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Monica’s El Portal – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Monica’s El Portal Restaurant on Rio Grande Blvd near Old Town

“It feels so true when I’m with you I’m free
A place I go that feels like home to me
It feels so true
It’s time well spent when I’m with you.”
~Feels Like Home (New Mexico True)

As we luxuriate over steamy mugs of freshly ground coffee on lazy Sunday mornings before church, my Kim and I tune in eagerly to New Mexico True, an invigorating half-hour of adventure and travel that feeds the soul and captures the imagination.  Hearts swelled with pride, we live vicariously through host Michael Newman as he treks throughout our breathtaking home state.  We don’t even change the channel during commercials.  Why would we?  The commercials depict even more of the Land of Enchantment.

Besides providing even more intriguing staycation ideas, some of the commercials feature a catchy little ditty called “Feels Like Home,” an upbeat song originally performed by an Albuquerque band called Richmond.  It’s a feel good, toe-tapping, sing-along-inspiring tune that pays tribute to New Mexico.  If you’re going to have an earworm stuck in your head, it may as well be one that recounts the extraordinary beauty of the Land of Enchantment.

Chips and Salsa

Inspired though we may be by New Mexico True, we can’t always drop what we’re doing to experience it at one of the state’s spectacular vistas.  Fortunately, New Mexico is a full sensory experience and we can still experience the “feels like home” sensation of our home state through the flavor and aroma of wondrous red and green chile served lovingly at  New Mexican restaurants.  Perhaps no restaurant in Albuquerque feels like home more than Monica’s El Portal on the fringes of Old Town.

Creating a “feels like home” ambiance is exactly what owner Monica Baca strives for. She thinks of her guests as extended family and indeed, many of them have enjoyed her traditional New Mexican home cooking for decades. Her youthful countenance belies the fact that she’s been cooking for more than three decades, starting when she was seventeen. She apprenticed under her mother who owned and operated an Old Town area institution fittingly called El Encanto. In 1983, a fire ripped through El Encanto, consuming the historical home. Three years later, the restaurant reopened as Monica’s El Portal. It’s been going strong ever since.

Blue Corn Enchiladas Christmas Style

Several treasured family keepsakes were salvaged from the conflagration and painstakingly restored to an original sheen.  Those include the old-fashioned stove on which Monica’s uncle used to cook chicharrones. That stove can be found in the restaurant’s foyer where it occupies a place of honor. Similarly, the main dining room showcases antique pressure cookers. Monica’s El Portal very much resembles a converted home, one in which cherished memories were built and shared by a loving family. There are a number of brightly lit dining rooms decorated with New Mexico style bric-a-brac and serviced by whirling ceiling fans.

As you peruse the expansive menu, a complimentary bowl of salsa and warm tortilla chips redolent with corn are brought to your table. The salsa (onions, cilantro, tomatoes) has a flavor reminiscent of pico de gallo in that it’s very fresh and flavorful. On a piquancy scale, it won’t register too high for New Mexicans, but tourists will probably run to the nearest horse trough for water. The warm chips are a very nice touch, one more restaurants should copy. The chips are crisp, formidable and low-in-salt.

Green Chile Stew

When you arrive at the section of the menu listing green chile stew, you’ll invariably do a double-take, questioning if you haven’t accidentally wandered into the child’s menu by mistake. That’s because the price listed for the green chile elixir of life is amazingly low. It’s so low you’ll probably figure on getting a thimble-sized portion. When the steaming bowl brimming with potatoes, green chile and ground beef arrives at your table, you’ll quickly arrive at the realization that this is a bowl meant to be shared. It’s also a bowl to be appreciated though just a bit more ground beef will balance the flavors more (there are a lot of potatoes).

When Watergate tapes were released in 1973, Presidential Assistant John Ehrlichman was overheard referring to the U.S. Attorney General as “the big enchilada.” After that, the term had its time in the limelight. Today when someone in Albuquerque mentions “the big enchilada,” they could well be talking about the enchilada plate at Monica’s El Portal. Available either stacked (my preference) or rolled, you have your choice of cheese, chicken, ground beef, carne adovada or shredded roast beef on yellow or blue corn tortillas, with or without an egg (or three) and of course, with red or green chile (or both). Both the red and green chile have a pleasant piquancy that plays especially well against the fresh corn flavor of the blue corn tortillas. Enchiladas are served with rice and beans, the latter of which you may dream about. These are refrieds the way you wish your mom had made them for you.

