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. Now, if you want your texts to reflect New Mexico hospitality, download an app called “New Mexico Emojis” for your iPhone or iPad. Among the emojis you can add to your texts is one depicting a bright red ristra.
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 was 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?
At its onset, the featured fare at Las Ristras was New Mexican cuisine—most of the “usual suspects” with a few creative touches added for good measure. Las Ristras made an impact on my friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate who gave 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.” Alas, not everyone shared the same opinion with Yelp and Zomato critics casting dissenting opinions.
By year’s end, ownership of Las Ristras had transitioned to Chef Jude Sanchez, a Corrales native (and Cibola graduate) who had returned home after cutting a wide swath across some of the best kitchens in Chicago and New York. One of the restaurants at which he worked even earned a Michelin star, a distinction accorded to very few restaurants. While a Michelin star for any restaurant in the Land of Enchantment may seem a fanciful hope, Chef Sanchez has very high aspirations for Las Ristras. To that end, he’s expanded the restaurant’s menu from mostly New Mexican fare to one now showcasing chophouse favorites the likes of which he enjoyed during his time in Chicago.
TTo say Chef Sanchez has come a long way is an understatement. Unlike many chef luminaries who aspire from a very young age to pursue the culinary arts, he had no such designs. Fate—and a famous New Mexico chef—intervened. After committing a teenage indiscretion, Chef Sanchez found himself in front of a judge about to impose a sentence of community service. Chef Jim White, then at the helm of Corrales institution La Casa Vieja, convinced the judge to let the young rapscallion perform his community service at his restaurant. The rest, as the proverbial “they,” say is history.
Initially, Chef Sanchez was assigned to what the military terms as “kitchen police,” or “KP,” a punishment calling for washing and drying mountains of soiled dishes. When the repentant teen proved himself adept at following instructions and performing quality work, Chef White taught him how to cut and peel vegetables, the next tasking to which he was assigned. Laboring in the fast-paced kitchen environment went from judicially imposed community service to a career path Chef Sanchez wanted very much to pursue. After his stint at La Casa Vieja, he made it his life’s quest to learn as much as he could about the vast diversity of culinary arenas, hence his sojourn to Chicago and New York.
The domain of some chefs is solely the kitchen where they toil in relative anonymity and rarely mingle with the dining public. Other chefs glad-hand diners and let others actually prepare meals for their guests. Not so with Chef Sanchez who not only makes it a point to check up on his guests, he prepares meals. When we met him, he was toting heavy boxes of locally grown produce for use at Las Ristras, but the prospect of spending time with our debonair dachshund Dude lured him toward our table under a porch at the back of the restaurant. Chef Sanchez is an outgoing gentleman with an easy smile and ebullient passion for his restaurant. He’s got a pit bull terrier at home whom he loves like a child. How can you not appreciate a chef like that?
You’ll certainly appreciate the multifarious menu, a surprisingly ambitious bill of fare that is actually several menus in one. There’s the Steak House Menu which is subtitled “Chef Inspired Dishes.” This is where carnivores of all persuasions will gravitate. Then there’s the New Mexican Favorites page which lives up to its name. The third menu, called “From the Grill” includes such inviting offerings as green chile meatloaf, fajitas and the Corrales Tortilla Burger. A breakfast menu includes both New Mexican and American wake-you-up items. Drive past Las Ristras and invariably you’ll see a slate board inviting you to try the latest du jour offering.
Five appetizers and three “in the bowl” starters (posole, green chile stew and chile with beans) may not seem like many, but you’ll be hard-pressed to make a decision as to which to order. Luckily while you’re perusing the menus, a bowl of fresh salsa and chips is ferried over to your table. It may inspire you (as it did us) to order a Mexican inspired starter–the baked queso fresco topped with chorizo. Described as “a fresh slice of queso fresco baked and topped with sauteed chorizo served with chimi chips,” it’s presented beautifully. More importantly it’s flavored beautifully. The chorizo has a pleasant piquancy that permeates the entire dish with the queso fresco slice serving as a nice foil, maybe even palate-cleanser. Since my Kim found the chorizo a bit too piquant for her Chicago palate, it was only fair that I let her have both slices of the melted queso. We suspect that what the menu described as “chimi chips” may have been the three sopes-like fried dough circles on which everything else is piled. In any case, it was the canvas on which a masterpiece was created.
Ever since a rib was taken from Adam’s body and fashioned into the first woman, both men and women (exempting vegetarians and vegans, of course) have craved ribs. Whether spare ribs, baby backs, rib tips or St. Louis cut ribs, they’re beloved by many, but don’t always offer many surprises. Chef Sanchez’s half rack of green chile rubbed ribs (fire-roasted baby back ribs with a Corrales green chile rub and sweet jalapeño sauce) surprised us. Most surprising is just how balanced and complementary the Corrales green chile and jalapeño sauce were. If you ever thought “never the twain shall meet,” you’ll be won over by just how much flavor can be extricated from that combination. The ribs themselves aren’t quite fall-off-the-bone tender, but then the best ribs aren’t. They have a little bit of give, indicative that they’re not overdone as those fall-off-the-bone ribs tend to be. These are competition worthy ribs which would fare well at Rio Rancho’s Pork & Brew.
For my Chicago born-and-bred Kim, meat and potatoes have been a lifelong dietary staple, so you just have to know that she spent most of her time perusing the Steak House Menu. Not that she got very far even on that page. Mostly she contemplated at length the very first item on the menu, a beefy behemoth called “The Bad Boy.” Picture a sixteen to eighteen ounce bone-in ribeye, it’s described on the men as the “James Dean of the menu,” “so good, it’s bad.” That’s bad in a good way. At medium rare, this beauteous slab of beef has picturesque grill marks that preface flowing juices and a rich, beefy flavor with nice marbling throughout and after all, fat is where a lot of the distinctive flavor of beef comes from. In some places, ribeye is sold as “beauty steak.” The two-inch-thick Bad Boy certainly fits the bill. Steak House menu items are served with a terrific dinner salad drizzled with a creamy avocado ranch dressing. You also have your choice of sides: smoked Gouda green chile potatoes, pancetta vegetables or cilantro lime rice. Go for the former.
Las Ristras is part New Mexican, part steak house and a one-hundred percent destination restaurant. Chef Jude Sanchez certainly has knows his way around the kitchen.
Los Ristras Restaurant
4940 Corrales Road, N.E., Suite 400
Corrales, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 4 November 2017
# OF VISITS: 1
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