Garcia’s Kitchen – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Original Garcia's on Juan Tabo, N.E.

The Original Garcia’s on Juan Tabo, N.E.

One of the central themes of William Faulkner’s magnus opus Absalom, Absalom! is that no two people experience the same thing. Of the four characters who narrate the story, none of them is completely reliable because each has a personal bias, a unique frame of reference based on personal experiences to call upon. Readers are left to determine those biases and how they affect the telling of the story. With the passage of time, one of the characters experiences the memory of the events differently than she experienced the events when they happened. 

Similarly, no two diners experience the same meal.  Sure, they may partake of the very same entrees, but how they perceive their dining experience may be tainted or enhanced by personal bias and past experiences.  This is painfully obvious in reading the comments following my review of Garcia’s Kitchen.  Some readers took umbrage at my having reviled a restaurant they love while others agreed with my assessment and readily piled on.  My friend John L. sagely suggested “they (Garcia’s) need to work on consistency among the various branches,” the implication being I should try Garcia’s at other locations as he had.

The caricature of Andy Garcia can be found throughout the restaurant

The caricature of Andy Garcia can be found throughout the restaurant

There are seven Original Garcia’s restaurants across the Duke City.  Though one might expect a consistent experience and standardization across the seven, John’s comments and reviews published on Yelp indicate a lack of consistency among the seven Garcia’s.  To paraphrase Faulkner’s observation, perhaps “no two kitchens prepare the same food” and “no two restaurants provide the same service”–even if those restaurants are of the same family and bear the same name.  The review I published and with which some readers took umbrage was based on a visit in 2007 to the Garcia’s on Juan Tabo.  It was a visit that tarnished my opinion of the restaurant. 

When my friend Nader Khalil recommended we visit Garcia’s Kitchen on 4th Street (just north of Mountain Road), my initial response was hardly enthusiastic, but Nader has never led me astray when it comes to restaurants.  He once worked as a chef in Phoenix and truly understands the nuances of ingredients, seasoning, preparation and the multitudinous factors which play into a great meal.  Garcia’s, he assured me, would redeem itself.  He boasted especially of the restaurant’s menudo, a welcome repast on the rainy, windy day in which we visited.

Chips and salsa

Chips and salsa

External signage at some of the Garcia’s restaurants includes the subtitle “The Original.”  Obviously this doesn’t mean the first one of the seven Garcia’s Kitchen restaurants.  I surmise the designation “The Original” might have something to do with a short-lived interloper named Garcia’s of Scottsdale which opened and closed in the early 1980s in the uptown area.  The bona fide Original Garcia’s Kitchen has been serving Albuquerque diners since 1973.  That’s nearly 45 years of people pleasing that says it’s doing many things right.

Some of Garcia’s familiarity can be credited to a caricature of Andy Garcia, the restaurant’s owner.  That caricature depicts a sombrero wearing Andy with a cherubic smile holding a plateful of tacos on one hand and a towel on the other.  It is prevalent throughout his restaurants; you can find it on colorful paintings, the menus and even on napkins.  Every one of the seven restaurants is brightly and festively decorated with an ambiance tailored to the specific neighborhood it is serving.   One of the many things that makes Garcia’s so popular is its breakfast at any time option.  Likely because of political correctness, the menu no longer includes a separate section called “Gringo Breakfast” which listed entrees without chile.

Enchilada plate with a fried egg atop

Enchilada plate with a fried egg atop

Make that “chili” or at least that’s the way it’s spelled on the menu.  It’s one of several menu malapropisms the purist in me finds hard to accept as cutesy.  Other liberties taken on the menu include the spelling “Karnitas” and the listing of fajitas under the New Mexican food (fajitas originated in Texas).  Yeah, I know.  What do I want–good grammar or good taste?  Obviously there’s nothing as important as great tasting New Mexican food and that’s where Garcia’s has won over legions of fans.  If my visit with Nader is any indication, you may soon count me among them.

20 October 2007 (Juan Tabo location):  Modern technology has made possible the desalinization of ocean water.  It shouldn’t be that difficult to desalinate chips (or to find vendors who proffer chips that aren’t quite so salty).    Unfortunately, the chips at Garcia’s are almost too salty to enjoy.  That’s entirely too bad considering they’re served with an excellent, rich red salsa with the piquant bite purists crave.  With better chips, it’s a two bowl minimum pre-meal salsa.

Menudo

20 October 2007 (Juan Tabo location):  Another culinary transgression no restaurant should ever commit is serving its food at a  lukewarm temperature.  To me that’s a near criminal offense.  New Mexican food should be served piping hot.  Diners would rather hear the warning, “be careful, the plate’s hot”  than to have to request their meal be reheated (never ask for it to be “nuked” because microwaves commit felony-level crimes on foods they reheat).  During this visit, I did have to ask for my enchilada plate to be reheated. That, more than the flavor of the plate, is what remained on my memory.

15 May 2017 (1113 4th location): My friend Nader is a bona fide volcano-eater, an intrepid diner with an asbestos-lined mouth.  Even more than me, he enjoys food that bites back.  The fact that Garcia’s menudo earned his respect, admiration and utterances of “that’s hot!” should be a calling card for diners who enjoy a “pain is a flavor” dining experience.  Available in large and extra large sizes, the menudo is served with hominy (not called posole on the menu).  As New Mexicans know, menudo is made from cow’s honeycomb-structured offal.  Unless prepared correctly, menudo’s off-putting, appetite-suppressing odor will deter even the most intrepid of diners.  Garcia’s prepares it well, serving it with an incendiary red chile that bites back.  Menudo is not for everyone, but if you’re an aficionado, Garcia’s version is one you’ll enjoy.

Green Chile Stew

15 May 2017 (1113 4th location):You’ll also enjoy Garcia’s green chile stew, especially on cold, blustery days–even in mid-May when New Mexico’s weather makes liars out of media meteorologists.  Available with or without beans, it’s served piping hot–just as it should be when cold weather will chill you to the bone.  From both the perspective of temperature and piquancy, it’s a “hot” green chile stew with a pleasant bite.  It’s also very well balanced with plenty of ground beef and chile, not an excess of potatoes.  If your preference is to enjoy it with beans, you’ll appreciate these frijoles, whole beans with a terrific flavor. 

15 May 2017 (1113 4th location):  The burritos menu is prefaced with the boast “the best in town.”  There are thirteen burritos on the menu and they’re available with chile on the inside or smothered with chile and cheese on top.  You can have your burrito ala carte or in the form of a plate (refried or whole beans, rice or papas).  Nader’s favorite is the aforementioned fajitas burrito (grilled beef stripped, grilled onions and green peppers with guacamole and pico de gallo inside).  You’ll maximize your chile apportionment by having your burrito smothered.  Ask for red and green, too.  Both the red and green chile have a pleasant piquancy.  There’s no false advertising with the fajitas burrito.  It does indeed taste like chile smothered fajitas.  Very good fajitas!

Fajitas Burrito

15 May 2017 (1113 4th location): Garcia’s sopaipillas are also quite good–and they are served steamy hot.  They’re not quite pillowy as at other restaurants, but they always feel and taste freshly made and delicious.  Moreover, they’re not at all greasy and have a pleasant “mouth feel.”  Instead of being served with real honey, they’re accompanied by a “honey-flavored syrup.”  It’s not quite the same.

Garcia’s also serves excellent biscochitos.  The official New Mexico state cookie, the best biscochitos are topped with plenty of anise for sweetness and flavor.  These are some of the best!

