El Pinto – Albuquerque, New Mexico

El Pinto, one of the most capacious restaurants in New Mexico

For almost any other restaurant in New Mexico (or anywhere else for that matter), 2015 would be considered a banner year, an auspicious annum, the type of year for which every restaurateur aspires.  For Albuquerque’s El Pinto, however, 2015 could be considered just another year in which praise and recognition–local and national–seem to be heaped on in abundance.  It’s probably safe to say El Pinto is the most heralded and acclaimed dining establishment in the Land of Enchantment. Terms such as “institution,” “paragon” and “iconic” have been used to describe the sprawling restaurant at the terminus of 4th Street.  El Pinto, in fact, started 2015 off by being declared New Mexico’s “most iconic restaurant.”

That distinction was accorded by Thrillist, an online presence “obsessed with everything that’s worth caring about in food, drink.”   Thrillist is unabashed about its love of El Pinto, also naming it one of the “best Mexican restaurants in America.”  2015 also saw filming begin for a potential reality show featuring the restaurant and its energetic owners, the “iconic” Thomas twins who want the reality show to “be a platform for the “authentic portrayal of the restaurant, the Albuquerque community and New Mexico’s food and culture.”  El Pinto was also in the national spotlight in September when the FYI Network aired a program called “Big Kitchens.”  In an episode entitled “Massive New Mexican,” the program noted that El Pinto’s “massive kitchen can feed up to three thousand people a night” and anointed El Pinto as “the most popular chile restaurant in America.” The program followed twin brothers John and Jim Thomas as they lead their kitchen team as they prepare three tons of food every night.

El Pinto’s verdant patio on an unseasonably warm October

El Pinto’s fame has long extended far beyond the Land of Enchantment and its credibility as a purveyor of New Mexico chile is well-established. It’s the site at which the competing teams squaring off in the New Mexico Bowl hold a chile cooking competition. It’s a wonderful venue for such events, not only because of its capacious space, but its expertise in the hospitality arena. Frankly no one does it better. El Pinto has also long been a favorite host of corporate team-building, both formal and informal. Large tables of nattily attired corporate executives entertaining their clients at El Pinto is commonplace.

El Pinto also seems to be the de facto restaurant of choice for New Mexican and Mexican food related television programming. In a 2006 Food Network program called “The Secret Life of Fiery Foods,” host Jim O’Connor noted El Pinto as “a restaurant famous for its fiery foods” as he reveled in sampling various dishes with New Mexico’s Dave DeWitt, publisher of Fiery Foods magazine and renown chile expert. More recently, in 2010 “everyman” host Bobby Bognar and a History Channel crew visited El Pinto to film an episode on Mexican food for the cable network’s Food Tech show.

The bar and lounge area

In February, 2006, The Wall Street Journal embarked on a quest for the perfect nachos.  Taking recommendations from several highly credentialed chefs and other chile cognoscenti, the Journal visited restaurants anointed by those sages and compiled an exclusive list showcasing the fifteen best nachos in America.  El Pinto’s nachos were among them.  The Journal described El Pinto’s nachos as “built like lasagna, one layer at a time, so no chip is cheeseless: first chips, then cheese (Cheddar and Monterrey Jack), until there’s a pyramid topped with sour cream, guacamole, lettuce, tomato, chicken (or beef or pork) and green chili sauce.”

Alas, no “good deed” goes unpunished.  El Pinto and its celebrated nachos became fodder for the Albuquerque Journal‘s brilliant (sadly now retired) columnist Leslie Linthicum when she compiled her hilarious “Cowchip Awards” for 2006.   The Cowchip Awards, a compilation of the foibles and foul-ups which make the news during the course of a year, tend to skew heavily toward politicians and criminals (not necessarily mutually exclusive).  El Pinto’s transgression was touting its nachos (as the menu still does as of October, 2015)  as the best in America because they were listed first among the honorees.  It turns out the nachos were listed in alphabetical order.  As Leslie noted it “pays to start with an “E.””

El Pinto's famous nachos, the best in America according to the Wall Street Journal.

El Pinto’s famous nachos, some of the very best in America according to the Wall Street Journal.

