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Mama Lisa’s Ghost Town Kitchen – Madrid, New Mexico

Mama Lisa's Ghost Town Kitchen (aka No Pity Cafe)

Steeped in rich history dating from the early 1800s, Madrid has been transformed from a hard- and soft-coal mining town with shafts as deep as 2500 feet down into a distinctive artist’s community. In the 1970s, artists and craftspeople converted old company stores and houses into shops, galleries and services. In doing so, they transformed what might otherwise have become yet another storied New Mexico ghost town into a popular tourist destination. Situated on the storied Turquoise Trail, Madrid is today a beautiful Bohemian escape city dwellers like me really enjoy.

Madrid’s unique charm and slow pace of life are infectious. It’s easy to imagine a carefree life away from the maddening crowds and hustle and bustle of modern metropolitan existence. The folly of modern existence is captured brilliantly in the wooden sign above the door to Mama Lisa’s Ghost Town Kitchen’s. The sign depicts a corpulent matron ladling soup into her mouth from an Indian pot while a sombrero and huarache wearing skeleton on bended knee begs for sustenance. It’s certainly Madrid’s citizens who represent the fatted woman while those of us envying that way of life are the skeletal beings.

The sign above the restaurant's door.

The sign above the restaurant's door.

Had the skeleton depicted on the sign been allowed to eat regularly at Mama Lisa’s kitchen, he, too, might have been endomorphic like much of American society. That’s because Mama Lisa’s serves hefty portions of delicious, maybe even extraordinary victuals…and yes, there is a Mama Lisa.  She’s a transplant from Chicago who’s been feeding visitors and locals in Madrid for more than two decades.  She and her tiny restaurant are very highly regarded by locals, but surprisingly unknown, despite the restaurant’s longevity, outside Madrid.

The signage might lead you to believe this is a restaurant with a multiple personality.  Most people know it as Mama Lisa’s, but its full name is Mama Lisa’s Ghost Town Kitchen, the “Ghost Town” portion an obvious reference to what Madrid almost became.  The “No Pity Cafe” subtitle came yeas later when the restaurant’s staff called a Santa Fe radio station on a frequent basis to request a song bemoaning “a town with no pity.”  Mama Lisa, a compassionate woman, has a heart of gold, giving a hand-up to many of the town’s poor residents who might not otherwise get much to eat.

Hummus pita with feta and harissa

Hummus pita with feta and harissa

As with many seasonal travel destinations, Madrid’s peak tourist season is in the warm summer months.  As such, it’s probably best to call ahead just to make sure the restaurant is open.  Save for in summer, hours are inconsistent and the restaurant is actually closed from January through March when the town reverts from a bustling hubbub of activity to a veritable ghost town.  When it is open, you’re in for a real treat.  Mama Lisa’s Ghost Town is a jewel, one of the two or three very best restaurants along the Turquoise Trail.

Mama Lisa’s menu is eclectic and everything is made from scratch. Organic ingredients are used to the greatest extent possible. The menu changes frequently and is posted on a slate board just inside the restaurant as well as on the front porch, weather permitting.  The restaurant is situated in the confines of a former two-story home located near the center of Madrid, just east of the fictional Maggie’s Cafe built for the Disney movie Wild Hogs.  Though the restaurant is as homey as possible, its restroom is a porta-potty behind the restaurant by a llama pen–all part of its charm.

Curried Acorn Squash and Orange Soup

Mama Lisa’s eclectic menu is a departure from the mundane. It’s a treat to read the slateboard and a challenge to pick what to order. Everything just sounds so good and you can always be assured of the highest quality of fresh, homemade food possible…just like a mama would make if she could cook nearly as well. As good a cook as my mom is, she never prepared curried acorn squash and orange soup for me, but Mama Lisa has. This is a fabulous, soul-warming soup. Beautiful to look at and absolutely delicious, it melds the surprising combination of acorn squash and orange into an elixir for whatever ails you.

If it’s on the menu, it would be hard to pass up the hummus pita with feta and harissa (a paste of chilies and garlic used to enhance food in North Africa). This Mediterranean inspired entree also includes a fresh assorted greens garden salad and cucumbers (use the harissa as a salad dressing). It’s entirely meatless and absolutely delicious.  While hummus has seemingly become a de rigueur offering at just about every restaurant, very infrequently does it make an impression on me.  Mama Lisa’s rendition does.  It is rich and garlicky, spiced just right.

