Dandy Burger – Española, New Mexico

Dandy's in Espanola

Dandy’s in the heart of the beautiful Espanola valley

Back in my halcyon youth as a multi-sport athlete at Peñasco High School (when I could consume half a million calories a meal at no detriment to my then svelte physique), Dandy Burger in beautiful downtown Española was a frequent dining destination–particularly after the then “not so mighty” Peñasco Panthers suffered a loss (and there were many of them).

On the rare occasion in which we actually won a game, our coaches would “treat us” to chicken fried steak at some “fancy” restaurant. We didn’t have the heart to tell them we preferred Dandy Burger.  Frankly, I still do.  It’s hard to resist stopping for a green chile cheeseburger and a bit of nostalgia every time we drive through Española.

The smiling burger marquee at Dandy’s Burgers (Photo by Nancy Heins-Glaser)

The food at Dandy Burger was never quite good enough to lessen the pain of a loss then and is even less capable of doing so today when the losses I experience are more costly (as in a poor performing 401K…or is that now 4.1K). Still, I always have a contented sense of nostalgia when I see the familiar anthropomorphic burger that symbolizes this popular neighborhood hangout.

Dandy Burger’s “mascot” is a cartoonish, tuxedo- and top hat-wearing, cane-wielding, burger-headed anthropomorph resembling Jeeves the butler on the restaurant’s signage. The burger’s entire countenance (resembling the ubiquitous smiley face) occupies the top half of the bun. It’ll put a smile on your face, especially if it portends a meal.

The friendly staff at Dandy’s (Photo by Nancy Heins-Glaser)

Most of those memories are of the standard “Dandy Burger” or the more prodigious “Big Jim Dandy” with double meat, two very good burgers, particularly if ameliorated with green chile. These burgers are dressed with unfailingly crisp onion, lettuce, pickle and mustard but you can pretty much have them any way you want. The meat patties are obviously not hand-formed and fresh ground, but they’re charbroiled to perfection.

The green chile is neon green and only of medium piquancy. All other ingredients are fresh and delicious though at times I’ve wished for salad dressing, so profuse is the lettuce on each burger.  If you want piquancy on your burger, ask for a couple of plastic tubs of salsa.  Dandy Burger’s salsa is the most piquant item offered by the restaurant.  It’ll enliven your burger.

Tacos from Dandy Burger

Tacos from Dandy Burger

Rio Arriba county, and in particular Española, are home to some of the best green chile cheeseburgers in New Mexico. Dandy Burger’s offerings compete with both the Stop and Eat burgers less than a quarter mile away or the LotaBurger about a mile north. All three can quell hunger far better than the Peñasco Panthers defense of days gone by could stymie their opponents.

Even better than Dandy Burger’s burgers are the standard hard-shelled tacos, sloppy (cheese, lettuce, chopped tomato) concoctions which include a beans and meat mixture with a piquant bite. You don’t necessarily need the plastic tubs of hot sauce to heat up these beauties; they’ve got some bite on their own. My Kim has long contended that these tacos are among the very best in Rio Arriba county.

A gigantic double meat green chile cheeseburger

A gigantic double meat green chile cheeseburger–good enough to have been placed on the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail

Chicharrones are one of the favorite “condiments” in Northern New Mexico where these pork crackling cubes are used on almost everything but dessert.  They’re especially good on burritos.  Perhaps nowhere in the Land of Enchantment will you find a burrito quite as engorged with chicharrones as at Dandy Burger where each tortilla encased treasure is packed with them.  Alas, some of the chicharrones are more fatty than they are meaty, but that’s pretty much par for the course.

Chicharron Burrito

Chicharron Burrito

Dandy Burger’s shakes are always cold, a wonderful blessing on a sweltering summer day when Española’s pavement is baking everything on the road.

Dandy Burger
215 San Pedro Plaza
Espanola, New Mexico
(575) 753-4234
LATEST VISIT: 17 February 2013
# OF VISITS: 10
RATING: 17
COST: $
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Taquitos, Tacos, Milk Shakes, Frito Pie, Chicharron Burrito

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El Parasol – Española, New Mexico

El Parasol in Pojoaque, New Mexico

El Parasol in Espanola, New Mexico

If you were in a hurry, driving through Española on a hot summer day in the early 1980s might have raised the diastolic level (the lower number) of your blood pressure to the level of the temperature gauge. That’s because on Sunday afternoons, Española’s main thoroughfares were the domain of the lowriders, elaborately painted late-model cars (many with intricate religious murals on the hood) whose suspension is replaced with hydraulic cylinders to allow the car to be drastically lowered when parked and raised back up for travel.