6 April 2007: Not mentioned in the Journal’s review is the sheer physical magnitude of the nachos.  The nachos are served in a platter big enough for the Thanksgiving turkey and they’re stacked mountain high: tostadas topped with Cheddar and  Monterrey Jack cheese, pinto beans, guacamole, sour cream, El Pinto’s green chile and fresh-cut jalapenos (you can also add beef, chicken or pork for a fee).  According to the menu, the nacho platter serves four, but even four Lobo football players might cry “no mas” after lustily consuming their fill.  Perhaps the only thing at El Pinto’s nearly as sizable as the nachos is the restaurant itself.

Not only is El Pinto arguably New Mexico’s most famous restaurant, it’s the body-building behemoth in a sandbox of 98-pound weaklings–easily the most commodious restaurants in New Mexico with seating for over 1,000 diners in several dining rooms as well as an expansive hacienda-style patio area for seasonal dining.  With all the ground they have to cover, rarely do the strolling mariachis ever make it to the same dining room twice an evening (especially if the tipping at one dining room is generous).  Despite its expanse, the restaurant operates with seemingly synchronized efficiency, the wait staff well practiced in serving large crowds.  Long waits are virtually non-existent.

Chips and Salsa

Nestled among centuries-old cottonwood trees, El Pinto also has one of the most attractive restaurant settings in the state.  The rambling walled garden is shaded by stately trees and trumpet vines and is adorned with roses. Murmurations of intrepid starlings take refuge among the trees but as soon as a patio table is vacated, they leave their lofty perches and scavenge for left-overs.  Once sated, they slake their thirsts out of the continuously recirculating multi-level fountains.  It’s feathered entertainment while you dine. (Just in case the environmental department reads this, we’re not talking Alfred Hitchcock’s The Birds here, just a few starlings.)

The restaurant’s interior is also impressive with waterfalls cascading down impressive rockscapes, rivulets creating a relaxing cadence. The lounge and the restaurant’s garden room are akin to an oasis in the desert with lush foliage and hanging plants helping to create a relaxing verdant milieu.  Traditional trappings abound in nearly every corner and walls are adorned with beautiful art pieces.  Framed photographs of the glitterati who have dined at El Pinto can be seen on walls throughout the restaurant, in many cases glad-handing with the restaurant’s affable owners (local celebrities themselves).

The Green Chile Queso Burger with a side of fries and ramekin of guacamole

El Pinto was launched by Hatch, New Mexico natives Jack and Consuelo Thomas in 1962 using recipes perfected by Connie’s grandmother Josephina Chavez-Griggs.   The Griggs restaurant legacy spans much of the Rio Grande corridor with family members owning or having owned and operated restaurants in El Paso and the Las Cruces area (including the world-famous La Posta de Mesilla). In 1989, twin brothers John and Jim Thomas bought El Pinto from their parents, expanding it as their customer base grew.

Today, El Pinto’s customer base includes both political dignitaries (including “Dubya,” Sarah Palin and Barack Obama) and Hollywood glitterati (including Pamela Anderson and Mel Gibson), but it’s the local patrons who remain steadfastly loyal.  Serving more than a quarter of a million diners a year, El Pinto’s kitchen is 5,000 square-feet of grills and kitchen space with a staff of a hundred preparing one ton of food a night.  When they want to impress out-of-town guests, locals invariably bring them to El Pinto and wow them with the ambiance.  Locals also know that anything more piquant than Chef Boyardee sauce is beyond the heat tolerance of most out-of-towners and El Pinto’s serves chile some locals consider “anglicized,” meaning it doesn’t pack enough heat to intimidate true New Mexicans.

Carne Asada Skillet, a brunch option

The Food Tech program highlighted the painstaking process of making and bottling salsa, showcasing El Pinto’s famous brand.  The restaurant’s salsa, while not the most piquant salsa in town, is among the Duke City’s most flavorful and best of all, it’s available at just about every grocery store in the Albuquerque area.  During ESPN Sports Center’s “50 States in 50 Days” visit to El Pinto in August, 2005, anchor extraordinaire Linda Cohn called El Pinto’s salsa “the best in the nation.” That salsa, and in fact, several items on the El Pinto menu, are held in especially high esteem by readers of Albuquerque The Magazine.  In its September, 2012 edition, Albuquerque The Magazine named the salsa at El Pinto the eighth best in Albuquerque from among 130 salsas sampled throughout the city.

