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Taco Shel – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Despite the signage, Taco Shel is all about New Mexican food

Having left New Mexico in the mid 1980s, the pangs of pining for New Mexico’s incomparable, capsaicin-rich cuisine have left Brian Riordan sleepless in Seattle. I can certainly commiserate, having spent much of 18 years away from the “Land of Enchilement,” (an appropriate sobriquet courtesy of the erstwhile Albuquerque Journal restaurant critic Andrea Lin. After discovering this Web site, Brian e-Mailed me  to share his musings on and memories of the Duke City dining scene, many of which we shared in common.

We both recall fondly when Taco Sal served some of the best New Mexican cuisine in the city.  For Brian, it was the #11, beef burrito plate, that captured his heart to the tune of nearly a visit per week.  For me, the stuffed sopaipillas were the prototype New Mexican entree.  With more than half a century under the same roof, Taco Sal has pleased a lot of palates during its run.

Taco Shel’s dining room

That was before the restaurant (but not the recipes) was sold and went from a restaurant whose name you’d swear was short for “salivating” (because that’s the effect it had on most diners) to a restaurant that has changed hands several times and lost the consistency which made it a favorite for so many.  Fortunately Brian responds to his hunger with occasional visits to New Mexico and uncovered the next best thing to the Taco Sal’s of old–Taco Shel.

Taco Shel (the second “l” was dropped as a mnemonic) has been around for more than two decades, tucked into a nondescript Northeast Heights shopping center.  Taco Shel is owned by Gary Maestas and his vivacious mother Theresa whose sister owned Taco Sal until the early 1980s.  Like her sister, Theresa is as genuinely warm and friendly as can be.  Her wait staff is equally effusive, greeting all patrons like old friends.  You just might make friends with other patrons thanks to the close proximity of seating at the diminutive dining area.

Salsa and Chips

The menu is posted on the east wall’s and includes all the old Taco Sal’s favorites including the aforementioned stuffed sopaipillas which are as good as my mind’s eye remembered them. Befitting the Lilliputian space, the menu is rather small.  You won’t find carne adovada and you won’t find any nouveau or fusion New Mexican entrees, but you will find the standards: burritos, tacos, enchiladas, stuffed sopaipillas and combination plates brimming with deliciousness.  

Salsa is still complimentary at Taco Shel.  It’s delivered to your table shortly after you’re seated.  You’ll swear some of the chips are larger than the bowl in which the salsa is served.  The chips are indeed large triangles of corn imbued goodness.  They’re also low in salt, a high positive for many of us.  The salsa is a bit watery and may run off your chips and onto your clothes so caution should be exercised.  It’s a good salsa with a pleasant piquancy.

The #11, Beef Burrito Plate

The #11, Beef Burrito Plate

Seasoned ground beef is stuffed generously into the pockets of perfectly accommodating sopaipillas which are then slathered with a rich red chile and topped with a generous garnish of lettuce and tomatoes. What the chile lacks in piquancy, it more than makes up for with flavor.  Accompanied by pinto beans, Taco Shel’s stuffed sopaipilla platter lives up to its name; it will indeed leave you stuffed.   Few stuffed sopaipilla plates in the Duke City can compare to this one.

Brian’s beloved number eleven plate (pictured above) is as wonderful as he remembers.  It’s also humongous–two beef burritos smothered in red and green chile (Christmas style) and served with some of the best refried beans in town.  The beef is seasoned for optimum flavor and is fairly low in salt (trusting diners to salt their food to taste–what a novel concept).

#4 Combination Plate: Enchilada, Taco, Tamale

Unlike at some New Mexican restaurants where the plate is hot, but not the food on the plate, all dishes at Taco Shel are out of the oven hot–definitely prepared to order.  Several years ago, my colleagues and I attended a seminar in a nearby hotel conference room where the air conditioning would have given a polar bear the chills.  Taco Shel warmed us up with its hot food and delicious chile. 

Combination plates are a popular draw at Taco Shel.  Arguably there are none better than the #4, a pulchritudinous plate featuring an enchilada, a tamale and a taco with beans and Spanish rice.  Both my Kim and I believe hard shells belong on turtles, not on tacos, but we genuinely enjoy the hard-shelled tacos at Taco Shel which are engorged with ground beef, lettuce and tomatoes with a ramekin of salsa on the side.  Very few restaurants in New Mexico prepare anything more than a passable Spanish rice.  Taco Shel’s is among the very best.