Española etiquette dictated that no one, not even the law, interfered with the low-and-slow (sounds like barbecue) pace these sparkling cars set as they hugged the pavement on both lanes for the entire length and breadth of the city limits. The lowered late-model cars with their custom paint jobs, tiny steering wheels and chrome wheels were in no hurry; attracting attention was a major aim of lowriding. As a result, it might take an hour or more to drive through Española. Because of its tradition of highlighting the cars as part of local culture and the high number of lowriders per capita, the city earned the sobriquet of the “lowrider capital of the world.”

Green Chile Cheeseburger

Although the Sunday parade of “bajitos” cruising Espanola’s streets isn’t quite as prevalent as it once was, no one in the world appreciates fine cars as much as the good folks in Española. Many of those fine cars still drive slowly as they congregate at essential city landmarks such as El Parasol, a “taco stand” adjacent to the world-famous El Paragua restaurant. They drive slowly in hopes that a parking spot will soon be vacated and they can take its place under the towering alamos next to the restaurant. Once the car is parked, it’s but a short walk to El Parasol where patrons queue up sometimes ten deep or more for excellent New Mexican cuisine.

El Parasol (the umbrella) doesn’t just handle El Paragua’s diner overflow. It’s become a dining destination in its own right. El Parasol became so successful in Española that two other El Parasol restaurants have since been launched, one in Pojoaque and one in Santa Fe.  Similar to its elder brethren, the Pojoaque restaurant has a menu posted on its exterior wall. It also has a pick-up window, but there is no intercom in which to place a take-out order. All actual ordering and pick-up is done inside the restaurant.

Underneath all that lettuce is probably the best Chicken-Guacamole Taco in New Mexico

With apologies to Sugar’s BBQ & Burgers and El Farolito, El Parasol just might serve up the best green chile cheeseburger in Rio Arriba county and with the addition of the Pojoaque and Santa Fe restaurants, one of the very best in Santa Fe county. The ingredients–lettuce, tomato, pickle, mustard and green chile–may seem pretty standard, but when crafted in either the tiny wooden hut in Española or the more conventional stucco restaurant in Pojoaque, those burgers meld into an explosion of taste. The green chile zings with piquant flavor, the hand-formed beef patty is thick and juicy (even better if you order a double-meat green chile cheeseburger) and the entire creation is piled high–just the way New Mexicans love it. Burgerphiles even have the option of a burger dressed with guacamole, bacon and green chile–three great tastes that taste even better together. This is a two-fisted burger, but not always a multi-napkin affair because the beef patty is usually fairly well done.

El Parasol is also renowned for its quesadillas, tacos, burritos, tamales and even arroz con pollo (a rice and chicken soup) and menudo. This is all Norteño food, the type of which Northern New Mexicans of my generation grew up with. You can’t discuss the cuisine of the state’s northern half without mentioning chicharonnes burrito. El Parasol’s which features bite-sized crackling pork that seems tailor-made for the restaurant’s savory green chile and its fruity-piquant bite.

Tamale

Tamale at El Parasol

If tacos are more your style and you also crave variety, the Ana Maria Combinacion plate comes with a crisp shelled shredded-chicken taco, a crisp shelled shredded-beef taco and a soft sirloin taco with guacamole. The scintillating four-time James Beard award-winning author and New Mexico gem Cheryl Alters Jamison loves the chicken-guacamole tacos. When she recommends something, you can take it to the bank. These are some of the very best tacos you’ll find anywhere. The chicken is moist and delicious while the guacamole is creamy and rich. It’s a marriage made inside a crisp fried taco shell.

While an umbrella may shield you from the hot sun or a rare New Mexico downpour, El Parasol will shield you from dreary food. It is an Española treasure every bit as alluring as the lowrider culture.

El Parasol
603 Santa Cruz Road
Española, New Mexico
(505) 753-8852
LATEST VISIT: 21 October 2012
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 19
COST: $
BEST BET: Beef Taco, Chicharon Burrito, Green Chile Cheeseburger, Tamale, Chicken-Guacamole Taco

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JoAnn’s Ranch O Casados Restaurant – Española, New Mexico

JoAnn's Ranch O Casados in Española

Shortly after it was announced that Mary & Tito’s was selected as a 2010 recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s “Americas Classic” award, the brilliant Albuquerque Journal columnist Leslie Linthicum wrote a gilt-edged tribute to my very favorite New Mexican restaurant.  Indicating “the red chile at Mary & Tito’s Cafe brings grown men to poetic fevers,” she quoted something I wrote in my review which she must have found to be sufficiently rhapsodic to warrant mention.

For anything I write to be considered even remotely “poetic” by the scintillating columnist is a great honor.  Compared to the spell-binding prose and incisive insight which typify Leslie’s columns, my writing is prosaic and dim-witted.  It’s akin to comparing Michelangelo’s work on the Cistene Chapel to the asymmetrical graffiti under an overpass…with me the tagger.  i don’t always  start off agreeing with Leslie’s viewpoints, but  so admire her sharp wit and sound-reasoned logic in forming her positions that she often sways my position.  She is simply a magnificent writer, my favorite columnist on any periodical anywhere (with apologies to the great Tom Cole)!