Green Chile Cheeseburger

During our inaugural visit, we lucked upon the “Schwarzneggar,” an aptly named Sunday special consisting of a three-quarter inch pork chop smothered with rich cream gravy and served with red cabbage imbued with caraway seeds and dried cranberries. Rarely have we had a better pork chop, especially in New Mexico.  An accompanying flax seed bread roll was out-of-the-oven warm and absolutely delicious. Mama Lisa (who rarely seems to venture out of the kitchen) bakes great bread when she finds the time.

Great bread, an airy and hearty housemade ciabatta bun, is the foundation of an excellent green chile cheeseburger.  Lightly toasted, the ciabatta provides a solid foundation to hold all the ingredients for the burger together.  A hand-formed all-beef patty extends beyond the bread on all sides.  It’s a thick beef patty topped with an excellent green chile blanketed by a molten white Cheddar.  The green chile barely registers on my piquancy scale, but rates highly on my roasted green chile flavor meter.  Toppings include julienne carrots, red onions, lettuce, pickles and squash.  The burger is accompanied by a warm potato salad.

The "Sloppy Jose"

The "Sloppy Jose"

A barbecue brisket sandwich with chipotle barbecue sauce is nearly as good as the green chile cheeseburger. The brisket is as tender as a bird’s heart and so scrumptious, no sauce is required (although the chipotle barbecue sauce is dynamite).   The brisket is thinly sliced with a faint smokiness and no discernible fat or gristle.  The chipotle barbecue sauce combines the best aspects of barbecue and chipotle, meaning a nice degree of heat and flavor.  This sandwich may have been served on a paper plate (thankfully with real silverware) but it was of three star quality.

The theme of “good food that’s good for you” applies seemingly to all sandwiches on the menu. Mama Lisa’s “Sloppy Jose,” for example, is made with organic ground beef and is served with dill pickles, a fresh tomato slice and mixed greens all on a ciabatta roll (a specialty of the house). The spicy ground beef practically oozes out of the buns as you squeeze them into your hands. Sandwich plates may include Kettle potato chips which are all natural, extra crispy and delicious–a perfect sandwich accompaniment

Enchilada Heaven

Enchilada Heaven

At most restaurants, especially in New Mexico, calling an entree “Enchilada Heaven” might be an audacious claim, but Mama Lisa’s interpretation of this quintessential New Mexican dish lives up to its name. The three ingredients which make this entree special are pork carnitas (adovada style and unbelievably tender), cremini (a small Portobello) mushrooms and a deeply rich red chile tinged with just a hint of cinnamon and a barely discernable bit of cumin. Perfectly prepared pinto beans and cheese add to the flavor parade.

The parade of surprises at Mama Lisa’s is endless.  You might believe you know what you’re in for if you see penne pasta with meatballs and sausage on the menu, but not so at the hands of a wonderfully inventive chef.  We discerned a real difference in the first taste of the sauce.  Sure the usual suspects–garlic, oregano, etc.–were obviously in the flavor profile, but there was also something deliciously different.  The sauce included a basil-enhanced pesto sauce that provided an enlivening zing that made me want a whole bowl of the sauce.

By the way, the rest of the penne pasta dish is perfectly executed, too.  The pasta is perfectly prepared, neither al dente nor overdone and mushy.  Dollops of melted mozzarella decorate the dish and provide a mellow cheese contrast.  The meatballs, near perfect orbs of seasoned ground beef, are plentiful and excellent.  The sausage, sliced diagonally and buried under the pasta, is fennel-kissed and delicious.  Mama Lisa’s prowess with Italian inspired dishes should be of no surprise considering her international repertoire.

Penne Pasta with Meatballs and Sausage

Beverage selections may include a refreshing Tamarindo Refresco, loosely patterned after a Mexican agua fresca. If you’ve never had tamarind, you’re in for a treat. Tamarind is a fruity, sour, fleshy pulp which Mama Lisa squeezes into a lip puckering cup of deliciousness.  During another visit, the Mexican inspired libation was housemade limeade.  Not too tart, not to sweet, it proved a thirst-quenching beverage on a hot Madrid day.

Mama Lisa’s portions are waist expanding, but no matter how full you might be, you have to save room for dessert. Either that or shop for a couple of hours then come back just for dessert.

