Viva Mexico – Albuquerque, New Mexico

El Viva Mexico Restaurant

All too often faulty premises are based on a lack of information or experience. Take for example, British author Simon Majumdar, a recurring judge on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America who once declared “given how abysmal Mexican food is in London, I always thought that it was a cuisine made up of remains from the back of the fridge.” It wasn’t until Majumdar experienced tacos de tripa at a restaurant in Guadalajara, Mexico that he achieved an epiphany and fell in love with Mexican food. He called it a meal that changed his life.

Majumdar isn’t a man prone to hyperbole. In fact, he’s usually quite the opposite. He’s a no-nonsense, unapologetic cynic who tells it as it is and won’t spare the verbal rod. So, when a man widely acknowledged as the “Food Network’s toughest critic” tells you a Mexican meal changed his life, you’ve got to take notice. The more introspective among us might even ponder for ourselves if we’ve ever experienced any Mexican meal we’d consider life-altering.

A very busy lunch hour

And if not transformative, what about life-improving? Can you say your life is better, maybe even significantly so, because you’ve experienced food so good it renders you momentarily speechless, so utterly delicious it makes you contemplate the divine? Such were my experiences at Epazote in Santa Fe where Chef Fernando Olea’s culinary creations made this grown man swoon. Alas, 2015 has been a very cruel year for those of us who love world-class Mexican food, the type of which Epazote offered. It’ll be a long time before we’re over the May, 2015 closure of this fabulous restaurant.

As if losing Epazote wasn’t grievous enough, in July, 2015, we learned of the closure of the two Mexican restaurants in the Duke City which have perennially dominated the “best Mexican restaurant” category in virtually every online and print medium. First to go was El Norteno, the elder statesperson among Albuquerque’s Mexican restaurants; a restaurant once acknowledged as one of America’s very best Mexican food restaurants. Los Equipales, a fabulous establishment patterned after some of the fine cosmopolitan restaurants of Mexico City followed suit. Both were the victims of the bane of restaurants everywhere: location, location and location.

Chips, Salsa and Avocado Dip

So where are Mexican food aficionados to turn? Are the halcyon days of Mexican food restaurants over in the Land of Enchantment? If we can’t keep the best Mexican restaurants afloat, how does that bode for aspirants vying to win the hearts and appetites of Mexican food lovers everywhere? As my crystal ball is still fogged over from the tears of losing three stellar Mexican restaurants, I don’t know if we’ll ever see the likes of Epazote, El Norteno and Los Equipales again. What I do know is there are still many Mexican restaurants working hard to earn your trust and who deserve your patronage.

For years we drove by one of those restaurants, a Lilliputian Mexican eatery proudly sporting the colors of the Mexican flag and declaring “Viva Mexico” on its signage. We never visited this diminutive diner because, frankly, we didn’t want to stand in line and based on the number of cars in the parking lot, those waits could be substantial. Several years ago, Viva Mexico was reborn, residing now in a much larger edifice north of Central on Wyoming. Viva Mexico’s parking lots are still full and at peak lunch hours, the lines are still long. During our inaugural visit we figured out why those parking lots are full and those lines are so long.

Empanadas de Camaron

To put it mildly, Viva Mexico offers a virtual compendium of Mexican food favorites–everything from mariscos blessed by the azure waters of the Pacific to the traditional foods of Chihuahua, the Mexican state which borders New Mexico to the south. As the largest of Mexico’s 31 states, Chihuahua’s culinary fare is as diverse and spectacular as its topography. Viva Mexico specializes in the foods of Chihuahua, many of which will be familiar to even the most casual partakers of Mexican food.

As you’re perusing the menu, two bowls of salsa will be delivered to your table. Unless you’ve got an asbestos-lined mouth, you may want to wait for your beverage order (the agua fresca de melon is amazing) to be delivered. These salsas have plenty of personality and enough heat to placate even the volcano-eaters among us. The more conventional red salsa bites back with a Scoville quotient very common to Mexico’s incendiary chiles. The green avocado and mayo “salsa” also offers a fiery punch though that punch is tempered by its two chief ingredients. The chips are formidable enough for Gil-sized scoops and are redolent with the presence of corn.

Ceviche Culiacan

Viva Mexico is one of two Mexican restaurants (El Zarandeado is the other) in Albuquerque of which we know serves empanadas de camaron (that’s shrimp empanadas for you Texans). Available in quantities of six or twelve, they’re just a bit bigger than most Chinese dumplings. Tender, flaky, golden-hued pockets engorged with shrimp and cheese are served with a neon green salsa that may water your eyes. That salsa is wholly unnecessary and it alters the flavor profile of these pastry pockets

Anyone who laments the absence of good seafood in landlocked New Mexico has obviously not partaken of mariscos, the magnificent Mexican seafood which isn’t used solely in soups, tacos and burritos. Restaurants such as Viva Mexico serve mariscos in a variety of delicious ways. One of our favorite ways is on a tostada. The ceviche Culiacan features a formidable corn tostada topped with a bounty of tiny shrimp, unctuous avocados, chopped tomatoes and chopped scallions all impregnated with citrus juices (and if the ceviche isn’t citrusy enough, you can squeeze in the juice of accompanying sliced limes). It’s a very enjoyable starter.

Parrillada Para Dos

The most prodigious platter on the menu is the parrillada para dos, a veritable mountain of meat for two. This boon of carnivores and bane of vegetarians is intimidating by virtue of its sheer size. Picture what appears to be about a pound (or two) of beef and pork chops topped with grilled onions and served with two chiles toreados (fried jalapeños).  Though waifishly thin, the bone-in chops are meaty, albeit on the chewy side.  They go especially well with the white onions which are more translucent than caramelized, rendering them both sweet and sauteed-like texture.

The parrillada para dos also includes a papa asada, a roasted potato slathered in butter. It’s long been my contention that no one roasts potatoes as well as Mexican restaurants and Viva Mexico is no exception. Wrapped in foil, the potato is roughly the size of a Nerf football, but it’s as soft and perfectly baked as the baked potatoes of your dreams. Also included is a bowl of charro beans, whole pintos immersed with bacon and cut-up hot dogs in a light broth.  Last and perhaps best is a bowl of ooey, gooey, melty queso fundido served with corn and (or) flour tortillas.  Extricating queso from its bowl is akin to a taffy pull.  If you don’t have a pair of scissors you’ll have to cut the cheese (literally) with your fingers.

Frijoles Charros, Papa Asada, Queso Fundido

With Mexican restaurants such as El Viva Mexico poised to win Duke City hearts and bellies, Albuquerque’s Mexican food scene is in good hands.

El Viva Mexico
237 Wyoming Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 265-6285
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 16 July 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Parrillada Para Dos, Ceviche Culiacan, Empanadas de Camaron, Agua Fresca de Melon, Salsa and Chips

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Sharky’s Fish and Shrimp – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Sharky’s Fish & Shrimp on Central Avenue just west of Old Coors

Never mind your tired, your poor or even your huddled masses yearning to breathe free. Carlos Zazveta, the effusive proprietor of Sharky’s Fish & Seafood told us to bring our dogs, our cows and our goats next time we visit. That was after we explained we didn’t bring our children because they’re of the four-legged variety that barks. He was just kidding, of course. Carlos does that a lot. When he espied me taking pictures of the Sharky’s complex, he flashed a toothy grin and flexed his pecs from within the confines of the oyster bar he was manning at the time.

In New Mexico, Sharky’s just may be the closest you’ll get to being in a Mexican coastal resort—not because of proximity, but by virtue of look and feel. The overhanging corrugated metal roof and lower half of the building’s walls have the tincture of deep azure, harkening to mind the clear Pacific waters of Puerto Penasco in the Mexican state of Sonora. Sonora is where Carlos calls home and where he cultivated his deep love of Mexican cuisine, especially the type of mariscos he’s sharing with his adopted hometown of Albuquerque.

Owner Carlos mans the Oyster Bar

There are other elements to Sharky’s that evoke the sense that coastal Mexico has been brought to your neighborhood. Similar to many of the hut-like structures on the beaches of Sonora, Sharky’s is strictly a “to go” operation, not that you’ll have to go far. After placing your order at a counter, saunter on over to the covered patio which does a surprisingly good job shielding you from the elements. When the mercury climbs higher, soothing water misters cool the air. The picnic tables are much more functional than they are comfortable.

Before (or after) the right picnic table calls you, it’s a quick detour to the oyster bar where freshly shucked oysters on the half-shell are available. You can also ferry to your table, as many plastic tubs of salsas as you want. They’re available with tostada shells or with crackers, not with chips. The salsas range in piquancy from merely incendiary to hellishly hot. Even the Ranch dressing and the guacamole pack a punch. In short order your server will locate you and will deliver your order with alacrity.

Chile Caribe

Perhaps nothing screams “ocean” more loudly or clearly than mariscos, the Mexican seafood from the seaside states south of the border. Sharky’s colorful poster-sized menu not only lists everything that’s available, a photograph of each item is vividly displayed. If you find it hard to order while your mouth is watering, you may want to avert your eyes from those photographs. Doing so will also prevent you from ordering “one of each” from a menu that would be the envy of many a sit-down restaurant.

Fish and shrimp may be the titular items on the menu, but they’re far from having exclusivity. The menu also includes the non-mariscos culinary pride of Sonora—the fabled and fabulous Sonoran hot dog. You’ll also find all the usual suspects in crimes of rampant deliciousness: tacos, tostadas, quesadillas and burritos constructed from either mariscos or the magnificent Mexican meat options of carne asada, al pastor, lengua and carnitas. You can even have a single- or double-cheeseburger though why you’d want to when there are so many other options is beyond me.

Sonoran Hot Dogs

As you’re perusing the menu, you probably won’t even notice all the activity on Central Avenue scant feet away from the restaurant. Sharky’s is located just west of Old Coors where Route 66 is cresting toward the city’s western fringes. It’s hard to believe previous occupants of the colorful edifice included the now defunct Lumpy’s Burgers and long-time Duke City eatery Taco Phil’s. Sharky’s belongs on this stretch of highway alongside such venerable institutions as the Western View Diner & Steakhouse and Mac’s La Sierra Café.