The interior at JoAnn's Ranch O Casados

In a 2008 column published on Thanksgiving Day, Leslie waxed eloquent in her inimitable manner about some of the things she’s for which she’s most thankful, including a New Mexican restaurant in the beautiful Española valley. She wrote, “the physical address of Joann’s restaurant is in Española. But at the precise point near the end of your meal where red chile and honey hit your tongue at the same time, I think of Joann’s as the place where heaven meets Earth.” How is that for lyrical prose!

The actual place where heaven meets Earth may well be the world-famous Casados Farms in Guique, New Mexico just north of Okay Owingeh Pueblo.  That’s where most of the chile Leslie loves so much comes from.  That’s also where JoAnn’s Ranch O Casados obtains its blue corn.  In fact, Casados Farms is where JoAnn’s acquires most of its fresh, locally grown produce.  The soil along the lush Rio Grande Valley is fecund and rich, sustaining a way of life that is quickly disappearing as Española moves further away from its agrarian roots.

Salsa in a unique bowl with red, blue and yellow corn chips

It is reputed that JoAnn Casados personally roasts and peels all the chile used in her eponymous restaurant, most of it from chile lines descendant from native chile crops.  She knows old-timers can tell the difference between commercially grown chile and chile grown locally.  She also laments the fact that the three-centuries old tradition of growing chile in the Española valley is dying out despite the increased demand.  Farmers can command a premium for locally grown chile, but JoAnn considers it a worthwhile investment.

JoAnn’s Ranch O Casados has been serving the beautiful Española valley since 1984.  Its first home was near the Big Rock Shopping Center where the restaurant took residence at the former site of a Sears catalog shop.  JoAnn’s moved to its current, more spacious location in 2003.  The parking lot seems to be perpetually crowded, but wait times at the commodious restaurant aren’t long.  The interior at JoAnn’s has an eclectic Alpine Lodge meets Tudor meets New Mexican meets American Indian motif.  Tables and benches are carved from blond knotted pine.

Huevos Rancheros with red and green chile

I don’t know if the bumper on Leslie’s vehicle has a “[Heart] at first site” bumper sticker, but you can spot them all over Española–on pristine Range Rovers and on careworn pick-up trucks which are hosed down only to remove salt residue after a snowfall.  On a wall near the “please wait to be seated” sign, there’s a poem paying loving tribute to JoAnn’s.  Though not as eloquent as had Leslie written it,  the affection is clearly conveyed.  It’s also conveyed by empty plates being carted away, some so clean it may leave you wondering if the last remnants of chile were licked away.

The menu is a compendium of Northern New Mexico favorites: enchiladas, tacos, tamales, burritos, sopaipillas and even two staples made from corn–posole and chicos, the latter of which is rarely seen south of Santa Fe.    The entire menu is available all day long and includes a wide selection of vegetarian options popular among Española’s Sikh community.  Alas, the menu does commit the cardinal sin of spelling New Mexico’s official state vegetable “chili,” a spelling I’ve programmed my spell-checker to sneer at.  At least Leslie spelled it correctly as she counted it among her blessings.

Carne Adovada with two eggs over medium and papitas

Perhaps how it’s spelled isn’t nearly as important as how it tastes and that’s where JoAnn’s excels.  You’ll get a sense of that when salsa and chips (unfortunately not complementary) are delivered to your table   Instead of on a separate bowl or ramekin, the salsa is served in an oversized “bowl” fashioned out of a crispy yellow corn tortilla.  The salsa wouldn’t register too high on the Scoville scale, but it is quite good, an artisan amalgam of jalapenos, white onions, tomatoes, cilantro, garlic and salt.  The red, yellow and blue corn chips are lightly salted and large.  Unfortunately you’ll run out of salsa before you run out of chips.

Huevos Rancheros are a specialty at JoAnn’s–corn tortillas topped with two eggs any style, shredded melted cheese, and red and green chile with a garnish of lettuce and tomato.  Two sides–pinto beans and papitas–accompany the huevos.  Neither the red or green chile are especially piquant, but both, especially the green chile, are swoon-worthy.  The green chile has a distinctly sweet-piquant flavor with little acidity.  Neon green and finely chopped, it’s as pretty as it is delectable.  The red chile is deeply red and rich with a slightly acidic aftertaste.

The pinto beans are wonderful, whole beans prepared perfectly with just a little broth to keep them moist.  The papitas are delightful little cubes fried to a golden sheen.  They’re reminiscent of French fries cut into cubes, but with a better flavor.  You won’t miss Spanish rice in the least.

