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The Alley Cantina – Taos, New Mexico

The Alley Cantina just off the Plaza in Taos

In April, 2014, Gallup conducted a poll to determine state pride across the United States.  More precisely, the Gallup poll surveyed people in all 50 states to find out what percentage of residents say their state was the very best or one of the best places to live.  Sadly, New Mexico was rated the six worst state to live with only 28 percent of respondents indicating the Land of Enchantment was one of the best places to live. New Mexico was the only state among the bottom ten either not bordering or not East of the Mississippi River.

In recent years it seems every quality of life survey conducted lists New Mexico near the very bottom where we compete with Mississippi and Arkansas for “worst” in virtually every aspect of daily life.  So, what does it say about New Mexico when it is rated number one…that’s first…in the auspicious category of being “absolutely absorbed by the abnormal?”  To arrive at this rating, the Moveto Real Estate Blog actually used Facebook data to determine what percentage of each state’s population had an interest in the paranormal, psychic phenomena, conspiracy and shadow organizations and mythical creatures and mysterious beings.

The pet-friendly patio at the Alley Cantina

Research indicated that largely because of the mysterious UFO crash and subsequent cover-up in Roswell back in 1947, New Mexicans are more apt to believe in conspiracies, cover-ups and the Illuminati.  We, it seems, are also quite fascinated by cryptids (mythical creatures, mysterious beings, Chupacabra, etc) and psychic activity.  Only one state’s citizenry had a greater interest in the paranormal which one dictionary defines as “denoting events or phenomena such as telekinesis or clairvoyance that are beyond the scope of normal scientific understanding.”

Some of the state’s most active paranormal activity revolves around haunted Taos.  The aptly named The Ghosts of Taos blog believes ghosts are “as much a part of the landscape as the towering hollyhocks, dusty petunias, bancos, portals and adobe walls of Taos Plaza.”  One of the most famous of the Taos ghosts is Teresina Bent, daughter of the first governor of the newly acquired New Mexican Territory who was murdered during an uprising in Taos.  Teresina is said to haunt the Alley Cantina just north of the Taos Plaza.  Numerous sightings and incidents have been reported by both employees and guests.

Coconut Chicken Fingers with Apricot-Ginger Sauce and Celery Sticks

The Alley Cantina actually sits in the oldest building in Taos, a structure built in the 16th Century by Pueblo Indians.  The building initially served as an outpost along the Chihuahua Trail and was later occupied by the Spanish government.  In 1846, it became the office of the ill-fated Governor Bent whose family owned the building for several years.  The property became a restaurant in 1944 under the name “El Patio” and has continuously operated since then, becoming the Alley Cantina in 1997.  

In actuality, the entire building isn’t 400 years old, but large portions of the building remain from the original structure, including the south wall of the kitchen and the east wall of the kitchen and bathrooms (the tiniest bathrooms of any restaurant I’ve reviewed).   Despite the Lilliputian facilities (not enough room for you and for  Teserina Bent), the Alley Cantina is a beloved gathering place in Taos, earning several “Best of Taos County People’s Choice Awards.”  The menu is renowned for its New Mexican food (cumin alert: it’s on every item of New Mexican cuisine) as well as its barbecue and surprisingly, its fish and chips.

Green chile Cheeseburger with Fries

The Alley Cantina may also be known someday for its coconut chicken fingers served with an apricot-ginger dipping sauce and celery sticks.  The chicken fingers are somewhat thickly battered, a crispy exterior belying the moist, tender chicken inside.  While the crust has a pronounced coconut flavor, the generously plated chicken fingers (each one almost as large as the bathrooms) are elevated by the apricot-ginger dipping sauce.  It’s a sauce which should be bottled and sold.  Its personality is assertive without being overwhelming, tangy without being tart and aromatic without being perfume-like. 

