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Abuelita’s New Mexican Kitchen – Bernalillo, New Mexico

Abuelita's in Bernalillo

Abuelita’s in Bernalillo

Abuelita–perhaps no word in the vernacular of Spanish Northern New Mexico evokes such veneration, reverence and, for those of us who have lost these heaven-sent treasures, a melancholy ache not even time can erase.  The abuelita is the family matriarch, the heart of the extended family and the sagacious matron to whom you go for counsel, consolation and cooking. For generations, New Mexico’s abuelitas have been nurturing their families with the simple foods passed down by their own abuelitas.  Before the proliferation of New Mexican restaurants, abuelita’s was where the family congregated–no special occasion was necessary because any time with your abuelita was a special occasion.

Dining at Abuelita’s New Mexican Kitchen in Bernalillo won’t replace dining at your own abuelita’s, but you’re guaranteed a good meal, sizeable portions and genial, attentive service. As at your own abuelita’s home, there’s almost always something going on in the kitchen.  Abuelita’s is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week and has been serving Bernalillo for more than a quarter-century.  Paintings of local artists festoon the muted yellows and earth tones of the restaurant’s walls.  Fittingly the shirts worn by the wait staff sport the motto “panza llena, corazon contento” or “full belly, happy heart.”

The front dining room at Abuelita's

The front dining room at Abuelita’s

The Abuelita’s menu exemplifies just why native New Mexicans, especially those of Hispanic descent, cherish family memories centering around food.  You’ll find dishes at Abuelitas with which we grew up: dishes you won’t find at most restaurants and even some dishes we experienced only seasonally.  A Lenten menu includes a number of specials New Mexicans enjoy only during the forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter.  Among the most special of these Lenten dishes is torta de huevo con quelites which  might be best described as egg fritters or fluffy egg “cakes” marinated in red chile while quelites are spinach.  This can be a delicious dish and will always  trigger the fondest of familial memories.

During breakfast, lunch and lunch, Abuelita’s large dining room is bustling with activity and with boisterous, happy patrons enjoying their victuals (translation: it’s loud).  At breakfast, the tinkling of spoons as they stir the house coffee seems almost melodic when it’s not drowned out by conversation.  Regardless of meal, service isn’t hurried, in part because the wait staff just seems to know everybody–and if they don’t know you, they might by the time your meal is done.  That’s what dining in a small town restaurant is all about.  The pace  allows you to luxuriate over your coffee or the salsa and chips and because plates are prepared to order, your plates arrive at your table piping hot. At the risk of sounding xenophobic, Abuelita’s has not “dumbed down” its chile for tourist tastes, serving chile with the type of piquancy Bernalillo residents like.

Calabasitas and Ham burrito with Red and Green Chile

Calabasitas Burrito with Red and Green Chile

24 January 2014:  Hundreds of restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment pride themselves on breakfast burritos with many of them claiming bragging rights.  Very few breakfast burritos in New Mexico are as worthy of bragging rights as the calabasitas and egg burrito (two scrambled eggs, diced squash, zucchini and onions) topped with both red and green chile.  The calabasitas are perfectly al dente,  crispy not mushy and very fresh.  The eggs are fluffy and well seasoned and the tortilla is engorged with ingredients, topped with red and (or) green chile and melted white and yellow Cheddar cheese. 

Both the red and green chile have a terrific bite, a welcome change from the insipid chile that’s become so commonplace.  It’s the type of chile that pairs well with a hot cup of coffee, the heat of the coffee accentuating the piquancy of the chile.  You can add your choice of bacon, sausage, diced ham or chorizo to  the burrito for a pittance more.  The ham has an endearing smokiness and goes well with the calabasitas.  This is one of the very best breakfast burritos in New Mexico.

Salsa and chips at Abuelita’s in Bernalillo

The salsa has a rich red tomato taste much like a spicy V8 juice with a jalapeno kick flecked with cilantro and white onions. A complimentary order of chips and salsa is brought to your table shortly after you’re seated.  You’ve got to pay for second and subsequent orders.  Both the salsa and the crisp chips are low in sodium.  Best of all, the salsa has a nice bite with a pleasant piquancy locals love, but which won’t send tourists scurrying for a fire hydrant.