Sopaipillas...and JoAnn serves real honey

Another specialty of the house is JoAnn’s carne adovada.  For breakfast it’s available with two eggs any style accompanied by papitas and pinto beans.  JoAnn’s doesn’t skimp on portion size and that holds true with the carne adovada.  You’ll be served a profuse portion, more than most can finish in a single sitting.  Large, whole chunks  of tender pork marinated in delicious red chile with a sweet, earthy flavor make this an addictive rendition of the popular pork dish.  The red chile is even less piquant on the adovada, but it’s also more delicious.

Diners have their choice of tortillas or sopaipillas.  The sopaipillas are large, puffed-up pockets of delicious dough just waiting for you to tear off a piece so they can release their steamy fragrance upwards.  JoAnn’s serves real honey, the thick, sweet, wonderful stuff, not the honey-flavored sugar some restaurants serve.  This is another difference-maker among many that account for JoAnn’s popularity.

Pancakes

JoAnn’s breakfast entrees include pancakes, nearly plate-sized orbs of golden deliciousness just waiting for butter to be slathered on and to be doused with syrup (or better yet, with honey). You can also assuage your sweet tooth with flan, ice cream, cake, sopa bread pudding (often called caprilotada) or pie.  A display case of desserts practically greets you at the door, as does JoAnn herself.

Now  I understand how Leslie Linthicum can be so thankful for JoAnn’s Ranch O Casados…even though I can’t convey it as eloquently as she did.

JoAnn’s Ranch O Casados
938 North Riverside Drive
Española, New Mexico
(505) 753-1334
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 8 August 2010
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Carne Adovada, Huevos Rancheros, Pancakes, Salsa and Chips, Sopaipillas

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Angelina’s Restaurant – Espanola, New Mexico

Angelina's, the perpetually crowded Espanola favorite

“I get no respect.”  Comedian Rodney Dangerfield parlayed that catch-phrase into a lengthy and lucrative career.  With his uniquely self-deprecating sense of humor, Rodney invariably made himself the butt of his own brilliant one-liners: “I could tell my parents hated me.  My bath toys were a toaster and a radio.”  Despite his schtick as a perpetual loser, Dangerfield was a beloved comedic icon about whom Jim Carrey once wrote, “Rodney is, without a doubt, as funny as a carbon-based life-form can be.”  True to the formula which made him a success in life, his tombstone is engraved, “there goes the neighborhood.”

The citizenry of the beautiful Española valley can certainly empathize with Rodney Dangerfield.  Inexplicably, Española has, for decades, been the punch line of cruel jokes.  My friend Bill Resnik, a stand-up comedian for nearly three decades, says every  stand-up comedian performing in New Mexico has at least one Española joke in their repertoire, but admits that in the comedy circuit, the name of the town being made fun of changes from state to state.  Española jokes are, to some extent, just repackaged jokes.  Many of those jokes will work if you substitute “blond” or “Aggie” or “Redneck” for Española.

Other Española jokes, however, are more antagonistic, mean-spirited–and most definitely targeted.  In a 1984 article, the New York Times noted “few of them are free of an obvious anti-Hispanic bias,” observing that the target of derision in many of those jokes is Española’s low rider culture: “Why are low rider steering wheels so small?  So you can drive them handcuffed.”  In the 1980s, traversing the “low road to Taos”  through Española often meant following elaborately painted late-model cars at their low and slow pace as they hugged the pavement on both lanes for the entire length and breadth of the city limits.  The frustration was the genesis of many Espanola jokes.

On a wall just before the restaurant's entrance

You might think any city or town subjected to cruel derision for decades might wish for anonymity or would suffer from an inferiority complex, or  perhaps worse, bitter resentment.  Española has instead embraced the attention, in recent years turning lemons into lemonade with marketing campaigns that have drawn many to all that Española has to offer–and what it has to offer is the type of preternatural beauty  which exemplifies New Mexico’s sobriquet “The Land of Enchantment.”

In delivering his forecasts, KOB TV meteorologist Steve Stucker drives home that point.  When predicting the weather in New Mexico’s most maligned city, he invariably emphasizes the term “the beautiful Española valley.”  The media savvy Stucker isn’t just pandering to the community of some ten-thousand; he really means it.

The brilliant watercolor artist Jan Hart may have best captured the essence of the first capital city in America: “Española is what it is. No apologies. It is the punch line of jokes and the bearer of some grim tales. It doesn’t pretend to be anything that it isn’t. Sprawled across the Rio Grande river, it isn’t tidy or trendy. But it is very real and its location is perfect – surrounded by the Sangre de Cristo mountains on the east, the Jemez mountains on the west, Taos to the north 40 miles and Santa Fe 20 miles south! Española sits in the very heart of northern New Mexico!”