Though it didn’t make the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail in 2011, the Alley’s version of the Land of Enchantment’s sacrosanct burger is well worth ordering.  The canvas for this behemoth green chile cheeseburger  is a sesame seed bun with housemade qualities (our server couldn’t tell us who made it).  The burger is constructed with a rather sizable beef patty topped with chopped green chiles blanketed by your choice of Cheddar-Jack or Provolone cheese.  It’s a very good burger even though the green chile lacked the piquancy New Mexicans crave…or perhaps the piquancy was obfuscated by the thickness of the beef patty and the other ingredients (lettuce, tomatoes, pickles).  The burger is served with hand-cut fries.

Fish and Chips

It’s rather rare to find fish and chips in New Mexico described as “famous” as the ones at the Alley are.  As has been discussed on this blog, fish and chips in New Mexico are wholly unlike fish and chips in Great Britain where they’re made best.  The Alley’s fish and chips are, in many ways, a complete antithesis of those I enjoyed by the boatful in England.  First, they’re made from Pacific cod as opposed to Atlantic caught fish.  Secondly, they’re battered (sheathed is a better descriptor) rather thickly–so much so that malt vinegar won’t penetrate until you cut through the breading and expose the succulent white flesh.  That’s when you discover a pretty tasty, light and flaky fish that is surprisingly enjoyable. 

Perhaps if Gallup had conducted its poll at the Alley Cantina, respondents would have been more inclined to show their state pride.  Enjoying good food at a fun, pet-friendly patio would do that for you.

The Alley Cantina
121 Teresina Lane
Taos, New Mexico
(575) 758-2121
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 24 August 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Fish and Chips, Green Chile Cheeseburger, Coconut Chicken Fingers

Alley Cantina on Urbanspoon

Magdalena Cafe – Magdalena, New Mexico

The Magdalena Cafe and Steakhouse

In 1863 during the height of the Civil War, soldiers on leave from Fort Craig staked claims to silver strikes in the Magdalena Mountains.  Within a few years, the boom towns of Kelly and Magdalena had sprung up, eventually achieving a population surpassing even Socorro, the county seat.  The first veins of metal ore given up by the rocky promontories were lead and zinc, but ultimately silver became the principal source of wealth. 

With the arrival of the railroad in 1884, Magdalena became a rowdy frontier mining town and one of the Southwest’s largest cattle shipping centers with its stockyards processing thousands of cattle and sheep.  Magdalena became known as the “Trails End” because the spur line which originated in Socorro had its terminus in the town named for the likeness of Mary Magdalene on a nearby slope.  The railroad transported cattle, sheep, wool, timber and wool.  It also transported carloads of ore to a smelter outside of Socorro.

Dining Room at the Magdalena Cafe and Steakhouse

No vestiges of the railroad remain, but it’s easy to imagine how spectacular the 20 meandering miles from Socorro to Magdalena must have been by train.  That’s because Highway 60 approximates the route of the railroad line nicknamed “the elevator” because it climbed two-thousand feet in roughly sixteen miles.  Highway 60 snakes its way past dramatic gorges, impressive boulders and large cattle ranches to emerge on the plains outside Magdalena.  It’s a magnificent drive. 

Today, instead of metalliferous lodes, Magdalena’s principal source of richness just may be its deep appreciation of its history and traditions.  Several historic buildings–including the railroad depot which has been repurposed as the town’s city hall and library–have survived, some serving as homes to active businesses or private homes.  Every year on the second weekend of July, Magdalena hosts its “Old Timers Reunion,” a three-day event celebrating the “good ole days” with such events as a rodeo, parade, street dance, arts and crafts and barbecue.

Green Chile Cheeseburger with Fries

Situated roughly at the geographical center of Socorro County, Magdalena can also boast of a presence on the prestigious New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, a distinction the Magdalena Cafe shares with two other Socorro county purveyors of the Land of Enchantment’s sacrosanct sandwich.  Magdalena is little more than half an hour away from San Antonio, New Mexico, the home of the world-famous Owl Cafe and the nearly-as-famous Buckhorn Tavern. but its green chile cheeseburger has yet to achieve the fame of its burger brethren.  Attribute that to the perception that Magdalena an “out-of-the-way” and “off-the-beaten path” destination. 