It’s a good thing Sharky’s menu has pictures or many New Mexicans might find themselves on the receiving end of something they’ll contend they didn’t order. For many New Mexicans, Chile Caribe is a concentrated paste made from whole chile pods which serves as the basis for red chile. At Sharky’s, Chile Caribe are more akin to the jalapeno poppers so many restaurants serve, but they’re much better. A yellow chile pepper is engorged with cheese and shrimp then wrapped in bacon and grilled. The chile isn’t especially piquant, but it does have the tantalizing aroma inherent in all chiles. Couple that with the addictive properties of bacon and you’ve got a terrific starter. Served three to an order, you’re well advised to request two orders or risk waging war with your dining companion for the remaining chile.

Tacos Al Pastor

Anthropologist Maribel Alvarez of the University of Arizona says the “quintessential food of Tucson” is the Sonoran hot dog. Tucson should be very proud. These hot dogs are mouth-watering–a thick, smoky dog gift-wrapped in bacon and nestled in a pillowy soft, slightly sweet bun with seemingly every condiment applied. There’s mustard, ketchup and mayo as well as a mild jalapeno sauce. This hot dog is a wonderful study in contrasts: the sweetness of the bun and the smoky savoriness of the hot dog and bacon; the heat of the hot dog and the cool of the ketchup; the piquancy of the jalapeño sauce and the creaminess of the mayo. Moreover, it’s a study in the appreciation of complex simplicity.

Ever since Lebanese immigrants moved to Mexico in the early 1900s and introduced the technique of spit-roasted meat, Mexicans have been in love with the “al pastor” or “in the style of the shepherd” cooking. Tacos al pastor are constructed from small cubes of pork that have been marinated in spices and chiles. New Mexicans have fallen in love with tacos al pastor and have uncovered several restaurants in which they’re prepared very well. Add Sharky’s to the growing list of Mexican restaurants whose tacos al pastor are par excellence.

Shrimp Taco and Fish Taco

Since most people visit mariscos restaurants for…well, mariscos, our inaugural visit couldn’t be solely about hot dogs and al pastor, wonderful as they are. Not when there are fish tacos and shrimp tacos on the menu. Both are superb! Nestled in soft, moist tortillas redolent of corn, both tacos include chopped tomatoes and a cabbage slaw very light on the mayo. The flavors most prominent are that of fish and shrimp, not some overly creamy slaw. These tacos are accompanied by a piquant sauce that you should apply judiciously lest you risk changing the flavor profile of the tacos. You won’t want to do that.

It’s only fitting that the ceviche at Sharky’s be served in a bowl shaped like a boat. There’s a netful of fish and (or) shrimp in each order of ceviche and it’s very good. Served with sliced limes just in case they’re not sufficiently “citrusy” for you, the ceviche is refreshing and flavorful. It’s the perfect summer dish—light, bright and it won’t weigh you down during a sweltering day. The fish and shrimp are unfailingly fresh as are the chopped cucumbers, tomatoes and avocadoes, the latter of which are at the epitome of rich ripeness.

Ceviche

About the only thing you won’t find on the menu at Sharky’s is shark, a fish which is not only edible, but which can be delicious if prepared fresh. A visit to Sharky’s is like a visit to Puerto Penasco and just as delicious. Just don’t bring your dogs, cows and goats.

Sharky’s Fish & Shrimp
5420 Central Avenue, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 831-8905
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 7 June 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Chile Caribe, Ceviche, Al Pastor Tacos, Fish Taco, Shrimp Taco, Sonoran Hot Dog, Fanta Grape Soda

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Papa Nacho’s – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Papa Nacho's Mexican Food Restaurant

Papa Nacho’s Mexican Food Restaurant

No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary,
a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past,
the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers.”
~Laurie Colwin, Novelist

The notion of cooking alone is unthinkable to Ignacio and Brigette “BeBe” Lopez, proprietors of Papa Nacho’s. Since they launched their popular Mexican restaurant in 1995, the restaurant has embodied the aphorism “the family that cooks together, stays together.” Papa Nacho’s is and always has been a family affair, with daughters Gloria and Marcial practically having grown up in the kitchen. Now as their still spry and youthful parents are in their 60s and beginning to contemplate retirement, Gloria and Marcial are poised to someday assume the helm. As Gloria puts it, “it wouldn’t be a family restaurant if it wasn’t about family.”

More than most restaurants in Albuquerque which promote themselves as being “family owned and operated,” Papa Nacho’s lives it. Some of Gloria’s most cherished times are when she and her dad come in at four in the morning to begin the extensive preparatory work it takes to serve their patrons. At Papa Nachos, there are no short-cuts. Vegetables are hand-cut and all sauces are meticulously prepared. Pinto beans are simmered slowly for six hours. It’s time-consuming and it’s arduous, but it’s also a labor of love. You can taste it in the cooking.

The delightful and radiant Gloria Lopez, one of the most personable restaurateurs in Albuquerque

The delightful and radiant Gloria Lopez, one of the most personable restaurateurs in Albuquerque

Serving wonderful food and having friendly service isn’t always enough, however. Restaurateurs will tell you that the three critical elements to success are location, location and location. The dining public must be able to see you and be willing to get off the well-beaten path to where you are. Papa Nachos is situated in a timeworn strip mall on Louisiana between Paseo Del Norte and San Antonio. It is not clustered among other restaurants or near any other popular draw to the area, yet it has become a destination restaurant–one its guests specifically have in mind when they turn onto Louisiana. That speaks volumes about how wonderful the food and service are.  It may also prove that great food trumps a not-so-good location.

Ironically, in 2008, Papa Nachos was almost responsible for forever changing the fabric of the neighborhood when the Food Network came calling. Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, the popular series which showcases local mom-and-pop gems wanted to feature Papa Nachos in one of its segments. Because BeBe had just been diagnosed with breast cancer and the family’s focus was understandably on her health and recovery, the family declined to be featured. It’s unlikely the resultant fame and notoriety of being showcased to millions of Americans would have changed the down-to-earth, hominess of Papa Nachos.

Papa Nachos' Papa Nachos

Papa Nachos’ Papa Nachos

Not surprisingly, Papa Nachos had a storybook beginning steeped in humility. The inspiration for the restaurant were the homemade burritos Ignacio would prepare for Bebe’s lunch–burritos so good that co-workers continually absconded with them. Undaunted, Bebe told them she’d make burritos for them if they paid for the ingredients. One thing led to another and before long she and Ignacio were selling burritos from an ice chest. Eventually they launched Papa Nachos on Fourth Street in 1995 and moved to its present location in 1998.

Determining what the restaurant should be called was a family decision. For some reason, it seems every Hispanic person christened Ignacio is nicknamed “Nacho” just as every Francisco or Frank becomes “Pancho.” In that Ignacio was the family patriarch, Papa Nachos just made sense. Papa Nacho’s menu has its roots in Mexico (particularly the coastal state of Sinaloa), but is also heavily influenced by the culinary traditions and flavors of California and of course, New Mexico.

Carne Asada Tacos with beans, rice, guacamole and pico de gallo

Carne Asada Tacos with beans, rice, guacamole and pico de gallo

At Papa Nachos, culinary traditions and flavors means cumin ameliorates the sauces and even the chicken is braised with it. Sensing that cumin is more an aversion than an allergy for us, the ever astute Gloria explained that cumin is used at the restaurant to build a flavor profile; cumin isn’t the flavor profile as it is at too many New Mexican and Mexican restaurants. She then brought us a tray loaded with nearly a dozen samples of every sauce and meat in which cumin is part and parcel. Though the cumin is discernible, its influence is very much in the background, lending support and not at all impinging on the flavor profile of any of the chiles used.  It’s  impossible to dislike any of Papa Nachos sauces.

16 April 2013: It goes without saying that a restaurant named Papa Nachos would have an entree named Papa Nachos.   That’s Papa Nachos’ Papa Nachos.  How could that not bring a smile to your face?  Available in half and full-sized portions (both prodigious), these nachos are meant to be shared.  They’re absolutely terrific: homemade tortilla chips, beans, green-chile ground beef, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, jalapeños, sour cream, and guacamole in perfect proportion to each other.  The crisp chips are formidable enough to scoop up sizable amounts of every other ingredient and don’t go limp neath the moistness of the ground beef and melted cheese.  Not even the chips at the bottom are soggy.

Picadillo

Picadillo

While the great state of New Mexico has two official state vegetables, only one of them (chile) seems to inspire respect bordering on reverence.  The other, the magnificent pinto bean, is more often the subject of sophomoric humor.  Perhaps if the deriding diners were introduced to better prepared pinto beans, they would give them the respect due these high protein gems.  If those scatological skeptics were introduced to pinto beans at Papa Nachos, they’d quickly become addicted.  These are not soupy, just off the stove pintos nor are they the often dreaded and desiccated refried beans. At Papa Nachos, a plate of beans simmers every day and when an order is placed that includes beans, a portion of those beans is refried in vegetable oil and chiles.  The result is beans as good (if not better) than what your abuelita served. 

New Mexican comfort food, especially during frosty fall and winter days, always seems to include a hearty and hot green chile stew.  Papa Nacho has an interesting take on green chile stew. It’s called Picadillo and it’s similar in composition and taste to what surely has to be New Mexico’s official state stew.  Think diced lean steak, cubed potatoes, bell peppers, onions, cilantro and green chile and you have the makings of a great green chile stew.  The big difference here is that the entire concoction is served in a plate and not on a bowl. No matter how it’s served, it would be a peccadillo not to share the Picadillo with someone you love.  It is as filling and comforting as any green chile stew you’ll find in the Duke City. 

Tostadas de ceviche

Tostadas de ceviche

Papa Nacho’s menu brags about “more burritos than you can shake your maracas at,” but since there are only seven burritos on the menu, the slogan must have more to do with the size of these behemoths. Each burrito weighs in easily at close to one pound. The flour tortilla is hard-pressed to hold in all those ingredients though if it falls apart, eating them with a fork or spoon would be just fine. The Machaca Burrito is one such treasure. Papa Nacho’s version of Machaca is fresh, spicy shredded beef sautéed with cilantro, bell peppers, jalapenos, onions, tomatoes and the restaurant’s own special blend of spices. The beef is enrobed in a fresh, warm tortilla along with beans and cheese.