A large serving of chips and salsa

Española, whose very name translates to “Spain,” is indeed predominantly Hispanic ethnically and as recognized by the New York Times, remains a “hub of Spanish-American craftsmanship in weaving, pottery and carving.”   It’s not Taos and it’s not Santa Fe, but it’s not trying to be.
Unlike the aforementioned hubs of multiculturalism, Española holds fast to its many Spanish traditions.  That may be especially true of its devotion to the cuisine which has graced  family homes throughout Northern New Mexico for hundreds of years. Española’s restaurants don’t cater to tourist tastes; their market is the local palate, a discerning lot who insist on authenticity, not some watered-down hybrid. Try finding chicos, posole, quelites and costillas at Santa Fe or Taos restaurants.  You can find these traditional stapes of Northern New Mexico family homes in Española’s restaurants.
A May, 2010 visit to Angelina’s Restaurant in Española, reinforced Española’s stance on tradition and authenticity.  When we asked if cumin was used in the restaurant’s carne adovada, our waitress had never heard of the spice, but offered to find out.  Within minutes, Chris Quintana, the restaurant’s owner, visited our table to expressly denounce the use of cumin, saying “if you want cumin, drive about 200 miles south of here.  Traditional New Mexican food does not include cumin.”   A man after my own heart!

Some of the very best sopaipillas in New Mexico

Angelina’s Restaurant was founded in 1984 by Fidel and Angelina Gutierrez as a way to honor their recently deceased son’s love of  his mother’s red chile and beans.  Rather than take the family name, the restaurant was named for Angelina since  traditional New Mexican home cooking is traditionally passed on from mother to daughter.  The original restaurant was ensconced in a somewhat dilapidated old edifice with a memorable charm.   In 1998, Angelina’s Restaurant moved into a bright, open and airy building with capacious accommodations.

Drive past Angelina’s on any day, but especially on Sundays, and you might be amazed at the number of two- and four-wheeled vehicles parked in the restaurant’s east and west parking lots.  It’s the type of parking you might otherwise see at a county fair and you’ll wonder how Angelina’s could possibly seat everyone.  Enter the restaurant and you’ll see large  tables accommodating ten or more people, many of them families several generations deep.  You’ll find guests eating al fresco at the umbrella-shielded picnic tables in the courtyard prefacing the restaurant’s entrance.

What you won’t find is guests waiting for too long.  Somehow, despite the constant flow of guests, Angelina’s wait staff turns them around quickly without hurrying anyone.  In fact, you’ll see no shortage of diners visiting friends at other tables with friendly abrazos and besos (hugs and kisses) all around.  The reverberation of conversations in both Spanish and English creates a rather noisy din, but it’s more joyous than raucous, more neighborly than discordant.

Fried chicken and a baked potato

The specialty of the house at Angelina’s is lamb, raised on the verdant high-mountain pastures of Northern New Mexico by the Patricio Martinez family, sheep herders for generations. The “other white meat” has long been a staple in Northern New Mexico kitchens though it’s increasingly uncommon to find it on restaurant menus, save for  pricey Colorado lamb entrees served in high-end dining establishments.  Angelina’s offers lamb in several forms–and it’s the real thing, with its characteristic gaminess and flavorful fat.

You can engorge enchiladas (rolled or flat), stuffed sopaipillas, burritos or fajitas with lamb or you can have lamb chops, roast leg of lamb or lamb costillas (ribs).  You can even have a lamb burger or lamb sandwich if you wish.  The lamb flies off the menu and is especially popular among senior generations.  Lamb entrees are served with beans, fluffy sopaipillas and your choice of red or green chile.

For me, there’s no better way to enjoy lamb than in the form of costillas, succulent lamb ribs served five to an order.  These are unpretentious and undoctored ribs with meat and fat coalescing into a crispy and flavorful riblet treat.  Gnawing on the bones and extricating the meat is an adventure in flavor appreciation.  You might think you like lamb, but if all you’ve ever had is expensive lamb served at fine-dining establishments, you haven’t really had lamb.  Angelina’s serves lamb New Mexico style and it’s terrific!

Carne Adovada with a fried egg and Spanish rice

Salsa is not complementary at Angelina’s, but it just isn’t a meal at a Northern New Mexico restaurant without salsa and chips so splurge on the large-sized order.  The salsa is fresh and delicious, rating about medium on the piquancy scale.  It will make your taste buds pay attention without singeing them.  Prominent flavors include fresh tomatoes, onion, garlic, cilantro and jalapenos.  The chips are large and low in salt, formidable enough for large scoops of salsa.