25 January 2014: The menu is replete with New Mexican specialties, some of which you might not ever see in your abuelita’s kitchen.  One such unique entree is the creatively named tacopilla which is a portmanteau of the words taco and sopaipilla.  Some might argue that the foundation for this entree isn’t a sopaipilla, but a buñuelo.  A buñuelo is essentially a flat sopaipilla about nine inches around, but it resembles Indian fry bread (which is more dense and tastes more like yeast-leavened bread).  Anyway, the buñuelo, er…sopaipilla is layered with refried beans, lettuce, tomatoes, guacamole and sour cream and if you so desire, shredded beef, ground beef or chicken.  The shredded beef is your best bet.  It’s moist and tender, like shredded carne adovada without the chile.

The Tacopilla

The Tacopilla with Red and Green Chile

The tacopilla is delivered folded over like a taco, but there’s no way you can eat it like that. You’re going to have to lay it flat and cut into it like a pizza in order to eat it. That’s a bit of a challenge considering the “elasticity” of the sopaipilla. It may be argued that the refried bean, shredded beef and green chile combination on a sopaipilla makes it an entree while the lettuce and tomato make it a sandwich. Whatever it is, it covers your plate and it’s a rare eater who can finish the entire Frisbee-sized behemoth.

25 January 2014: If tacopilla sounds too much like a reptilian monster which terrorizes Mexico City, Abuelta’s has your hook-up with normal sized tacos.  Available in quantities of two or three (or you can order four or more a la carte) and served with refried beans and rice, these tacos are of the hard-shelled variety and are engorged with ground beef, cheese, lettuce and tomato.   The ground beef is nicely seasoned without being too salty and doesn’t taste refried as at far too many New Mexican restaurants. These tacos are perfectly made for Abuelita’s salsa.

Tacos

Tacos

As you peruse the menu, you might be surprised to see chicken fried steak on the “New Mexican Specialties” section of the menu.  So what makes chicken fried steak New Mexican?  Why, green chile, of course.  My friend Larry McGoldrick,, the professor with the perspicacious palate raves about Abuelita’s chicken fried steak with green chile gravy.  If you prefer that your steak not be chicken fried, opt for the Ranchero steak, a six-ounce strip steak served on a bed of papas topped with green chile and served with Texas toast.  For just over ten dollars, the Ranchero steak is surprisingly tender, wholly belying the leather-tough caliber of meat you generally find at that price range.  It’s also well seasoned with salt and pepper.  You can omit the chile if you so desire, but no savvy diner will omit the golden blonde, cubed papas which are so much better than any fries.

Abuelta’s is no one-trick pony when it comes to enchiladas, offering six enchilada dinners, all served with  Spanish rice and refried beans.  The enchiladas are rolled (though you can order them flat/stacked as they’re served in much of Northern New Mexico) and stuffed with your choice of cheese, beef, chicken, carne adovada, calabasitas and of course, with the requisite egg atop and your choice of chile.   There’s not a bad enchilada on the menu, only good, better and best (the carne adovada).

Ranchero steak, a six-ounce strip steak with papitas

There are also six burritos on the menu including one of the very best chicharones burritos you’ll find in the Land of Enchantment. Chicharones are made by frying pig skin and are sometimes called “cracklings” although in no case should they be as crisp as pork rinds. The best chicharones are just slightly crispy and have a smoky, bacon-like taste. At Abuelita’s, the chicharones are neither too crispy or too soft. They’re also delicious and generously packed into a tortilla where they share space with excellent refried beans. 

25 January 2014: Abuelita’s carne adovada is yet another winner.  The slow-roasted lean pork is marinated in red chile then smothered in either red or green chile.  If you’ve never had red chile marinated pork smothered in green chile, you owe it to yourself to try it.  It’s the best of both worlds.  Abuelita’s carne adovada is oh so smooth and delicious with tender tendrils of pork you can chew even if you don’t have teeth.  It’s among the best carne adovada in the area and displays its versatility in stuffed sopaipillas, burritos, enchiladas or on a lunch or dinner plate where it’s served with refried beans and Spanish rice as well as two sopaipillas.