Adventurous diners who do trek to Magdalena will be rewarded with a spectacular drive to a beautiful frontier town which embraces its history and embodies hospitality.  They’ll also discover a green chile cheeseburger which some say rivals its Socorro county counterparts for sheer deliciousness.  The Magdalena Cafe sits on Main Street, not quite a block south of Highway 60.  Though it didn’t launch until 1986, the building housing the Cafe dates from the turn of the twentieth century.

Ground Beef Tacos

While its full appellation is Magdalena Cafe & Steakhouse, the Cafe has somewhat abbreviated serving hours with very distinct breakfast, lunch and dinner menus.  Dinner is when steak makes it onto the menu, but dinner is served only on Thursday and Friday nights from 5PM to 7PM.  Breakfast and lunch are served Monday through Saturday from 7AM to 1:30PM.   The menus offer a hearty repast befitting all hungry and weary road-warriors. It includes burgers, hot sandwiches, milk shakes, steaks, homemade pies and so much more. 

The green chile cheeseburger is nearly the size of one of the Very Large Array’s (only 24 miles away) antennas and unlike some burgers, you won’t need a radio astronomy observatory to find the beef.  The hand-formed ground beef patty extends beyond the six-inch buns and probably weighs in at eight or nine ounces.  At medium-well, it’s still got plenty of juices and flavor.  The green chile is sourced from Sichler Farms during chile harvesting season. It’s a very nicely roasted chile with a discernible, but not overpowering, bite. Standard toppings include lettuce, tomatoes, pickles and onions.   This five-napkin burger takes a backseat to no other burger, not even its neighbors to the east.  It’s a top tier green chile cheeseburger in its own right…and as if a behemoth burger isn’t enough, an order of French fries is nearly the size of a cord of wood.

Banana Split Pie

After Bob of the Village People commented about a taco shell “with a 1/2 inch flat bottom so Mamacitas could easily sit it on the food prep board to easily fill it,” it dawned on me that I’d never had such a hard-shelled travesty (largely because my preference is for soft-shelled tacos and hard-shelled tacos were invented by Taco Bell).  By sheer coincidence, an a la carte order of two tacos at the Magdalena Cafe was constructed from the flat-bottom shells Bob mentioned.  The flat-bottom not only makes filling these tacos easier, it allows for more filling.  In this case, a generous amount of seasoned ground beef, lettuce, chopped tomatoes and shredded cheese.   As hard-shelled tacos go, these were quite good, especially when salsa is applied.

Not only is the Magdalena Cafe within easy driving distance of New Mexico’s green chile cheeseburger Mecca, it’s less than an hour from the Land of Enchantment’s fabled Pie Town.  If the New Mexico Tourism Department ever decides to create a “Pie Trail,” the Magdalena Cafe belongs among the pantheon of peerless pies.  An apple pie is featured fare daily, but the menu also includes a mouthwatering selection of fruit and non-fruit fresh-baked goodness.  My request for my server to “surprise me” actualized with a slice of banana split pie.  That’s banana split, not banana cream.  Whatever image you might be contriving as to what this pie  might be will fall shortAtop a perfectly crumbly crust is a layer of sliced bananas topped with a luscious chocolate filling and whipped cream. It’ll make a convert out of you.

The Magdalena Cafe is the quintessential small town cafe in a small town every New Mexican should visit at least once (though a return trip is ensured after one visit and one meal).

Magdalena Cafe
109 Main Street
Magdalena, New Mexico
(575) 854-2696
LATEST VISIT: 9 July 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, French Fries, Ground Beef Tacos, Banana Split Pie, Lemonade

Magdalena Cafe on Urbanspoon

66 Diner – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The 66 Diner on Route 66 (Central Avenue)

Route 66, America’s highway, meandered across 2,448 miles of the fruited plain, crossing three time zones and eight states, from Chicago to Los Angeles. Although Route 66 has all but disappeared, been renamed (as in Albuquerque’s Central Avenue) or left for nature to reclaim, the spirit of the roadside diner continues to thrive in neon spangled restaurants such as the 66 Diner.