Sopaipillas

It’s always been my contention that the true mark of a great restaurant is consistency (great food, great service) over time.  For restaurants with more than one presence in a city or state, that consistency should apply across all locations.  If diners know exactly what they can expect at McDonald’s, shouldn’t they also know what to expect at the seven Garcia’s restaurants across the Duke City?  It will be interesting to visit other locations throughout the city to see the degree of consistency at each of the seven.

Garcia’s Kitchen
3601 Juan Tabo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 275-5812
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 16 May 2017
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 17
COST: $$
BEST BET: Biscochitos, Salsa, Menudo, Green Chile Stew, Fajitas Burrito

Garcia's Kitchen Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pana’s Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pana’s Cafe for Excellent New Mexican Food

The term “red or green” has connotations beyond New Mexico’s sacrosanct chile.  For restaurateurs across the Duke City, red or green can spell the difference between a good or bad reputation and even success or failure.  All food service establishments across the city must display the results of the most recent restaurant inspection conducted by the Albuquerque Environmental Health Department.  Those results are displayed on a “current grade” sticker in a visible inspection, typically the front door.  Savvy diners look for a green sticker which signifies that a food establishment received a passing grade at their most recent inspection.  It means the restaurant staff has demonstrated skills and knowledge that create a safe and sanitary food service environment. 

A red sticker, on the other hand, means the food service establishment has been downgraded for non-compliance with the Food Sanitation Ordinance. The dreaded red sticker can be the proverbial kiss of death. Although food service establishments are given the opportunity to correct critical violations, sometimes the damage to reputation is done. For years, the “red or green report” was a weekly staple of KOAT Action 7 News with appropriate dramatic emphasis accorded restaurants earning red stickers. As with inspections of any type, restaurateurs who strive consciously to maintain a safe and sanitary food service environment look forward to proving their mettle.

Pana’s Dining Room

Despite my years of reviewing restaurants I’d never actually witnessed a restaurant inspection until my inaugural visit at Pana’s Cafe.  It was the cafe’s first inspection.  Inspector Rosanna Trujillo was the consummate professional, providing constructive feedback, dispensing praise, imparting training and providing helpful tips as warranted.  She was the antithesis of any negative perception about restaurant inspectors you may have.  When she completed her inspection–no violations–owners Joe and Michelle Repichowski were so proud they immediately posted a photo of the inspection results on their Facebook page.  That’s not something you see many restaurants do.  Then again, Pana’s Cafe isn’t like many other restaurants.

Pana’s Cafe is ensconced in the space which previously housed Patricia’s Café and before that Choroni Café. The café is set back from heavily trafficked San Mateo and doesn’t especially stand out visually among the multitude of stores and shops with which it shares space in a timeworn shopping center. Where Pana’s Café does stand out is with the New Mexican fare it serves. It’s New Mexican food with a pedigree. The restaurant is named for Michelle’s mother whose sister Mary has owned and operated the immensely popular Padilla’s Mexican Kitchen for decades. Joe admits Pana’s recipes are essentially the same family recipes which have made Padilla’s beloved in the Duke City.

Salsa and Chips

Unlike the venerable Padilla’s, Pana’s Café isn’t serving to overflow crowds—at least not yet. As with many relatively new mom-and-pop restaurants, sometimes word is slow to get around. Pana’s launched in January, 2016, exactly four days after Patricia’s Café shuttered its doors. Remnants of its previous tenant remain on the walls where the north wall is painted with a mural depicting the Santuario de Chimayo. On the south wall are painted three other murals, each with a New Mexico theme. Pana’s Café is fairly small in an intimate sort of way. The menu is somewhat abbreviated, too, but it’s got many of the traditional New Mexican favorites. Cumin is added only to the carne adovada.

Pana’s is currently open for breakfast and lunch Tuesday through Saturday. Breakfast is served from 8AM through 11AM and lunch is served from 11AM through 3PM. Among the smattering of breakfast items are pancakes, huevos rancheros and breakfast burritos. Lunch plates–which include beans, rice and two sopaipillas—feature such traditional New Mexican favorites as tamales, chile rellenos, enchiladas, tacos, burritos and a phalanx of ala carte items. “This and that” are available in the form of guacamole and chips, salsa and chips, a Frito pie or a hamburger with fries. As you peruse the menu, a bowl of salsa and basket of chips are ferried to your table. The chips are crispy and thick, ready to scoop up as much salsa as you’re able to lay on them. Alas, the salsa is a bit on the thin side and is better for dipping than for scooping. The jalapeno-based salsa has very distinctive flavor notes courtesy of cumin and bay leaves (yes, bay leaves). It’s not especially piquant, but it’s quite good.

Blue Corn Enchiladas with Red and Green Chile

16 June 2016: You can have your enchiladas constructed with cheese, ground beef, chicken or carne adovada and on either blue- or yellow-corn tortillas. Regardless of filling you choose, make it an early Christmas and ask for both red and green chile. For good measure ask for at least one fried egg (over easy) on top. The chile is hot! For a fire-eater, it’s not necessarily piquant, but it’s served piping hot, not lukewarm. It’s a very good, earthy chile, unadorned with seasonings that don’t belong on New Mexican food. Both the red and green are about even on the piquancy scale and both are absolutely delicious. The accompanying beans will remind you of those prepared by your abuelita while the Spanish rice is…well, it’s Spanish rice.

12 April 2017: What do you do when a combination plate asks you to select three items from among four choices?  You pay a little bit extra for the forth item, of course.  Pana’s combination plate offers three choices from among four equally delicious items: a cheese enchilada, tamale, chile relleno and ground beef taco.  That’s akin to ask you to pick three of your children to the exclusion of the fourth.   You just can’t do it!  All four items are exemplars of how they should be prepared.  The taco, a crescent-shaped corn tortilla housing well-seasoned ground beef, shredded cheese, lettuce and tomato is excellent, the likely first item you’ll finish.  The tamale features features a nice balance between corn masa and chile marinated pork topped with shredded cheese and more of Pana’s addictive chile.  Puncture the chile relleno with your fork and it practically oozes molten cheese.  Cheese enchiladas are usually pretty boring to me, but not so at Pana’s where the red and green chile enliven the dish.  The chile is memorable!

Combination Plate

Complimentary sopaipillas are becoming increasingly rare in New Mexican restaurants. Lunch plates at Pana’s include not one, but two of them. They’re large, puffy and fresh with deep pockets beckoning for honey to be poured in. If you’re so inclined, you might also want to stuff your savory entrée into those deep pockets, a sort of stuffed sopaipilla in miniature.

14 April 2017: Every year on Holy Thursday at about 7PM, by brothers would set off on the 25-mile pilgrimage to the Santuario De Chimayo, a torturous walk through winding roads that climb and descend precipitously. They would arrive home the next day thoroughly exhausted–too exhausted, it turned out, to enjoy my mom’s traditional Good Friday lunch of tortas de huevo. That left more for me. Tortas de huevo are a traditional Lenten dish typically served on Fridays when New Mexican Catholics are expected to abstain from meat. Moreover, they’re absolutely delicious. Picture a sort-of egg fritter whipped into a light, fluffy texture and fried then topped with red chile. Five or six of these eggy chile delivery vehicles with pinto beans, quelites, calabasitas and fideos and there’s no way you can bemoan the fact that you didn’t have a single hamburger on a Lenten Friday.