Carne Adovada with a Fried Egg and Rice

Carne Adovada with a Fried Egg and Rice

Nearly flat and just slightly greasy and somewhat “elastic,” the sopaipillas are  served with most lunch and dinner plates.  They’re low in salt and are a perfect repository for honey (or honey-flavored syrup as served in the restaurant)  For dessert, another nice option are the natillas served warm or cold (your choice) and sprinkled generously with cinnamon. 

Abuelita’s New Mexican Kitchen is a hometown treasure serving New Mexican comfort foods in the ways they’ve been prepared for generations by abuelitas in their own kitchens.

Abuelita’s New Mexican Kitchen
621 Camino Del Pueblo
Bernalillo, New Mexico
(505) 867-9988
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 25 January 2014
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salsa and Chips, Natillas, Carne Adovada, Chicharones Burrito, Tacopilla, Ranchero Steak, Calabasitas Burrito


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Casa Chimayo – Santa Fe, New Mexico

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Casa Chimayo on West Water Street in Santa Fe

Chimayó is one of the most mythologized, misunderstood—
and, some would say, maligned—places in New Mexico.
On one hand, it holds a place in popular imagination as the Lourdes of America,
a reference to the annual Good Friday pilgrimage to the Santuario de Chimayó,
a nineteenth-century church. New Mexicans and visitors from afar also celebrate
Chimayó’s weaving tradition, the potently flavorful chile grown there,
and the local restaurant, where margaritas compete with the church’s holy dirt as a tourist draw.

~ Postcard From New Mexico: Don Usner’s Chimayo

Named for the Tewa Indian word describing one of four sacred hills overlooking the verdant valley on the foothills of the Sangre De Cristos, Chimayó may be only 26 miles from Santa Fe and 52 miles from Taos, but in some ways seems further removed by time than by distance.  While its aforementioned counterparts have transitioned to artsy and cosmopolitan service and tourism economies, Chimayó has had a harder time moving away from its pastoral-agricultural sustenance roots.  

Where Santa Fe and Taos may be imbued with rustic sophistication and  urbane trappings, Chimayó moves at a slower pace.  At the end of the day, neighbors still meet at the fence for some serious “mitote” time.  Close friends are referred to as “comadre” (female) and “compadre” (male), as familial a Hispanic term for endearment as there is.   Land owners work together to maintain the acequias, the communal-ditch system which irrigates chile fields and apple orchards.  Chimayó is certainly not a village that time has forgotten, but one which beckons for a return to better times.

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Smaller dining room at Casa Chimayo

That’s the Chimayó in which Roberto Cordova fondly remembers being raised as a boy and for which he named his restaurant, Casa Chimayó.  Long before it was a restaurant, the nearly three-quarter century old adobe structure was a family home, the site of Roberto’s birth.  Though he was born in Santa Fe, Roberto spent his formative years in Chimayó where he learned traditions and culture from a very close extended family and the values of hard work from his grandparents.

Roberto traces his familial lineage back to Zacatecas, Mexico, from where his ancestors set off with other Spanish families to found and colonize the last Spanish frontier, the villages of Northern New Mexico prefacing the Sangre De Cristos.  Those settlers founded the villages of Santa Cruz, Quarteles, La Puebla, Chimayo, Rio Chiquito, Cordova, Cundiyo and Truchas, all still viable today.  These pioneering families also developed and perfected the now famous Chimayó chile.  Their descendents continue to plant and harvest this chile, annually surmounting Chimayó’s hot summer days, cool nights and unpredictable water availability to produce a delicious bounty.

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Chile Relleno en Nogada

The edifice housing Casa Chimayó has long served as a restaurant, most recently hosting Los Mayas which shuttered its doors to begin the new year of 2011.  Rather than leasing to another prospective restaurant, the Cordova family decided to share their family’s culinary cultural heritage themselves by opening Casa Chimayó which launchd shortly after Los Mayas closed. 