In its annual “best of the city” awards issue for 2010, the magazine’s readers indicated the city’s best green chile and guacamole emanate from El Pinto.  The green chile is a “heritage crop version of an archived seed.”  El Pinto handles that chile from “farm to plate,” going through a whopping 300-400 tons of chile per year (or about 4,000 cases a day).  The guacamole is made from California-grown Haas avocados at their prime of buttery ripeness.  It’s a simple guacamole crafted with salt, fresh onion, and the restaurant’s salsa.

Green Chile Sausage Croissant

Albuquerque The Magazine readers have selected El Pinto as the Duke City’s very best New Mexican restaurant on several occasions.  In 2010, it was a runner-up in that category as were the restaurant’s chips and salsa, red chile, tacos, sopaipillas and wait staff.  Not surprisingly, El Pinto was also voted Albuquerque’s best restaurant for patio dining.  No slouch in the adult beverages department, its margaritas were also a runner-up for best of the city honors.  Lots of love was also imparted to El Pinto by readers of The Alibi during that publication’s 2010 “best of” edition.  The Alibi‘s readers gave El Pinto the nod in the categories of “best place to take out-of-town guests,” “best atmosphere,” and “best outdoor dining, but the restaurant was only bridesmaid in a few categories actually related to food.

As the feedback section for this review attests, readers of Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog seem to have a different opinion of El Pinto than the teeming masses who congregate frequently at the “peoples’ choice” restaurant.  Years have proven my readers to be a discerning lot not prone to hyperbole (mine or anyone else’s) or popular opinion.  My own opinion of El Pinto is in the camp of those discriminating dissenters who read my reviews.  Multitudinous visits over the years haven’t won me over.  Despite the festive and fun atmosphere, for me it’s all about the food and that’s where El Pinto doesn’t quite measure up to so many other New Mexican favorites.


Attribute some of that to me being a purist weaned on chile piquant enough to put whiskers on a toddler’s face.  I have tremendous respect for the meticulous attention to detail paid by El Pinto to its time-honored and traditional heritage and I marvel at the efficiency of its operation, but have been, time after time, underwhelmed by the restaurant’s culinary offerings–and it’s not just the piquancy factor.  During a recent visit, a corporate event, an otherwise potentially very good green chile was plated with boiled tomatoes that wholly detracted from the chile’s native sweetness.  The con queso was thickened by either flour or corn starch to the point that the queso and chile were secondary in the dish’s flavor profile.

1 November 2011: My favorite entree on El Pinto’s menu is the green chile queso burger.   When I order green chile cheeseburgers instead of New Mexican food at a New Mexican restaurant, it’s not necessarily an indication that the green chile cheeseburger is that good.  More than likely, it’s an indication that I’m tired of being disappointed by more conventional New Mexican entrees.  In the case of the green chile queso burger, it actually is pretty good–a charbroiled eight-ounce ground chuck patty smothered with blended queso, “hot” green chile, sweet onion pickled relish, bibbed lettuce and tomato served with a wheat or white bun.


What’s not to like about that burger? Well, if you’re prone to Felix Unger standards of cleanliness, you might not like the fact that this is a messy burger with the unctuous, oozing queso dripping  copiously onto your hands.  Otherwise, it’s quite good.  The charbroiled beef, prepared at medium-well unless otherwise requested, is excellent and the marriage of green chile and sweet onion pickled relish establishes a unique flavor profile that accentuates both the sweetness and the piquancy (slight, despite the menu’s claim that “hot” chile is used on this burger) of the chile.  This is a burger I’ll order again…and again.

Red chile ribs are considered El Pinto’s signature dish on the strength of selling more than 25,000 plates (40,000 pounds of pork) of them per year.  Five-hundred buckets of marinade per year are extracted from chile every year just for these succulent pork ribs.  The ribs are seared to impart a smoky flavor, seasoned lightly then smothered in the red chile marinade and cooked in an oven for about six hours.  Dave DeWitt calls them “the best ribs in the world!” while founding Friends of Gil (FOG) member Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos is campaigning to become their official publicist (check out his comments below).