The #6, Tamale Plate

The #6, Tamale Plate

Thankfully tamales aren’t solely a Christmas treat (why would anyone limit their tamale consumption  to the holiday season anyway)?  At Taco Shel, they’re a ubiquitous offering.  The only shortcoming with the #6 Tamale Plate is that you don’t have the experience of peeling off the corn husk yourself.  On the other hand, chile is slathered on so generously that you wouldn’t want to have it all over your hands.  The tamales are stuffed generously with porcine deliciousness.

Save room for the restaurant’s golden sopaipillas, puffy clouds of goodness a child might refer to as “sofa pillows.”  You’ll work out your wrist on your table’s squeeze bottle, eking out dripping honey (and it’s real honey, not the honey-flavored syrup) onto each puffy treat. 


While Taco Shel may elicit memories of the past, it doesn’t dredge out your wallet.  Prices aren’t much higher than they were 20 plus years ago when Brian and I were regulars at “the old” Taco Sal’s.  Seriously, if you’re tired of paying steak prices for dog food quality New Mexican food, you’ll appreciate the low cost, high deliciousness experience of a meal at Taco Shel.

Taco Shel
7001 San Antonio Drive, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 828-0260
LATEST VISIT: 25 September 2015
COST: $$
BEST BET: Stuffed Sopaipillas; Sopaipillas With Honey; Salsa; Beef Burritos; Tamale Plate, Combination Plate #4

Taco Shel Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Las Ristras Restaurant – Corrales, New Mexico

Las Ristras Restaurant in Corrales

Based on interviews conducted with Hollywood luminaries who’ve starred in movies or television shows shot in New Mexico, you might think our state either doesn’t have a symbol of hospitality or that symbol is something as poorly representative of the Land of Enchantment as crack (Josh Brolin), tire stores (Jonathan Banks), shirtless drivers (Seth McFarlane), Walmart (Jessica Alba) or loudness (Tommy Lee Jones).   With all the tax breaks and enticements afforded film production companies, shouldn’t its most visible beneficiaries at least have something nice to say about New Mexico?

While New Mexico doesn’t have an official (as in legislatively decreed) symbol of hospitality, most of us recognize a ristra hanging on a doorway as an invitation to visitors, ergo a symbol of hospitality.  It’s as much a symbol of hospitality as the pineapple is in Hawaii and the fleur de lis is in Louisiana.  Moreover, the ristra has come to represent the state of New Mexico, maybe not quite as much as the Zia sun, but to a large extent.

The capacious Las Ristras Restaurant dining room

In Spanish, “ristra” actually means string.  “Chile ristra” then translates into “a string of chiles.”   While the chile ristra has utilitarian roots (chiles being strung together by their stems and hung on walls to dry in the sun), it’s possible decorative ristras fashioned from ceramic, fabric, plastic, and plaster mold are almost as common as actual chile ristras.  Traditionalists appreciate the decorative qualities of the chile ristra, but ultimately will use them as they’ve been used for generations–for cooking and eating.

Because of the esteem with which the chile ristra is held throughout New Mexico, the expectations for a restaurant calling itself Las Ristras are high.  That name brings with it the promise of hospitality and good food showcasing chile.   Las Ristras opened its doors in August, 2015 at the site which scant weeks earlier was home to The Spot.  The restaurant is the brainchild of Corrales resident Ginger Hunter, a fourth generation Corralenia who in 2015 was awarded a Civic Recognition Award in recognition of “acts of compassion and kindness.”  Doesn’t that just bode of hospitality?

Green Chile Meatloaf

Las Ristras is a rather capacious restaurant with good spacing between tables.  With upscale touches, it bears little resemblance to other New Mexican restaurants, but its soundtrack is true Northern New Mexico.  That means the Purple Haze (Felix and Milford Salazar), Sparx and other Norteño favorites.  My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate gives it the “McGoldrick stamp of approval: “What I like about Las Ristras is that it is not a clone of the many dozens of cookie-cutter NM restaurants. The food is homemade and I feel like I’m eating (and conversing) in Ginger’s kitchen. This is simple food lovingly prepared.” 

As always, Larry’s assessment is spot-on.  From the ambiance on down to the menu and service, this is not your stereotypical New Mexican restaurant (if there is such a thing).  The menu, for example, offers such heretofore unseen appetizers as cheese sticks with red chile marinara and an Indian enchilada.  Entrees include many New Mexican standards such as tamales, chiles rellenos, carne adovada and tacos, but you’ll also find “from the grill selections” such as a 14-ounce ribeye with green chile cream sauce, red chile ribs and green chile meatloaf.  Entrees in which ground beef is used are seasoned with cumin.