Tres Leches cake, one of the best we've had in New Mexico

Tres Leches cake, one of the best we've had in New Mexico

One of her specialties is a red chile chocolate cake. Velvety smooth and moist, it’s a delicious marriage of chocolate and chile. Montezuma and the Aztecs believed this combination possessed aphrodisiac qualities and it turns out, there is a physiological basis for this belief.  As all New Mexicans know, chile is considered an aphrodisiac because of its ability to heighten the pulse rate. Chocolate is imbued with phenyl-ethylamine, a substance that stimulates the same bodily reaction as falling in love.  The bitter-sweetness of chocolate and the smoky heat of the chile form an absolutely delicious combination! It’s made even better with Mama Lisa’s homemade ice cream.

One of the very best homemade ice cream treats we’ve ever experienced is Mama Lisa’s honey flavored ice cream, a dollop of which graced a fabulous “nectarine blue crisp” dessert served warm.  First, the nectarine blue crisp.  It’s a cobbler made with blueberries and nectarine (a fuzz-less relative of the peach) slices.  The blueberry and nectarine combination is a study in how well contrasting flavors can go together.  Now for the honey-vanilla ice cream.  Unlike so many housemade ice creams we’ve sampled, this one has a creamy, velvety texture, but it’s the prominent sweet honey flavor that’s the true foil which makes this dessert memorable.


Nectarine Blue Crisp with Housemade Honey Ice Cream

Another outstanding dessert is Mama Lisa’s interpretation of the Mexican favorite tres leches cake. Taking just a bit of liberty, she tops the cake with caramel, homemade ice cream and adds strawberries to the cavalcade of flavors. It’s not quite spongy moist, but the press of each spoonful is made easy thanks to the sweet, delicious three milks combination.

The chocolate walnut strudel is light, flaky, moist and delicious. It is topped with a redolent bitter-sweet chocolate and imbued throughout with walnuts.  It’s one of the few things at Mama Lisa’s you can top.

This is an outstanding restaurant not on everybody’s radar!  If you want to impress friends and family, bring them to Mama Lisa’s and you’ll be hailed a pioneer, maybe a savant.  Please note that because of the frequency with which the menu changes, some (perhaps none) of the items described in this review might be available when you visit.  That would be fine, too, because no matter what’s on the menu is bound to be an adventure in deliciousness.

Mama Lisa’s Ghost Town Kitchen (aka No Pity Cafe)
2859 Highway 14
Madrid, New Mexico
(505) 471-5769

LATEST VISIT: 18 September 2010
COST: $$
BEST BET: Red Chile Chocolate Cake, Barbecue Brisket, the Schwarzeneggar, Hummus Pita With Feta & Harissa, Enchilada Heaven, Organic Ground Beef Sloppy Jose, Chocolate Walnut Strudel, Tres Leches Cake, Nectarine Blue Crisp, Green Chile Cheeseburger, Penne Pasta with Meatballs and Sausage, Curried Acorn Squash and Orange Soup

Mama Lisa's Ghost Town Kitchen on Urbanspoon

The Hollar – Madrid, New Mexico

The Hollar in Madrid, New Mexico

The Hollar in Madrid, New Mexico

It wasn’t that long ago that if you played “word association” with almost anyone outside the Mason-Dixon line, the first thing coming to mind if you used the term “Southern food” was probably something like “heapin’ helpins’ of hillbilly hospitality.”

During their nine-year run as one of the most popular comedies in the history of American television, the Clampetts, a hillbilly family who relocated to Beverly Hills after finding oil on their property, introduced “vittles” to the American vernacular.  Vittles, of course, meant such “delicacies” as possum shanks, pickled pig jowls, smoked crawdads, stewed squirrel, turnip greens, and owl cakes.  “Weeeee Doggies,” now that’s eatin’.”

To much of America, the aforementioned delicacies were culinary curiosities–bumpkinly and provincial food no one outside the deeply rural south would eat.  Because the Beverly Hillbillies predated the Food Network and the culinary awakening of America, those stereotypes as to what constitutes Southern food became deeply ingrained in the fabric of American culture.