Carne Adovada Plate

For my Kim, it doesn’t feel like home if she doesn’t order carne adovada at every New Mexican restaurant we visit. Carne adovada may be the most comforting of New Mexico comfort food favorites. I can always tell how much she likes it by how much of it she shares with me. Two small spoonfuls means she liked Monica’s version quite a bit. From the smallish amount which crossed my lips, it’s easy to see why. Tender tendrils of wonderfully marinated pork will dance across your taste buds. Alas, as is the case with good carne adovada, there’s never enough.

Monica’s feels like home concept includes homemade tortillas made fresh.  That’s right–tortillas made on a comal, not prepared production line fashion by a machine. They’re thick and large with a picture-perfect pinto pony char.  Whether you slather on some butter or use them as “spoons,” you’ll taste the difference.  The sopaipillas are among the very best in the city and you don’t get just one.  With our two plates we were rewarded with six sopaipillas, four of which we took home.

Sopaipillas and Tortillas

In 1989, House Bill 406 declared the bizcochito the official state cookie of New Mexico, making the Land of Enchantment the first state in the union to designate an official state cookie. The decision to honor the bizcochito wasn’t nearly as contentious as deciding how to spell it with “bizcochito” and “biscochito” both having supporters among law-makers on both sides of the aisle. Eventually the Senate returned the signed bill with the spelling “bizcochito,” a Solomon-like decision among supporters.  Make a Solomon-like decision and order two or ten of these official gems. 

While other restaurants offering natillas as a dessert option may claim to prepare a cinnamony version, Monica’s puts them all to shame. These are the natillas to order if you love cinnamon a lot. The custard-like natillas are a bit on the thin side with abundant clumps, but from a flavor standpoint, they’re spot on, especially if you love, love, love cinnamon.

Biscochitos and Natillas

Monica’s El Portal Restaurant feels like home. It truly is New Mexico true!

Monica’s El Portal
321 Rio Grande Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 247-9625
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 23 August 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salsa and Chips, Green Chile Stew, Blue Corn Enchiladas, Carne Adovada, Biscochitos, Natillas

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Sandia Chile Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Sandia Chile Grill, Smokehouse and Microbrewery

If perspiration is (as the proverbial “they” have declared) the mother of invention, Mickey and Clinton Coker may just be two of the most glistening guys in the Duke City. Since 2004, the Cokers have “reinvented” their restaurant four times. If you’re thinking, they’re just try, try, trying again until they get it right, you couldn’t be more wrong. Mickey Coker, the entrepreneur behind the four make-overs, started with a culinary concept that was so wildly successful, it prompted almost immediate growth. His second effort, a brick-and-mortar operation, also achieved significant acclaim. Some might have considered the third Coker transition strictly a sideline…until it started garnering one award after the other. The fourth step in the evolution of the Sandia Grill may be the most revolutionary of all.

For Mickey Coker, the route to entrepreneur was inauspicious. He got his start selling New Mexican food at a gas station-convenience store. Yes, the very notion of a gas station-convenience store food conjures images of salty, cylindrically shaped dry meat snacks with the texture of sawdust and air-filled bags of Cool Ranch Doritos.  Now mention New Mexican food and gas station in the same sentence and the likely image would make all the sophomoric six-year-olds among us giggle, the notion of “gas” not having anything to do with petroleum.  Despite these stereotypes, Coker had the confidence in his New Mexico food products to launch his business in 2004, ensconced within the confines of a convenience store-gas station in the Winner’s Circle gas station at Harper and Barstow. A second location, on Montgomery just east of I-25, followed shortly thereafter.

Once strictly a New Mexican Restaurant, Now Showcasing Barbecue and New Mexican Food

From its onset, the Sandia Chile Grill’s made-to-order burrito concept elevated gas station dining from a fast food grab-and-gobble experience to a uniquely sublime New Mexico dining extravaganza, albeit one without on-the-premises seating. The aroma of tortillas on the grill quickly had patrons making a bee-line to the little grill that could at the back of the convenience store portion of the gas station. While relatively little space is required to operate what is essentially a to-go diner, Coker saw his business grow to the extent–as many as 4,000 meals in a busy month–that a real restaurant storefront was in order. He launched the Sandia Chile Grill restaurant at the Del Norte Shopping Center, essentially moving from the Winner’s Circle gas station not that far away.