Most entrees come with two sopaipillas.  Now, sopaipillas have become so commonplace in New Mexican restaurants as to engender blase reactions.  Not so at Angelina’s which may offer the very best sopaipillas in New Mexico.  That’s an audacious claim to be sure, but it’s a claim for which I’d get plenty of support from the Albuquerque Journal North’s brilliant restaurant critic Anne Hillerman.  In her 2009 review of Angelina’s, Anne admitted she hasn’t done a “professional sopaipilla study,” but would be willing to bet Angelina’s “would get the trophy.”

The sopaipillas are large golden, deep-fried deliciousness served fresh and hot.  Don’t wait to break open a sopaipilla and cut off a piece while it’s still hot.  The sensation of steamy puffs wafting upwards is an experience not to be missed.  The sopaipillas beckon for the cooling effect of sweet honey to be drizzled onto them, again an experience best had when they’re hot.

Chicos with green chile

Chicos are another Northern New Mexico staple found in few restaurants outside of Española.  The menu describes them as “made from locally grown corn.  Picked young, it is then roasted in a traditional horno and sun-dried.  Prepared by simmering with pork, this dish is a true native specialty.”  Try them with green chile, a mildly piquant, neon green variety with a nice roasted flavor.  For those of us from the north, chicos are a taste of home, of youth and of mom’s home cooking.

Angelina’s rendition of carne adovada is very traditional, too.  The pork, cubed and marinated in red chile caribe (concentrated chile made from dried red chile pods, blended and processed to a smooth consistency), is fork-tender, shredding easily.  You’ll want to fashion a tortilla into “New Mexican spoons,” triangle-shaped wedges into which you deposit carne adovada for quick consumption.  It takes carne adovada from a fork food to a hand-held, bite-sized treat.  The carne adovada plate is served with Spanish rice and beans.  The rice is a bit on the soupy side, but the beans (with red or green chile) are excellent.

At Angelina’s, guests who might not want Northern New Mexican specialties (gasp, that sounds almost heretical) have a nice selection of traditional diner far from which to choose.  That includes liver and onions, steaks (hamburger, T-bone and rib-eye), seafood (catfish, halibut, trout, salmon and shrimp) as well as a surprisingly good honey-batter dipped fried chicken served with your choice of potato.  The fried chicken is so good, the Colonel should be demoted for serving such an inferior rendition.

Costillas (lamb ribs) with a bowl of beans

The beautiful Española valley has been home to the Gutierrez family for centuries and home to their wonderful family restaurant for going on two decades.  Forget any disparaging comments or jokes you may have heard about this beautiful little city and discover some of the best dining treasures in Northern New Mexico.

Angelina’s Restaurant
1226 North Railroad Avenue
Espanola, New Mexico
(505) 753-8543
LATEST VISIT: 30 May 2010
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 20
COST: $$
BEST BET: Costillas, Sopaipillas, Fried Chicken, Bowl of Beans, Salsa and Chips, Carne Adovada

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Stop And Eat Drive In – Española, New Mexico

Stop and Eat in Espanola, New Mexico

The world-famous Stop and Eat in Espanola, New Mexico: On the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail

Stop And Eat–Although it seems this 50s style drive-in has always been at its Paseo De Oñate location, it hadn’t yet opened in 1598 when don Juan de Oñate led his expedition of Spanish colonists to the east bank of the Rio Grande near its confluence with the Chama River. That’s where they founded San Gabriel, New Mexico’s first capital at a site close to present day Española, home of the Stop And Eat restaurant.

While Stop And Eat might sound like a mandate, it’s really more of a strong suggestion that will visit your brain every time you drive by this restaurant. All it takes is one visit and you’ll be hooked.

This 50’s style drive-in not only has an inviting name, it’s got an inviting location on a busy intersection. It’s also got an inviting menu replete with delicious fast food New Mexico style. It’s one of a dying breed, a drive-in under whose canopy you can park your car, walk to an order window to place your order and wait to be called over a loudspeaker.

Stop And Eat features the type of Americana roadfood atmosphere Michael and Jane Stern like so it’s no surprise that this relatively obscure restaurant has been featured on their Roadfood Web site. The Sterns observed that despite its drive-in facade, this restaurant has no carhop service or picnic tables on which to dine. All it’s got is excellent roadside cuisine…scratch that, it’s roadside food. Stop And Eat makes no pretence about serving “cuisine.”

Alas, with its Anglicized spelling of “chili,” Stop And Eat may lend credence to the infamous Española jokes, New Mexico’s equivalent of Polish jokes. The menu, posted on a painted slab of plywood, spells it “chili” in several places. That’s the only faux pas this restaurant makes…and its chile is a fire-breather’s special as in muy piquante, as in the hottest green chile cheeseburger in New Mexico piquant!

The burgers are liberally endowed with fresh ingredients, among which green chile is a must. Ask for a jumbo twin, two saucer sized meat patties if you’re famished or even if you’re not and just want to maximize the sensory delights of eating a very good burger. I took two photos of the green chile cheeseburger but neither turned out clearly. Attribute that to the hiccups caused by the piquant heat generated by this excellent burger.