From the outside, Casa Chimayó can’t help but resemble a long familiar enclave behind adobe walls.  If, however, you were familiar with Los Mayas, you’ll quickly discern the changes within the complex.  The entrance is now to your immediate left as you step into the walled courtyard.  The restaurant, a veritable museum, pays tribute to the community of Chimayó, honoring Roberto’s childhood home with vintage photographs and the incomparable weavings from the village.  The historic Santuario de Chimayó is well represented in art works as is another aspect of the village’s proud culture–the low-rider.

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Quesadilla: Cheese, Calabasitas, Corn and Onions with a side of Salsa

On October 21st, 2013, the Food Network premiered an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives entitled “Aces of Authenticity.”  Casa Chimayó was one of two New Mexico restaurants showcased along with the incomparable Torinos @ Home in Albuquerque.  Host Guy Fieri chronicled the restaurant’s founding after Roberto’s retirement from government when his mamasita advised him to “open up a restaurant, hire some cooks and I’ll teach them how to cook our way.”  Our way is the traditional New Mexican way, the way his ancestors did it.

The menu forewarns that red or green, the chile is hot, apprising that a milder alternative is available in the “ranchero” sauce.  Casa Chimayó proudly serves sun-dried red chile pods and fresh, roasted green chile that is peeled in-house.  Both red and green chiles are grown and harvested by local farmers.  The only item in which cumin is used is the “Mercedes Posole,” described as “prize-winning red chile, hominy and pork stew often served when celebrating life’s blessings.”  You’ll find out quickly that a meal at Casa Chimayó is one of life’s blessings.

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Carne Adovada with an egg over medium, rice and beans

As with its predecessor Los Mayas, Casa Chimayó offers chiles rellenos en nogada, which stellar food writer Lesley Tellez describes as “a living piece of Mexican history.”  The dish was invented by nuns in Puebla, Mexico in 1821.  Similar to how the Margherita pizza showcases the colors of the Italian flag, chiles rellenos en nogada feature the colors of the Mexican flag: a green poblano chile stuffed with sundry ingredients such as dry fruits, a creamy walnut sauce (white) atop of which pomegranate seeds (red) are tossed.  Because the flag of Mexico was first unfurled at about the same time, this dish evokes patriotic fervor among Mexicans.

Among New Mexicans such as my friend Skip Muñoz and I, the dish evokes involuntary salivation.  Made correctly, it’s one of the most spectacularly diverse and delicious dishes you’ll find at any Mexican restaurant.  Casa Chimayó’s rendition, available on the appetizer menu, is one of the very best I’ve had, better even than Los Mayas.  A poblano pepper is engorged with slowly stewed sirloin, apricots, raisins, apple and orange nectar then adorned with cream cheese, cinnamon and walnut sauce and topped with pomegranate seeds and piñon when in season.  There is no one flavor profile.  Instead you’ll enjoy a balance of several flavors playing off one another and providing flavor explosions with every bite.  It’s a dish raved about by the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives host  Guy Fieri who visited Casa Chimayó in September, 2013.

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Pollo en Mole Rojo

There are six quesadillas on the menu, all served with a side of salsa.  One of the more “New Mexican” of the half-dozen is made with cheese, calabasitas, corn and onions, the three latter ingredients a very popular  combination dish in both households and restaurants.  Interestingly the calabasitas are nearly al dente, retaining a delightfully crispy texture.  The accompanying salsa, made from fire-roasted tomatoes, cilantro, onions and jalapeños is fresh and invigorating.

The carne adovada–succulent pork marinated in a rich red Chimayó chile and spices (including a fresh Mexican oregano) then stewed slowly in its natural juices to a tender finish–is absolutely delicious.  Each tender tendril of porcine perfection is meant to be savored slowly  though it’s hard to hold back and not devour this delicious dish.  The Chimayó chile is piquant, but not overly so.  It’s also rich and earthy with complex notes and a silky, velvety texture.  The carne is accompanied by rice and whole pinto beans, the latter perhaps the best restaurant-made beans in Santa Fe, if not New Mexico.  These are beans made the way abuelitas have been preparing them for generations. 