18 October 2015: Then there’s the dessert tray which includes flan, an empanada with ice cream and other sweet tooth treats sure to please anyone.  The restaurant’s most popular dessert is a post-prandial offering called the Levante (homemade biscochitos soaked in Patron XO Cafe, Kahlua brandy and coffee layered with mascarpone cheese, a light whipped cream and topped with shaved chocolate spiked with red chile).  It’s essentially a New Mexican tiramisu.  El Pinto sells more than 10,000 Levantes per year, a number made doubly impressive considering each sweet slab serves two to four people.  My verdict–cloying, rich and in need of more emboldening chile.

In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2012, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded El Pinto a Hot Plate Award signifying the selection of its blue corn blueberry pancakes as one of the “most interesting, special and tasty dishes around.”  Considering the thousands of potential selections, to be singled out is quite an honor.  Alas, the blue corn blueberry pancakes are available for less than four hours a week (10:30AM to 2PM on Sunday).  If something sweet won’t sate you on a Sunday morning, the brunch menu has a number of items with a more piquant flavor profile.

18 October 2015: Among the more interesting is a green chile sausage croissant, a lightly-browned croissant served with homemade green chile sausage, fresh scrambled organic Taos eggs and spicy ghost pepper Jack cheese served with papitas.  On paper there are two potentially incendiary ingredients on this dish–the green chile sausage and the ghost pepper Jack cheese, but because the cheese is melted on the sausage, we suspect the intense heat comes from the cheese.  When it comes to Scoville units, ghost peppers have among the most potent piquancy of any pepper in the world.  Because it’s not polite to use a fire extinguisher, those of us with delicate constitutions will have to hope the slightly sweet croissant and savory scrambled eggs can quell the heat enough for us to finish this entree. 

18 October 2015:  Skillet dishes have been a de rigueur brunch offering since at least the 1970s.  El Pinto’s brunch menu offers its own take on this popular dish, a carne asada skillet plate (papitas, peppers and onions with sliced, marinated and grilled strip steak served with red or green chile and two Taos Farms all-natural free-range eggs any style) with a flour tortilla on the side. By and large, my Kim whose carnivorous inclinations far surpass mine, enjoyed the carne asada save for prominent fatty ends.  The peppers and onions are grilled nicely and the papitas border on the “almost too salty” quality that defines the best papitas.

El Pinto is on the New Mexico Tourism Department’s “Culinary Treasures Trail,” an initiative which honors those rare and precious family-owned-and-operated gems operating continuously since at least December 31st, 1969.  As with all the restaurants on the list, El Pinto is an independent mom-and-pop restaurant which has stood the test of time to become beloved institutions in their neighborhoods and beyond.  In El Pinto’s case, that’s far beyond!

El Pinto
10500 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 898-1771
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 18 October 2015
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Queso Burger, Nachos, Salsa & Chips, Sopaipillas, Levante

El Pinto Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Horseman’s Haven – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Horseman's Haven in Santa Fe

Horseman’s Haven in Santa Fe

I know several native New Mexicans who have accepted the dumbing down of political office in America as a consequence of living in these times and who have shrugged apathetically at the attenuation of educational standards. These same individuals, however, become as agitated and vociferous as scalded cats when served chile that has been “Anglicized”–that is, chile which doesn’t bring sweat to their brows, tears to their eyes and blisters to their tongues. Pepper spray has nothing on chile for these capsaicin addicted masochistic diehards.

I spoke with one of these chileheads several days after the January, 2006 airing of the Food Network’s “The Secret Life of Fiery Foods.” He was still laughing at the segment in which host Jim O’Connor thought he was man enough to try the green chile burrito locals call “the devil” at the world famous Horseman’s Haven in Santa Fe. One bite had O’Connor red faced and sputtering, an experience shared by many people, including many locals weaned on incendiary chile.