The interior of The Hollar

The interior of The Hollar

In 2008, Gary Paul Nabhan published Renewing America’s Food Traditions, one of the most important books written about American food. This terrific tome celebrates the vast diversity of foods which gives North America its distinctive cultural identity, an identity reflecting the vast and unique hodgepodge of cultures.  In an example of gerrymandering Congress would envy, Nabhan remapped North America’s boundaries into thirteen basic food “nations” or culinary regions.  He named each region for its ecological and cultural keystone foods.

The culinary region which includes Southern Arizona and New Mexico into northern Mexico, for example, is called “chili pepper nation.”  Three distinctive food nations define the South: “Chestnut Nation”–northern Georgia through West Virginia; “Crab Cake Nation”–the mid-Atlantic down to the Florida coast; and “Gumbo Nation,” the Gulf Coast.

These three culinary nations proudly showcase distinctive traditions and ingredients spawned from a veritable stew of multicultural influences which evolved into Southern food as we know it today.  Those influences include Native and African Americans as well as Scottish, French, Spanish and so many others which were ultimately responsible for Soul food, Creole and Cajun cooking, barbecue and more.  To pigeonhole Southern food into a finite category is to not understand Southern food at all.

Hollar Burger with Prosciutto and Provolone

Hollar Burger with Prosciutto and Provolone

Having lived in Mississippi for eight years, we knew not to compartmentalize Southern food which we thought we had seen described and defined every conceivable way.  That is, until reading an email from a long-time reader of this blog.  When Robyn Black described a restaurant in Madrid, New Mexico which serves “a kind of continental southern food…not the kind of ya’all southern food, but a lot more upscale” in an ambiance “as comfortable as an old shoe, but a lot prettier,” we were intrigued.

When she added that “This is a place that should not be missed, whether you are just passing through or staying in Madrid.  In fact this is a place that is worth driving to from just about anywhere,” and personalized it with “Gil Garduno, this is a restaurant you should not miss,” a visit became inevitable.

The restaurant Robyn described so invitingly is called The Hollar.  In the vernacular of the South, a hollar is a term for “a small valley between mountains,” an apt description for Madrid itself.  Long-time Country music fans are undoubtedly familiar with part-time New Mexican Randy Travis’s “Deeper Than The Holler” which describes the lyrical way a country boy expresses his love (i.e., “My love is deeper that the holler, stronger than the rivers, higher than the pine trees growin’ tall upon the hill…)”

New York Steak and eggs

New York Steak and eggs

The Hollar is the brainchild of owner-chef Josh Novak who matriculated at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Atlanta, perhaps the heart of the South.  It is situated in the rustically charming wooden structure which previously housed the Tocororo Cafe, a highly regarded Cuban restaurant which we loved.  Robyn assured me that “Tocororo may have been good, but The Hollar which has taken it’s place is stellar!”  She called chef Novak “an outstanding, innovative chef!”

The Hollar has interior seating for fewer than thirty guests, but weather-permitting, the place to dine is really the outdoor patio which seats up to 20 more people.  Enclosed by an agrestic coyote fence, it is an ideal milieu for enjoying a New Mexico day particularly when entertainment is provided–and if it isn’t, the people watching is always interesting.  The mostly monochromatic restaurant’s walls are festooned with unframed paintings by a local artist.   More colorful are the clientele, which seemingly typical of Madrid restaurants, is a mix of Bohemians and bikers.  It’s the tourists who seem out of place.

The abbreviated menu is inspired, the “continental Southern” Robyn described.  It’s Southern food with refinement to be sure, but it also includes some of the more simple favorites such as fried green tomatoes, fried pickles and fried chicken.  Lest you think the commonality among everything on the menu is “fried,” the menu also includes entrees you might not necessarily expect at a Southern restaurant–dishes such as a Nicoise salad featuring blackened tuna and a Balsamic vinaigrette.

Fried Green Tomato and Egg Biscuits

Fried Green Tomato and Egg Biscuits

Robyn recommends the shrimp stack which to her “amazement and palate’s delight” provided “an explosion of flavors to die for, something you might find in a five-star restaurant (without the five-star price or attitude).”   The shrimp stack is available for lunch or dinner, but not for Sunday brunch which as it happens was when Kim and I first visited.  The brunch menu is limited in terms of the number of items available, but limitless in its surprises and the culinary contentment it elicits.