Pana’s Magnificent Lenten Special

14 April 2017: Every Friday during Lent in 2017, Pana’s served all the aforementioned Lenten treats, preparing them nearly as well as my mom did. The quelites (lamb’s quarters, commonly referred to as wild spinach throughout Northern New Mexico), calabacitas (sautéed zucchini, onions and corn) and fideos (a pasta dish with short spaghetti noodles and a mild tomato sauce) made me wish Lent would last longer than forty days. The fideos rekindled many fond memories. Unlike spaghetti which is seasoned (sometimes heavily) with oregano and garlic, this New Mexican vermicelli noodle dish is lightly seasoned and light on the tomato sauce, too. Pana’s adds a few beans to the quelites, perhaps acknowledging that quelites are an acquired taste. To me, they taste like my mom’s home.  The calabasitas are fresh, crisp and addictive.

Joe and Michelle are the consummate hosts. Their customer-orientation became apparent when, despite having an inspector performing a white-glove routine on their café, they were timely to take my order, quick to replenish my beverage and ever present to ensure my dining experience was a good one.   Pana’s Café is the type of restaurant you pull for to succeed and not only because of its culinary lineage. It’s a very good New Mexican restaurant.

Pana’s Cafe
3120 San Mateo Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505)884-4260
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 14 April 2017
1st VISIT: 16 June 2016
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chips and Salsa, Sopaipillas, Blue Corn Enchiladas with Ground Beef and Beans Christmas Style, Combination Plate (Ground Beef Taco, Cheese Enchilada, Tamale, Chile Relleno), Tortas de Huevo, Quelites, Fideos, Calabasitas

Pana's Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Hurricane’s Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Hurricane’s Cafe on Lomas

“What is it with you New Mexicans and your fascination for natural disasters?” my Maryland transplanted friend Jessie Miller once asked me. When I inquired as to what he was talking about, he elaborated that two of his favorite Duke City restaurants are named for natural disasters. “Natural disasters,” I asked. “I don’t know of any restaurants named “Forest Fire” or “Drought,” the only New Mexico occurring natural disasters that came immediately to mind. He laughed, “what’s ironic about the restaurants I have in mind is that they’re named for hurricanes and twisters, two natural disasters that don’t occur in Albuquerque.” I reminded him that our ubiquitous spring dust devils are, by definition, twisters.

“”Yeah, but you sure don’t have hurricanes in New Mexico.” I argued that the Land of Enchantment has proudly boasted of hurricanes for decades, adding that New Mexico’s hurricanes even had masculine names long before hurricanes on the Gulf and East Coasts did. “What names?” he asked? In as straight-face as I could muster, I recounted the names Al and Al, Jr., as in New Mexico music legend Al Hurricane and his son Al, Jr. Okay, that’s just me being a smart alec, but Al and Al, Jr. are about the closest a hurricane will ever get to New Mexico though their associated rainfall and resultant flooding have wreaked some havoc on our enchanted state.

Cyclone Burger, Hurricane’s Version of a Green Chile Cheeseburger

Hurricane’s Cafe and Drive-In has nothing to do with the godfather of New Mexico music. Nor, I’ve been told, is the restaurant named for the tropical cyclones that can bring torrential downpours, fierce winds and damaging tornados. Hurricane’s Café and Drive-In was launched in 1987, the brainchild of Greg Desmarais and Gary Hines. When Hurricane’s expanded to eight restaurants, Desmarais and Hines parted ways. In 1997, Hines partnered with Ray Ubieta on a concept they named Twisters. While Twisters has expanded to some nineteen restaurants, including four in Colorado, only the original Hurricane’s remains. Still, in 2010, Desmarais was named the New Mexico Restaurant Association’s “Restaurateur of the Year” in recognition of his dedication to the community, for the hundreds of jobs he’s provided and for his active involvement in the restaurant industry.

Hurricane’s is situated on Lomas in a ‘50s style drive-in reminiscent of those depicted on American Graffiti and Happy Days. The restaurant got its start as Frank’s Drive-In, a popular cruising spot for high school students in the 60’s. Frank’s was renowned for its taco burgers, tater dogs, and fresh limeades, items which are now available on Hurricane’s expansive menu. Hurricane’s retained much of the motif which made Frank’s a Mother Road era classic. Covered parking stalls equipped with menu boards and intercoms are evocative of the car culture of the 50s and 60s though during every one of our visits, we didn’t espy a single person sitting in their cars awaiting their burger or burrito bounty. Perhaps the technology of yesteryear confuses diners or more likely, today’s social media connected restaurant-goers prefer to dine with others.

Patty Melt

As might be expected, Hurricane’s ambiance also brings to mind a bygone era replete with black and white checkerboard tile floors, old-fashioned louver blinds, red vinyl padded booths and a counter where you place your order. To protect the checkerboard tile floor, chair feet are padded with tennis balls. Tables and chairs fastened to the concrete are available beneath the covered patio for al fresco dining weather-permitting (though as previously mentioned, it’s amazing how many diners choose to eat indoors even in good weather and how many of them the smallish dining room will accommodate.

The two menu items for which the restaurant is best known are the “disaster burrito” and the Cyclone, Hurricane’s version of the green chile cheeseburger. Contrary to my friend Jessie’s assertion, the disaster burrito wasn’t named because of New Mexicans’ fascination for natural disasters. Many years ago, a food critic (not me) declared Hurricane’s foods a disaster. Desmarais’ good-natured response was “let’s show them a disaster.” The disaster burrito–a beef, egg and bean burrito smothered with pan-fried potatoes, red and green chile and topped with lettuce and tomatoes—is available in 1/8th, 1/4th, ½ and whole burrito sizes.

Onion Rings (Top) and Tater Gems

The disaster burrito made its national television debut in May, 2014 in a Travel Channel program called “Chow Masters.” In an episode entitled “Santa Fe Burritos,” three purveyors of bounteous burritos were pitted in a piquant melee: La Choza and Dr. Field Goods Kitchen in Santa Fe and Hurricane’s Cafe in Albuquerque (a suburb of Santa Fe?). Judging was based on creativity and flavor. The ten thousand dollar burrito winner was Dr. Field Goods who wowed the judges with a smoked goat chimichanga burrito in mole. Many locals would argue that the disaster burrito should at least have garnered a tie.

Not counting the taco burger, Hurricane’s menu offers five burgers.  The Cyclone, a New Mexico green chile cheeseburger (lettuce, tomato, pickles) is a very popular option.  Hungry diners will ask for their Cyclone “Earthquake burger” style meaning double meat and double cheese.  The cheese melts like a molten blanket over the beef patties.  If you like your green chile to bite you back, this isn’t the green chile cheeseburger for you.  The chile has about as much piquancy as a bell pepper though it does have a nice flavor.  Burgers and sandwiches are served with your choice of French fries, tater gems, coleslaw, cottage cheese or fruit cocktail.  For a pittance you can upgrade to onion rings, fried zucchini or a salad.

Fried Zucchini

If your preference is sandwiches (and burgers are NOT sandwiches), Hurricane’s offers ten choices.  My Kim’s favorite is the Patty Melt, a quarter-pound beef patty, cheese and grilled onions on light rye.  She prefers it over the green chile cheeseburger and hasn’t bought into my suggestion that a patty melt would be even better with green chile.  At any event, Hurricane’s version is quite good courtesy of a lightly toasted rye replete with plenty of rye grains.  The grilled onions aren’t quite caramelized to a brownish hue, but retain a slight crispness.  There’s plenty of melted cheese to bind all the sandwich elements into one cohesive whole.

Fried stuff–onion rings, tater gems and fried zucchini–are a cut above what you find at most burger emporiums.  The fried zucchini resembles the fried mozzarella you might find at an Italian restaurant, but bite into any of these golden hued little logs and the inimitable flavor of zucchini greets you.  The fried zucchini is served with a ranch dressing though it’s not absolutely necessary.  The biggest difference between tater tots and tater gems seems to be shape and size.  Tater gems are larger and more “roundish.” 