The Horseman's Haven dining room

The Horseman’s Haven dining room

According to O’Connor, the “devil” is the hottest burrito in the world with a chile that rivals the habanero, a pepper at the extreme level of the Scoville scale. For New Mexicans frustrated with the “kinder and gentler” preparation of our beloved chile, the Horseman’s Haven is the standard bearer for how chile should be served. It is the measuring stick of manhood. It is what separates the men from the boys. (Before you accuse me of being sexist, let me say that women—being, by far, the smarter and more mature gender–need no such validation of their adulthood or femininity.) Native New Mexicans who show weakness may as well be Texans, as deprecatory an insult as a New Mexican can hurl at anyone (if you’ve ever experienced insipid, cumin-laden Texas chili, you’ll understand why).

The Horseman’s Haven has been a Santa Fe legend since debuting its high octane chile in 1981 in a smallish dining room adjacent to an old gas station. It has since moved to a larger, stand-alone complex sharing a parking lot with a more modern service station. True to its name, the Horseman’s Haven celebrates the horse with walls and shelves teeming with paintings, plaques and statuettes of equine nobility and their human companions–from the Mexican charros to American legend John Wayne.

The counter with a view to the dining room

The counter with a view to the dining room

It’s conceivable some patrons won’t even be able to see and appreciate the art on the walls because of free-flowing tears and noses running like Usain Bolt, all courtesy of a chile which kicks sand in the face of the wimpy stuff too many so-called New Mexican restaurants serve. The Romero family, proprietors of this Santa Fe institution from day one, own the hybrid seed from which their famous green chile is grown by seven different farmers in Hatch, New Mexico.

That chile is a weapon of mass deliciousness, the favorite of blue- and white-collar workers who arrive at the Horseman’s Haven for breakfast when they need the chile’s eye-awakening properties to get them going. The regulars tend to sit on the bar where they have a view of the semi-open kitchen. The tinkling of ceramic coffee mugs blends with the whistling sound from a pressure cooker blowing off steam as beans are being prepared. It’s a good coffee served steaming hot and it heightens the bite of the chile even more. Amateurs, tourists and Texans shouldn’t pair hot coffee with the Haven’s comburent chile without a net.

Salsa and Chips

Salsa and Chips

The Haven’s chile will bring diners to their knees, but for New Mexicans with asbestos-lined taste buds who consider pain to be a flavor, that means we’re on our knees in prayerful gratitude for chile with both piquancy and flavor. Those qualities come across very well in the restaurant’s breakfast burritos: fluffy scrambled eggs and crispy bacon wrapped in a tortilla then covered with chile the color of glowing kryptonite. The aroma of the chile is intoxicating, an incomparably fragrant bouquet. This breakfast burrito is exciting and invigorating, a capsaicin high way to start off the morning.

Chile aficionados know that one of the best ways to “cut” the taste of piquant chile is with sopaipillas and honey. Since none are to be found on the menu, you might try ordering a side of pancakes, two light and fluffy golden orbs just begging for butter and soliciting for syrup. At the risk of braggadocio, I’ve never touched the pancakes until having consumed the entire chile-slathered burrito.

The Mucho Burger smothered with green chile and cheese; served with home fries

The Mucho Burger smothered with green chile and cheese; served with home fries

What I will brag about, however, is having survived (relatively) unscathed a side of “level-two” green chile. You won’t see it on the menu, but chileheads in the know swear level-two is chile with the heat turned up to the hottest level in Dante’s inferno. Others, perhaps ashamed at their mere mortality, claim level two is an urban myth. It most certainly is NOT an urban myth. My friend and fellow chile masochist Bill Resnik and I shared a bowl of level-two chile which we slathered on the Haven’s blue-corn tacos. With a liberal dousing of level-two chile, those tacos were painfully good.

Not only is there a level two chile, the Horseman’s Haven now offers chile and levels three to five for Navy Seals, superheroes and diners with a death wish. While filming “Parts Unknown” for CNN celebrity glitterati Anthony Bourdain had a spoonful of the level three green chile. It instantly brought sweat to his brow, tears to his eyes and more impressively, shut the gregarious one’s mouth for a moment or two. Rather than seeing the host suffer ignominiously, cameras quickly panned to another segment.