One surprise is the Hollar Burger with Prosciutto and Provolone, an inspired burger combination that might seem more Italian than Southern were it not for the fact that a biscuit replaces the banal burger bun.  Unlike the crumbly biscuits I make at home, this one holds together surprisingly well despite the moistness of the beef.  In terms of circumference it’s not a big burger, but it stacks pretty high with a thick, juicy beef patty; crisp lettuce; and thinly-sliced prosciutto sheathed under melted provolone.  More importantly than it’s height is its depth of flavor.  It is a rich and delicious burger.

With today’s inflation the phrase “as tough as a two dollar steak” should probably be replaced by “as tough as a twenty dollar steak.”  The Hollar’s brunch menu features a New York Steak and Eggs for five dollars less than that, but this steak isn’t tough in the least.  It’s a tender and juicy steak–about eight-ounces–seasoned to perfection with nary any gristle.  In addition to the two eggs, this plate includes some of the very best grits I’ve ever had.  If you’ve never had good grits, you’ve never had Josh Novak’s smoked gouda grits which have a texture and flavor unlike any grits I can remember, even in Mississippi.

Fried green tomatoes with a Bourdelaise sauce

When Fanny Flagg’s best-selling novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe was published in 1987, it inspired many restaurants to try their hand at preparing this Southern favorite.  Most failed miserably, but The Hollar has perfected the formula–fried green tomatoes lightly coated with cornmeal crust so that when you bite into them, only the outer layer is crunchy while the insides retain a juicy tomato flavor.  One of the ways to appreciate the fried green tomatoes best is on a biscuit with fried eggs.  Wow!  Aside from my mom’s chokecherry jelly, I’ve never had anything better on a biscuit.

Lunchtime starters include a house salad, bruschetta, fried pickles, fried okra and fried tomatoes.  The fried okra is classic–lightly breaded and impeccably fresh.  You’ll find the okra crispy on the outside and  light and moist on the inside.  The fried okra is served with a creamy house-made Ranch dressing.

A starter of fried green tomatoes comes four to an order.  The tomatoes are served with a unique twist on Bordelaise sauce which is traditionally served with meats.  In fact, by virtue of its white gravy-like color, you’d probably never mistake The Hollar’s sauce with Bordelaise.  Appearance be darned, this is an excellent sauce which complements the fried green tomatoes very well.

A warm goat cheese salad

The Hollar’s lunch menu even offers a fried green tomato salad, one of five salads featured (the others being a Nicoise salad with seared tuna, a crispy chicken salad, a crispy shrimp salad and for vegetarians, a sauteed tempeh salad).  When available, the best salad may well be a warm goat cheese salad (pictured above).  This is a work of edible as well as aesthetic art showcasing a variety of greens, berries (black berries, strawberries, blueberries and raspberries), cherry tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, roasted red peppers and grilled chevre (goat cheese) from the South Mountain Dairy in Cedar Crest.

This is a sensational salad!  Served with house-made vinaigrette and Ranch dressings, it is a compilation of scintillating ingredients as fresh and delicious as possible.  The goat cheese is mild, creamy and only slightly sour, the way it should be.  It emboldens and complements the other ingredients, especially the berries.  The grilled red peppers are lightly marinated and have a sweet, ripened quality that renders them delicious.  The berries are an interesting and pleasant addition, bringing an element of tartness to the salad.

One of the highlights of our eight years living in Mississippi was in discovering a region in which fried chicken was practically a religion.  We’ve missed the golden-hued, crispy coating which enrobes perfectly fried and delicate chicken so good it makes adults swoon with ecstasy.  The Hollar’s rendition, though not traditional bone-in chicken, is the best we’ve found in New Mexico.  An entree of crispy chicken with cheese grits and grilled asparagus nearly elicited carnal responses of delight.  The white meat chicken breasts were moist and delicious with an exquisite coating reminiscent of the fabulous Southern-fried chicken we enjoyed often.  Better still, it is served with the aforementioned Bordelaise sauce which presents the qualities of richness and elegance.

Crispy chicken with cheese grits and grilled asparagus

The smoked gouda cheese grits are outstanding, better than any grits we enjoyed in the Deep South–much better.  I’d make the drive from Rio Rancho to Madrid just for the grits.  Then there’s the grilled asparagus which appears to have been marinated in a Balsamic sauce of some sorts.  The asparagus spears are tender and as fresh as they are in spring.  Aficionados of fried chicken won’t do better in New Mexico than this plate!