Chiles Rellenos with Papitas

The green chile meatloaf is deeply infused with plenty of pleasantly piquant green chile.  It’s also topped generously with a green chile sauce that runs over the sides.  Alas, it’s served on a sizzling cast iron plate (the type often used for fajitas) which has a desiccating effect on what might otherwise have been a moist and juicy meatloaf.  Grilled entrees are served with your choice of two sides: mashed potatoes, daily vegetable or wild rice.  In the spirit of hospitality, your server will bring you papitas instead of mashed potatoes if you so desire. Desire it! These papitas are killer. 

If more traditional New Mexican entrees are more your speed, both Larry and my Kim will vouch for the chiles rellenos.  Perhaps because of the lateness of the chile season, one of the two rellenos on the plate was a roasted red chile which has a wholly different flavor profile than roasted green.  Roasted red chile tends to be a bit sweeter with a more earthy depth of flavor.  The cheese with which the rellenos are stuffed seems to retain molten qualities longer than the cheese used on other rellenos (where the cheese become stringy).  in any case, these are very good rellenos with a crispy, flavorful crust sheathing the chiles.

Sopaipilla Delight with Mint Chocolate Chip Ice Cream

You won’t find your abuelita’s desserts on the menu, but you will find avant-garde versions of desserts you thought you knew.  Instead of the de rigueur New Mexico dessert offering of sopaipillas with honey, Las Ristras offers a “Sopaipilla Delight,” a flattened sopaipilla drizzled with honey and topped with your favorite flavor of ice cream (provided it’s vanilla, chocolate, strawberry, cookies and cream or mint-chocolate chip) and chocolate sauce.  There’s a lot going on with this dessert and it’s all good. 

More traditional is a bowl of ice cream (your favorite flavor) flanked by four biscochitos.  It’s a surprisingly good combination best eaten as a combination instead of serially.  The biscochitos are redolent with cinnamon and anise, as hospitable a pairing as you’ll find on any cookie.  They’re crisp. flaky and light with the memorable qualities for which the biscochito was named New Mexico’s official state cookie.

Biscochitos with vanilla ice cream

Perhaps if the over-indulged ingenues who make great sport of besmirching the Land of Enchantment visited Las Ristras in Corrales and experienced true New Mexico hospitality, they’d think twice about bad-mouthing our state.  You can’t bad-mouth something when your mouth is so full of good things.

Los Ristras Restaurant
4940 Corrales Road, N.E., Suite 400
Corrales, New Mexico
(505) 433-4192
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 19 September 2015
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Meatloaf, Chiles Rellenos, Sopaipilla Delight, Biscochitos with Ice Cream

Las Ristras Restaurant Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Canvas Artistry – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Canvas Artistry for edible masterpieces

“Edible art” isn’t just some trite phrase pedantic food critics use when food has aesthetic values that delight our senses. Mankind has been been intrigued by the concept of food as art since the dawning of rational thinking. Prehistoric cave paintings such as those in Les Trois Frères in Ariège, in southern France, depict families gathering around the fire to share the foods they had prepared, an event made possible by the discovery of fire.  Fire, it goes without saying, was also the catalyst behind  men first wearing aprons emblazoned with “kiss the cook.”

Moving past prehistoric taggers scrawling graffiti on cave walls, edible art became more urban when Egyptians painted food on the walls of the great pyramids (ostensibly to nourish the dearly departed who had transitioned to the afterlife). During the halcyon days of the Greek and Roman empires, the depiction of food took on a more realistic tone when glass bowls of fruit were painted to denote the delicacies enjoyed by the one-percenters of the day (and some of those paintings still hang on the walls of many a Midwestern grandmother’s home).

Canvas Artistry dining room

The reverence with which mankind esteems food in art has expanded almost as quickly as our waistlines. Today, depictions of food festoon the walls of restaurants, hotels and homes (not to mention fraternity houses) everywhere. We’re also bombarded with images of food on the sacred altars of our living rooms, the hypnotically mesmerizing 70-inch flat screen televisions which render the Big Mac big once more. It’s apparent we find food not only nourishing, but strangely comforting and soothing. If we can’t have it plated in front of us, we’re mollified by paintings, photographs and videos of food, hence the term “food porn.”