A native New Mexican (born in Belen), Coker saw two obvious reasons for the name Sandia Chile Grill, the first being Sandia chile which grows in the Mesilla Valley. Sandia chile ranges from four to six-inches long and dries to a deep burgundy color.  It’s one of the most delicious of all red chiles and is served at such fabled New Mexican food treasures as Mary & Tito’s.   Sandia is also the name of the mountain range backdropping the city of Albuquerque.

Pulled Pork Sandwich with Twice Baked Potatoes and Calabasitas

At the restaurant, the staff had the room to operate and customers had comfortable seating in which to enjoy New Mexican food favorites. Though much of the restaurant’s business remained carry-out, it was nice to have had an alternative when you wanted it. As at the service station, burritos dominated the menu: breakfast burritos, steak burritos, steak and chicken burritos, chicken burritos, pork burritos and even veggie burritos. Some burritos were named for professional wrestlers (Ultimate Warrior, Undertaker, Junkyard Dog, Mankind and the Macho Man). There were also burritos named for Mexican western characters: El Matidor (sic), Bandito, Caballero and El Jeffe. The menu also included stuffed sopaipillas, enchiladas, tamales, rellenos and tacos–the New Mexican food essentials which couldn’t be prepared at the gas station sites.

In 2009, the facility was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to can all its chiles and sauces for nationwide distribution. In 2012, the Cokers opened a microbrewery on the premises–and an award-winning brewery at that. Within months after launching, they entered seven items in a New Mexico State Fair competition, earning five medals including a “best of show” in the professional division. The blue and red-ribbons are on display in the restaurant. The menu also began featuring several gluten-free items (nachos, green chile chicken stew, chicken quesadillas, chicken enchiladas, steak tacos and more).

House Sauces: Hot (with Habanero), Tangy (Mustard-Based) and Sweet

The Cokers determined that an even more natural accompaniment to award-winning adult libations than New Mexican food is barbecue. Yes, barbecue! Though their New Mexican dishes were beloved by the masses who frequented the Sandia Chile Grill, the Cokers are not ones to stay still. They transitioned to a smokehouse concept in March, 2014, positioning a smoker near the Wyoming entrance to the shopping center. Aficionados of Sandia’s New Mexican food weren’t left in the cold, however. The new menu also includes several popular New Mexican food favorites (burritos, enchiladas, stuffed sopaipillas, quesadillas, huevos rancheros and a green chile chicken bowl ) prepared with smoked meats instead of the more conventional meats used on New Mexican food.

Because the concept of transitioning from a New Mexican restaurant to a smokehouse may seem radical, you’re probably wondering if this is a haphazardly undertaken venture. In truth, the Cokers have had a smoker for more than a decade. That’s plenty of time to master low-and-slow smoke manipulation on meats. Brimming with confidence from the great reception their barbecue has received, the Cokers have plans for a larger smoker with a much greater capacity. The barbecue menu is replete with the essentials: pulled pork, smoked chicken, brisket, St. Louis ribs and street tacos. You can purchase them in increments ranging from a quarter-pound through ten pounds. You can also partake of a sandwich meal with two sides for a ridiculously low price. Three sauces–a tangy sauce similar to what you’d find in the Carolinas, a spicy sauce redolent with Habanero and a sweet sauce–are available though because it’s good barbecue, they’re wholly unnecessary.

Brisket Enchiladas

29 June 2015: The pulled pork sandwich features a hoagie type bun brimming with tender tendrils of pulled pork. It’s good to go as is though you might want to experiment with the three sauces to see if one suits your taste. The spicy Habanero-based sauce provides a “slow burn,” a deceptive “sneak up on you” burn that may water your eyes if you apply too much of the sauce. If you’re from New Mexico, you can handle it. Make one of the two sides the calabasitas. These aren’t your run-of-the-mill calabasitas. They’re prepared al dente and paired with a green chile as incendiary as the Habanero sauce. Another excellent side is the twice-baked potatoes which have a smooth, creamy texture and are punctuated with sour cream.