Apple Pie Ala Mode

Apple Pie Ala Mode

Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate and a bona fide flame fanatic swears by the Haven’s mucho burger, a half-pound of fresh ground sirloin grilled to order and served with home fries, lettuce, tomatoes and onions. Because you’re in Santa Fe, it’s almost compulsory to have it green chile cheeseburger style. At the Haven, this means the burger is smothered and the cheese is shredded. It does not mean hand-held unless you don’t mind risking a sunburn-like heat running down your arms. This is a fantastic green chile cheeseburger, emphasis on the chile. If you’re tired of green chile not making an impression on too many local burgers, this is the burger for you.

Interestingly the salsa is not quite on the same level of piquancy as the green chile. At most New Mexican restaurants, salsa is usually the most piquant item on the menu….sometimes the only piquant item on the menu. It’s a very good salsa with the flavor of freshness. The chips are low in salt, crisp and thick enough for Gil-sized scoops of salsa though with the Haven’s salsa, most will prefer dipping their chips instead of dredging them.

If your tongue and lips are still burning, you can quell the flames with the Haven’s apple pie ala mode. It’s not made on the premises, but it’s made especially for the Haven. A thick, flaky crust and plenty of pectin enhanced sliced apples with vanilla ice cream should do the trick for most diners. By the time they’re done eating the pie, most new diners regain at least part of their sense of taste and will discern that this is a good apple pie. Cinnamon rolls are also available.

In February, 2006, the Horseman’s Haven launched A Taste of Haven in Rio Rancho. The celebration among Duke City area fire-eaters was short-lived because the restaurant closed within a year after launching. Perhaps there really is only enough room in this world for one restaurant serving the world’s most dangerously delicious chile.

Horseman’s Haven
4354 Cerrillos Road
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 471-5420
LATEST VISIT: 25 September 2013
COST: $$
BEST BET: Breakfast Burrito, Green Chile Cheeseburger, Pancakes, Tacos, Salsa and Chips

Horseman's Haven Cafe on Urbanspoon

Restaurante Rancho De Chimayo – Chimayo, New Mexico

El Rancho de Chimayo, a northern New Mexico treasure

The humble Northern New Mexico village of Chimayo has a reputation far and wide as a place in which miracles occur. Because of the healing and restorative nature of those miracles, it has even been called the “Lourdes of America.”

During Holy Week of 1813, a devout Penitente named Bernardo Abeyta was performing his penances on a hillside when he looked up and saw a bright light emanating from the ground near the river. Abeyta ran to the spot, knelt and began digging with his bare hands toward the light’s source. Within minutes he uncovered a large and wondrous crucifix bearing the image of Nuestro Senor de Esquipulas.

El Rancho de Chimayo's front courtyard.

El Rancho de Chimayo’s front courtyard.

The crucifix was processed to the church in Santa Cruz where it was placed in a niche off the main altar, but the next morning it was gone. In fact, the crucifix disappeared three times, only to be found back in its hole.  After the third time, everyone understood that Nuestro Senor de Esquipulas wanted to remain in Chimayo. A tiny chapel was then built above the hole. The miraculous healings began almost immediately with the first recipient being a grievously afflicted Bernardo Abeyta himself.

The healings grew so numerous that the tiny chapel was replaced in 1816 by the current and much larger Santuario de Chimayo, an adobe mission on which miracles are still visited.  More than a quarter of a million people visit Chimayo annually. They bring with them their petitions for healing and many of them are granted relief from infirmities, disease and unhappiness.  The walls of the Santuario’s sacristy are adorned with discarded canes, crutches and before-and-after photographs of healings that transpired at this Holy Shrine.

The Grand Lady Herself, Florence Jaramillo

It might be a stretch to call the food at Restaurante Rancho De Chimayo miraculous, but many people will agree that it may just well be divinely inspired. The restaurant has culled a world renowned reputation for some of the very best traditional and contemporary New Mexican cuisine in a spectacular, tree-lined setting since 1965.  In fact, Restaurante Rancho de Chimayo is probably most responsible for New Mexican cuisine being recognized as a distinctive cuisine than any other restaurant in the state.

For generations  Hispanic families in Northern New Mexico served traditional New Mexican food at home, while many restaurants throughout the region served “Mexican” style food similar to what our neighbors in Arizona and Texas offered.  That meant insipid chile lacking the flavor and piquancy which has become a hallmark of New Mexican cuisine.  Rancho de Chimayo helped changed all that by showcasing just how extraordinarily flavorful  were the ordinary foods served in the family homes throughout Northern New Mexico.