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Left: Sopa; Right: Natillas

“Never the twain shall cross” is an adage which often seems applicable to New Mexican and Mexican restaurants.  It’s not every New Mexican restaurant which can cross over successfully and prepare Mexican food well…and vice versa.  Perhaps because of the family’s Zacatecas roots, the Mexican food is exemplary.  My love for the chiles rellenos en nogada is almost matched by my love for the enchiladas de pollo en mole rojo.  A citrus-marinated chicken breast is hand-shredded then sheathed by blue corn tortillas  covered in a complex mole sauce made with spices, peanuts and Mexican chocolate.  It’s a mole good enough to forgo New Mexican entrees.  That mean’s it’s special!

Desserts are oh, so New Mexican.  Casa Chimayó is one of few New Mexican restaurants which serves sopa, a wonderful dish also known as caplrotada.  By any name, sopa is a New Mexican bread pudding whose sweet notes are tempered by cheese, usually Cheddar.  Served warm, it’s a very rich dessert, so much so that the natillas seem mildly sweet in comparison.  The natillas, a custard dish made with milk and eggs, are slightly thicker than egg nog and sprinkled with cinnamon. 

Casa Chimayó is two blocks away from the Santa Fe Plaza and 32 miles from the pastoral village for which it’s named, but after one visit, it’ll be close to your heart.

Casa Chimayó
409 West Water Street
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 428.0391
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 27 December 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Chile Relleno en Nogada, Quesadilla (Cheese, Calabasitas, Corn, Onions), Carne Adovada, Pollo en Mole Rojo, Sopa, Natillas


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Taco Sal New Mexican Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The venerable Taco Sal, an Albuquerque institution on Menaul since 1961

Rachael Ray, the hyper-bubbly kitchen diva recently divulged that casinos pipe in the fragrance of cumin because it causes gamblers to lose their inhibitions and gamble without guilt.  Cigarette smoke and cumin…that doesn’t sound like an olfactory arousing aroma combination to me, much less one which would lure anyone to a purlieu of poker and slots.  Now, if casinos figured out how to pipe in the intoxicating aroma of chile being roasted, New Mexicans might never leave.

Marcia Nordyke, the Public Relations Director for the Hatch Chile Festival believes the aroma of chile being roasted would make a wonderful air freshener.  My friend Bill Resnik says it would make a great aftershave, albeit one which would leave anyone within range perpetually hungry.  There’s no disputing the incomparable fragrance of of roasting chile is absolutely intoxicating, a veritable aphrodisiac to chile lovers everywhere.  Why hasn’t the state legislature it adopted it as New Mexico’s official state fragrance?

A menu from June 29, 1961, one year after Taco Sal first opened for business

Alas, only in autumn is the Land of Enchantment’s clear, salubrious air perfumed by the wondrous wafting of chile being roasted.  It’s the essence of enchantment for our nostrils–coming to a roadside stand or parking lot near you from late August through mid-October.  For the remaining nine months in which we’re deprived of this rapturous redolence, the only aroma which approximates roasting chile is that of chile simmering over a stove.

That’s the aroma which greeted me during my first visit to Taco Sal’s in nearly a decade.  Taco Sal’s is one of Albuquerque’s elder restaurants, a veritable institution serving Albuquerque since June 29, 1961.  To survive fifty years in a tough market is an incredible feat indeed, warranting Taco Sal’s inclusion on the New Mexico Culinary Treasures Trail, a celebration of independent mom-and-pop restaurants which have stood the test of time to become beloved institutions in their neighborhoods and beyond.

Con Queso

Taco Sal’s is named for Sally “Sal” Gabaldon, who along with her doting husband Felix opened the restaurant in what was then a relatively new shopping center in the city’s east side which was just beginning to sprawl toward the Sandias.  Sal become a beloved institution for her trademark greeting of “Hi, doll” as well as for a menu of traditional New Mexican dishes prepared very well.  Taco Sal’s has changed hands several times since Sal’s halcyon days.  Now in her mid-80s, she still visits the restaurant regularly.