3 July 2015: The pairing of New Mexican food and barbecue is a match made in New Mexico and that’s about as close to heaven as there is on Earth.  One of the most surprisingly natural couplings is smoked brisket with “Christmas” style enchiladas, available in quantities of one, two or three.  Atop tortillas redolent with corn are heaping helpings of smoked brisket, shredded Cheddar, lettuce and the red and green chile with which Duke City diners fell in love when the Ultimate Warrior was on the menu.  The chile has a pleasant piquancy that doesn’t obfuscate the smokiness of the brisket.  Brisket enchiladas are a surprisingly good way to enjoy the best of two flavor combinations.

St. Louis Ribs with Macaroni and Cheese and Calabasitas

16 August 2015:  In the Duke City area, barbecue restaurants tend to favor baby back ribs over St. Louis ribs even though the St. Louis ribs are more substantial and meaty. So, what’s the difference? St. Louis ribs are actually spareribs that have been trimmed down, removing what is commonly known as the rib tips.  St. Louis ribs come from the belly section of the pig, near where the sacrosanct bacon can be found.  As their name suggests baby back ribs come from the back side of the pig, near where the loin is.  The St. Louis ribs at the Sandia Chile Grill aren’t quite as thick, meaty and substantial as other ribs of the kind we’ve had, but the meat they do have includes the caramelized “bark” barbecue aficionados love.  This is meaty magnificence at its best.

Mick Coker and his son Clinton are immensely proud of their New Mexican heritage and like most proud New Mexicans, know one of the day’s most difficult decisions is whether to have red or green chile…or both.   They help make that decision easier for their guests by offering excellent New Mexican cuisine showcasing both. They also showcase some of the best adult libations and barbecue in town.

Sandia Chile Grill
7120 Wyoming Blvd, N.E.,
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 798-1970
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 16 August 2015
1st VISIT:  18 August 2007
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 21
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Pulled Pork Sandwich, Calabasitas, Twice Baked Potatoes, Brisket Enchiladas, St. Louis Ribs, Macaroni and Cheese

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Kathy’s Carry-Out – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Kathy's on Isleta Boulevard

Kathy’s on Isleta Boulevard

In 2001, the Alibi staff declared Kathy’s Carry-Out the “best hamburger in the Duke City.” Surely, nay-sayers retorted, this had to be a mistake. How, after all, they reasoned, could a ramshackle garage sized building with a kitschy purple facade and garish orange trim possibly compete with the flamboyant chains and their glitz and glamor or even with the anointed local purveyors in the more well-beaten, well-eaten paths throughout the city?   Kathy’s Carry-Out lived up to its name, emphasis on the “carry-out” portion of its name.  Carry-Out was the only option available for the phalanx of diners eager to bite into those bodacious burgers.

Ensconced in an Isleta Boulevard neighborhood seemingly zoned as much for more residential than commercial purposes, Kathy’s Carry-Out certainly wouldn’t win any awards for esthetics and it probably violated every feng shui principle for harmony, not that hungry diners noticed.  Savvy burger aficionados from the South Valley frequented Kathy’s for its wonderful New Mexican cuisine and a burger so good it’d convert staunch vegans.  It took one visit to convince us you can’t judge a burger by the dilapidated facade of its place of origin. Kathy’s did serve one of, if not THE best burger in town.

The original Kathy's Carryout on Isleta Boulevard

The original Kathy’s Carryout on Isleta Boulevard

It’ll take one visit to this South Valley neighborhood to gain an appreciation for a neighborhood unabashedly bedecked in an ultraviolet spectrum of colors.  It’s part of the charm about this area that I love  It’s also the utter charm of holding on to a rural neighborliness amidst an urban sprawl sometimes lacking the spirit of community lived daily in the Isleta area.  This is a neighborhood which defies the abobe-hued homogeneity which has claimed so much of the city.  It’s a neighborhood which dares to be different, to express its individuality.

And when color isn’t what your eyes are drawn to, it might be a marvel of architectural ingenuity such as the single-wide trailer which sits on top of a stucco building to the immediate north of Kathy’s Carryout.  It’s a tribute to this area that the zoning Nazis haven’t come down on such inventive architectural expression. Or, your eyes might be trained to the skies because of an inordinate number of pigeons fortunate enough to call this neighborhood home.

A large Kathy Burger

In 2007, the dwarfish ugly duckling which served nonpareil New Mexican food and life-changing burgers was transmogrified into a spectacular swan with a broad wingspan. The charmingly garish exterior facade of its first location and its anti-esthetic curb appeal were gone as were any claims to “Albuquerque’s best burger served here.”  That honor didn’t go very far; it now belongs to the restaurant next door.

