Though I’m widely credited as being the “godfather of Albuquerque food blogging“(or the “Yoda of food” as the great Jenn Wolhetz once called me), before there was a Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Web, there was another voice calling in the wilderness to alert diners to the Land of Enchantment’s culinary offerings. Before there was a Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Web, there was John W. Shipman food page and it was the most prominent and highly respected online source of independent restaurant reviews in New Mexico.
John Shipman, a software engineer at the New Mexico Institute of Technology, called himself a “gourmand in the dessert.” His reviews were very well written and highly descriptive, reflecting the culinary savvy of a diner who understands food very well: its composition, its provenance, its flavor profiles. To say John was an inspiration to me is a vast understatement. He was the “everyman critic” whose prose and style I emulated (though he was much more successful than I at getting right to the point). Some of his reviews can still be found online though he doesn’t update them very often.
To me John W. Shipman commands the type of respect given E. F. Hutton on television commercials. The tag line for those commercials was “When E. F. Hutton speaks, people listen.” When John emailed me in July, 2012 with a declaration that “the San Antonio Crane Restaurant has the best carne adovada south of Rancho de Chimayo,” my radar perked up and I began researching the restaurant he said served the “best Mexican food in the county.” Alas, it would take another ten months before we were able to visit the San Antonio Crane.
The San Antonio Crane, as can be inferred, is named for the thousands of sandhill cranes which migrate to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge every winter. The Refuge, about nine miles away from San Antonio, New Mexico, is the winter home to tens of thousands of birds. One of the most spectacular sights you’ll ever witness, an experience akin to a religious epiphany, is when thousands of snow geese simultaneously erupt in explosions of flight, an even triggered by some cue perceptible only to the geese. It’s absolutely amazing!
One of the cranes is apparently held back by its peers as it remains in San Antonio year-round. He (or she) is a four-foot tall plastic mascot perched on the patio of the San Antonio Crane Mexican Restaurant. The restaurant, by the way, isn’t on the main drag made famous by The Owl Cafe and Buckhorn Tavern. It’s almost directly behind the Buckhorn Tavern on a side street you might not notice if you’ve got burgers on your mind.
The San Antonio Crane Mexican Restaurant was known for many years as Acosta’s and it was a village favorite visited by diners-in-the-know from miles around. Owned and operated by Maria Acosta, it served some of the most authentic, made-from-scratch New Mexican cuisine in central New Mexico. When it reopened in 2011, Acosta’s was rechristened The San Antonio Crane Mexican Restaurant, now operated by Zolla Acosta, daughter of the original proprietor. Though the name lays claim to being a Mexican restaurant, the menu and cooking style are New Mexican through and through.
The menu includes a de rigueur (for San Antonio) green chili (SIC) cheeseburger as well as a BLT, grilled cheese and chicken strips for diners who aren’t chile inclined. John Shipman raves about the tamales, indicating they are “some of the best I’ve had anywhere.” His favorite, however, is the carne adovada “made from pork slow-simmered in a savory sauce.” He also loves the green chile which is “the way I like it: plenty of heat, but not quite life-threatening, and a lot of flavor.”
Open for breakfast, lunch and dinner, the San Antonio Crane is tiny–no more than six or seven tables in a diminutive dining room with personal space proximity seating. The outdoor patio will accommodate an equal number of diners though it’s use is on a weather permitting basis. Service is attentive without being intrusive. Your lemonade (homemade) is replenished faithfully.
Salsa isn’t complimentary, but it’s the starter with which every New Mexican food meal should begin. The salsa has a pleasant piquancy with a respectable bite. It’s served with red, yellow and blue corn chips which are served warm to hot. The salsa is thick enough to be a “scooping” salsa and not a “dipping” salsa. It’s better than so many bottled salsas you’ll find–even better if you pair it with an order of the beans-cheese dip, soupy pintos with shredded Cheddar cheese. Why more New Mexican restaurants don’t serve a beans-cheese dip starter is beyond me.
My Kim, the carne adovada aficionado in the family, doesn’t read my reviews or those written by John Shipman, but will jump at the opportunity to try adovada considered on par with that of Restaurante Rancho de Chimayo. If eyes rolling back in her head are any indication, she loved the carne adovada which she topped with a fried egg over easy. The carne adovada is indeed porcine perfection, shredded tendrils of tender pork marinated for hours in a wondrous red chile. Not surprisingly it validated John Shipman’s credibility with me as other reviews of his have done.
Jack Handey, a Saturday Night Live writer (who now lives in Santa Fe) renowned for his “Deep Thoughts” once remarked “If God dwells inside us like some people say, I sure hope He likes enchiladas because that’s what He’s getting.” Enchiladas are certainly one of the most popular of New Mexican entrees and my usual benchmark for how good a New Mexican restaurant is. The Beef Enchiladas at the San Antonio Crane are an exemplary rendition of enchiladas: three flat corn tortillas layered with beef and topped with cheese and onions as well as your choice of red or green chile (or both). The green chile is slightly more incendiary than the red chile, but both are very flavorful. The enchiladas are served with Spanish rice and beans, some of the most pulchritudinous pintos in New Mexico.
Make sure to have a taco on the side. The tacos–ground beef, lettuce, chopped tomatoes and salsa–are quite good, served in a deep-fried corn tortilla fashioned as a shell for the other ingredients. The corn tortilla is both pliable and crispy, providing an enjoyable textural contrast. The ground beef is nicely seasoned and doesn’t have the “refried” flavor of far too many tacos served in New Mexican restaurants.
With typical New Mexican aplomb, John Shipman once wrote “life without green chile is not worth living.” He gets his fix at the San Antonio Crane Mexican Restaurant at least once a week. If it wasn’t 120 miles away from my home, I’d certainly visit more often, too. It’s one of the very best New Mexican restaurants in New Mexico and certainly the best in Socorro county.
San Antonio Crane Mexican Restaurant
17 South Pino Street
San Antonio, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 25 May 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Carne Adovada, Beef Enchiladas, Salsa and Chips, Bean and Cheese Dip, Tacos