Taco Sal’s is no longer owned by the Gabaldon family, but new owners seem to  have continued Sal’s tradition of hospitality (though, unfortunately not the price structure depicted in the menu above).   Not only does the terrific aroma of simmering green chile greet you as you step through the front door, you might even get a “hi, doll” greeting from one of the friendly wait staff.  Taco Sal’s is a restaurant frequented by regulars, some of whom have been visiting for decades.  The friendliness is just one of the reasons.

Salsa and Chips

Salsa and Chips

9 June 2011: Another reason is the con queso which is served in a bowl constructed of the same corn from which the chips are made which means its edible, too.  Although the con queso looks like the gloppy processed cheese served at sporting arenas, it’s much better both in consistency and especially in flavor.  The con queso packs a discernible punch–maybe not enough to water your eyes, but enough for you to know there’s chile in there.  The chips are relatively low in salt and are formidable enough for large scoops of con queso or salsa. 

24 December 2013: It seems to be an unspoken rule that the most piquant item on the menu at most New Mexican restaurants is salsa.  If the salsa doesn’t much of a bite, it’s likely the New Mexican cuisine will be insipid.  The salsa at Taco Sal’s doesn’t bite back in the least, not even as much as some salsas made in New York City.  It’s got good flavor and freshness, but not much viscosity and piquancy.  The chips are light, crispy and low-in-salt.

Two Chiles Rellenos Plate: Two chile rellenos topped with green chile and a fried egg served with refried beans and Spanish rice

9 June 2011: During my General Douglas McArthur “I have returned” visit to Taco Sal’s, I spent as much time watching what was delivered to other tables as I did perusing the menu.  The entree of choice seemed to be the two chile relleno plate, two chile rellenos topped with green chile and served with your choice of refried beans, Spanish rice or papitas.  After seeing it delivered to two tables in a row, several of us, all in separate tables in close proximity to one another, followed suit.  It was an excellent choice. 

9 June 2011: Two Hatch chiles are stuffed with Cheddar cheese then deep-fried to a crispy consistency and topped with your choice of red or green chile.  Green chile on green chile is a good choice.  Top it with a fried egg for good measure and a nice contrast between piquancy and the richness of a perfectly fried egg over easy.  The chile is about medium on the piquancy scale which is pretty good considering the chile at some restaurants barely registers on the taste buds.  It’s a flavorful chile with an even better fragrance.  The refried beans and Spanish rice are both good.

Two stuffed sopaipillas: one stuffed with carne adovada and one with ground beef

Two stuffed sopaipillas: one stuffed with carne adovada and one with ground beef

24 December 2013: To my point on the lack of piquancy on the salsa, not all batches of chile, both red and green, are created equally piquant–even from the same crop, same vendor and same degree of heat.  It’s a strange phenomena with which all New Mexicans are familiar.  Unless you buy nothing but “hot” chile you’re almost always guaranteed that your “medium” chile will sometimes lean toward “mild.”  That was the case with the two stuffed sopaipilla plate pictured above.  One sopaipilla was stuffed with ground beef and one with carne adovada.  One was topped with green chile and the other with red.  There was plenty of delicious to go around, but not much bite.

Sopaipillas are complimentary with many entrees.  These are sopaipillas which merit a child’s name for them–sofa pillows.  Tear open into these golden, puffy treasures and steam escapes, a perfect invitation for honey to be introduced into the welcoming cavity.  You’ll want to order another one (or four).

No need for dessert when you’ve got sopaipillas with honey

It won’t be another decade before my next visit to Taco Sal’s which has recaptured some of the charm of Sal’s days.  More importantly, a meal at Taco Sal’s is reminiscent of Taco Sal’s when it was one of Albuquerque’s very best New Mexican restaurants.

Taco Sal New Mexican Restaurant
9621 Menaul Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 298-2210
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 24 December 2013
1st VISIT: 9 June 2011
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 17
COST: $$
BEST BET: Con queso, Two Chile Relleno Plate, Sopaipilla, Stuffed Sopaipilla, Salsa and Chips


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