Salsa and chips

Salsa and chips

In October, 1965, Arturo and Florence Jaramillo transformed the century old Jaramillo ancestral home with its white-washed walls and hand stripped vigas into El Restaurante Rancho de Chimayo.  Their goal was to provide a different type of restaurant experience, one in which diners could feel as though they’d been invited to an old Spanish home with a grand ambience and spectacular food.  Over time they expanded the restaurant to 4,000 square-feet, including a 400 square-foot kitchen which churns out deliciousness for throngs of as many as 350 patrons, the restaurant’s seating capacity.

Today cozy dining rooms and their stately fireplaces radiate warmth whether lit or not.   Religious iconography of Northern New Mexico shares wall space with colorful framed paintings, many of which depict the restaurant.   Family heirlooms  and portraits festoon some of the dining rooms. In the summer, there may be no lovelier setting that on the lush and verdant terraced patios which beckon hungry patrons to commune with beauty.  High school graduations, weddings and celebrations of all kinds are often held on the sunroom just below the terraced patios.

A combination plate Christmas style

A combination plate Christmas style

Restaurante Rancho de Chimayo employs some 75 people and is an integral part of the community. In addition to the incomparable setting and wonderful food, one of the best reasons to visit is the employees themselves. Think service that’s sassy with a smile. The waitresses are attired in traditional period dress, the only inauthentic detail sometimes being a tattoo peeking out from under a puffed sleeve.  Ask a question to which the wait staff doesn’t have an answer readily available, and they will find an answer for you.  They generally have a warm smile for you, too.

The indefatigable Florence still owns and manages the restaurant more than forty years since she helped found it. In 2006 she was one of five recipients honored by the National Restaurant Association with a lifetime achievement award previously bestowed on such culinary glitterati as Emeril Lagasse, Wolfgang Puck and Julia Child.  The grand lady, honored as New Mexico’s restaurateur of the year for 1987, still shows up to the restaurant and has a radiant smile for everyone.

A salad of local greens, Mandarin orange slices, goat cheese and candied pecans drizzled with a honey vinaigrette

Accolades are nothing new for Jaramillo and her fabulous restaurant. For three consecutive years, from 1999 through 2001, Restaurante Rancho de Chimayo was selected by Hispanic magazine as one of America’s top fifty Hispanic restaurants. In 1988, Nation’s Restaurant News, a respected trade publication, selected Rancho de Chimayo for inclusion into its Hall of Fame, placing it in very exclusive company.

Unlike many Northern New Mexico restaurants, Rancho De Chimayo has not “anglicized” its entrees and still serves chile that does more than decorate the plate with color; it adds that distinctive, addictive flavor all native New Mexicans crave–and cumin won’t come within a mile of this chile. Ask a waitress if the carne adovada is made with cumin and either you’ll get a blank expression reflective of the abominable spice’s lack of use throughout Northern New Mexico or you’ll get a response indicating the restaurant holds true to the authenticity of New Mexican cuisine and that means no cumin.

A tostada topped with carne adovada served with calabasitas, rice, beans, guacamole and sour cream

This restaurant also pays close attention to details and doesn’t compromise on quality. The sopaipillas accompanying your meal, for example, are served with a small bowl of honey from Bosque Farms, not the typical store-bought honey which comes in plastic bottles. The top of the bowl is covered in plastic because of the preponderance of bees in summer.  The sopaipillas are large and puffy, best eaten immediately after they arrive at your table when cutting off a corner will allow wisps of steam to escape into your happily awaiting nostrils.

Chips and salsa are, unfortunately not complementary, but they’re worth the pittance price. The salsa is thick and rich with a nice green and red chile induced bite. It’s an addictive salsa, the type of which you’ll have at least two bowlfuls. The chips are crisp, fresh and oversized. The chile con queso is rich, thick and delicious, some of the very best in New Mexico.