Frequent diners can tell you exactly what specials will be available on any day of the week in which Papa Nachos is open.  When the weather is cold, the Friday special means albondigas, a traditional Mexican soup featuring spicy meatballs offset by the fresh flavors of vegetables and herbs.  Bruce, a long-time friend of this blog, named Papa Nachos albondigas as one of the best dishes in the Duke City, a dish he looks forward to every winter. 

Albondigas, a Friday special during fall and winter months

Albondigas, a Friday special during fall and winter months

25 October 2013:  For some reason, albondigas (along with biblioteca) is one of those rare Spanish words that seems to imprint itself upon the minds of non-Spanish speakers who once took a course in Spanish.  Some, like my Chicago born-and-bred Kim (who still can’t speak Spanish after 18 years in New Mexico) actually know what albondigas are because they’ve had them.  Albondigas are a real treat, so good you might wish for inclement weather year-round.  At Papa Nachos, a large bowl brimming with meatballs and vegetables arrives at your table steaming hot.  The vegetables–carrots, zucchini, celery, green beans, potatoes–are perfectly prepared.  The meatballs are seasoned nicely and they’re plentiful.  The broth has comfort food properties.

When the weather warms up, the albondigas are replaced as the Friday special by tostadas de ceviche in which diced shrimp marinated in citrus juices are placed atop a crisp tostada along with cilantro, tomato and cucumber. It is as delicious as its component ingredients are beautiful together. Papa Nacho’s version isn’t quite as “citrusy” as at other Mexican restaurants, but that just allows the shrimp’s natural briny taste to shine.

Machaca burrito

Machaca burrito

16 April 2013: There have been times in my past in which my near addiction to quesadillas nearly warranted a twelve-step recovery program.  Today when those urges strike, it’s far more rewarding to succumb to them.  The shrimp quesadilla at Papa Nachos is so good, recidivism is a certainty.  They’ve dominated my waking thoughts since having consumed them.  A large tortilla speckled the color of a pinto pony is engorged with shrimp, melted white cheese, onions and cilantro. The shrimp is fresh and delicious.  Introduce just a bit of salsa and the element of piquancy enhances the flavor profile of an addictive quesadilla. 

11 April 2015: It’s been long speculated that the fish Jesus multiplied and fed to the masses at the Sermon on the Mount was tilapia which is native to the Sea of Galilee.  Tilapia is the type of fish most people like even if they don’t ordinarily like fish.  Cynics will tell you it doesn’t even taste like fish, an acknowledgment of its lack of “fishiness.”  Tilapia is indeed a mild-flavored fish that seems to go well with almost everything.  Papa Nacho’s serves a tilapia quesadilla that may be the second best quesadilla in Albuquerque (the best being the aforementioned shrimp quesadilla).  If you’re crazy for quesadillas, you’ll love this one.

Shrimp Quesadilla (served after 3PM)

Shrimp Quesadilla (served after 3PM)

16 April 2013: If the shrimp quesadillas can be considered “surf” indulge yourself with a “turf” entree, a carne asada taco plate as good as you’ll find in Albuquerque.  The beauty of these tacos is simplicity.  Your choice of flour or corn tortillas are absolutely engorged with carne asada cut into small pieces and topped with white onions and cilantro.  That’s it.  Nothing else!  Papa Nachos’ tacos are the antithesis of those “salad” tacos in which annoying hard-shelled tacos are stuffed with lettuce and just a bit of mystery meat.  The platter includes only two tacos, but they’re stuffed with more carne than you’ll find in a half dozen tacos at those pseudo Mexican chains.  Beans, those glorious and delicious beans, and rice accompany the tacos.

11 April 2015: When asked where to find the best fajitas in Albuquerque, I’ve always been loathe to respond.  Fajitas is one of those dishes I long ago gave up on, never having found fajitas which truly blew me away.  My Kim, however, has more perseverance and continues her quest to find the very best fajitas in the city.  At Papa Nacho’s, we may have just found them.  At far too many New Mexican restaurants, fajitas are preceded by a fragrant vapor trail and an audible sizzle.  There was no precursory fanfare at Papa Nacho’s, just a simple plate of grilled steak, onions, sour cream, guacamole, rice, beans and flour tortillas delivered to our table.  After one bite, we were smitten.  A very unique fajita marinate impregnates the beef with sweet, tangy and piquant notes reminiscent of a teriyaki-Hoisin sauce perhaps tinged with chipotle.  Gloria wouldn’t divulge the secret formula for the sauce, apprising us only that her mom came up with the recipe after much trial and effort.  Alas, fajitas aren’t on the daily menu.  It’s a special of the day that is truly special–maybe the best fajitas in the Duke City.

Perhaps the very best Fajitas in Albuquerque

Homemade chips and a fiery roasted tomato chile are the perfect antecedent to any meal at Papa Nacho’s.  The salsa has bite and is easily the equivalent of Sadie’s salsa in terms of its piquant kick.

After each visit, I kick myself for not visiting Papa Nachos more frequently.  It’s a wonderful family restaurant  owned and operated by a wonderful family.  For them it’s not enough that no one leaves Papa Nachos hungry; their goal is that all guests leave happy.

Papa Nachos
7648 Louisiana, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 821-4900
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 11 April 2015
# OF VISITS: 8
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salsa and Chips, Machaca Burrito, Tostados de Ceviche, Picadillo, Papa Nachos, Shrimp Quesadilla, Tilapia Quesadilla, Carne Asada Tacos, Albondigas, Fajitas

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Los Potrillos – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Los Potrillos, my favorite Mexican restaurant in New Mexico

Faced with a situation that renders us incredulous, many of us might yammer incoherently, complain vociferously or maybe even utter colorful epithets.  Such moments, it seems, are best expressed with succinct precision, a rare skill mastered by a select few wordsmiths from which eloquence flows regardless of situation–polymaths such as Anthony Bourdain, a best-selling author, world traveler, renowned chef and “poet of the common man.”

Flummoxed at the discovery of a Chili’s restaurant a mere five miles from the Mexican border, I might have ranted and raved about another inferior chain restaurant and its parody of Mexican food. With nary a hint of contempt, Bourdain instead compared the spread of Chili’s restaurants across America to herpes.  How utterly brilliant and wholly appropriate was that?

Mexican Vaquero Art Festoons the Walls at Los Potrillos

Indicating that chain restaurants are “the real enemy, the thing to be feared, marginalized and kept at a distance at all costs,” he wondered aloud why anyone would eat institutionalized franchise food when the real thing is available nearby.  Bourdain, a cultural assimilator, would love Los Potrillos, an unabashedly authentic Mexican restaurant which serves the food Mexican citizens eat everyday, not the pretentious touristy stuff or worse, the pseudo Mexican food proffered at Chili’s and restaurants of that ilk.

That authenticity may be one of the reasons Los Potrillos became one of Santa Fe’s most popular Mexican restaurants within months of opening in 2006. Today it’s no longer just transplanted Mexicans who frequent this colorful dining establishment situated in what was once a Pizza Hut (another chain Bourdain undoubtedly disdains).

Three Salsas and Chips at Los Potrillos

Los Potrillos celebrates the horse, or more specifically the “potrillo,” which translates from Spanish to a “colt” or more precisely, a young horse of less than twelve months of age.  The restaurant’s back wall is festooned with a colorful mural depicting several handsome horses including a noble Mexican charro horse with rider astride. The back of each wooden chair features a colt with head reared back as if in the throes of bucking off an unwanted rider. Cacti indigenous to Mexico lends to the thematic ambiance which also includes burlap curtains and sundry charro clothing and accessories. On the walls hang horseshoes, charro sombreros and other Mexican accoutrements, but you won’t find the multi-hued, touristy blankets.

Los Potrillos is owned by Gustavo and Jose Tapia who owned Pepe’s Tacos next door for years before converting the space to Tapia’s Used Cars. The Los Potrillos menu speaks volumes about what the Tapia’s promise for your dining experience: “Not just an ordinary Mexican meal…the means of tasting how delicious our beloved Mexico is.”

Quesadilla synchronizada

Fabulous quesadillas at Los Potrillos

Mexico is not only delicious. It is a festive country in which life is celebrated and sometimes loudly. The sole complaint we have about this fabulous restaurant is the cacophonous din of excessively loud music competing with stridently blaring televisions. When the restaurant is packed (which is quite often) carrying on a conversation at normal voice is a challenge.

19 January 2015: The menu is replete with lively choices, many of them heart-healthy and many quite the opposite. Mariscos (Mexican seafood) occupies more than a page of the menu which features the varied cuisines of several regions of Mexico. You’ll be hard-pressed to narrow your choice of fare; it all sounds absolutely delicious.  A magnificent mariscos starter not to be missed is the tostadas de ceviche which are available in appetizer or entree (three per order) portions.  A thin layer of mayonnaise atop a thick, crispy tostada canvas is crowned with citrus cooked fish, chopped tomatoes, cilantro and avocado.

Tostadas de Ceviche

Tostadas de Ceviche

While you’re contemplating what to order, the amiable wait staff will bring to your table a salsa trio–salsa de arbol, chipotle salsa and a guacamole and sour cream salsa–that serves as a precursor of just how good the rest of your meal will be. The chipotle salsa, in particular, has fruity, smoky qualities that will enrapt your taste buds. The salsa de arbol is the most piquant of the three, a few levels below habanero.  The guacamole and sour cream salsa is watery which means you’ll have to dip the chips into the salsa instead of scooping it up.  Each of these salsas has a taste unique unto itself, but all are complementary.

5 March 2007: Appetizer options abound–such as the Quesadilla Sincronizada (so-called because the top and bottom tortillas are “synchronized” together). This is one of the very best quesadillas you’ll find anywhere: ham, chorizo, bacon, onion, bell pepper, avocado, mayonnaise, mustard, jalapeno and the requisite queso to “synchronize” the entire concoction together.  While not exactly a heart-healthy appetizer option, this quesadilla is absolutely delicious, an excellent way to begin what portends to be an excellent dining experience all the way around.  Bite into the jalapeno and you’ll need the cheese to quell the fire on your tongue.