One of the best of Albuquerque’s nostalgia restaurants, this Historic Route 66 classic features a 50s theme replete with pony-tailed waitresses in blue skirts and bobby socks. The 50s music blaring from the jukebox  brings to mind American Graffiti, the 1973 coming of age movie which reintroduced America to the era.  Nostalgia abounds at the Route 66 where with a little imagination, you’ll be transported to a more innocent time in America’s past.

Nostalgia abounds in and out of the 66 Diner

The era of the Mother Road is celebrated in the authenticity of the 66 Diner’s 50s trappings, ranging from black and white tiled floors and iridescent neon signage to the fluorescent turquoise and hot pink decor. Seinfeld devotees will appreciate the hundreds of pez dispensers which line the ledges directly above the steely countertops in the front dining room. Indeed, the 66 Diner is committed to preserving the spirit of the roadside diner along the fabled route.

There is much to like about the Route 66 the diner even if Route 66 the two-lane blacktop is solely something you’ve read about. You’ve got to admire the gumption of a restaurant willing to replace a recipe if a better one is brought in by a guest. That’s right! If you believe you have a tastier recipe for something, the 66 Diner will try it out and if they like it more, it will go on the menu. Not only that, they’ll treat you and three friends to dinner. Frankly, I have a feeling they haven’t had to comp many dinners.

Nostalgia and fun abound at the 66 Diner

That’s because the 66 Diner’s recipes are tried and tested over time. The diner originally launched in 1987 in a converted World War II era Phillips 66 gas station named Sam’s. It was an instant hit among locals and tourists alike. In May, 1995, the 66 Diner went up in flames, only a portion of the original structure remaining. Albuquerque was in mourning for nearly seven months as the diner was rebuilt. It relaunched in February, 1996 and like the Phoenix of legend, has arisen from the ashes to reclaim its previous glory.

Like many 1950s diners, the 66 Diner features a daily “blue plate special.” Ironically the term “blue plate special” originated not in the 1950s, but in the 1890s courtesy of the Fred Harvey restaurants along the railroad lines of the frontier west. I’ve written extensively in other reviews of Fred Harvey’s culinary contributions to the West. Like his other contributions, the genesis of the blue plate special is very interesting. Apparently Harvey bought cheap, disposable plates colored blue similar to Wedgwood dishes and used them to serve inexpensive meals, hence the term.

Albuquerque’s best shakes according to many are at the 66 Diner

At the 66 Diner, the blue plate specials range from spaghetti and meatballs on Monday to chicken pot pie on Tuesday, chicken and dumplings on Wednesday, a taco platter on Thursday, fried catfish on Friday, a hot turkey sandwich on Saturday and “mom’s choice” (whatever mom comes up with) on Sunday. For the most part, the blue plate specials are comfort food favorites prepared very well and served in generous portions.

No 50s era diner would be complete without thick, rich milk shakes, floats and malts (egg creams are available, too). No one in Albuquerque does it any better. That’s the consensus of respondents to various annual polls of city diners who have voted the 66 Diner’s shakes “best in the city” consistently year after year–with such frequency that the “best shake” category should be defaulted to the 66 Diner.

One of the very best green chile cheeseburgers not to make the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail

Many people eschew the old stand-bys–chocolate, vanilla and strawberry–in favor of flavors that weren’t available in the 1950s. In fact, some of those revolutionary flavors might have been considered heretical in the more conservative era of the 50s. Those flavors include the Elvis Presley (banana and peanut butter), the Pink Cadillac (strawberry ice cream and crushed Oreos), Oreo, Dreamsicle, Mocha, Coffee and several others. Pumpkin pie and Egg Nog shakes are featured as “shakes of the month” during winter holiday season. Despite all the inventiveness, the most popular shake remains chocolate.

Unique flavors not withstanding, the 66 Diner’s milkshakes are made with real hand-dipped ice cream and whole milk and are mixed in a tin on a Hamilton Beach blender, the way they were made in the 50s. They’re then served in a shake glass with the tin on the side, much like getting a shake and a half. The 66 Diner is also one of the few places in town to offer red cream soda, my favorite before I gave up sodas altogether.