Serving Albuquerque for thirty years now, Hurricane’s Restaurant & Drive-In shows no surcease in popularity.  Visit almost any time of day on any day in which it’s open and you’ll be among like-minded devotees of this very popular drive-in.

Hurricane’s Restaurant & Drive-In
4330 Lomas Blvd., N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 255-4248
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 1 April 2017
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 18
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Cyclone Burger, Patty Melt, Tater Gems, Onion Rings, Fried Zucchini

Hurricane's Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Papa Felipe’s Mexican Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Papa Felipe’s on Menaul

In 2009, James Beard Award-winning food journalists Jane and Michael Stern published a terrific tome entitled 500 Things to Eat Before It’s Too Late.  Despite the ominous (some might say fatalistic) name, the book is actually a celebration of the best dishes that are unique to this country.  The Sterns, who have been focusing on quirky All-American food haunts since 1977, describe in delicious detail, the best dishes proffered at roadside stands, cafes, street carts throughout the fruited plain.

In an interview with the Wall Street Journal, Michael Stern was asked if the inclusion of the words “too late” in the book’s title referred to the “death of the small eatery, or the reader’s impending doom from eating too much fried chicken, French fries and fried fish.”  He indicated he was referring to “the impending onslaught of the nutrition police who will make all of this stuff illegal one of these days.”  He also warned of the loss of “some variety and some local specialties that were once easy to find and are now hard or impossible to find due to chain restaurants.”

One of Papa Felipe’s Dining Rooms

Despite the onslaught of the ubiquitous national food chain, Stern was  optimistic that “Americans have become more conscious about regional food,” which in his experience was once thought to be limited to fried chicken and hot dogs.  He praised the “rebirth of interest in regional food that parallels its diminution because of franchises.”

New Mexicans should be duly proud at how well represented our cuisine is among the 500 uniquely American foods celebrated in the book.  By the same token, as I’ve often railed about on this blog, if we don’t patronize the mom and pop restaurants who prepare these authentic time-tested treasures, all we will be left with is the chain restaurants and their homogeneous cardboard tasting food, superficial flamboyance and saccharin service.

Chips and Salsa

Unlike on their previous Roadfood books, the Sterns actually rank what they consider the “best of the best” among the foods described.  Understandably, when a book is published which encompasses the length and breadth of the United States, omissions are bound to occur.  Still, for the most part, the Sterns do a wonderful job of winnowing out the premium wheat from a prize crop, highlighting those restaurants which provide unforgettable dining experiences in their natural setting prepared by locals who still do it in the traditional ways.

In the Sterns’ estimation, the “hot list” of New Mexican restaurants proffering the very best carne adovada in America starts with Rancho de Chimayo, whose carne adovada is described as “chunks of meat turned tender from their long marinade and glistening fiery red.” Following in succession are the Horseman’s Haven Cafe in Santa Fe, Albuquerque’s Frontier Restaurant, Leona’s Restaurant in Chimayo, then two Duke City dining institutions Sadie’s of New Mexico and Papa Felipe’s.

Botana Crispeana

Most New Mexicans would probably agree with at least one restaurant named in that hallowed list.  My own “hot list,” for example, would rank Mary & Tito’s Cafe as the standard-bearer, but would also include the carne adovada at Cecilia’s Cafe, The Burrito Lady and Duran’s Central Pharmacy in Albuquerque as well as The Shed in Santa Fe and the aforementioned Rancho de Chimayo.

One restaurant climbing toward my hot list is Papa Felipe’s, an astute listing by the Sterns who observed that “an unusual version is served at Papa Felipe’s Mexican Restaurant…where the pork is sopped with a marinade of green chiles, giving it a unique vegetable potency.  It’s great as a green tamale pie, baked in sweet corn masa and laced with cheese.”

PapaFelipe09

Caldo de Albondigas

Green chile carne adovada is indeed a unique spin on a New Mexico standard, and to the best of my knowledge, Papa Felipe’s is the only restaurant in Albuquerque, if not the entire state, to feature it.  When you stop to think about it, why not green chile carne adovada.  The preparation process is the same–marinating chunks of pork in chile.  Papa Felipe’s uses a blend of chopped green chile from Bueno Foods (a New Mexico institution since 1946) as well as the fat, elongated chiles they use for chile rellenos.  The marinading process takes about three hours.  The results will impress themselves on your taste buds for much longer.

Papa Felipe’s Mexican Restaurant & Lounge has been pleasing Albuquerque palates for more than 30 years with chef Larry Gonzales at the helm for most of that time.  As with several restaurants in the Land of Enchantment, it straddles the sometimes ambiguous demarcation between New Mexican food and Mexican food and in fact, serves cuisine unique to and shared by both (often the sole distinction being the degree of heat). Some of the very best items on the menu are those with which Chef Gonzales has taken liberties and those he’s essentially invented.

Green Tamale Pie only at Papa Felipe’s

From an experiential perspective, Papa Felipe’s has the look and feel of a Mexican restaurant that belies the New Mexico style stucco exterior. The interior features a combination of whitewash and stucco colored walls with faux adobe half-walls separating the main dining room.  A mural of what appears to be a Mexican village is painted on one wall.  A surprisingly good house stereo system pipes in Mexican standards by the great crooners of yesteryear and today. Seating is comfortable and plush.

A full bar serves a wide variety of domestic and Mexican beers and a selection of house wines as well as what is reputed to be “the meanest margarita in town.”  One of the more popular margaritas is named for New Mexico’s legendary Dixon apple.   Additionally, Papa Felipe’s offers full-service catering, drop-off catering and pick-up services.

PapaFelipe10

Big Papa Breakfast Burrito

The wait staff is prompt with complementary chips and salsa.  The chips are lightly salted and thin.  The salsa, which is sold online internationally, is also lightly salted.  It is a jalapeno-based salsa which according to the Web site is made from “the finest ingredients combined with secret spices.”  It’s not an especially piquant salsa and has a pureed texture like a tomato paste, but it very much tastes like New Mexico.

26 February 2017: One of chef Gonzales’s unique creations, the Botana Crispeante has an “east meets west” feel to it.  The menu describes this appetizer as “spicy beef, chicken or carne adovada filling (or a combination of the three), crisp fried as a chimipiqueño.”  Chimipiqueño appears to be a diminutive version of a chimichanga, a deep-fried burrito.  The Botana Crispeante features of these six bite-sized miniature burritos which might remind you more of miniature egg rolls with unique New Mexico touches.

Chilaquiles Casserole

The Botana Crispeante is served with chile con queso and guacamole, both of which are quite good.  The chile con queso is creamy and delicious, thick enough not to run off your chips but not so gloppy that it breaks the brittle chips.  The guacamole showcases the flavor of fresh avocados seasoned with garlic.  Both complement the deep-fried mini burritos very well.  If for no other reason than their uniqueness, this is an appetizer you should try.  The fact that they’re quite good is a bonus. 

28 July 2013: While several Duke City restaurants serve excellent renditions of caldo de res, the hearty, satisfying beef soup, not as many restaurants offer caldo de albondigas, another Mexican comfort food favorite often referred to as “Mexican soul food.”  Moorish in origin, Caldo de Albondigas was integrated into Spanish culinary tradition when Spanish King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella conquered the region occupied by the Moors.  Albondigas made their way to Mexico with the conquistadores where the dish has flourished into iconic status.  Papa Felipe’s version is a soul-warming and delicious bowl of hearty goodness with a generous number of meatballs swimming in a savory 16-ounce broth with perfectly prepared carrots, celery, onions, tomatoes and squash.  The meatballs are terrific, so good you’ll want a dozen or so.