Molcajete Al Pastor

19 January 2015: One of the more popular items on the menu (which includes entrees and appetizers you won’t find anywhere else) is the molcajete al pastor. Most restaurants don’t use real molcajetes (bowls fashioned from volcanic pumice) which are painstaking to “cure” or make usable for everyday use, but Los Potrillos does. Somehow serving marinated pork in a molcajete really seems to improve the taste and to keep the entree hot through the duration of your meal.  Los Potrillo’s Molcajete al Pastor is a vast improvement over the tacos al pastor on which this popular dish is based–and even those once served at the Coyote Cafe’s Rooftop Cantina which we had thought to be the best we’d ever had.

This dish is comprised of chopped pork and pineapple marinated with a special chef’s sauce and cooked over onions over a sizzling grill then served on a hot molcajete. Fresh homemade tortillas (your choice of flour or corn) and a pineapple pico de gallo salsas finish this fabulous dish. The pico is one of the two best (the other is at Sandiago’s Mexican Grill) we’ve had in New Mexico.  Fiery jalapeños balance the sweet-tangy chopped pineapple nicely.

Costillas Pancho Villa

Parillada at Los Potrillos

Among the mariscos entrees are several fish fillets inventively stuffed with various items. The Niño Envuelto (which translates from Spanish as “wrapped infant”), for example, is a fish fillet stuffed with white and yellow cheese, ham, shrimp and bacon. Despite its saltiness, this entree is delicious, particularly if you’re always begging for more bacon.

The Niño Envuelto is accompanied by rice and Mexican fries (superior by far over their French counterpart). Other entrees come with some of the best Ranchero Beans you’ll find anywhere.  The menu also  features several variations on parrillada (items prepared on a grill) for two. Grilled options include mariscos, meat or both–a Mexican surf and turf.

Chile Rellenos en Nogada

14 July 2007: One of the interesting parrillada entrees is called Costillas Pancho Villa. The starring attraction on this entree are perfectly prepared, fall-off-the bone tender ribs which don’t lose any of their inherent moistness on the grill. They practically ooze flavor and are marinated only in seasonings. It would be blasphemous to add barbecue or picante sauce to these babies.  With food enough to feed Pancho Villa’s army, this parrillada plate also includes a highly seasoned and thoroughly delicious chorizo, the very best nopalitos I’ve ever had and eight quesadillas.

The nopalitos, made from the young stem segments of the prickly pear cactus, have a delightfully tart (without pursing your lips) flavor. Spoon them into a flour or corn tortilla then add chorizo and costillas and you’ve got some of the very best tacos in town.  Fear not if you’re concerned about being “stung” by a prickly cactus quill; quills are extricated carefully and completely fro the cactus pads before they’re prepared.

Carne Asada Tampiquena

Arrachera (skirt steak) Mi General

19 January 2015: Mexican history recounts that in 1821, Catholic nuns from Pueblo created a dish to honor a visit from a revolutionary general who helped Mexico win its independence from Spain.  That dish, chile rellenos en nogada, were the color of the Mexican flag: a green poblano pepper, a white walnut sauce and red pomegranates.  The version prepared at Los Potrillos doesn’t subscribe to the original recipe, omitting the vibrant red pomegranate seeds which usually serve as a garnish which just happens to taste great in combination with the sauce and chile.

Despite the variance in recipes, Los Potrillos’ Chiles en Ahogada are rich, creamy and sinfully delicious, one of the best entrees we’ve had at any Mexican restaurant in the Land of Enchantment. It’s so wonderfully non-traditional that we’ll have it again and again (and again and…). It is also the favorite dish of my friend Skip Munoz, a man of tremendous courage and fortitude who has managed to duplicate this dish at home.

Cabrito, the very best I've ever had

Cabrito, among the very best I’ve ever had

3 May 2009: One commonality among many of the entrees at Los Potrillos is that, almost invariably, we leave remarking to ourselves how one dish or another was “among the best we’ve ever had.”  That goes for the cabrito, tender young goat meat marinated and sautéed in peanut and almond sauce, served with charros, beans and fresh, garlicky guacamole.  The sauce is absolutely beguiling.  I surmise it includes a puree of toasted, rehydrated guajillo chiles which are redolent with bright flavors, combining spiciness, tanginess, smokiness and warmth.   At any regard, it imparts a fabulous flavor to the tender cabrito.

3 May 2009: Dessert options include the quintessential Mexican post-prandial sweet treat, tres leches cake. It’s a vast understatement to call the Los Potrillos version moist because this beauty positively oozes with the cloying richness of three types of milk.  Several refreshing aguas frescas are available to quench your thirst. The horchata is terrific as is the sandia (watermelon)!

Pastel Tres Leches

Pastel Tres Leches

My initial impression of Los Potrillos is that it would compete with Mariscos La Playa and Mariscos Costa Azul as the very best Mexican restaurants in Santa Fe.  After my second visit, I reconsidered that assessment and concluded that it might be the very best Mexican restaurant in Northern New Mexico–better than Los Equipales and even better than El Norteño. It’s a restaurant about which Anthony Bourdain could not utter a disparaging word. He would thoroughly enjoy the taste of real Mexico in the City Different.

Los Potrillos
1947 Cerrillos Road
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 992-0550
LATEST VISIT: 19 January 2015
# OF VISITS: 8
RATING: 24
COST: $$
BEST BET: Nino Envuelto, Molcajete Al Pastor, Quesadilla Sincronizada, Salsa & Chips, Guacamole, Parrillada Costillas Panco Villa, Chiles en Ahogada, Cabrito

Los Potrillos on Urbanspoon

EPAZOTE ON THE HILLSIDE – Santa Fe, New Mexico (CLOSED)

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Epazote, one of the most unique and special dining experiences in New Mexico

Epazote.  That’s a word that can make an intrepid chef’s toque blanche resemble the white flag of surrender.  If you’re a culinary savant and haven’t heard of epazote, it’s probably because the chefs at restaurants you frequent might just be afraid to use it.  Would you want to use an ingredient also known as “skunkweed” and “wormseed”…a word derived from a Nahuatl term for an animal with a rank odor…an ingredient perhaps best known for reducing the after-effects of eating beans?

When Chef Fernando Olea chose to name his fabulous new world restaurant Epazote, it signaled a bold  departure from the stereotype too many diners have of Mexican restaurants.  In the Chef’s inimitably gentle manner, he was declaring his passion for the cuisine of the pre-Columbian peoples of Mexico, signaling his embrace of historically authentic ingredients and preparation styles.  At Epazote, he marries Mexico’s indigenous culinary traditions with those of New Mexico, especially its agricultural bounty.  Oh, and he’s daring and talented enough to incorporate epazote into several recipes.

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The very unique interior housing Epazote

Originally from Mexico City, Chef Olea has been enthralling savvy diners in Santa Fe since 1991 with his sophisticated interpretations of contemporary Mexican cuisine.  In nearly a quarter-century, the Chef has become a veritable institution in the city, perhaps a larger institution than Bert’s Burger Bowl, the popular 50-year plus old drive-up eatery he purchased in the early 90s.  Perpetually sporting his familiar cowboy hat, Chef Olea modestly deflects well-deserved compliments, especially the word “genius.”  He will, however, and only if you insist, acquiesce to being called an artist.

Just as every artist must work in a venue which actualizes creativity, a Chef should work in a milieu which galvanizes his or her vision.  For Chef Olea, the perfect backdrop for executing the concepts of inspired new world cuisine is Hillside, a uniquely whimsical and organic environment which showcases eclectic treasures created by Santa Fe artisans.  Epazote occupies Hillside’s greenhouse which is bathed by natural light and surrounded by locally created art.  The ambiance is like no other in Santa Fe, creating an experience you will long remember. 

Chef Fernando Olea (right) and his very talented Sous Chef Leroy Alvarado (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll).

Because there’s so very much to see at every turn, making your way to the restaurant can be a slow go.   Make sure to allocate plenty of time on the way out to peruse every nook and cranny of this most unique art space.  There’s no surcease to artisinal inspiration when you step into the awe-inspiring greenhouse turned restaurant.   To your immediate left as you step in is an exposed kitchen, the cynosure of which is a flaming horno for baking bread.  The ambiance, which includes bi-level seating, is zen-like, transporting you instantly to a better, more tranquil self.  From an experiential standpoint, the restaurant seems more Asian than Mexican. Oh, and one of the most attractive sights at Hillside is owner Tisha Sjosfrand whose warm smile and buoyant personality greet you as you enter the restaurant.

Epazote is a wonder of zen and flair with a menu worthy of the dining room’s whimsical elegance. Fittingly, the restaurant opened its doors on Valentine’s Day 2014.  Billie Frank, the wonderful freelance travel and food writer whose work graces the Santa Fe Travelers blog, was there on opening week.  She calls Epazote “a love letter to food.”  That is about as accurate a description for Chef Olea’s masterful menu as you’ll find anywhere.

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Jars of Dried Chiles

A love letter to food composed by Chef Olea would certainly express his deeply personal feelings toward mole, perhaps the one dish which has most cemented Chef Olea’s legacy over the years.  The Chef considers mole the most evocative of fine Mexican cuisine in terms of mystery, history and tradition.  An array of delightfully aromatic, richly complex and absolutely mouthwatering moles graces the menu at Epazote where they’re paired with everything from rack of lamb to duck breast to halibut.  Chef Olea emphasizes that contrary to misconceptions, the paramount ingredient on mole is not the chocolate, but chiles.  His approach to using chile is emphasize its other qualities, not just its piquancy.

In 2009 Chef Olea committed to creating a special mole to commemorate Santa Fe’s 400-year anniversary.  The resulting New Mexico mole is the result of skill and serendipity.  The skill part is obvious.  Chef Olea is one of the most accomplished mole chefs in the world.  The serendipity–luck that takes the form of finding valuable or pleasant things–flowed as the deadline was closing in.  While traveling throughout the state about a week before the deadline, the discovery of pecans grown in Socorro started a deluge of inspiration for the inventive chef.  At an Indian Pueblo, he espied apricots and decided they would be the next ingredient for the mole.