Tamale with red chile on the side

Tamale with red chile on the side

When the Food Network gushes over Rancho de Chimayo’s carne adovada, I think “platitudinous fluff,” but when my adovada obsessed friend Ruben tells me it’s right up there with the carne adovada at Mary & Tito’s, it’s akin to a mouse endorsing cheese.  Ruben knows his adovada, having made it his personal quest to prepare carne adovada on par with that of his favorite restaurants. His quest continues.

The carne adovada is indeed fabulous at the Rancho. Marinated, shredded pork as tender as possible is cooked in a piquant red chile caribe sauce, a marriage seemingly consecrated by divinity. The chile has its basis in chile pods, not the powdery stuff, and it’s locally grown Chimayo chile which I’ve long contended is even better than Hatch red (sacrilege, I know).

Blue Corn Tortilla Enchiladas with red and green chile

Porcine perfection for the adovada begins with boneless pork chops in which the fat is trimmed off. Still, the secret to great carne adovada is the painstaking preparation–the optimum amount of time required for the sauce to simmer to the peak of flavor and for the pork to acquire the tenderness in which tendrils peel off easily. Rancho de Chimayo has the secret down pat,  better and more authentic than just about anyone in New Mexico.

The menu is replete with an array of wonderful New Mexican favorites, all of which beckon for Chimayo red chile. The Rancho’s green chile is plenty good, but it’s the red that’s in rarified company, an exquisite chile of medium piquancy with which you’ll fall in love.

Sopaipillas with real honey

Sopaipillas with real honey

We’ve already established that the carne adovada is perhaps nonpareil, but what about the other items? Fret not. This is a plate with nothing but winners. The Combinación Picante is the best way to sample more than one of the Rancho’s treasures. This is a combination plate for the ages: carne adovada, pork tamale, rolled cheese enchilada, beans and posole served with red chile.  These are traditional Northern New Mexican favorites all available on one platter and all delicious.

The rolled enchiladas are layered with cheese, onions and your choice of traditional or vegetarian red or green chile served with beans.  You can customize your enchiladas with either chicken or shredded beef, blue corn tortillas and a fried egg, all for a pittance.  The shredded beef is terrific, generously apportioned tendrils of moist, delicious beef as tender as the carne adovada.  The cheese drapes over the enchiladas like an orange-yellow shroud of deliciousness.

One of the restaurant’s terrific waitresses bringing dessert to our table

The beans are whole pinto beans as good or better than we prepare at home. The posole, a dish of reconstituted lye-slaked dried white corn kernels, is similarly wonderful and includes very lean and tender pork (a specialty). This is posole the way it should be made.

Tacos are engorged with shredded beef, not ground hamburger. This makes a huge difference in the taste and quality–and it’s the authentic way they have been prepared in Northern New Mexico for generations (or at least until the Taco Bell generation introduced tacos with ground beef).  The Rancho’s tacos are some of the very best in northern New Mexico, but that can be said about so much in the menu.

El Rancho de Chimayo’s wonderful take on a strawberry shortcake

Portions are large, but that’s a good thing because you can take home for later consumption, some of the best New Mexican food in northern New Mexico.  Make sure you save room for dessert.  In the summer that means strawberry shortcake, a fabulous dessert.  Instead of the conventional shortcake, Rancho de Chimayo crafts an oval cake akin to a baking powder biscuit and places it atop several dollops of cream in an island of fresh, sweet strawberries.

On Friday, June 11th, 2008, Rancho De Chimayo suffered a devastating fire.  Though confined to the kitchen and initially expected to take just a few weeks to repair, the damage was much more extensive than thought.  It would be fourteen months until the restaurant was able to resume business.  Its grand reopening showcased a darker adobe facade, golden shreds of straw flecks glinting when visited by the sun.  Chile ristras hang on those walls, as much as sign of hospitality in New Mexico as the pineapple is in Hawaii.  The bronze sculptures of local artist Marco Oviedo inspire and invite double-takes as people walk through the courtyard to the restaurant.

Restaurante Rancho De Chimayo is a New Mexico classic, a treasured institution some say is as integral a part of the fabric of the Land of Enchantment as red chile itself.

Restaurante Rancho De Chimayo
County Road 98
Chimayo, NM

LATEST VISIT: 22 May 2010
COST: $$
BEST BET: Sopaipillas, Chile Con Queso, Enchiladas, Carne Adovada

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