Beto’s Cocina – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Beto’s Cocina on Juan Tabo

It’s a folly of the human condition that we tend to go looking for exciting food in all the shiny new restaurants…only to find it in the venerable restaurants that time has nearly forgotten. The fleeting, fickle nature of our fascination with something new and something different is so strong that some restaurants actually peak in popularity within a few months after opening, particularly after their first glowing reviews. Perhaps indicative of our human need for constant new sources of stimulation and gratification, diners (and restaurant critics) flock to new restaurants like moths to a flame. In our minds, new seems to translate to fresh and exciting. We seem drawn to the spit, polish and promise of new restaurants in our constant quest for new and different.

In time the flash and panache of modernity wears out and restaurants which survive the ravages of time and the fickleness of the dining public come to be referred to as “venerable” or an “institution.”  True, there are some which–much like a lonely grandfather in a nursing home–wait eagerly for visitors that never come, but most have carved out a niche of regulars who visit with regularity.  Those of us who have achieved our own advanced levels of geriatric progression tend to appreciate older restaurants a bit more than youngsters do.  Older restaurants tend to inspire nostalgic reflections about the good old days when, like us, those venerable institutions were younger and more spry.

Dining Room at Beto’s Cocina

By restaurant standards, Beto’s Cocina on Juan Tabo just north of Constitution, is an elder statesman and every bit the venerable institution described above.  Still going strong after more than a quarter-century, Beto’s, named for owner Alberto “Beto” Urquieta, is ensconced in the Sandra Shopping Center, not the most heavily trafficked center of commerce in the Duke City (an understatement).   Parking spots near the restaurant are plentiful, but that’s more indicative of the ghost town feel of the shopping center with its several vacant storefronts.  Beto’s, unfortunately, does not have a prominent storefront presence visible from Juan Tabo, a factor perhaps in its lack of mention among the city’s popular New Mexican restaurants.

Surprisingly my first visit to Beto’s Cocina didn’t transpire in the mid-90s when we returned to Albuquerque for good.  In fact, we lived in the Duke City for more than two decades before my shadow crossed over Beto’s door.  My reason is surprisingly pedestrian–out of sight, out of mind.  We just don’t frequent the area as much as we do other sections of the Duke City.  That seems to be the case for many diners.  Perusal of Yelp’s page for Beto’s yielded only six reviews, the most recent more than a year old.  There were ten reviews for Beto’s on Zomato.  My research revealed the last time Beto’s Cocina was reviewed by one of the city’s periodicals was in 1993 when Joline Gutierrez Krueger wrote the fabulous “Chow Mondo” restaurant review column for the much-missed Tribune.  Back then, Beto’s was a young, fresh face on the Duke City dining scene.

Salsa and Chips

A couple of things will probably catch your eye about Beto’s, one even before you set foot inside the restaurant.  First, the Urquieta family doesn’t shy away from its Christianity.  The front door is flanked on one side by the words “Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner” and on the other side with the name “Christ” and a Biblical passage.  Even the signage references a New Testament passage (Matthew 4:4 – Jesus answered, “It is written: ‘Man shall not live on bread alone, but on every word that comes from the mouth of God.).  There are more passages on the restaurant’s walls along with family photographs, decorative Mexican serapes and colorful sombreros.  The second thing diners (especially Dallas Cowboys fans) will notice is the family’s (misbegotten) loyalty to the Pittsburgh Steelers.  One entire wall is dedicated to the hated “Black and Gold” and you’ll find other Steelers memorabilia throughout the restaurant (fortunately not to close to the table in which I was seated).  

Beto’s menu includes all the New Mexican food favorites including enchiladas done in more ways than we’ve seen in just about any restaurant in town.  A number of combination plates offer excellent variety, surprisingly high quality and a good introduction to the cook’s culinary skills.  Neither the green or red chile are made with cumin.  Make sure you have salsa and chips on your table as you peruse the menu.  Though not complimentary, they’re well worth the pittance you’ll pay.  As at most restaurants which serve salsa, it’s the most piquant item you’ll enjoy during your experience.  This salsa has a tongue-tingling bite, the kind that generates the endorphin rush on which New Mexicans get high.  The chips are crisp and have a pleasant corn flavor.