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A painting of the ingredients used to create Chef Fernando Olea’s New Mexican Mole

Determined to create a mole crafted showcasing uniquely New Mexican ingredients, it made sense to Chef Olea to include New Mexican roasted piñons and, of course, the one ingredient which most says New Mexico: red chile from Chimayo.  He contemplated using green chile, but quickly dismissed the notion because green chile doesn’t pair as well with other foods (the green chile cheeseburgers at Bert’s Burger Bowl are an exception, he reminded us).  Other ingredients include white chocolate, Mexican cinnamon, sesame seeds, cumin seeds and more.  The ingredients used to construct the New Mexico mole are highlighted on a large bright painting hanging on the north wall.

The most aptly descriptive part of Epazote’s “inspired new world cuisine” approach is definitely inspiration, but visionary, innovative and spectacular would also fit.  At first browse the menu appears small, but when you consider the diversity of flavor profiles and potential combinations, there are options a plenty.  To the greatest extent possible, Chef Olea utilizes fresh and local ingredients and lets those ingredients speak for themselves.  When you’ve got great ingredients, he explains, a little bit of salt and pepper is all you need.

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Ensalada De Queso Azul

The menu is divided into five distinctive sections: Botanas (Appetizers), Especialidades (Specialties), Ensalada (Salads), Sopas (Soups) and Platos Fuerte (Main Courses).  Unlike the bygone ordering convention at Chinese restaurants where you picked “one from column A and one from column B,” you’re free to order any item on the menu in any order you desire.  You can also order as you go; the wait staff won’t rush you.  Service is attentive and professional.  Shortly after you’re seated, your server will bring you small samples of the aguas frescas del dia (the horchata is terrific).  Make sure to ask for samples of the wonderful moles of the day.

16 March 2014: The Ensalada section of the menu lists three salads, all of which you’ll welcome on your table.  These aren’t  slapped-together composed salads, the type of which will lull your taste buds to sleep.  These are exciting salads constructed from the freshest, most creative and high quality ingredients available.  The Ensalada De Queso Azul translates literally to blue cheese salad, but it’s so much more.  The blue cheese has characteristic blue veins running throughout each crumbly morsel, indicative of its pungency and sharpness.  There’s just enough blue cheese to serve as a foil for the other ingredients: craisins (dried cranberries), caramelized spicy pecans and mixed greens surrounded by a thin moat of chocolate vinaigrette.  When is the last time you had a chocolate vinaigrette?  It’s fantastic!

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Horno Baked Bread and Corn Tortillas

16 March 2014: New Mexicans, both the scions of Cortez and indigenous peoples, have been baking on hornos for centuries.  A beehive-shaped oven typically made of mud, an horno seems to infuse bread with preternatural deliciousness.  If you’ve ever had horno-baked bread at a Pueblo, you know of which I speak.  The inside of an horno has a stone base to retain heat, as high as 600-degrees.  It’s the perfect vessel for baking bread, a dense yet yeasty individual-sized roll great on its own or slathered with butter.  The wood-fired horno-baked bread at Epazote is as good as has been made for generations in New Mexico.

Although botanas translate from Spanish to snack or appetizer, the menu describes them as “heart’s delight,” essentially synonymous with Chinese dim sum or “touch the heart.”    The Botanas section of the menu lists some six proteins: carne (angus beef tenderloin), cordero (rack of lamb), lechon (marinated pork loin), pato (Muscovy duck breast, camaron (Meridian shrimp) and wild Pacific salmon.  The proteins you select arrive raw. In a participatory experience reminiscent of some Japanese restaurants, you are your own chef, preparing the botanas on a polished river rock which has been heated on the horno.

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Cordero (rack of lamb) and Lechon (Marinated Pork Loin)

16 March 2014: The proteins are served with small corn tortillas and four housemade infused aiolis with flavor profiles ranging from attention-grabbing piquancy (a guacamole aioli) to a more mellow chimichurri.  A bit less than two minutes per side on the rock and your proteins are done.  Cooking them is a unique and fun experience not to be missed.  The quality of the two proteins we enjoyed immensely–cordero (rack of lamb) and lechon (marinated pork loin)–is better than prime.  The lamb is nicely marbled and tender, as good a rack of lamb as can be had in Santa Fe.

Our server recommended one-and-a-half to two botanas per person.  That, along with one (or four) bread rolls and splitting a salad, should leave enough room for a plato fuerte (main course).  You definitely want to save room for one of the four available options: Mole, the chef’s signature dish; Popocatepetl, a black pepper-encrusted Angus beef tenderloin; Atun, seared yellow fin tuna; or Calabasitas, sauteed zucchini.

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Lamb chops and New Mexico Mole with Mashed Sweet Potatoes

16 March 2014: Being an unabashedly proud New Mexican (and especially after having sampled the three moles of the day), it was a no-brainer as to what my plato fuerte would be.  Chef Olea’s New Mexico Mole is quite simply one of the very best moles to ever cross my lips…and while the recipe can actually be found on the Chicago Tribune Web site, it would be foolhardy of me to believe I could hope to duplicate the Chef’s artistry and magic touch. As with all classically prepared moles, the New Mexico Mole is more than the sum of all its ingredients.  It incorporates the heart and soul of the chef who created it.  

The New Mexico Mole is richly complex, a crowning achievement of sheer genius (even though Chef Olea doesn’t like the term used on him) with remarkable depth of unique flavors coalescing into saucy perfection.  It’s a sumptuously simmered sauce perfumed with spices, nuts, chocolates and Chimayo chile.  It’s the stuff of legend and it has besotted me.  As if the mole isn’t enough, Chef Olea serves it with three lollipop lamb chops (or another protein should you desire) prepared at medium-rare and seasoned solely with salt and pepper.  The lamb chops are exquisite, some of the very best we’ve had.

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Popocatepetl (Black Pepper Crusted Angus Beef Tenderloin) with a cabbage and snow pea slaw

16 March 2014: My passion for the New Mexico mole was matched by my Kim’s infectious ardor for the Popocatepetl, a twelve-ounce black pepper-crusted Angus beef tenderloin served with a cabbage and snow pea slaw.  Popocatepetl, by the way, is the name of an active volcano south of Mexico City.  It’s a fitting name for one of the most delicious steaks we’ve had.  The black pepper is finely crushed, much moreso than the loosely cracked pepper corns used on steak au poivre, a French dish.  It is no less flavorful.  More surprising than its flavor was the nearly fork tenderness of the tenderloin cut.  Prepared at a perfect medium, it’s a premium steak with prime flavor.  The Popocatepetl is served with a cabbage and snow pea slaw which sounds simple, but possesses surprising complexity and flavor.

16 March 2014: Alan Koehler, author of the Madison Avenue Cook Book, posited “dessert should close the meal gently and not in a pyrotechnic blaze of glory.”  Chef Olea’s desserts, such as the trio of flan, are a perfect example.  The flans aren’t an assemblage of flamboyant ingredients presented spectacularly to evoke a loud, celebratory utterance.  Instead, they’re crafted from a few basic ingredients presented beautifully to elicit an almost reverent murmur.  The trio of flan–vanilla topped with shaved almonds, chocolate topped with a single raspberry and golden tomato topped with piñon–is memorable, a symphony of quiet concordance like a symphony for your taste buds.  When Chef Olea conceived of the golden tomato flan his adoring wife and chief taster was skeptical until she tasted it.  Now she loves it as you will.

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Flan Trio

Chef’s Tasting Menu: 20 March 2014

A restaurant as great as Epazote presided over by a chef as talented as Chef Olea is an invitation to degustation, a culinary term meaning “a careful, appreciative tasting of various foods.”  Degustation focuses on four aspects of dining: the gustatory system, the sensual experience, the artistry of the chef and of course, great company.  Epazote offers a chef’s tasting menu which introduces diners to sample small portions of the great chef’s signature creations in one sitting.

The great company component of my inaugural chef’s tasting menu was in the delightful form of three culinarily adventurous friends: Franzi, the beauteous barrister who won’t let me photograph her; the exotic and vivacious Nikko; and Beckett, a fellow bon-vivant.  The well-traveled Beckett isn’t prone to hyperbole, so when he uttered the superlative “fabulous” after nearly every course, it signaled a very successful chef’s tasting menu.  Chef Olea personally delivered every course to our table, engaging us with his witty repartee and charm.  By meal’s end at least three people at our table wanted to propose marriage to him.

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Top Left: Huitlacoche Taco; Top Right: Chapulines Taco; Bottom: Bone Marrow

Before our first course, our palates were teased by a fabulous amuse-bouche, a tiny tidbit  not part of the multi-course menu and which is presented by the chef himself.  Amuse-bouche are intended to keep you happy while you await your first course.   Mission accomplished!  Our amuse-bouche was a salmon pate on a single chip.  Punctuated by barely discernible tinges of lemon and dill, this pate focused on the freshness of the salmon in a surprisingly ethereal form similar to a mousse.

When proposing a dining adventure at Epazote, there were two items I wanted to introduce my friends to: chapulines and huitlacoche.  Franzi is an absolutely fearless epicurean, once joining me in what was literally the snout to tail consumption of a whole hog: eyes, tail, cheeks and more.  Chapulines and huitlacoche are something else.  Both have been known to scare away all but the most intrepid of diners while simultaneously being considered delicacies among other cultures.

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Abalone

Chapulines–the leaf-eating grasshoppers responsible for ravaging vast farmlands–are not only the bane of farmers everywhere, they have a high “yuck” factor as food or otherwise.  They’re also a delicacy and dietary staple for the people of Oaxaca in Mexico.  High in protein and low in fat, they can be delicious if prepared by a master chef.  At Epazote, the smallish chapulines are sauteed then tucked into soft corn tortillas topped with guacamole and Mole Negro de Oaxaca.  The chapulines themselves  have a nutty, crunch flavor which pairs well with the pleasant piquancy of the Mole and the richness of the guacamole.  Only one person at our table declined to partake (which meant one more for me).