PapaFelipe11

Mexican Skillet

26 February 2017: As for the green tamale pie which Jane and Michael Stern praised so highly, that praise is well warranted.  Succulent carne adovada is baked in a sweet corn masa with bits of vegetables, green chile and a touch of onion set of with a liberal lacing of melted yellow Cheddar cheese and green chile.  The star is definitely the green chile carne adovada which is as tender as any we’ve had in Albuquerque, but with the pronounced flavor and aroma of green chile.  Your taste buds might be confused at first bite, but they’ll quickly get over it and will enjoy this dish immensely.  It’s a winner–truly one of the best 500 things to eat in America and a contender for my carne adovada “hot list.”

Speaking of “hot lists,” it wasn’t solely Papa Felipe’s carne adovada which the Sterns rated as among America’s best.  The green tamale pie was one of three tamale pies beloved enough by the Sterns to praise effusively in their book.  About the green tamale pie, they wrote, “Green tamale pie at Papa Felipe’s Mexican Restaurant in Albuquerque broadcasts the palmy essence of New Mexico chiles and is well appointed with Papa’s excellent carne adovada.”

Sopaipillas

26 February 2017: Traditionalists who love their carne adovada red can have that, too.  One of the best ways is in Papa Felipe’s Chilaquile Casserole, a brimming bowlful of joy (think Beethoven’s Fifth at every bite).  This entree is layer upon layer of luscious carne adovada (red), melted yellow Cheddar cheese, spicy green peppers, sweet corn, and tostadas smothered in red chile.  The casserole is baked to perfection then topped with even more cheese, chile and garnish.  This entree includes a flour tortilla and a side of guacamole (among the very best in New Mexico).  Only with a fried egg can this dish be improved upon. 

28 July 2013: Although Papa Felipe’s isn’t open for breakfast, it does offer one of the very best–and certainly one of the largest–breakfast burritos in Albuquerque.  The aptly named Big Papa Breakfast Burrito is constructed from a giant flour tortilla engorged with three scrambled eggs, Papa’s potatoes, carne adovada (marinated in your choice of red or green chile) and Cheddar Jack cheese topped with your choice of chile and more Cheddar Jack cheese.  Both the red and green chile are exemplars of New Mexico’s official state vegetable with plenty of piquancy and flavor.  Not every diner will be able to finish this behemoth of a burrito. 

Fiesta Tacos

26 February 2017:  Papa Felipe’s offers three styles of tacos: a traditional crisp fried corn tortilla filled with beef or chicken, the Fiesta Style Taco (two flour tortillas filled with marinated beef strips sautéed with onions, peppers, avocado and tomatoes, garnished with sour cream and pico de gallo) and a Puffy Taco (a large sopaipilla shell filled with chicken that has been marinated with salsa).  The Fiesta Taco will remind you of fajitas which stands to reason the ingredients from which it’s constructed can also be found on fajitas.  The marinated beef strips are of prime steak quality.

28 July 2013: Another entree as good for breakfast as it is for lunch or dinner is the Mexican skillet, a sizzling skillet filled with papitas, carne adovada, and two eggs any style.  The papitas aren’t fried in the style of French fries as so many papitas tend to be.  Try this dish with the green marinated chile carne adovada for a different take on the dish.  This entree is served with one side and a flour tortilla.

Friends of Gil (FOG) enjoy spirited conversation at Papa Felipe’s

In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2012, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded Papa Felipe’s New Mexican Restaurant a Hot Plate Award signifying the selection of its Camarones Victor as one of the “most interesting, special and tasty dishes around.”  Considering the thousands of potential selections, to be singled out is quite an honor. 

In April, 2016, Papa Felipe’s was one of four Duke City restaurants (along with Tia B’s La Waffleria, Laguna Burger and Rebel Donut) featured on the Cooking Channel.  In an episode entitled “Cheap Eats,” host and food blogger Ali Khan had dinner at Papa Felipe’s where he enjoyed a sopaipilla stuffed with carne adovada.  Papa Felipe’s was selected because of its unusual take on New Mexican food.

Papa Felipe’s is one of those rare restaurants which defies paradigms and dares to be different with such inventive entrees as carne adovada made with green chile, entrees which are too good to be on any endangered list. Just in case, make sure you try them before it’s too late.

Papa Felipe’s Mexican Restaurant
9800 Menaul, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 292-8877
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 26 February 2017
# OF VISITS: 7
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Botana Crispeante, Salsa and Chips, Green Tamale Pie, Chilaquile Casserole, Sopaipillas, Caldo de Albondigas, Mexican Skillet, Big Papa Breakfast Burrito, Fiesta Tacos

Papa Felipe's Mexican Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

MARY & TITO’S CAFE – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Mary & Tito's may serve the very best red chile in Albuquerque

Mary & Tito’s, THE very best New Mexican restaurant in the world!

Old-timers whose opinions I respect consistently rate Mary & Tito’s as Albuquerque’s best restaurant for New Mexican food, a restaurant that has been pleasing the most savvy and unindoctrinated palates alike since 1963.  It takes a lot to impress some of those old-timers, none of whom see much substance in the flash and panache of the nouveau restaurants and their pristine veneer and effusive, over-the-top flamboyance.  These guys and gals are impressed only by New Mexican food the way their abuelitas prepared it–unadorned, authentic and absolutely wonderful.  If you want to evoke their ire, take them to one of the chains.  Worse, try sneaking some cumin into their chile.

Just how good is Mary & Tito’s?  In an October, 2009 span of two days, three people whose opinion on food I value weighed in, prompting me to ponder that question and not just take for granted that it’s “one of” the very best restaurants in New Mexico. World-travelers Randy and Bonnie Lake experienced an epiphany during their most recent visit, marveling at just how much better Mary & Tito’s legendary red is than other red chile they’ve ever had.  Bill Resnik who’s authored a cookbook on New Mexican cuisine was more to-the-point, asking why it hasn’t been accorded a “30” rating–the epitome of perfection in my rating system and a rating I have not bestowed upon any restaurant anywhere.

Mary Ann Gonzales for whom the restaurant is named passed away on Tuesday, September 17, 2013. She was a great and wonderful lady! Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

A dining experience at such an ideal would have to be absolutely flawless with uncompromising standards and an obvious commitment on the restaurant’s part to providing a dining experience I would want to repeat over and over again.  Obviously the food would have to be more than good; it would have to tantalize, titillate, enrapt my taste buds with every morsel.  Every facet of the meal would have to be like a well synchronized and beautiful ballet in which each course is a prelude to the next and leaves me absolutely lusting for the next bite.

There have been times (many, in fact) in which a magical endorphin high from Mary & Tito’s red chile made my taste buds so unbelievably, deliriously happy that I’ve sworn nothing quite as good has ever crossed my lips.  Immediately after each meal at Mary & Tito’s, I want to repeat it, usually right then and there.  It is simply my very favorite restaurant in New Mexico and now my highest rated in the Land of Enchantment and one of the highest rated across the fruited plain.

Mary & Tito’s legendary carne adovada. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

I’m not the only patron this loyal to Mary & Tito’s.  In truth, the restaurant’s walls could probably be covered with framed certificates and accolades feting it as the “best” in one category or another. Instead, you’ll find family photo montages along with photos of some of their loyal customers. For ambiance, this homey restaurant might not win any awards, but for outstanding New Mexican cuisine, it has secured a place in the hearts and appetites of their many guests.