Large Combination Plate

The large combination plate, roughly the size of a truck tire, includes more individual items than any combination plate in recent memory.  A hard-shelled taco brimming with seasoned ground beef and topped with shredded cheese, lettuce and tomato may have you cursing the fact that you devoured all the salsa and didn’t leave any for the taco.    On the other hand, you may need the taco to quell the heat generated by that incendiary salsa.  Shredded beef is also the filling for the burrito while the enchilada is filled with molten Cheddar.  The pork engorged tamale proved to be my favorite thanks to an optimum balance of corn masa and red chile marinated pork.  This combination plate is served with unremarkable Spanish rice and beans the way your abuelita may have prepared them.  Both the red and green chile are packing heat though they pale in comparison to that fiery salsa.

In the not too distant future, we’ll be able to tell our children and grandchildren about restaurants which once severed complimentary sopaipillas with every plate and our story will be received with the same credibility as if we’d told them we walked to school in a foot of snow.  Beto’s is one of those rare restaurants which still offers complimentary sopaipillas with some plates.  Served with a plastic squeeze bottle of honey-flavored syrup, the sopaipillas aren’t quite as puffy as others around town, but they’re also not greasy.  Open them up and a puff of steam escapes, as welcoming a siren’s call as there is in a New Mexican restaurant.  The sopaipillas offer engorged cavities for the honey, a perfect way to finish a good meal.

Sopaipillas

Beto’s Cocina is one of those venerable institutions that time has seemingly forgotten until you step through its doors to find a number of regulars enjoying the favorite dishes which have given them comfort and sustenance for years.  If you’re not one of those regulars, it may be time for you to rediscover Beto’s Cocina.

Beto’s Cocina
1605 Juan Tabo Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 296-1734
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 6 May 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Salsa and Chips, Combination Plate, Sopaipillas

Beto's Cocina Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Old Martina’s Hall – Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico

Old Martina’s Hall in Ranchos de Taos

Between the years 2000 and 2014, The Taos News had the prestigious distinction of being named the best weekly newspaper in the United States by the National Newspaper Association. Although the most famous words in American journalism–“all the news that’s fit to print”–don’t grace its masthead, The Taos News has fairly and objectively reported news of events and personalities that seemingly can exist only in Taos county. Readers like me marveled at the periodical’s ability to refrain from punchline-pocked cynicism when, for a couple of years, three topics perhaps more appropriate for Jerry Springer or The National Inquirer ostensibly dominated the front page.

One topic was the dysfunctional shenanigans of the Questa school board, the behavior of whom warranted a state-mandated suspension. Another was the hubris and arrogance of the five-member Taos County Commission who, despite a spate of unpopular decisions, thought enough of themselves that they named three new buildings in their own honor (so Bill Richardsonesque). The third topic which graced The Taos News repeatedly was that Commission’s refusal to issue a beer and wine license for Old Martina’s Hall in Ranchos de Taos, an absurd, self-serving drama that dragged on ad-nauseum. Obviously the second and third most news-worthy topics were interrelated, not an anomaly in a county historically replete with nepotism.

Bar at Old Martina’s

If that diatribe seems a bit rancorous toward Taos County, it’s not intended to be. Taos County has always been a quirky and special place, albeit long in patience and tolerance with duplicitous political wrangling. In 1981, Merilee Danneman wrote a book entitled Taos by the Tail, a collection of columns she wrote for The Taos News from 1974 through 1979. In her “nostalgic look back at a magical place in a time long ago,” Danneman attributes “everything I need to know about politics” to the Taos County Commission. It’s neither comforting nor funny to see that while the players have changed, political dynamics in Taos County remain the same. It’s the way it is and has always been in Taos County.

By denying a beer and wine license on the grounds of Old Martina’s Hall proximity to the San Francisco de Asis Church, perhaps the County Commission thought themselves to be taking a higher moral ground than previous Commissions. Factors such as precedence and history didn’t seem to matter to these paragons of virtue. You certainly didn’t see any “excuse me while I save the world” righteous indignation on the part of previous Taos County Commissioners who, for generations, allowed the edifice to serve as a rowdy dance hall (and venue for Dennis Hopper’s wild parties).

Dining Room at Old Martina’s

Old Martina’s Hall dates back to 1790, predating the San Francisco de Asis Church by a quarter century.  Sitting directly across the street from the Church made famous by the paintings of Georgia O’Keefe and the photographs of Ansel Adams, the stately adobe structure had fallen into disrepair and appeared ready to return to the dirt from which it was built.  That’s when an unlikely benefactor stepped in.  German cosmetic manufacturer and visionary entrepreneur Martina Gebhardt had visions of restoring the historic dance hall to its halcyon days as a community treasure, a milieu which had long served as the site of weddings and community gatherings. 