If chapulines have a high “yuck” factor, huitlacoche has the disadvantage of being a fungus and it’s called “smut.”  More specifically, it’s accurately called corn smut.  Worse, its name translates from Nahuatl, the ancient language of the Aztecs, to raven shi…er, excrement.  Despite all it has going against it, huitlacoche has a flavor profile unlike any other, a unique musty earthiness somehow reminiscent, but wholly different than the flavors of truffles or mushrooms.  One of the ways in which Chef Olea uses huitlacoche is on some of the most sublime tacos you’ll ever have.  The third in a triumvirate of high “yuck” factor foods was roasted, rich, buttery and delicious bone marrow with a depth of flavor few items achieve. It inherits a beef-broth flavor from its host animal and has a  gelatinous texture some may find a bit off-putting.  That just means there’s more for those of us who love it.  Everyone at our table loved it!  

Poblano Soup (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

A once-endangered, greatly over-fished mollusk now carefully farmed and harvested, abalone has been described as having a flavor “like an oyster crossed with a scallop with a twist of snail.”  Texturally, it’s been likened to an eraser.  Requiring quite a bit of tenderizing to make it palatable, abalone is a challenge for many chefs.  At the hands of Chef Olea, abalone becomes one of those transformative dishes you might remember for a long time.  Sliced diagonally to about an eighth of an inch, it’s served with a light chipotle  sauce tinged with juices from the abalone itself.  Somewhat reminiscent of sashimi (at least in appearance), it’s light, mild and delicate in flavor.  It’s what ambrosia might taste like.

It’s rare to find a dish that moves you to near tears of joy.  The poblano soup at Epazote had that effect on all of us.  It is quite simply one of the very best soups I’ve ever had anywhere, a rarefied elixir so perfect it’s impossible to conceive of anything better.  Submerged beneath an amaretto foam dusted with cocoa and cinnamon are tiny pieces of shrimp–not shrimp cut in half or even quarters, but torn into unevenly sized (perfectly sized) tiny pieces.  The piquancy of the poblano was a surprise, providing a back-of-the-throat warmth courtesy of a capsaicin-rich pepper.  There is so much going on with this soup that we stopped contemplating it and focused on eyes closed, moan uttering enjoyment.  Thankfully the soup is served with a small spoon for slow sipping or we might have dug in face-first.

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Mole Poblano with Muscovy Duck

The most complex mole Chef Olea prepares is the Mole Poblano, constructed from some thirty-four ingredients.  Mole Poblano is Mexico’s national dish, a mole steeped in legend and beloved by the masses.  It’s a very rich, very thick, very sweet chocolate-tinged sauce with just a hint of heat. It pairs with almost everything.  At Epazote, the Mole Poblano is served with sliced Muscovy duck breast and a sweet potato mash.  The tender duck is served medium-rare and laced with a crisp fat (synonymous with flavor) layer. The duck is seasoned solely with salt and pepper, but you’ll probably be using it to dredge up the mole.  The sweet potato mash is sweeter even than the mole.  The plate on which this dish is served is circumnavigated by a thin line of sweet, tangy guava.

Perhaps the biggest compliment one chef can pay another is to pick up a plate, excuse himself (or herself) and lick the plate clean.  This unconventional feat was accomplished by none other than restaurant impresario Paul Fleming (the PF from PF Chang’s) when he finished one of the most amazing desserts on the planet.  When Chef Olea brought Sweet Symphony to our table, he described in alchemical terms, very clearly and accurately, just where the elements of the dessert would hit us–from the tongue to the back of the throat and even to the spine.  He also challenged us to identify (visually before we tasted the dessert) all the ingredients in this glorious dessert.  While we fared well in that exercise, we could not have described its effects on us nearly as accurately as Chef Olea did.  This dessert of magical properties starts with an avocado ice cream on a lagoon of ginger paired with a beet foam and piñon.  These were the visible elements.  The jalapeño which paired with the ginger to create back-of-the-throat pleasures is hidden somewhere.  Quite simply, it’s one of the most amazing desserts I’ve ever had.  It’s a marvel of ingenious deliciousness.

Sweet Symphony: Avocado ice cream tinged with jalapeño, beet foam, ginger, piñon (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

Chef’s Tasting Menu: 15 November 2014

In Home Cooking, Laurie Colwin’s manifesto on the joys of sharing food and entertaining, she wrote “One of the delights of life is eating with friends, second to that is talking about eating.  And for an unsurpassed double whammy, there is talking about eating while you are eating with friends.”  My conversation about food with my friend Sandy Driscoll began in October, 2007 when she discovered my blog shortly before visiting New Mexico.  We’ve been talking about food (and virtually everything else) ever since and have broken bread (and sopaipillas) together in New Mexico and California. 

During a recent conversation about food, we discussed our mutual admiration for Spanish chef Jose Andres, a restaurant impresario and celebrity chef.  In a fit of bravado and New Mexico pride, I posited that Chef Olea is “right up there with Andres” as a chef (frankly I think Chef Olea is a superior chef, but he’s a very modest man and wouldn’t want me bragging on his behalf).  Because the proof is in the huitlacoche, we introduced Sandy to Chef Olea’s fabulous chef’s tasting menu where can be found at least two items on my theoretical “last meal” wish list.

Porcini Mushrooms and Bean Thread Noodles with an Asian Sauce and Sprigs of Mint (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

During our perfectly paced three-hour meal, Sandy, who’s not nearly as prone to hyperbole as yours truly, used the term “fabulous” to describe virtually every item (in between other utterances of delight).  Afterwards she described her meal as “one of my best ever culinary experiences!!” and “the best meal I’ve ever had in Santa Fe.”   Considering she’s dined at several Michelin starred restaurants throughout the country, that’s high praise indeed.  

Epazote has been in a lot of conversations lately.  In October, 2014, USA Today’s 10 Best named Epazote the very best option for lunch in Santa Fe.  Billie Frank, who’s pretty fabulous in her own right, was effusive in her praise for Chef Olea’s loving culinary preparations.  Lest you think “it’s just lunch,” Hillside owner Tisha Sjosfrand assured me that Epazote will enter the dinner restaurant fray on receipt of its beer and wine license.  The question then will be whether or not Epazote is the best dinner destination in Santa Fe, too.

Chef Fernando Olea and our very capable server bring Poblano Soup to our table (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

Chef Olea’s coat is emblazoned with the term “Inspired New World Cuisine.”  It’s an apt description for his masterful execution of cuisine which defies pigeonholing.  He laments that when Santa Fe concierge recommend Epazote for its Mexican cuisine, some diners are disheartened and leave when they don’t find tacos and enchiladas on the menu.  What a shame!  Perhaps if they had stuck around, they would have experienced an Asian inspired work of art with which our tasting menu experience began.  This starter showcased porcini mushrooms and bean thread noodles with the chef’s own Tabuca sauce and sprigs of mint.  The woodsy  earthiness of the mushrooms, the Thai chili pepper heat of the Tabuca sauce and the evergreen freshness of the mint coalesced into a balanced flavor profile in which all elements are deliciously discernible on your palate. 

Our second course was the sublime Poblano soup about which I wax poetic in my review of my previous tasting menu experience.  Served in a martini glass, this soul-warming elixir was not, however, a repeat of the Poblano soup I had previously experienced (though that would have been joyously welcomed).  Chef Olea changed things up subtly yet with great effect.  Instead of the magnificent shrimp from my first visit, a sole “crouton” created from seared wild Pacific salmon luxuriated in the broth.  The brininess of the salmon and the alchemical interplay of other ingredients reenforced why this is my highest rated soup in New Mexico.  It’s on the very top of my proverbial “last meal” list.

Rolled Chapulines (Baby Grasshoppers) Tacos, Sun Gold Tomatoes with a jalapeño sauce (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

Our third course–one neither my Kim nor the worldly Sandy had imagined they would ever experience–was two rolled tacos engorged with chapulines (baby grasshoppers) encircled by a jalapeño sauce and served with three Sun Gold tomatoes.  It’s only the thought of eating the “icky” insect that’s repulsive.  Get past that revulsion and you might, like everyone to whom I’ve introduced this tasty treat, enjoy (or at the very least, be able to brag about) the experience.  If you can’t get past the chapulines alone, the jalapeño sauce adds flavor and heat elements that may make them less off-putting to you.  Then there are the Sun Gold tomatoes, the reddish-orange beauties with an explosively sweet, fruity flavor.  They’re addictive (and so are the chapulines). 

Should you treat yourself to the Chef’s Tasting Menu at Epazote, make it a point to request bread before any course is brought to your table.  You’ll don’t want to lose a single drop of any of the fabulous sauces which ameliorate each course.  Not only is the bread utilitarian for sopping up those precious sauces, Chef Olea’s baking skills are on display with such creative and delicious breads as a dense grain bread punctuated with apricot and walnuts.  It’s a fabulous bread, the type of which you’ll want an entire loaf. 

Bread infused with walnuts and apricots (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

Not every chef is intrepid enough to pair bold, assertive flavors with delicate flavors and not every chef knows that seemingly disparate flavors can actually be complementary.  Chef Olea’s flavor and ingredient pairings are legendary.  Perfectly tender, rich and rosy rare Muscovy duck with a light, succulent ring of fat is one of those light, delicate flavors not often paired with assertive and bold flavors.  Chef Olea dared pair the magnificent Muscovy duck with an incendiary (courtesy of jalapeños) Oaxacan mole verde which isn’t quite as sweet as some moles tend to be .  A smear of the equally piquant Tebuca sauce decorated the plate.  Other delicate elements on the dish were crispy spinach and crispy bean threads. The ethereally light and flaky spinach is a real treat.  The seemingly disparate pairing actually worked very well with flavors playing off each other in harmony.  I’m convinced Chef Olea can pair an Army chukka boot with a Bruno Magli loafer and make a fashion statement haute fashionistas would drool over. 

Over the years, lamb has obtained (perhaps earned) a reputation for being gamey (resembling the flavor and odor of wild hunted game) and having a strong flavor not all carnivores enjoy.  The strength of “gaminess” actually ranges among different breeds of sheep.  Northern New Mexican sheep, the type of which Epazote procures, has a rich and robust flavor without being off-putting and overly gamey.  Chef Olea paired two thick, lollipop lamb chops with a sweet potato puree and Poblano mole, both of which have sweet notes that complement the lamb very well.  With their built-in “handles,” the lamb chops are made to be picked up (etiquette be damned) and used to scoop up some of the puree and mole.  Three purplish dots on the plate are courtesy of a red cabbage reduction which just might reduce you to tears of ecstasy.