In more civilized cultures, edible art has come to mean actual food (what a concept) plated beautifully…and looking good enough to eat. It’s a concept lost on Andy Rooney, the late curmudgeonly commentator on television’s 60 Minutes. Rooney didn’t like food that’s “too carefully arranged; it makes me think that the chef is spending too much time arranging and not enough time cooking. If I wanted a picture I’d buy a painting.” Japanese diners, for example, not only enjoy, they expect eye-pleasing, artful plating in which everything is where it should be for optimum harmony, balance and appearance, a sort of plate syzygy. The balance of color, texture and appearance makes diners give pause to reflect on how great everything looks before their taste buds confirm what their eyes already know.

Carne Asada Tacos

Upon learning that a restaurant by the name of “Canvas Artistry” had opened in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill District, my first inclination was “just what we need, another pretentious and expensive restaurant with artistically plated highfalutin cuisine.” That notion was quickly dismissed upon discovering that Canvas Artistry’s chef was none other than Saul Paniagua, a creative culinary genius who can cook high-end stuff with the best of them, but prefers making his delicious creations affordable to the masses.

Chef Saul Paniagua, a name many of you will recognize from his stints at 4 Aces Grill and The Standard Diner among others, is a South Valley native who’s twice left the Land of Enchantment to hone his formidable skills. The first time away from home, he managed the galley (that’s kitchen for you landlubbers) for Norwegian Cruise Lines where his ports-of-call included Honolulu, Hawaii. His second out-of-state foray took him to Joplin, Missouri where he helmed the kitchen at a casino operation and learned that in Missouri, local tastes leaned toward basic meat and potatoes. Though he gained significant experience, his heart lies in the Duke City and with the chile-infused home-cooking with which he grew up.

Sriracha Chicharron Tacos

Canvas Artistry, it turns out, is the realization of a vision shared by Chef Paniagua and his business partner Jesus Gomez. With a September, 2015 launch, the passionate pair began showcasing international street food (think New Mexico meets Asia) in an attractive, comfortable milieu where diners are surrounded by the artwork of local artists. Thematically it works: artistic food and artistic mixology in an artistic, but homey and welcoming ambiance. Fittingly the menu is printed on canvas stretched over a wooden frame.

Located next door to B2B Bistronomy in the remaining half of the space where Vivace was a long-time fixture, Canvas Artistry is open for both lunch and dinner (though you’re well advised to call in advance for a daily schedule). The menu, which will change periodically, offers a variety of tacos with an artistic bent as well as such heretofore unseen in Albuquerque offerings as yogurt chicken banh mi, tempura fried Spam musubi and surf-and-turf corn dogs. At face value, it’s a menu adventurous diners will appreciate most though every diner will find something…make that several things to love.

Tempura Fried Spam Musubi

There could be only one logical choice to join me on my initial excursion to Canvas Artistry, my good friend and trusted insurance agent Ryan Scott. Several years ago, Ryan introduced the world to Chef Paniagua’s talents in a compelling interview for his ground-breaking YouTube TV program “Break The Chain.” Not only is Ryan a huge fan of Chef Paniagua’s talents, he’s the only person I know (save for maybe Andrew Zimmern) who can match me for adventurous eating.

So, what do you get when you put a Broncos (Ryan), Raiders (Chef Paniagua) and Cowboys (me) fan in the same restaurant?  A darn good time, for one thing.  Great food for another.  As is a common practice for both me and Ryan, we asked our server to “just have Chef Paniagua” send out whatever he’d like.”  How’s that for adventurous eating?   How’s that for trusting that whatever the Chef sends out will be great and that we’re going to enjoy it?

Chipotle Marinated Shrimp Tacos

11 September 2015: The first item out of the kitchen was an order of three carne asada tacos?  What’s adventurous about carne asada tacos, you ask?  For one thing, the carne is porcini crusted flank steak.  Chef Paniagua employs molecular gastronomy techniques to grind porcini mushrooms into “dust” which he uses to create a very thin crust for the tender, moist, delicious flank steak.  The porcini dust imparts an earthy flavor which melds deliciously with a sweet onion jam, cilantro and the apply-it-yourself smoked salsa verde.  The neon-hued salsa is addictive and it packs a piquant punch New Mexicans will appreciate.

11 September 2015: Our second Chef’s surprise was three Sriracha Chicharron Tacos.  Chef Paniagua renders the fat from pork belly into golden, crispy crackling bits as texturally delightful as they are delicious.  He then introduces just enough incendiary Sriracha sauce to impregnate the chicharrones with a light piquancy.   An even bigger surprise are the tempura fried nopales which are light, crispy and thoroughly delicious.  These tacos are also served with a smoked salsa verde which is wholly unnecessary.  New Mexicans who revere chicharrones as much as other people love popcorn will applaud these tacos.