Although the legendary Tito passed away in 1990 and his devoted wife Mary Ann Gonzales left us in 2013, their effervescent daughter Antoinette and sons continue to provide the hospitality for which Mary & Tito’s is renowned. Better yet, they oversee an operation that serves what is arguably the best New Mexican food in New Mexico (ergo the entire universe)–and unequivocally the very best red chile anywhere.

Mary & Tito's green chile burrito stuffed with guacamole and rice--one of the very best burritos in the universe!

A rare sight–green chile on a burrito at Mary & Tito’s where red is best!

The red chile has culled a legendary reputation among aficionados. Slathered generously on your entrees, it is a rich red color. At first impression it tastes great, but the more you eat more of it, the more the piquant heat builds up. Oh, the wonderful burn!  Beads of perspiration glisten on my friend Ruben’s forehead with every bite, but he perseveres through that endorphin generating heat with what can only be described as a lusty fervor.  Even when the particular crop of chile isn’t particularly piquant, Mary & Tito’s red chile is always wonderful, so good some frequent guests have no idea what the green chile tastes like.  It’s been so long since I’ve had the green chile that I no longer remember what it’s like.  The red chile is available meatless for diners of the vegetarian persuasion.

Ask the vivacious Antoinette what makes Mary & Tito’s red chile so uniquely wonderful and she’ll tell you that the chile starts off like the chile at most New Mexican restaurants. The difference is in what is done with it.  Mary & Tito’s chile has been purchased from one Hatch grower for years and it’s ground from pods, not made from powder. Beyond that, the restaurant doesn’t adulterate the chile with other than salt and garlic (absolutely no cumin). There is magic in this purity.  There’s also purity in its almost mesmerizing red-orange color and if you look at the edges of your plate, you won’t see the tell-tale signs of the excessive use of a thickening agent such as corn starch.  There’s none of that in this red chile!

A guacamole, beans and rice burrito with red chile. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

The green chile (as I remember it) isn’t quite as piquant, but it is very tasty and generously applied to your entrees. For the best of both, ask for your entree to be served “Christmas” style so you can taste both the chile rojo (red) and chile verde (green). Vegetarians can also ask for it without meat.  My friend Lesley King, the wonderful writer whose monthly “King of the Road” column used to grace New Mexico Magazine, visited Mary & Tito’s for the first time in May, 2010 and recognized immediately that at this legendary restaurant, it’s all about the chile, finding both red and green as good as could possibly be made.

My friend Ruben, who for more than a year was engaged in a Holy Grail type quest to find the best carne adovada in the Albuquerque area, is absolutely besotted with Mary & Tito’s rendition. It’s carne adovada the way it’s supposed to be with tender tendrils of moist, delicious pork ameliorated with the best red chile in the metropolitan area.  Cheryl Jamison, the scintillating four-time James Beard Award-winning author, calls the carne adovada “absolutely spectacular.”  As with most entrees, it’s served with beans and rice, both of which are quite good.

A large combination plate: taco, tamale, cheese enchilada, beans and rice

In New Mexico Magazine‘s “Best Eats” issue for 2011, Mary & Tito’s was recognized as having the best carne adovada in the Land of Enchantment.  As one of the seven culinary experts who selected and wrote about New Mexico’s best, it was the choice with which I most agreed.  Though every other honoree is worthy of “best eats” selection, Mary & Tito’s carne adovada stands out, the best of the best!

The enchiladas are certainly among the best in town and I appreciate the fact that you can have them rolled or stacked (my preference with three corn tortillas), the way they’re served throughout Northern New Mexico. Natives and newcomers alike ask for a fried egg on top of the enchiladas, a flavor-enhancer that improves on a New Mexican entree that doesn’t really need any improvement. An “extra beef” option means enchiladas with even more fantastically well seasoned beef.  With red chile, they will make your taste buds ecstatic.

Two Tacos

Burritos are nearly a foot long and served overstuffed. One of the very best burritos anywhere features guacamole, beans and rice along with the aforementioned red or green chile. It is more than half a pound of New Mexican food greatness, especially when the guacamole practically erupts when you press your fork into the burrito.  It’s become the only dish capable of prying me away from the carne adovada–except when I have the combination plate, stuffed sopaipilla, chiles rellenos… I love it all!

With chips, that guacamole is simplicity itself (avocados in their prime, garlic, lime juice, salt), but it is some of the best guacamole in town. The freshness of guacamole made daily from the best avocados is evident.

Chile relleno covered in red.

Chile relleno covered in red.

The chile rellenos are also among the best I’ve ever had, far superior to their world-famous brethren served at Mesilla’s fabled La Posta restaurant. A thin, crispy batter envelops a piquant pepper stuffed with a sharp Cheddar cheese. Each bite produces an endorphin rush and taste explosion.  The rellenos are available on the combination platter as well as a la carte.  As with other entrees at Mary & Tito’s, they’re best smothered with that miraculous red chile.

My friend Sr. Plata had the privilege of first-time visits to both Chope’s and Mary & Tito’s within two weeks of each other.  In his estimation, the chile relleno at Mary & Tito’s is far superior to Chope’s version (which is often considered THE standard-bearer for the genre in the Land of Enchantment).  New Mexicans from the southern half of the state, in particular, might consider it sacrilege, but Sr. Plata reasons that Mary & Tito’s superior red chile is the difference-maker.  He’s calls it the essence of purity and deliciousness.

A huskless tamale smothered in red chile

You won’t find sopaipillas with honey at Mary & Tito’s, but you will find a “Mexican turnover‘ resembling an overgrown empanada or Italian calzone. It’s made from sopaipilla dough stuffed with meat, beans, rice and chile then deep fried. It’s Mary & Tito’s version of stuffed sopaipillas and it’s (not surprisingly) among the very best in the city.

Entrees include some of the best refried beans anywhere…and I mean anywhere in the country. They have that “prepared with lard” taste all good refrieds have. Spanish rice also comes with every entree as does a tomato and lettuce garnish. Garnish is one of those plate decorations many people discard. With Mary & Tito’s fabulous red chile, it’s just something else with which to sop up every bit of that chile rojo.

Enchiladas with a fried egg and red chile

Enchiladas with a fried egg and red chile

Your first bowl of salsa is complimentary and it’s so good you’ll certainly finish it off quickly and order another. The chips, like the salsa, are lightly salted and crisp, the perfect size and texture to complement the tomato rich salsa.  The salsa has a nice piquancy but other than tomatoes and chile, there are no discernible additives such as garlic and onion.

Only the con queso gets a less than outstanding mark at Mary & Tito’s. The cheese has that “melted Velveeta” feel and taste and is somewhat gloppy.  Authenticity and utter deliciousness,however, aren’t spared on the chicharrones which compete with those at Cecilia’s Cafe for best in the city.  Chicharrones are Pieces of pork crackling cooked until crunchy and most of the fat is rendered out.  A plateful of chicharrones and a bowl of that legendary red are a great way to start any meal.

Carne Adovada Omelet

Carne Adovada Omelet

Another excellent entree unique to Mary & Tito’s is a carne adovada omelet.  Yes, you did read that correctly.  It’s a multi-egg omelet folded over that outstanding carne adovada then covered in the red chile of my dreams.  There’s no need for any of the usual omelet ingredients when you’ve got carne adovada.

Compliment Antoinette on an outstanding meal and she’ll invariably credit “the guys in the kitchen.” Those guys, the Arguello brothers–Patricio and Louis–are following Tito’s recipes and keeping his culinary legacy alive.  They’ve been working at Mary & Tito’s since they were but teenagers, schooled under the watchful eye of Tito himself.  They’re well versed at their craft. Antoinette will, however, take credit for the terrific desserts available at Mary & Tito’s.