Muscovy Duck, Oaxacan Mole Verde, Bean Threads, Crispy Spinach and a Tabuca Sauce (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll

Our dessert was the fabulous Sweet Symphony, the second Epazote offering on my proverbial last meal.  Words can’t adequately describe just how wonderful this sublime sweet course really is, but you can read my feeble efforts at such above Sandy’s photo of the dessert.  Having previously had Sweet Symphony, it made me tremendously happy to see my wife and dear friend first try to discern the ingredients of this masterful concoction, then watching them swoon with each treasured bite.  Two days after having partaken of this greatness, Sandy is still raving about it.

Although our initial seating was by the tranquil waterfall on the restaurant’s bottom level, we asked to be moved on account of the sunlight.  Our accommodating server gave us the other best seat in the house–right under the portrait of the New Mexico mole ingredients on the second level.  The culmination of our meal was a conversation with the great gentleman chef whom Sandy looks forward to seeing again when he serves as guest chef at the Los Angeles restaurant where his daughter works. There’s no doubt this won’t be Sandy’s sole visit to Epazote.

Northern New Mexico Raised Lamb Chops, Mole Poblano, Sweet Potato Puree, Red Cabbage Reduction (Photo Courtesy of Sandy Driscoll)

EPILOGUE

From both an experiential perspective as well as for outstanding cuisine, Epazote is far and away one of the best restaurants I have ever experienced. Chef Olea is not only a chef of nonpareil talent, he is the consummate host, a true gentleman with the emphasis on the word “gentle.” Epazote on the Hillside must be experienced to comprehend true greatness–a greatness that isn’t shouted loudly, but in a manner as gentle as a burbling stream or soft breeze.

EPAZOTE ON THE HILLSIDE
86 Old Las Vegas Highway
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 15 November 2014
1st VISIT: 16 March 2014
# OF VISITS: 3
RATING: 27
COST: $$$$
BEST BET: Flan Trio, New Mexican Mole, Lamb Chops, Popocatepetl, Rack of Lamb, Lechon, Ensalada de Queso Azul, Horno Baked Bread, Huitloacoche Taco, Chapulines Taco, Bone Marrow, Abalone, Mole Poblano with Muscovy Duck, Poblano Soup, Symphony

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Chicharroneria Orozco – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Chicharroneria Orozco on Bridge Boulevard

On a dark desert highway, cool wind in my hair
Warm smell of colitas rising up through the air
~Hotel California – The Eagles

Among the many alluring olfactory temptations emanating from dilapidated and timeworn food stalls and colorful restaurant storefronts throughout Mexico is the warm smell of colitas.  They beckon passers-by to experience the aromas, sights, sounds and flavors of one of the Land of Montezuma’s most intriguing and unique dishes, one which will require timorous diners to renounce the heinous malefaction of consuming artery-clogging and fatty foods.  For many Americans, colitas have a major “ick” factor so they stick with the “safe” foods: tacos, tortas, tostadas and tamales (the “T” food group)…and wisely, they don’t drink the water.

To intrepid gastronomes intimate with Mexican food, “the warm smell of colitas rising up through the air” has a different meaning than the colitas about which The Eagles sang. Though often interpreted as sexual slang (colitas translates to “little tails”) or a reference to marijuana (cannabis buds), band member Don Felder once explained the  colitas referenced in the song are “a plant that grows in the desert that blooms at night, and it has this kind of pungent, almost funky smell.”

Pork by the pound is the specialty here

The carnitas which delight diners throughout Mexico are indeed “little tails.”  More precisely, they’re turkey tails (colitas de pavo), they’re a delicacy and you’ll never convince aficionados of these crunchy, fatty, meaty treats that the immortal Eagles lyrics weren’t written about them.  Their first and most logical argument, of course, is the warm smell rising up through the air.  It’s a smell you can find in the Duke City only at Chicharroneria Orozco just north and west of the Barelas neighborhood. 

Though only a few blocks south of downtown, the area just over the bridge that crosses the Rio Grande on Bridge Boulevard may remind you of crossing into Juarez.  The flesh-rending razor wire fence atop the walls and roofs of nearby businesses will certainly tell you this isn’t the kinder, gentler side of Albuquerque.  Don’t let that scare you.  Most of the visitors to Chicharroneria Orozco are young immigrant families jonesing (or would that be martinezing) for a taste of home.

Celebrating the charro

There’s a lot to see, hear and smell when you step into the restaurant.  The cynosure is most definitely an island of deliciousness–a glass case displaying fried goodness in all shapes and sizes.  Save for the colitas de pavo and higado ensebollado (beef liver and onions), featured fare is of the porcine variety: tripitas (intestines), buche (stomach), carnitas, carne al pastor and costillas de puerco (pork ribs).  For an insanely low price, one pound of the meat of your choice includes a stack of fresh, steaming corn tortillas and a bowl brimming with chopped cilantro, onions and limes.

On one corner of the restaurant is a celebration of the charro, the Mexican horseman of legend and lore.  Atop stacked hay bales is a colorful Mexican blanket, a saddle and a lariat.  The walls immediately behind the hay bale “horse” include other accoutrements of the charro.  An adjacent dining room includes an automated teller machine (ATM) so you can settle your bill of fare.  Take a gander at the refrigerator in which a number of Mexican and American beverages brewed in Mexico (you haven’t lived until you’ve had a Cherry Pepsi bottled in Mexico and made with pure cane sugar) are available.

Salsa and Chips

As you await delivery of your meal, chips and salsa are delivered to your table.  The salsa is uniquely Mexican. It’s not made with either onions or tomatoes as most New Mexican salsas tend to be.  The salsa, a rich red chile punctuated with cilantro and salt will still win you over.  It’s not especially piquant and it’s almost watery in its consistency, but it’s got a great flavor.  Because it is so thin, the thick, crisp chips will function more efficiently if you dip them instead of trying to scoop Gil-sized portions of salsa. 

If you’re averse to fried pork, the Carne Al Pastor is an excellent choice.  Al pastor, which translates to “in the style of the shepherd” is a ubiquitous street food option in Mexico where al pastor means thin cuts of marinated pork whittled away from a cone of sizzling pork gyrating on a spit similar to an gyro.  At the Chicharonneria Orozco, the carne al pastor arrives at your table in cubed form, a bright red reminiscent of tandoori meats in its splendorous patina.

Al Pastor with Onions, Limes and Cilantro

The corn masa taco shells are about four-inches around and remain hot to the touch during your entire meal even though they’re not presented in a warmer of any sorts.  A few spoonfuls of carne al pastor, some freshly chopped onions and cilantro followed by a squeeze of lime and you’ve got a taco which may transport you to the streets of Mexico.  The marinated pork includes some sinewy and fatty bits, but that should be expected considering the price.  You’ll have enough carne al pastor to share and still have some left over for the following day. 

In Mexico, carnitas are the undisputed king of the taco cart as well as of cholesterol.  Every region has its own version of deep-fried pig.  Sometimes shredded like pulled pork and sometimes cubed into small pieces, carnitas should always be moist, juicy and redolent with porcine flavor.  The Chicharroneria Orozco’s version of carnitas is very typical.  One pound of these smoky golden-hued beauties may permanently imprint a smile on your face.

One pound of carnitas with corn tortillas

Where many couples might celebrate a wedding anniversary at an upscale eatery, my Kim and I couldn’t resist the warm smell of colitas and celebrated our momentous day at Chicharroneria Orozco.  She told me we could return any time.

Chicharroneria Orozco
709 Bridge S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 873-4806
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 7 September 2014
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Carnitas, Al Pastor

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El Norteño – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

El Norteño's Second Albuquerque Location: On Montgomery and Wyoming

El Norteño On Montgomery and Wyoming

No Mexican restaurant in Albuquerque has a pedigree that approaches that of El Norteño, a venerable elder statesperson in the Duke City’s burgeoning and constantly evolving Mexican restaurant scene.  El Norteño has been pleasing local diners for more than a quarter of a century as evinced by its perennial selection as the city’s “Best Mexican” restaurant. Respondents to the Alibi’s annual “best of” poll accorded El Norteño that coveted accolade against increasingly more formidable competition every year for seven consecutive years.

Launched in 1986 by Leo and Martha Nuñez, El Norteño is an Albuquerque institution, a Mexican restaurant which can’t be pigeonholed for serving the cuisine of one Mexican state or another.  That’s because El Norteño offers traditional Mexican specialties while staying true to the Land of Enchantment, using only peppers grown in New Mexico.  In 1993, Monica Manoochehri and her husband Kamran took over the restaurant, maintaining the exceptional standards established by her parents.

A trio of salsas

Three salsas and chips at El Norteno

As consistently excellent as it has been, El Norteño became one of those restaurants even its most loyal patrons may have begun to take for granted.  We all knew it was in a class by itself with incomparable cuisine; warm, friendly service and a homey ambiance in which all guests felt welcome.  We thought it would always be there, but in July, 2008, an early morning conflagration caused extensive damage to this treasure which at the time of the fire was situated at 6416 Zuni, S.E..  With its closure, a little piece of all of us was tragically, seemingly irreplacaebly gone.

In December, 2008, El Norteño reopened at 1431 Wyoming, N.E., (just north of Constitution) the former site of Cafe Miche, one of the city’s very best French restaurants. Cafe Miche’s elegant French appointments were replaced by more colorful, thematically Mexican trappings including the art of Diego Rivera and other Mexican artists. Just as in its former home, El Norteño treats all diners like welcome guests.  Just as in its former home, Monica performed culinary magic as only she can.

Queso Fundido with Chorizo

Queso Fundido with Chorizo

As elegant as its new digs were, frequent guests will tell you they just didn’t seem as welcoming and warm as the original, more humble and more homey Zuni location generations had come to love.  Even  Monica will tell you she felt much more comfortable in her original restaurant home than in the more spacious, more ostentatious strip mall setting her restaurant occupied. 

