dish, indicative of the whipped and separated egg yolks used to create this delicious dessert. The natillas are so rich, you wouldn’t mind sharing them.

Natillas

Another hallmark of the Ortega’s dining experience is the convivial service.  Servers are friendly and attentive, many of them on a first-name basis with regulars.  The excellent service is a reflection of owner Rudy Ortega’s customer orientation.  Rudy is a peripatetic presence at his restaurant and even when he’s not there, his staff will treat you very well. 

Oh, and those “healthy” qualities Ortega’s touts, you probably won’t notice much of a difference as you’ll be too busy enjoying every morsel of your meal.

Ortega’s New Mexican Restaurant
3617 Wyoming Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 298-0223
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LATEST VISIT: 7 March 2015
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Fajitas, Beef Brisket Stuffed Sopaipillas, Salsa and Chips, Natillas, Tacos

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