Salsa and chips at Mary & Tito’s

For dessert, an absolute “must have” is Mary & Tito’s take on traditional New Mexican wedding cake, a yellow cake made with walnuts and pineapple and topped with a cream cheese frosting is spectacular.  Antoinette has been making this cake for better than 30 years (though she doesn’t look much older than 30 herself) and says she’s made it thousands of times.  You won’t find any better in New Mexico.  You won’t find anything close.

In January, 2010, Mary & Tito’s was announced as the 2010 recipient of the James Beard Award’s “America’s Classic” honor. A James Beard Award signifies the pinnacle of achievement in the culinary world, the country’s most coveted and prestigious culinary award while the “Americas Classic Award” honors “restaurants with timeless appeal, beloved for quality food that reflects the character of their community, and that have carved out a special place in the American culinary landscape.” Mary & Tito’s is the true, timeless American classic–beloved in the community with the highest quality food reflecting the character of New Mexico.

Chicharones, Mary & Tito’s style. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

Mary and Antoinette received the award at a ceremonial dinner on May 3, 2010 at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in New York City.  Governor Bill Richardson celebrated the honor by proclaiming May 12th “Mary & Tito’s Day” in New Mexico, a well-deserved honor for an exemplary restaurant.

While writing an article entitled “Ode to the Chile Pepper” for the September, 2011 edition of New Mexico Magazine, I had the privilege, pleasure and honor to interview the owner of the Hatch chile farm which supplies Mary & Tito’s with their fabulous chile. Leticia Carrasco is justifiably proud of the Sandia chile her farm provisions to a James Beard award-winning restaurant. She could not have been nicer–a great person supplying great chile to a great family. How fitting is that?

The James Beard Award of Excellence. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

29 April 2013: In January, 2013 Food & Wine Magazine compiled a list of the nation’s “best taco spots.”  The only New Mexico taco spot recognized was Mary & Tito’s for which Food & Wine acknowledged the “famed secret weapon of this mother-daughter-run operation is its fiery red chile sauce–killer with succulent braised pork in the New Mexico classic carne adovada, or drizzled over beef tacos in crispy corn tortilla shells.”  New Mexico’s best tacos at Mary & Tito’s?  Why not?  They’re fantastic!

In the February, 2013 edition of Albuquerque The Magazine  celebrated the Duke City’s best desserts. The fabulous Mexican wedding cake was recognized as the “to die for dessert to remember.”  I’m not too sure what that means, but if it means the Mexican wedding cake is unforgettable, the honor is certainly well deserved.  It’s certainly one of the very best desserts in New Mexico.

Mary & Tito’s fabulous New Mexican Wedding Cake. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

The cast and crew of This Old House, a Boston-based home-improvement and remodeling television show spent two days at Mary & Tito’s in April, 2013.  While filming a segment in Hatch, purveyors of New Mexico’s best chile told the crew that the very best example of chile is served at Mary & Tito’s.  The cast and crew proceeded to enjoy every item on the menu.  More converts!

Mary & Tito’s is one of those restaurants that elicits a craving only it can sate. It is the essence of red chile Nirvana.

MARY & TITO’S CAFE
2711 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505-344-6266
Mary & Tito’s Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 23 January 2016
# OF VISITS: 40
RATING: 27
COST: $$
BEST BET
: Enchiladas, Chile Relleno, Taco, Natillas, Guacamole Burrito, Carne Adovada Burrito, Chicharrones,  Mexican Wedding Cake, Carne Adovada Omelet, Carne Adovada, Combination Plate

Mary & Tito's Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Casa de Benavidez – Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico

Casa de Benavidez, nestled under the pines on Fourth Street

There are restaurants throughout the Duke City that have seemingly always been “there.”  They’re  as much a part of the fabric of the city as the neighborhoods they serve.  Casa de Benavidez is one of those restaurants, a familiar part of the landscape on North Fourth Street, some would say an institution.  Despite the notion of permanence, this venerable treasure has, in fact, been around only since 1984–at least under its current name.

Before there was a Casa de Benavidez, there was, just a mile or so away, a tiny little eatery with only three tables and a bustling take-out business.   There was also a dream, the shared ambition of Paul and Rita Benavidez  to serve their hometown with the food they loved and prepared so well.  At El Mexicano, a diminutive eatery they operated with their children, that dream began the transformation from monochromatic to technicolor with every one of their trademarked sopaipilla burgers sold.

Salsa and Chips

While the family was selling more and more sopaipilla burgers, they were also stockpiling used restaurant equipment in hope and anticipation of an expansion that would allow them to more fully realize their dreams.  Not far from their diminutive digs, Paul found a nearly 100-year-old two-story territorial style adobe home with a half-finished waterfall just south of the structure.  Quickly consummating the sale of the home, the Benavidez family moved out of their old location into the sprawling edifice in just one day.  The rest, as the proverbial “they” say, is history.

Over time, the carryout business at the back of the home became so successful that the family expanded their operation to include a full-service restaurant in the front of the house.  The restaurant was rechristened “Casa de Benavidez,” and the dream culminated with a commodious restaurant offering an expansive menu featuring traditional New Mexican and Mexican food in elegantly appointed interior dining rooms and exterior surroundings that include lush gardens, a koi pond teeming with life and strolling mariachis.

Combination No. 1 Tamale, Cheese Enchilada, Chile Relleno and Taco Served With Beans, Rice, Special Rib and Sopaipilla

On the marquee, subtitled directly below the restaurant’s name, are the words “Home of the Sopaipilla Burger.”  That’s a recognition of the role played in the restaurant’s early and current successes by its unique rendition of New Mexico’s ubiquitous green chile cheeseburger.  Several other restaurants offer their own take on a sopaipilla burger, but Casa de Benavidez’s version was the very first and it remains first in the heart of its loyal patrons, some of whom order the “jumbo” sized half-pound version.

Repeat after me (to the tune of the old Big Mac jingle) — one all-beef patty, refried beans, lettuce, cheese, tomato and chile  (red, green or both) on two sopaipilla “buns.”  That’s the sopaipilla burger, still one of the most popular and celebrated items on the menu.  The sopaipillas are more dense than the puffed-up sopaipillas on which New Mexicans love honey.  They’re formidable enough not to fall apart at the moistness of other ingredients, but if the chile is ladled on a bit too generously, expect your hands to be covered in the red or green stuff.

Carne Adovada Plate

Casa de Benavidez was one of the first restaurants we visited after moving back to Albuquerque in 1996. It didn’t surprise us when this casa was the 1996 winner of KOB TV’s “Salsa Challenge.” The salsa is about medium on the piquancy scale  and has a garlicky flavor aficionados love while the chips (served warm) are unfailingly crisp and fresh. Alas, sometimes because of overflow crowds your empty salsa dish isn’t replenished as faithfully as at other New Mexican restaurants. That’s about the only short-coming in the service which tends to be friendly and attentive.  That salsa, by the way, was named Albuquerque’s fifth best salsa by Albuquerque The Magazine from among a sampling size of 130 different restaurant salsas reviewed in the September, 2012 issue.

The menu features many New Mexican standards, but it also includes “foreign” items such as  chimichangas (Tucson) and fajitas (Texas).  Breakfast is served Friday, Saturday and Sunday with lunch and dinner (same menu) served every day of the week.  Lunch specials are a more economical dining option than dinners. To say Casa Benavidez is one of the more pricey New Mexican restaurants  might be an understatement.  You might experience a bit of sticker shock at seeing some items approaching the nine dollar price point–and that’s just the appetizers.  The entrees are all priced in double-figures.