In November, 2012 Monica launched a second instantiation of El Norteño on Wyoming and Montgomery just a few miles north of its Wyoming and Constitution location which closed when its lease elapsed.  The restaurant is situated in the corner space once occupied by Yen Ching, a popular Chinese eatery coincidentally also consumed by fire.   Monica’s new restaurant includes an expansive banqueting room (which hosted Friends of Gil III) and a panaderia in which such popular Mexican and New Mexican pastries as biscochitos, empanadas, conchas and even sopaipillas will be available for dessert or take-home.

Tostadas de Ceviche

Tostadas de Ceviche

While El Norteño holds a firm grasp on the hearts and appetites of Duke City diners, it’s not just locals who traverse to this family-owned and operated gem.  As an unabashed ambassador for New Mexico’s restaurants, I’m often surprised that Land of Enchantment residents don’t always grasp just how highly regarded our restaurants are across the country.  Restaurants such as El Norteño paved the way for the pantheon of restaurant gems which have recently earned acclaim from the Food Network.

In the year 2000, Michael and Jane Stern conceived Roadfood.com as a Web site devoted to finding the most memorable local eateries along the highways and back roads of America. One of their favorites for years has been El Norteño which they visit during their frequent sojourns to the Land of Enchantment.  In rating El Norteño’s horchata among the very best in the country for their terrific tome, 500 Things To Eat Before It’s Too Late, the Sterns called El Norteño “Albuquerque’s home of meals that are true Mex, not Tex-Mex or New Mex.”

Carne Asada

Carne Asada

When Chile Pepper magazine published a “best of zest” feature, a mainstay for years was El Norteño which the magazine rated as one of the very best Mexican restaurants in the country. According to Kamran, his wife’s restaurant was even named “best authentic Mexican restaurant in America” in 1999 by no less than Gourmet Magazine.

Both the culinary unadventurous and the “epicurious” diners will find something to their liking at El Norteño. Until 2005, El Norteno offered a daily lunch buffet, a repast for the rapacious, but not necessarily adventurous, diner. The lunch buffet offered pretty standard fare prepared exceptionally well–some of the best beans in the city, terrific rice, lively enchiladas and the most tender carne adovada imaginable–as well as some departures into the realm of culinary audacity such as menudo and chipotle sauced chicken.

Some of the best horchata in America

Some of the best horchata in America

True epicureans, however, will always order off the menu because we recognize that El Norteño is probably the one restaurant in Albuquerque where the distinction between the cuisines of New Mexico and Old Mexico is most discernible. You can get enchiladas, burritos and tacos anywhere. Give us barbacoa (meat from a cow’s cheek), lengua (tongue), cabrito (young goat) and nopalitos (nopal leaves).

El Norteño is most appreciated by discerning diners who understand and crave authentic Mexican food as it would be prepared at the region in which it originated. Unlike many other Mexican restaurants in the city, El Norteño doesn’t specialize in the cuisine of solely one of Mexico’s diverse regions; it celebrates Mexican cuisine from throughout the many states of Mexico. Authenticity is certainly a hallmark at El Norteño!

Cabrito al Horno Estilo Birria

Cabrito al Horno Estilo Birria

The charming Monica is the heart and soul of the restaurant, managing the kitchen, yet seemingly always finding time to check in on her guests.  The charming and beauteous Monica is a real treat to converse with.  She is personable, intelligent and possesses a smile that will light up a room.  The wait staff reflects her customer orientation and is generally on-the-spot and friendly.  Dining at El Norteño is always a treat!

The salsas are also a treat. A guacamole based salsa ameliorated with jalapeño is only mildly piquant but rich in the buttery smooth flavor of well-ripened avocados. El Norteño also specializes in a couple of salsas rarely seen in New Mexico, but common in the state of Puebla. They’re peanut-based salsas, including the salsa de cacahuates con Guajillo, a peanut salsa with chile Guajillo. None of the peanut salsas are as cloying as the peanut sauces so prevalent in Thai foods.

Tamales at El Norteno

Tamales at El Norteno

El Norteño’s appetizer selection includes many standard favorites such as queso fundido served in various ways, but it also offers a fairly unique starter you don’t often find in Albuquerque–ensalada de nopalitos, a refreshing salad made from tender nopal (a member of the cactus family sometimes referred to as a prickly pear) simmered in vinaigrette and served with tomato, onion, minced chiles and corn tortillas. It has a tangy flavor that salad savants will love. 

6 January 2013: Not on the appetizer menu, but on the mariscos (Mexican seafood) menu, is another excellent starter, tostadas de ceviche.  In all good ceviche, the briny-savory flavors of seafood should never be obfuscated by citrus juices or by the chopped tomato-cilantro-jalapeño-onion accompaniment.  In other words, shrimp and fish should taste like shrimp and fish and not a seafood and lime Popsicle.  El Norteño accomplishes this very well, but also gives you several limes to add more citrus if you so desire.

Monica and Leo, the heart and soul of El Norteno.  The tres leches cake in Monica's hands is destined for our table.

Monica and Kamran, the owners of El Norteño

Where El Norteño truly excels is in the art of preparing porcine perfection. Every pork-based entree is unbelievably tender (thanks in part to an overnight marinade in a mixture of lemon juice and olive oil) and uniquely delicious:

  • 8 August 2009: Utilizing ancient Mayan techniques, El Norteño prepares the very best Cochinita Pibil we’ve ever had. Citrus and spice marinated shredded pork is wrapped in banana leaves and steamed until tender. The pork literally melts in your mouth, imparting with it as it goes, a lively aftertaste of complementary spices and citrus juices that may elicit tears of joy.

  • Monturas are a specialty at El Norteño. From all appearances, this appears to be a very simple dish–medallions of pork topped with melted Monterrey Jack cheese and a rich, flavorful green chile–but appearances can be deceiving. You can masticate this pork with your gums; that’s how tender it is. It is one of the very best pork chop-like dishes in the city.
  • If pork chops are what you crave, the Guisado Norteño will assuage your cravings. Two hearty pork chops are topped with a wild tomato sauce that enlivens them with flavor. Need I say the pork is unbelievably tender.
Cochinito Pibil, the very best in New Mexico

Cochinito Pibil, the very best in New Mexico

It also goes without saying that the carne adovada is exceptionally tender and delicious (even though it includes a modicum of cumin) as is the al pastor which derives its flavor from as many as 13 different spices. I could rhapsodize for several pages on how wonderful the pork is, but that would be an injustice to the other terrific items on the menu which aren’t pork based.  Pork isn’t the sole treasure at El Norteño where it’s quite possible there is no ordinary entree.  Every dish is extraordinary or better, if possible.

6 January 2013: The cabrito (meat from very young, milk fed kids between 4 and 8 weeks of age) al Horno Estilo Birria (a style of Mexican barbecue) is absolutely wonderful, some of the best non-barbecued cabrito I’ve had in the past 25 years (maybe even better than the cabrito at Santa Fe’s fabled Los Potrillos). Oven roasted, marinated in chile and its own juices then served shredded, it oozes the pungent flavors of a classic Mexican entree. The cabrito is served with a pico de gallo and corn tortillas, perfect for crafting scrumptious tacos.

Chicken Mole with Beans and Rice

7August 2014:  The best mole recipes tend to be very closely guarded.  Monica will concede that the mole served at El Norteño includes seeds, chocolate, nuts and chilies and while they combine to form a greater whole, they’re not always discernible as individual ingredients.  Mole is so rich and complex that each bite is an adventure in flavor and though chilies are part and parcel of mole, piquancy is rarely a prominent feature.  El Norteño’s mole is smooth and creamy with a very slight hint of chocolate flavor.  It permeates the shredded chicken, imbuing it with a delicious richness.  The shredded cheese tempers the sweetness and provides a welcome contrast.

7August 2014:  Some New Mexican and Mexican restaurants make a big deal out of their presentation of fajitas, parading them from the kitchen with a vapor trail which would make jet aircraft envious.  The procession resembles a phalanx of models walking the runway with tortillas, shredded cheeses, sour cream and pico de gallo plated separately.  At El Norteño, there isn’t much fanfare in the presentation of the fajitas.  In fact, these fajitas are simplicity itself: grilled skirt steak, onions, green peppers and pico de gallo share a plate with beans and rice.  Only the tortillas are served separately. The grilled steak is moist, tender and seasoned nicely, a perfect complement to the grilled onions and green peppers.

Fajitas with Beans and Rice

7 August 2014: Dessert at El Norteño is a heavenly experience. The pastel de tres leches is unique in that the cake itself is cut up into small cubes which swim in a huge goblet filled with three types of rich, sweet milks then is dolloped with sweet cream and strawberries. It is sinfully decadent and delicious. Sweet and tangy flavors also combine like a concordant concert in your mouth in a dessert of frescas con crema (sweet strawberries blended with cream). 

6 January 2013: The glass pastry case at the Montgomery location is so enticing, I’d like one in my man cave–provided it’s stocked with the luscious pastries at El Norteño.  The biscochitos, the official cookie of the state of New Mexico, are wonderful with an abundance of anise and cinnamon flavor on perfect shortbread cookies.  Three varieties of empanada fillings–apple, crema and cherry–are available as are a number of other Mexican pastries.  When Monica launches her panaderia, expect even more deliciousness from the oven.

Biscochitos and Cherry Empanadas from the Pastry Case

Biscochitos and Cherry Empanadas from the Pastry Case

Mexican restaurants come and go in Albuquerque.  El Norteño has staying power because it continues to deliver great value, terrific service and fantastic food to its loyal patrons.

El Norteno
1431 Wyoming, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 7 August 2014
# OF VISITS: 10
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Cochinita pibil, Queso Fundido con Chorizo, Tostadas De Ceviche, Horchata, Tres Leches, Guisado Norteño, Cabrito al Horno Estilo Birria, Fajitas, Chicken Mole, Bischochitos, Empanadas

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El Norteño
4410 Wyoming Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 508-4372
LATEST VISIT: 6 January 2013
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $$
BEST BET: Tostadas de Ceviche, Chips and Salsa, Queso Fundido with Chorizo, Cabrito al Horno Estilo Birria, Horchata

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