Biscuits play a prominent role in the  menu and as wonderful as they are, I can’t help but wonder what a good jam would add. Still, if you’re looking for a refreshing departure from the de rigueur New Mexico brunch standards such as breakfast burritos, The Hollar is a welcome change. If you’re looking for a great meal in a terrific setting, the picturesque drive to Madrid should definitely be on your horizon. My love for this charming restaurant is, as Randy Travis might sing, deeper than The Hollar.

The Hollar is open for lunch from 11AM through 3PM and dinner from 5 to 9PM Wednesdays through Saturday. Sunday brunch is available from 11AM to 3PM.

The Hollar
2849 Hwy. 14
Madrid, New Mexico
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 10 July 2010
1st VISIT: 2 August 2009
COST: $$
BEST BET: Hollar Burger with Prosciutto and Provolone, Fried Green Tomato and Egg Biscuit, Coleslaw, New York Steak and Eggs, Warm Goat Cheese Salad, Crispy Chicken with Cheese Grits, Fried Green Tomatoes with a Bordelaise Sauce

Tocororo Cafe – Madrid, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Tocororo Cafe in Madrid, New Mexico

The Tocororo Cafe in Madrid, New Mexico

New Mexico is a dichotomous land, a land which welcomes contrast and diversity, where the state-of-the-art trappings of modern society are juxtaposed against ancient cultures with traditions that have gone largely unchanged for centuries. It’s a land in which the sophisticated and the rustic are equally at home.

It’s a land in which the best New Mexican cuisine might just be found in Cuba (that would be El Bruno and the best Cuban food could well be the one served in Madrid’s Tocororo Cafe.

Cuban food in Madrid, you ask. Many people assume (incorrectly) that there are only two restaurants in Madrid–the Mine Shaft Tavern and Maggie’s Main Street Diner, a storefront prop built for the movie “Wild Hogs” and its all-star cast of John Travolta, William H. Macy, Tim Allen, Ray Liotta and Martin Lawrence.

You know what has been said about assuming. In this case, an incorrect assumption means missing out on two fabulous cafes: Mama Lisa’s Ghost Town Kitchen and the Tocororo Cafe which has been blowing patrons away since it opened in 2006.

The restaurant is named for the tocororo, the national bird of Cuba whose plumage exhibits the colors of the Cuban flag: red, blue and white. Interestingly, the bird cannot live in captivity and as such is an appropriate symbol for thousands of Cuban exiles who fled the country’s repressive communist regime under Fidel Castro.

Casey, the official restaurant dog

Casey, the official restaurant dog

One such exile is Olga Delulogeu, an accomplished artist and owner of the delightful Tocororo Cafe. Olga came to the United States in 1992 with a humanitarian vista. Her work is exhibited in the Aka-Tombo Cuban Art Gallery housed in an old, red rail car gallery connected to her restaurant.

The restaurant’s tabletops and walls are decorated with Olga’s vibrant Caribbean motifs, but to get the full effect, you’ve got to visit the gallery. Her paintings are a mix of scenes from her beloved Cuba and of the desert Southwest where she now lives. Her work also displays, in an innocent and happy way, the intense love she has for animals.

Note: Olga shares gallery space with Kathleen O’Bryan whose remarkable pastels capture the essence of New Mexico, particularly its incomparable skies and other-worldly cloud formations.

The Tocororo Cafe is housed in a ramshackle building left over from Madrid’s halcyon days as a coal mining town. In the 1970s, talented artists and craftspeople converted old company stores and houses into quality galleries, shops and services.

The Cafe is constructed of wood planks, the type of which have made popular frames for paintings and photographs for years. The color of the trim around the door and window shutters is probably closer to Taos blue than to the turquoise shade that defines the scenic Highway 14 alongside which the restaurant is situated. The restaurant is backdropped by tall evergreens.

The Tocororo Combination Platter--Cuban tapas galore!

The Tocororo Combination Platter--Cuban tapas galore!

Madrid is a village with personality (and personalities) to spare. If you’ve ever wondered where the hippies from the 1970s communes throughout Northern New Mexico went, you’re bound to run into some of them here.

If you’re looking for characters, look no further than the Tocororo Cafe’s unofficial host and greeter Casey, a Labrador mix who likes to mingle with guests, particularly after meals have been delivered to their tables.