Martina spent more than two-million dollars renovating the long-derelict Old Martinez Hall, transforming the crumbling Pueblo Revival building into an enchanting edifice with massive adobe walls and stout viga-and-latilla ceilings.  Though her efforts weren’t universally appreciated, she persevered and after years of contentiousness (and the antics of the Taos County Commissioners), Old Martina’s Hall reopened in 2012.  Renaming the venerable structure from Old Martinez Hall to Old Martina’s Hall was a small concession for restoring an important historical center of community life.

Healthful Minded Fruit Plate

The new Old Martina’s Hall is a magnificent structure inside and out, a perfect complement to the Spanish Colonial church across the street.  Imposing and stately from the outside, it’s a breath-taking experience at every turn when you step inside.  The front room is a combination bar and dining room with light and dark wooden accents throughout.  Bright lights stream into the main dining room where you’ll want a seat by the window facing the Church.  The capacious dance hall is a splendid venue for dinner and a show or dinner and dancing.  New Mexican art, including contemporary and venerable weavings, festoons the walls.

Breakfast, lunch and dinner menus offer a tempting variety of diverse and delicious delicious served in a unique casual-fine dining atmosphere.  Old Martina’s Web site describes the fare as a “marriage of refined European simplicity with traditional New Mexican dishes.”  The dinner menu showcases a number of fine-dining quality seafood (picture pan seared sea scallops with pomegranate beurre blanc, quinoa pilaf and shaved fennel) and chops (carnivores can’t resist rustic grilled Berkshire pork porterhouse with apple pinon green chile chutney mashed sweet potatoes and anise creamed spinach).

Duck Enchiladas with Posole

Lunch isn’t quite as elaborate (or expensive) and the menu is somewhat abbreviated, but you’re bound to find something exciting…and the accommodating wait staff may even allow you to order something from the breakfast menu.  For the calorically conscious diner, the Healthful Minded Fruit Plate (seasonal fruit served with Greek yogurt, housemade granola and honey comb) is a good choice.  Unlike so many yogurt-granola dishes, this one isn’t rot-your-teeth-sweet.  That’s courtesy of the Greek yogurt which is somewhat thicker and more sour than other yogurt.  Because it’s so sour, the contrast with the sweetness of fruit tends to be more pronounced.  A bit more granola would make this dish even more enjoyable.

Surely New Mexican colonials were no strangers to duck, but it seems that only relatively recently has duck  been widely incorporated in New Mexican dishes.  Though not as traditional on New Mexican entrees as are other proteins, duck certainly lends its unique and delicious flavor profile to any dish in which it’s used.  The duck enchiladas at Old Martina’s are superb!  Rolled blue corn tortillas are engorged with a generous amount of moist, flavorful duck and slathered in your choice of red or green chile (ask for both) unadulterated by cumin.  Both the red and green chile have a pleasant, but not incendiary, piquancy.  Melted white and yellow Cheddar lends a salty richness to the dish while the posole and whole beans are wonderful accompaniment.  A small dollop of guacamole leaves you wanting more.  Frankly, a bit more of everything served on this plate would have been more than welcome.

Pumpkin-Pecan Tart

Desserts are far from standard fare as you’ll see when your server ferries them over to your table.  Next to deciding which Taos County site you’ll visit next, determining which one to order may be the hardest decision of your day.  I couldn’t even default to my usual choice–ordering something I’ve never previously had–because several dessert items fit that criteria.  Ultimately it took a coin flip to settle on the pumpkin-pecan tart, a  miniature pie-shaped pastry resembling pecan pie.  Pecans and pumpkin go surprisingly well together, a melding of diverse flavor profiles that serve as flavor and textural foils for each other. 

If walls could talk, the massive walls at Old Martina’s Hall would probably sing out with alacrity as they once again play witness to family functions and celebrations Taos County-style.

Old Martina’s Hall
4140 Highway 68
Ranchos de Taos, New Mexico
(575) 758-3003
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 20 April 2016
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Duck Enchiladas, Pumpkin-Pecan Tort, Healthful Minded Fruit Plate

Old Martina's Hall Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Cocina Azul – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Cocina Azul on Montgomery

Ever the lexicologist, my first inclination at seeing the mantra “panza llena, corazon contento” emblazoned on any restaurant’s menu is to ponder the veracity of the audacious claim that filling the belly can leave diners contented.  The venerable New Mexican dicho which translates from Spanish to “full belly, happy heart” was, after all, conceived at a time when food wasn’t nearly as plentiful as it is today.  Enchanting as it may be, New Mexico is a land which can be harsh and unforgiving as my forefathers found out when, for centuries, they eked out a meager subsistence from an austere terrain amidst the ravages of climatic extremes.