At Stop And Eat, the tacos are terrific, especially the rolled tacos (and nowhere in the world can you find rolled tacos as good as in Espanola) which are hand-rolled and definitely not the cigar shaped mass produced messes you find at warehouse stores throughout New Mexico. These beauties are stuffed with a bean, meat and chile (my spellchecker wouldn’t allow another misspelled version) blend.

Contrary to what you might find at other restaurants, the Frito pie contains no beans or cheese, but it does possess some of the best capsaicin laden red chile, well seasoned ground beef and at least one chip in every spoonful. It’s among the best Frito pies in the north.

The shakes are delicious–a bit thin, but always cold which really helps on a hot summer day.

Stop And Eat Drive In
110 E Paseo De Onate
Española, NM
753-7400

LATEST VISIT: 21 July 2007
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 19
COST: $
BEST BET: Rolled tacos, Shakes, Burgers, Frito Pie

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Mariscos La Playa – Espanola, New Mexico

    Mom on her 39th birthday

Even though it seems most women celebrate it every year in perpetuity, a woman’s 29th birthday actually occurs only once. On my mom’s umpteenth 29th birthday we wanted everything to be perfect so we took her to her favorite mariscos restaurant for a fabulous meal of Mexican seafood served impeccably. We baked her favorite cake, a rich, moist carrot cake with homemade frosting.

We had the restaurant play her favorite birthday songs–Las Mananitas (a stirring rendition by Vicente Fernandez whose soulful voice plumbs the depths of the emotional scale) and Mananitas Tapatias by Pedro Infante (the undisputed greatest idol in Mexican cinematic history). Knowing what a great sport she is, we even asked the wait staff fete her with flan and photograph her in one of those colorful sombreros. There was only one problem.

When the wait staff came to our table bearing celebratory accoutrements, my mom had just stepped away to the restroom. There we were–music blaring, wait staff in tow and no guest of honor. We had to do the whole thing all over again minutes later.

Mariscos La Playa is the perfect restaurant for a birthday celebration. Moreover, it’s the perfect restaurant for a great meal.

There are actually two Mariscos La Playa restaurants, one in Santa Fe and one in Espanola. The Espanola restaurant is owned by the Jose Ortega family which once shared ownership of the Santa Fe Mariscos La Playa with Jose’s cousin Nora Lopez. Jose also owns Mariscos Costa Azul in Santa Fe. All three Mariscos restaurants are outstanding!

Mariscos La Playa in Espanola, an outstanding Mexican restaurant.

Mariscos La Playa in Espanola, an outstanding Mexican restaurant.

If you’ve been to any of the family Mexican restaurants, the menu is certainly familiar–and not just because it’s a multi-page boatload of fresh Mexican seafood. The menu is shaped like a plump blue snapper.

Like its sister restaurants, Espanola’s Mariscos La Playa is awash in a veritable spectrum of color, particularly of soothing azure shades the color of Mexico’s Pacific coastal waters. Structurally, it is somewhat of an interesting dichotomy–a wood plank exterior facade, adobe and stone colonnades and red brick floors.

The interior is a bit cliché. It seems every mariscos restaurant in New Mexico starts with the same basic template–a large blue marlin (looking more ceramic than taxidermy) on the wall, murals of sandy beaches and more colorful nautical themed decorations than you’ll ever see in coastal Mexico.

The service is impeccable with one of the most attentive and polite wait staffs around–a hallmark of the Mariscos family of restaurants. Better still, the wait staff makes sure there’s no surcease to the salsa and chips or the incomparable creamy avocado-based dip that won us over years ago.

This is a fabulous dip–wasabi-colored and mayonnaise enriched, melding ripe avocados, tomatoes, onions and jalapenos in a creamy concoction that puts to shame some of the best guacamole we’ve found. It’s so good that you might not even touch the wonderful pico de gallo style salsa that along with the chips and dip, forms a great pre-prandial triumvirate.

A colorful interior awash in colors.

A colorful interior awash in colors.

As great as the salsa, dip and chips are, you don’t want to fill up on them because the menu features some of the very best mariscos north of the border.

The start of a memorable meal might include tostadas de ceviche crafted from crispy (yet formidable enough to support handfuls of seafood) tostadas first layered with mayonnaise then heaped with either shrimp or a seafood combination, cilantro, onion and chopped tomatoes. It’s a colorful and delicious appetizer you can also have as an entree in which it comes as an order of three.

If the incomparable taste of bacon is what you crave, try the Discada Norteña, grilled diced beef with bacon, onions, tomato and white cheese served with corn tortillas, lettuce, tomato and avocado. While all the ingredients go together very well, it’s the bacon that comes across as the prevalent taste–and that’s not at all a bad thing. This entree comes in portions for one or for two and is served in a flat, circular pan with a can of Sterno to keep it warm.