Weather permitting, the best seats (albeit more utilitarian than comfortable) in the restaurant are just outside the restaurant’s entrance where you can breathe in the high mountain’s salubrious air.

One word of caution–if your blue cheese dressing tastes funny, it could be on account of a mischievous starling perched on an overhead tree branch.

Tocororo’s menu is somewhat abbreviated compared to the menu at some Cuban restaurants. It is sectioned off into sandwiches, tapas, salads, specials (called hot stuff), soups, side orders and desserts.

The Isla de Pinos

The Isla de Pinos

There’s also a section for hot coffee drinks. To Cubans, a cafe is a prominent cultural and social activity and it is said that there is no such thing as unsweetened Cuban coffee. The wait staff will provide sweeteners if you want, but most Cubans take it strong and black.

If your tastes lean more toward iced drinks, the menu includes various granitas (a dessert drink made by freezing a flavored juice and then blending it when it is served), freezes, traditional tropical fruit shakes and malts.

Unlike the coffee, Cuban milkshakes tend to be somewhat sweeter than even their American counterparts. They also tend to be served colder and with more pronounced fruit flavor derivations.

My compadre Rico Martinez, the brilliant comedic genius behind The Rant Pack blog site might never forgive me if I visited a Cuban restaurant and didn’t partake of a Cuban sandwich. Having made it his life’s questto find the ultimate Cuban sandwich, Rico will have to make the trek to the Tocororo Cafe.

He’ll have to make several trips because Tocororo’s menu features seven different Cuban sandwiches, each named for one of the seven Cuban provinces before the Castro regime took over.

The menu features the conventional Cuban sandwich (called La Habana) constructed of sugar cured ham, roast pork, Swiss cheese and dill pickle on a baguette. A vegetarian version of La Habana is also available. The menu also includes a sandwich in which the primary meat ingredient is turkey, one made with Albacore tuna, one with grilled chicken breast and a goat cheese sandwich with no meat ingredient.

The Tocororo Salad

The Tocororo Salad

Then there’s the Isla de Pinos with which we fell in love from bite one. This sandwich is crafted with Spanish chorizo, julienne potatoes, tomato, Swiss cheese and Romaine lettuce on a ciabatta bread canvas.

The amalgam of ingredients is terrific, with the real stand-out being the chorizo–a bit coarse, a bit dry, just a tad spicy–an excellent Spanish chorizo (which is wholly unlike Mexican chorizo). The sandwich is thick and served warm with the melted Swiss cheese blanketing other ingredients.

Portions at Tocororo are easily big enough to share, but the sandwich you might want to keep to yourself.

Instead share some of the restaurant’s tapas or better still, the Tocororo Combination Platter (pictured above right) which includes several different tapas. The platter is brimming with ham and Swiss cheese croquettes, Swiss cheese, Spanish olives with pimento, slices of sugar-cured ham and a Cuban specialty, roast pork.

The pork is roasted with cloves of garlic, but it isn’t overly garlicky and its surprising moistness seems to indicate some marinate (perhaps a citrus), but we were unable to discern its basis. The combination platter is served with a basket of warm, slightly toasted bread.

Apple crisp with vanilla ice cream and caramel topping.

Apple crisp with vanilla ice cream and caramel topping.

Another candidate for sharing is one of Tocororo’s inventive salads. There are four salads on the menu, none of which are exactly like other salads you’ll find at other restaurants.

The Tocororo Salad, for example, is crafted with Romaine lettuce, apple slices, dry cranberries, crunchy pecans, blue cheese crumbles, roasted turkey and a dressing of vinegar and extra virgin olive oil. The sharpness of the cheese, sweetness of the cranberries, tartness of the apple and freshness of the lettuce coalesce into a complementary array of flavors. Every bite is an experience in taste sensations.

For dessert, if you’re able to manage, a very good option is the apple crisp served three scoops of vanilla ice cream and drizzled with warm caramel. Calorie laden to be sure, but what a delicious way to expand your waistline. It, too, is made for sharing.

Sharing seems to be a common theme in this review, so it’s only fitting that you go with someone you love to Tocororo and share your experiences. It’s a restaurant many people haven’t heard about, but one made to be shared with friends and loved ones.

Tocororo Cafe
2841 NM. 14
Madrid, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 3 November 2007
COST: $$
BEST BET: Isla De Pinos, Tocororo Combination Platter, Tocororo Salad, Cuban Coffee