Sopaipillas and Tortilla

3 January 2017: Perhaps the best way to experience the restaurant’s culinary wizardry is by ordering one of the four combination plates.   Combos are served with beans, rice, one very special rib and sopaipillas.  Combination plate number one features a cheesy enchilada, a taco, a crunchy chile relleno and a tamale. Of these, the real stand-out is the crunchy chile relleno whose sweet, battered texture is unlike any other we’ve had in Albuquerque.  The special pork rib is unique to Casa Benavidez.  It’s a real treat.  Be forewarned that combination plates are humongous–large enough for two.

One of the restaurant’s very best, albeit most unconventional entrees are the succulent pork short ribs: four meaty ribs on which is slathered a semi-sweet and smoky homemade sauce.  These are multi-napkin ribs, the type of which will leave a red beard on any clean-shaven face.  They’re better ribs than you’ll find at several of the Duke City’s barbecue restaurants.  That goes for the sauce, too.  You’ll find yourself dredging up excess sauce with the accompanying fries (or you can have rice).

Natillas

3 January 2017: My Kim tells me it’s a woman’s prerogative to change her mind.  She does so frequently, but rarely when ordering at a New Mexican restaurant.  Almost invariably, she’ll order the carne adovada plate though only with the chile in which the carne has been marinated, no extra.   Casa de Benavidez serves some of her favorite adovada.  Tender tendrils of easily pulled apart pork marinated in a rich, hearty red chile make her happy and when she’s happy, Gil’s happy.  The carne adovada plate is served with Spanish rice and beans (which she passes over to me). 

3 January 2017: Casa de Benavidez offers a number of desserts: German chocolate cake, carrot cake, fried ice cream, flan, natillas, brownies and a sweet roll.  The natillas are topped with a very generous dollop or ten of whipped cream.  When scraped off, not much of the natillas actually remain.  That’s too bad because these natillas are cinnamon rich, creamy and delicious.

On Fourth Street, facing east Casa de Benavidez is at the forefront of the Sandia Mountains.  Both seem to have an air of distinction and permanence.  Because of its longevity and community standing, the Casa de Benavidez is on the New Mexico Tourism Department’s “Culinary Treasures trail,” an initiative which honors those rare and precious family-owned-and-operated gems operating continuously since at least December 31st, 1969.  As with all the restaurants on the list, the Casa is an independent mom-and-pop restaurant which has stood the test of time to become beloved institutions in their neighborhoods and beyond.

Casa de Benavidez
8032 Fourth Street, N.W.
Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 893-3311
Web Site | Facebook Page

LATEST VISIT: 3 January 2017
# OF VISITS: 9
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Sopaipilla Burger, Pork Ribs, Chile Relleno, Salsa and Chips, Combination Plate #1, Sopaipilla

Casa de Benavidez Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Burritos Alinstante – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Burritos Alinstante on Broadway

A couple of days before my Kim and I were to be married (some three decades plus ago), my mom flew to Chicago to teach her how to prepare some of my favorite dishes (is it any wonder my sisters call me “consentido” (spoiled)?). A quick study, Kim learned how to make tortillas, lasagna, fried chicken, red chile and other favorites just the way mom makes them. Among the wedding presents my mom gave Kim were a cast-iron comal (griddle) and a rodillo (rolling pin) of her own.   In short order Kim began making tortillas as if she’d been making them all her life, in the process contributing significantly to my adulthood struggle with caloric overachievement.

The time-honored, traditional art of making tortillas on a sizzling cast-iron comal is truly one of the defining elements of both New Mexican and Mexican cuisine. Tortillas are a simple, round flatbread partaken with just about every meal in many a New Mexican household. They are a staple available in most New Mexican restaurants and certainly in the Garduño household. With the widespread availability of plastic-wrapped, store-bought pretenders, however, the art of kneading dough and shaping orbs for preparation on a griddle is slowly being lost.

Green Chile Cheeseburger Burrito

That’s truly a shame because store-bought tortillas can’t compare in taste (and certainly not in aroma) with a tortilla just been peeled off of the comal with its robust, lightly crisped outside and soft, chewy center. The store-bought variety tends to be thin, highly processed and tastes like cardboard might.  You need go no further than Duran’s Central Pharmacy in the Old Town area to experience the former.  The latter is, unfortunately, available in far too many New Mexican restaurants.

Shirley Chavez was a tortillera in the traditional sense, a true craftsperson connected in tradition to rich, ancient cultures as far back as the advanced Mesoamerican civilizations. In 1989, she opened a small tortilla factory called Chavez Tortillas and while her product was known to be outstanding, sales were disappointing. It wasn’t until she began preparing burritos with her tortillas that her business took off. Thus was born Burritos Alinstante, a restaurant which now has a presence in Albuquerque as well as in Belen, Bosque Farms and Los Lunas.

Burrito with Chicharrones, Beans, Cheese and Green Chile

Although the tortillas at Burritos Alinstante are no longer made in the old-fashioned ways, food preparation is still an in-house, hand-crafted process. Everything on the menu is made fresh daily from scratch.  Gleaming metal vessels hold the ingredients in readiness until an order is placed.   Place your order and almost in an instant, your burrito will be ready for you.  If that sounds too much like “just add water and your burrito will be ready,” that’s certainly not a case.  The well-practiced hands of the restaurant’s staff are so deft that your wait will be minimal.

The menu offers twelve burrito choices plus a breakfast burrito (available only until noon) and build your own options (pick one meat, red or green chile, shredded or nacho cheese and two more ingredients). You can have your burritos smothered in red or green chile or hand-held with the chile inside. Combination plates include beans (prepared with lard for that wonderfully authentic New Mexican taste) and Spanish rice.  You can also order nachos, Frito pie, tamale bowl and a taco plate.  Several ala carte items such as salsa and chips, guacamole, tacos and tamales are also available.

The chile isn’t particularly piquant–at least for this fire-eater, but it is very tasty.  The number four burrito (chicharrones, beans, cheese and green chile) hand-held is a popular favorite.  It’s a full eight-ounces of flavor-packed deliciousness with chicharrones in every single bite.  Hand-held doesn’t necessarily mean you can drive with one hand and hold your burrito with the other.  The burrito is so crammed with beans, melting shredded cheese and chile that copious spillage is bound to occur no matter how careful you are.  You’ll enjoy the burrito more if you take a seat in the restaurant’s comfortable confines and savor it slowly. 

Comprehensive as it may be, the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail doesn’t list a single burger that isn’t constructed on conventional burger buns.  Savvy New Mexican restaurateurs long ago figured out green chile cheeseburgers can also be made on tortillas.  Burritos Alinstante doesn’t call their version a “tortilla burger” as some restaurants do.  It’s called a green chile cheeseburger burrito and it’s terrific!  Instead of cutting up a burger patty as some restaurants do, Alinstante’s cooks fill the tortilla with seasoned ground beef then they add traditional green chile cheeseburger ingredients: lettuce, tomatoes, green chile and cheese.  This has become my favorite among the restaurant’s many delicious offerings.

For some inexplicable reason, there was a ten-year gap in between my visits to Burritos Alinstante.  That shameful travesty won’t be repeated.  Burritos Alinstante can become a habit.

Burritos Alinstante
2101 Broadway, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 242-0966
Web Site | Facebook Page

LATEST VISIT: 21 December 2016
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 18
COST: $
BEST BET: Chicharones Burrito, Salsa and chips, Guacamole, Green Chile Cheeseburger Burrito

Burritos Alinstante Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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