As the popularity of buffets serving humongous helpings of pitiful pabulum will attest, any restaurant can accomplish the “full belly” feat, but it takes something special to truly make the heart happy.   February, 2010 saw the launch of a New Mexican food restaurant which has been accompanying that feat since its opening.  Fittingly Cocina Azul, the “blue kitchen” not only uses the slogan “panza llena, corazon contento” on its menu, its exterior signage invites diners to “get your chile on.”

Chips and Salsa

The original Cocina Azul is located in the venerable building that for generations housed the aptly named Sunshine Market, a cornerstone of the neighborhood since it launched in 1925 until its closure  some three quarters of a century later.   From 2007-2009, the converted market on the southeast corner of Mountain Road and 12th Street was home to the Sunshine Cafe, a very highly regarded restaurant which retained some vestiges of the market–-a wooden door to the market’s meat locker, exposed roof trusses and other wood accents taken from the market.  Those vestiges are still visible with the Cocina Azul.

It didn’t take Cocina Azul long to earn significant popular and critical acclaim.  Guests quickly discerned the differentiators which single out the truly special restaurants from their competitors.  Perhaps first and foremost is the service which might be best described as familial.  Quite literally, Frank and Evelyn Barela, the affable owners and their staff, treat their guests as they would treat family members, exuding warmth and hospitality.  Secondly, the food is prepared from time-tested and traditional family recipes bolstered by contemporary nuances that give it upscale qualities.  Those recipes don’t call for dumbed-down chile.  This is chile natives like me respect as much for its flavor as for its piquancy.

Posole

Step into the bright and airy cafe and your eyes might train on a menu board above the counter prefacing the kitchen.  The menu board offers “self-service catering,” an interesting concept in that customers can saunter up to trays of New Mexican food favorites and load up on quart or gallon sized portions of carne adovada, red or green chile, beans, rice and chile con queso.  You can also purchase enchilada casseroles in small (5-7 people), medium (18-20 people) and large (35 people or more) sizes; and tamales in quantities of half-dozen or a dozen.

With the success of the Mountain Road location, it became inevitable that the Barela family would expand their restaurant enterprise.  Their first attempt at expansion was on Albuquerque’s burgeoning west side in a shopping center where restaurants turn over at a rapid pace.  Cocina Azul west was short lived at the location.  Downtown proved no more welcoming to Cocina Azul when its fast-casual concept called Azul Burrito Co. didn’t last very long, a casualty of traffic choking problems caused by construction.  Based on a heavy lunch crowd during our inaugural visit on 8 April 2016, the family’s most recent expansion venture, at the Granada Square restaurant space on Montgomery, appears poised to succeed where its predecessors did not.

Ribeye Steak Enchilada Plate with Whole Beans and Fideos

Faithful readers know my enmity for  misguided New Mexican restaurants which commit the mortal sin of adding cumin to chile.  In Frank Barela, I found a kindred spirit.  The amicable co-owner of Cocina Azul assured me you won’t find cumin anywhere near his kitchen, comparing cumin’s odoriferous qualities to smelly socks (my friend Bill Resnik would go a bit further and say “wet dog wearing smelly socks.”).  Barela appreciates the purity of chile, a fruit so perfect it needs no amelioration.  The chile at Cocina Azul is made from pureed whole pods, strained to a silky smoothness.

That purity is discernible in the wondrous salsa, a plastic molcajete brimming with a piquant blend of chile rojo, tomatoes, onions, garlic, oregano and cilantro.  It’s an eye-opening, mouth-watering salsa with a nice bite.  The salsa is served with  a generous heaping of crispy white and blue corn tortilla chips sturdy enough to hold Gil-sized portions of salsa.  These may be the very best restaurant chips of any New Mexican restaurant in Albuquerque.  They’re lightly salted and heavy on corn flavor.  A green salsa, a surprising rarity in New Mexican restaurants, is also available.   It’s at least as good as the red salsa and perhaps slightly more piquant.