Kathy’s Carryout left that utterly charming old edifice and moved next door to a beautiful restaurant with seating for dozens of diners. “Carry-Out” now applies to the drive-up window, not to the way diners used to order and take away their orders.  In Kathy’s Carryout of old, separate windows were used for placing and picking up orders. You had to feel sorry for the cramped quarters in which Kathy and her staff filled orders; there wasn’t much room to move and the heat of the stoves seemed stifling.

Rolled tacos and hot sauce

Rolled tacos and hot sauce

The old location had a couple of picnic tables where you could sit and wait, but most patrons seemed to either wait by the pick-up window or taxed their cars’ air conditioners while waiting in relative comfort within the confines of cars of all makes and models. Most were packed with hungry family members waiting for a designated parent to return with a bagful of deliciousness.What they waiting for is not only one of the very best green chile cheeseburgers in New Mexico (ergo, the universe), but excellent take-out Mexican and New   Mexican food. Waiting indoors is much better!

Kathy’s new digs are completely antithetical to its predecessor. It’s almost antiseptic in appearance with pristine denim colored walls, sixteen-inch tiled floors and comfortable seating.  No one is happier to be in the new restaurant than the staff and cooks who love the large kitchen in which they can ply their skills in climate-controlled comfort.  The larger kitchen also means an expanded menu which now includes burritos, tacos, enchiladas burgers, stuffed sopaipillas and much more. Daily specials are offered every day of the week.

Chips and guacamole

Chips and guacamole

27 July 2015: The most popular item on the menu is probably still the green chile cheeseburger extraordinaire called the Kathy Burger (formerly known as the Cuca Burger), a double-meat masterpiece that will kick sand on the so-called Big Mac and other chain claimants to size.  With two behemoth hand-formed patties prepared to medium-well, Kathy Burger and its tongue-tingling green chile, onions, lettuce, bacon and cheese is a phenom. It takes two hands to handle this leviathan, five napkins to wipe yourself off while consuming it and phenomenal willpower not to order another one, great as it is. With red chile, the Kathy Burger is not quite as incendiary but might even taste better.

24 July 2015: Terrific tacos are an excellent alternative to the Kathy Burger. The rolled tacos (order them with guacamole instead of salsa) are cigar-shaped, deep-fried corn tortilla treasures stuffed with a chile emboldened ground beef. Only in the city of Espanola, New Mexico will you find better rolled tacos than at Kathy’s. The guacamole, by the way, can be purchased by the pint (pictured below). It’s good guacamole, buttery and creamy in texture and delicious in flavor.

Bean Burrito with Red and Green Chile

24 July 2015: Several burrito options are also available and they’re not your run-of-the-mill burritos. The carne adovada burrito, for example, comes with fried potatoes and a fried egg. It’s absolutely delicious with red chile blessed pork chunks as tender as Mother Theresa’s heart.  Now, if you really love burritos, but you like bargains even more, you can have both by visiting Kathy’s on Fridays when the daily special is three bean burritos for an inflation-beating cost just barely over five dollars.  The burritos are engorged with frijoles so good you’ll be reminded why pinto beans are, along with chile, New Mexico’s official state vegetable.  The accommodating staff will indulge you with both red and green chile if you ask.  While both exemplars of deliciousness and piquancy, the green gets my nod, but just barely.  

27 July 2015: The term “cheap eats” sometimes has connotations not of inexpensive fare, but of rock-bottom quality.  At Kathy’s cheap eats represents excellent fare at very reasonable prices.  If the exorbitant price of tacos has you wondering if restaurateurs believe taco shells are fashioned from spun gold, you may experience a bit of sticker shock at the low, low, low price of a la carte tacos at Kathy’s.  Nestled within hard-shelled repositories of deliciousness are beans, ground beef, lettuce and cheese with salsa on the side.  These tacos are terrific, a reminder that tacos shouldn’t cost as much as your mortgage to be great.

Tacos

The Alibi was right about Kathy’s Carry-Out so many years ago.  So are the hundreds of discerning Duke City burgerphiles and aficionados of New Mexican food who frequent it!

Kathy’s
823 Isleta, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 873-3472
LATEST VISIT: 27 July 2015
# OF VISITS: 8
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Kathy Burger, Rolled Tacos, Bean Burritos, Carne Adovada Burrito, Beef Tacos

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