Sloppy Joe and onion rings

25 June 2011: Nothing goes better with a shake, float or malt than a burger. In New Mexico, naturally this means a green chile cheeseburger. The 66 Diner makes one of the very best (top ten) green chile cheeseburgers in town–even though it didn’t made the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail in either 2009 or 2011. When you request a burger a certain way, it’s delivered to your exacting specifications. Moreover you get a two-fisted burger in which the beef is prepared to your exacting specifications, the ingredients are unfailingly fresh and the chile (spelled correctly on the menu) actually bites back. It’s a very good chopped green chile with piquancy and flavor. Burgers are accompanied by your choice of sides–French fries, potato chips, coleslaw or potato salad. 

28 June 2014: There are probably only a handful of Duke City restaurants deigning to serve a Sloppy Joe sandwich today.  While the Sloppy Joe wasn’t “invented” during the Route 66 era, its peak in popularity occurred during that time.  The Food Timeline Web site explains how the name Sloppy Joe came about: “There is probably no Joe after whom it is named–but its rather messy appearance and tendency to drip off plate or roll makes “sloppy” an adequate description, and “Joe” is an American name of proletarian character and unassailable genuineness.”   At its most basic, the Sloppy Joe is a simple sandwich constructed with ground beef and a tomato sauce to which salt, pepper and spices are added.  At its elevated form, it’s  sandwich deliciousness you will crave.  Route 66′s Sloppy Joe will inspire craving.

Patty Melt with Potato Chips

28 June 2014: Another sandwich which may have seen its halcyon days during the Route 66 era is the patty melt.  Cynics who decry the patty melt as “a cheeseburger on toast” probably haven’t had a good one.  The 66 Diner’s version borders on greatness, largely because it follows the traditional recipe: a ground beef patty topped with molten cheese and grilled onions on rye bread, pan-fried in butter.  The ground beef patty is perfectly prepared at just past medium, rendering it juicy and absolutely delicious.  The grilled onions and melted cheese practically coalesce as one with the patty to give you a sweet-savory one-two punch you’ll enjoy.

The 66 Diner isn’t as well known for breakfast as perhaps it should be. Its limited breakfast menu might be the reason. Frankly, many New Mexicans are of the opinion that if you have breakfast burritos on the menu, you don’t need much else. The diner’s breakfast burrito is one of the biggest in the city, a large tortilla engorged with home fries, scrambled eggs and chopped green chile topped with melted Cheddar cheese and your choice of red and (or) green chile.

The Breakfast Burrito

12 October 2008: Make yours “Christmas style,” a burrito covered with both red and green chile. Both are surprisingly good and more piquant than at many New Mexican food restaurants. In fact, the green chile is downright special, a fruity sweet and gunpowder incendiary chile that elicits the type of endorphin rush which makes people fall in love with chile in the first place. The burrito is served with pinto beans.

12 October 2008: On our way to the 66 Diner for breakfast one Sunday, we passed a restaurant on Central Avenue offering “all you can eat pancakes for seven dollars.” A better bet would be ordering a “short stack” at the 66 Diner. Short obviously isn’t synonymous with small as we found out when our waitress delivered two pancakes which covered all but a tiny bit of the plate. These enormous pancakes would fill a small, developing nation (or as Jay Leno might quip, one fat American). We barely put a dent on them and even contemplated the notion of left-over pancakes, but perhaps only if you’re stoned would pancake left-overs be palatable…and they might cure the munchies. Otherwise, they’re almost inedible.

A “short stack” of pancakes

Friendly, attentive service is also a constant. There are many who say nothing could be finer than a meal at the 66 Diner.  They’re right!

66 Diner
1405 Central Avenue, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 247-1421
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 28 June 2014
# OF VISITS: 15
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Breakfast Burrito, Pancakes, Red Cream Soda, Shakes, Malts, the “Dagwood”, Sloppy Joe, Patty Melt

66 Diner on Urbanspoon