Carne Adovada Relleno Plate

10 April 2016: During our inaugural visit to Cocina Azul’s Montgomery location, we experienced a number of issues which detracted from our enjoyment of what we expected would be a very good meal.  First, we ordered the “bottomless” salsa, expecting to have it replenished faithfully at least twice.  Alas, no sooner had the salsa arrived at our table than our server ferried over our bowl of posole and within only a few enjoyable bites of the posole, our entrees arrived.  We would much have preferred a well-paced meal with a more lengthy interval between “courses.”  The kitchen’s heavy hand with salt was the restaurant’s second transgression.  A carne adovada relleno plate (doesn’t that sound fabulous) was so salty we had to send it back.  Other items were only slightly less salty.  Future visits will determine if these issues were, as we suspect, anomalous.

10 April 2016:  During our visits to the Mountain Road location, we concluded Cocina Azul’s posole just might be the best in the city.  For one thing, it looked and tasted like posole and not  Southern hominy (yes, there is a difference).  The  posole  (nixtamilized corn kernels slaked in lime water sans husk) was of a perfect consistency, swimming in a large bowl of red chile and tender chunks of pork.   This was New Mexican comfort food at its finest, one of those dishes that truly can make your heart happy.  At the Montgomery location we didn’t feel the same level of love and comfort.  The culprit (wouldn’t you know it) was posole in need of desalinization.

Whole Beans and Fideos

10 April 2016: One of the most wonderful things about enchiladas is their versatility.  You don’t always have to have yellow corn tortillas when blue corn tortillas are available.  You don’t have to stuff them with ground or shredded beef.; you can engorge them with virtually any protein or vegetable (calabasitas are a great option) you desire.  Similarly, you’re free to choose the cheese and the chile (red, green or both) you want.  A fried egg or two or three–that’s no problem.  Cocina Azul offers several options to make your enchiladas more enchanting.  

The ribeye steak enchiladas (three flat corn tortillas, marinated select ribeye steak, filled with a Cheddar and Monterey Jack blend, melted and smothered with your choice of Frank Sr.’s red or green chile) is an excellent option.  The ribeye is cut into small pieces about the size into which your mom may have cut your steak.  It’s a high quality ribeye with no gristle or fat and it may leave you wondering why more restaurants don’t offer ribeye for your enchiladas.

Two Ala Carte Beef Tacos

10 April 2016:  Unlike at so many other New Mexican restaurants, Cocina Azul doesn’t limit the sides that come with your entrees to the de rigueur rice and beans.  Items on the “Platos de Nuevo Mexico” section of the menu include your choice of two sides including whole beans, fideos, calabasitas, rice and more.  The whole beans are an exemplar of how New Mexico’s “other” official state vegetable should be prepared.  For a unique treat, ask for the fideos, an unassuming short, thin and slightly curved pasta served in a tomato sauce.  Fideos have been served in Spain since the 13th century. 

10 April 2016:  After the crushing disappointment of sending back the carne adovada relleno plate, my Kim opted for two ala carte tacos constructed on soft flour tortillas and stuffed with seasoned ground beef, chopped tomatoes, fresh lettuce and a shredded Cheddar cheese blend.  These tacos are a perfect repository for the restaurant’s wonderful salsa.  The soft tortillas are soft and pliable with just enough thickness to hold in all the ingredients.  If you’re still of the mind that tacos should be prepared in hard shells, these will make a convert out of you.

Sopaipillas

The sopaipillas with real clover honey will have that “corazon contento” effect on you, too.  Not quite the size of a deflated football, they’re the perfect way to end a great meal.  Best of all, these golden treats are served with real honey, not that inferior honey-flavored syrup some restaurants use.

Cocina Azul is one of those rare restaurants which pays attention to the small details, the difference-makers understood by all businesses (such as its predecessor on the premises, the Sunshine Market) striving for longevity.  Our first two experiences at this sterling restaurant convinced me that the issues we experienced on our third visit were an anomaly.  We’ll certainly be back.  Cocina Azul is widely regarded one of Albuquerque’s best New Mexican restaurants and should continue being so provided it continues to create panzas llenas and corazones contentos.

Cocina Azul
1134 Mountain Road, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 503-8009
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 10 April 2016
1st VISIT:  25 November 2010
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Posole, Creamy Green Chile Chicken Soup, Steak Tacos, Salsa and Chips, Guacamole, Chile Verde Con Queso, Frank Sr. Super Combo Plate, Fideos, Whole Beans, Ribeye Steak Enchilada Plate

Cocina Azul on Urbanspoon

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