Naturally, you’re going to want to wash down all this great food with a gigantic goblet of horchata and Mariscos La Playa’s version is among the best. You can get a work-out lifting the oversized goblet to your mouth.

Mariscos La Playa
2413 North Riverside Drive
Espanola, NM
747-2413
LATEST VISIT: 9 December 2006
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Horchata, Avocado Dip, Salsa and Chips, Tostadas de Ceviche, Discada Norteña

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Matilda’s Restaurant – Espanola, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Flowers pale in comparison to Matilda Guillen

Flowers pale in comparison to Matilda Guillen

In Asi Es Nuevo Mexico, the official state song of New Mexico, former Lieutenant Governor Roberto Mondragon extols in a rich timbre, the incomparably beauteous flowers of The Land of Enchantment–its women. When the verse “lindas mujeras que no tiene igual” (beautiful women without equal) was written, the composer must certainly have had Matilda Guillen in mind.

At 81 years young, there is no surcease to Matilda’s boundless energy. She has owned and operated her eponymous restaurant for fifty years and has no plans to retire. On Sunday, September 24th, 2006, throngs of friends, family and admirers gathered together to celebrate her 81st birthday. Surrounded by hundreds of people who know and love her, she was practically showered in flowers, all of which paled in comparison to her inner and outer beauty.

Although we had known about her and her restaurant for years, we met Matilda just five days after she had been feted by her family and friends. She was still aglow in happiness and basking in the presence of the flowers and family which remained behind. Though we had never met her before, she treated us the way she treats all her customers–like old friends. She is obviously very well rooted with nary a sense of worry or fret.

Matilda spoke to us of the past when she charged five cents for a cup of coffee and twenty-five cents for a big bowl of chile, but mostly she talked of the promise of the future. An eternal optimist, she hopes and plans to continue greeting and serving her customers for a long time to come. She also spoke lovingly of her family which includes long-time Democrat power-broker Ben Lujan.

You can't miss Matilda's thanks to this sign that points the way.

You can't miss Matilda's thanks to this sign that points the way.

There’s no way the cavalcade of cars that daily traverse the state highway which bisects Espanola can miss Matilda’s Restaurant which is just off the beaten path on a dirt alley. A large well-lit sign points the way to what is a humble, homey restaurant everyone in Northern New Mexico knows about. In many ways, her restaurant resembles the former family home it once was. Catholic icons and family pictures decorate every wall while the porch leading to the restaurant’s entrance is decorated with potted geraniums and other perennials.

The menu, on which the faces of a Native American and a Conquistador are depicted, is replete with native Northern New Mexican foods. With the exception of the tacos platter, all dinners are served with your choice of red or green chile and sopaipillas. The green chile is reputed to be among the very best in the state while the posole most assuredly is.

A steaming bowl of posole, ameliorated with chunks of tender pork, with green chile is a must have. Posole is a New Mexico comfort food standard traditionally served at Christmas time (but wonderful year round) and there is none better than Matilda’s version. As hearty and heart-warming as can be, it is made even better with fluffy, golden-brown sopaipillas which Matilda herself replenishes faithfully. Oh, and you can also have those sopaipillas with a locally produced honey which is far superior to the store-bought kind other restaurants serve.

The famous Matilda's Restaurant in Espanola, New Mexico

The famous Matilda's Restaurant in Espanola, New Mexico

Matilda’s salsa is a rich red blend and in texture resembles a thickened tomato paste, but it packs a piquant punch that sneaks up on you. A bowlful before your meal is a must though you might want to save some for your entree. The salsa is served with a basket of crisp, low-salt chips.

Enchiladas have become the quintessential New Mexican entree and Matilda’s are among the best of their genre. Served either rolled or flat (my preference) and with the requisite fried egg on top, there may be nothing that tastes more like New Mexico. Cheese and onion may embellish the enchilada, but there’s no doubting that these enchiladas are about the chile–the way it should be–even though Matilda’s green chile could be a tad more piquant. The pinto beans are served whole, not refried and mashed, also the way it should be.

Also as they should be are Matilda’s tacos which are loaded with perfectly seasoned beef and shredded cheese and served in the un-Taco Bell manner on uneven shells dipped in boiling grease. If some of that grease gets on your hands as you eat your tacos, that’s the way it should be.

Matilda’s has been going strong for fifty years. That, too, is the way it should be!

Matilda’s Restaurant
424 Corlett Road
Espanola, NM
(505) 753-3200
LATEST VISIT: 29 September 2006
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Posole with Green Chile, Tacos, Sopaipillas, Salsa and Chips, Green Chile Enchiladas

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