Crispy Pork Belly Banh Mi

11 September 2015: Several menu items attest to Chef Paniagua’s tenure on the high seas.  Among them are an ahi tuna poke and tempura-fried spam musubi.  My previous experiences with “Spam sushi” haven’t been especially favorable courtesy of a pseudo-sushi in dire need of desalinization.  With one bite, both Ryan and I pronounced these Spam “maki rolls” the best Spam sushi we’ve had.  Neither the vinegared rice, Spam, tempura or honey-soy reduction were salty as you might think they’d be.  We also preferred the light tempura to the nori seaweed usually found on musubi.  There’s a reason more and more chefs are incorporating Spam into their menus and it’s exemplified in this surprisingly good entree.

12 September 2015: Attentive readers know how rare it is for me to make back-to-back visits to any restaurant.  It didn’t take much effort for my Kim to convince me that she had to experience Chef Paniagua’s culinary masterpieces once again.  As with Ryan, we shared three entrees, the first of which were also tacos.  The chipotle-marinated shrimp tacos (roasted corn guacamole, jicama slaw) proved every bit as good as the other tacos thanks largely to large, fresh shrimp which snap when you bite into them. The tortillas, redolent with fresh ground corn come from Tortillera Cuauhtemoc where we’ve been buying our tortillas for years. They’re the very best!

Grilled Elotes

12 September 2015: For years pundits have been predicting the proliferation of the banh mi across the fruited plain, but most have believed its nascent popularity would be courtesy of Vietnamese restaurants. While Vietnamese restaurants have been holding fast to traditions, avant-garde American chefs have been plying innovative ingredients and techniques to the Vietnamese sandwich. Count Chef Paniagua among them. Canvas Artistry offers two variations on the banh mi, one made with yogurt chicken and the other with crispy pork belly. Both are served on a hoagie bun with a Thai chili aioli and pickled veggies. If anything, it’s possible that the pork belly banh mi may be too much of a good thing (and we thought it impossible that you could ever have too much pork belly). The pork belly, delicious as it was, dominated the flavor profile. That’s wholly unlike your conventional banh mi in which ingredients coalesce beautifully to create and share a unified flavor profile.

12 September 2015: Having grown up on a farm in which we raised corn, pumpkins, peas and other vegetables, it never dawned on me that corn at a restaurant could be nearly as good as the corn we baked in my grandmother’s horno, a mud adobe -built outdoor oven. Canvas Artistry’s grilled elotes are nearly as good. Unlike elotes served on a cob, golden kernels from roasted corn are gently scraped off the cob and served generously in a bowl. The corn is sweet and moist, a perfect repository for the Cotija cheese, cilantro lime aioli and Chimayo red chile with which the elotes are seasoned. My Kim loves corn (except on my jokes) and certifies the elotes as swoon-worthy.

Truffle Trio and Salted Caramel Coconut Flan

11 September 2015: American writer Thomas Merton believed “art enables us to find ourselves and lose ourselves at the same time.”  It’s rare that any dish has this profound effect on me, but the salted caramel coconut flan did.  Quite simply, it’s the very best dessert of any kind we’ve had this year and one of three flans I’ve ever found to be more than just passable (the other two are at Ben Michael’s Restaurant and Sandiago’s Mexican Grill). Chef Paniagua speaks often and will all sincerity about love being an ingredient in his cooking.  Truly love must taste like this flan, a coalescence of deliciousness that will make sweet, slow love to your taste buds.

11 September 2015: Alas, both Ryan and I had so much love for the flan that we didn’t appreciate the truffle trio as much as we otherwise might have.  The truffle trio was terrific, a triumvirate of deeply flavored and delicious post-prandial treats: mocha honey truffle, white chocolate pistachio and dark chocolate red chile piñon.  The trio’s only fault is that it was served side-by-side with the salted caramel coconut flan so comparisons were natural.  Of the three complex truffles, the mocha honey truffle stood out thanks largely to local honey from the South Valley.

Canvas Artistry returns a true culinary artist to Albuquerque’s burgeoning restaurant scene.  With Chef Saul Paniagua creating beautiful edible masterpieces, artistry is as close as the kitchen.

Canvas Artistry
3120 Central Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 227-6999
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 12 September 2015
1st VISIT: 11 September 2015
COST: $$
BEST BET: Carne Asada Tacos, Sriracha Chicharron Tacos, Chipotle Marinated Shrimp Tacos, Tempura Fried Spam Musubi, Grilled Elotes, Crispy Pork Banh Mi, Truffle Trio, Salted Coconut Flan

Canvas Artistry  Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato