Cazuela’s Mexican Grill – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Cazuela's Mexican Grill

Cazuela’s Mexican Grill

Here’s an interesting bit of Jeopardy level trivia which you might contemplate the next time you dine at this Rio Rancho spot: In the Spanish golden age, a “cazuela” was the gallery located above the tavern in the back wall of a theater–the area in which women were segregated. Today “cazuela” is a Mexican word for casserole meal.  Cazuela’s restaurant is a friendly, family-owned operation, which in 2007 saw significant change,  precipitated in part by a motorist crashing through the diminutive dwelling which had been the restaurant’s home for several years.   That original site was a tiny, time-worn building imbued with charm and warmth that belied its Lilliputian size.

Cazuela’s new location is an expansive edifice which once housed Rio Rancho’s Sports Corral. The Corral’s batting cages are still part of the property, but gone are other facets of the long-time sports complex. Owner Francisco Saenz practically gutted the building, investing significant capital in completely transforming it into a classy restaurant. With a lease to buy option, he has big plans for Cazuela’s.  The new location allows the Saenz family to expand their menu, extend hours of business and even cater large events. It’s got a banqueting facility that will accommodate large crowds.

A cazuela

A painting of a cazuela at Cazuela’s

As with all successful restaurants, Cazuela’s has evolved and grown beyond just physical space.  An expansive menu befitting larger accommodations has been added.  Mariscos became part of the menu in 2009.  In 2012, the restaurant added a brewery and tap room showcasing several award-winning adult libations (and a pretty good Root Beer, too).  In 2015, Cazuela’s added a stone oven in which pizzas are made with scratch-made dough infused with New Mexico honey.

Enter through the north-facing door and you’ll see why the restaurant is named Cazuela’s. A large painting of a casserole dish hangs prominently. There are several Mexican paintings hanging on the restaurant’s walls, all framed in the unique style of Old Mexico. An arched doorway takes you from the front dining room to a more expansive dining room. Several half-moon shaped arches throughout the restaurant give you visibility to a beautiful venue that facilitates tranquil and relaxing dining.

Cazuela’s Capacious Dining Room

The dining rooms are bright and airy with plenty of room to spread out. Ceiling fans allow for air to circulate and help drown out the sound of the televisions in each dining room. Both table and booth seating are comfortable. The two most important thing about Cazuela’s didn’t change with its move to a larger facility.  The first would be service. Cazuela’s wait staff is among the most attentive in town. It’s a knowledgeable wait staff whose recommendations you can trust. From the moment you’re greeted until the minute you leave, the wait staff will make you feel like a welcome guest.  They check up on you frequently without being intrusive and they anticipate when you need a refill.

The second is the food. Sure, the menu expanded, but that’s just more of the same delicious food residents of the City of Vision have come to love. It’s fresh, flavorful and almost all made on the premises.  That starts with the chips and salsa. The chips are made from deep-fried corn tortillas. These are some of the best chips in town–thick and redolent with the flavor of corn. Your first order of chips and salsa is complementary and subsequent orders cost a pittance.  The salsa is delicious. It’s a bit on the thin side, but makes up for that with a smoky and mildly piquant flavor invigorated with cilantro, tomato and jalapeno. If you can taste freshness in a salsa, this might be what it tastes like.

Chips and Salsa

31 March 2010: Cazuela’s serves breakfast all day long with a menu which includes traditional Mexican favorites such as chilaquiles, pancakes, eggs and bacon as well as New Mexico’s ubiquitous breakfast burritos.  The chilaquiles are terrific, some of the very best in New Mexico in large part because they’re made with those fabulous Cazuela’s chips.  This dish is simplicity itself–deep-fried tortilla chips smothered in green chile and cheese then topped with a fried egg.  The green chile is of medium piquancy and imbues the chips with both a softening quality and a memorable flavor.  The runniness of the yolk makes it even better.

Chilaquiles, some of the very best in New Mexico

Chilaquiles, some of the very best in New Mexico

31 March 2010: You might not expect a Mexican grill to excel at pancakes, but Cazuela’s would give any pancake house a run for their money.  Whether you order a full-sized portion or a short stack (two pancakes), you’re in for a treat.  The pancakes are  nearly the circumference of the plate and are served with syrup tinged with more than a discernible hint of vanilla.  They’re served steaming hot so the butter melts easily.

A short stack of pancakes at Cazuela's doesn't mean a small stack

A short stack of pancakes at Cazuela’s doesn’t mean a small stack

18 January 2008Taquitos with salsa and sour cream are another not-to-be-missed option. Cazuela’s taquitos aren’t rolled up cigar-tight as you might find them in Española (which I’ve long contended makes the best taquitos in the state).  Corn tortillas are engorged with a beef and bean amalgam then deep-fried. Served in orders of four, they’re sizable enough to share (not that you might want to, they’re so good). 

Taquitos with salsa and sour cream

Taquitos with salsa and sour cream

18 January 2008: Other staples of the expanded menu include daily specials, gorditas (considered the specialty of the house), tacos, burritos, enchiladas, combination plates and handmade tamales and tortillas. Visitors expecting New Mexico style cooking (and especially New Mexican chile) will be in for a pleasant surprise. This is old Mexico in all its culinary glory.  You might also be surprised by the restaurant’s rendition of gorditas (which mean fatties). Typically thick, deep-fried tortillas stuffed similarly to pita bread, Cazuela’s version actually has its ingredients piled on top.  These gorditas start with handmade corn tortillas topped with shredded cheese, fresh tomatoes, lettuce and melted butter then smothered with red and (or) green chile. Beef, chicken or carnitas (braised pork cut into small cubes) can also be added.

Gorditas plate

Gorditas plate

26 December 2015: In 2009, Cazuela’s added more than a page’s worth of mariscos to the menu including ceviche which you can order as an appetizer or as a plate with rice and beans.  The tostadas de ceviche are available with either camarones (shrimp) or pescado (fish) marinated in citrus juices then piled atop a crisp taco shell with red onion, tomato and avocado slices.  Cazuela’s does something other Mexican restaurants don’t do.  It provides a small plastic cup of jalapeño juice infused with lime so you can add even more citrus flavor as well as a piquant kick to your tostadas.  It’s something other restaurants should duplicate because the mix of tangy citrus and piquant jalapeños is terrific.

Tostadas de Ceviche

18 January 2008: When on the menu at the previous location, parrillada lived up to its billing as a “special of the day,”  becoming one of my very favorite Mexican entrees on the Cazuela’s menu. No matter where you travel in Latin America, you’ll find grilled meat (carne asada) on the menu. Restaurants called parrillas specialize in grilled meats and sometimes grill seafood (mariscos) and poultry as well. Only a few restaurants in the Albuquerque area offer parrillada.

Cazuela’s offers two parrilladas plates. The Nortena is made with carne asada, sizzling bacon, bell peppers, onions, chorizo and white cheese. The Carnitas Parrillada substitutes cubed pork for the carne asada. Served in one or two person portions, parrillada is served in a cast iron plate which seems to retain its heat throughout the meal. While heavily laden with ingredients for which angioplasties should come on the side, this is an excellent dish. The parrilladas plates are served with beans, rice, guacamole, sour cream and corn or flour tortillas. Some diners make tacos out of the grilled ingredients; others use their forks to stab mouthfuls of grilled goodness. Any way you eat it, parrillada is delicious. 

Parrillada with Carnitas

Parrillada with Carnitas

26 December 2015: If you’re a fan of grilled meats, Cazuela’s has two additional options to consider: molcajete de carne and molcajete de pollo.  A molcajete is essentially a seasoned stone mortar meticulously carved out of a single rock of vesicular basalt by a skilled artisan.  Not only are they aesthetic, they are highly functional, used for crushing and grinding spices and as serving vessels.  As serving vessels is how Cazuela’s uses them.  Your entire meal will be served in the cavity of the molcajete which retains heat for the entire duration of your meal.  This is “too hot to handle” heat that keeps your meal steaming hot for as long as half an hour. 

The molcajete de carne features grilled top sirloin steak and shrimp with onions, bell peppers and mushrooms topped with melted mozzarella cheese.  Similar to an order of fajitas, this entree is served with Spanish rice, beans, sour cream, guacamole and flour tortilla.  As good as the top sirloin is, my Kim’s favorite element is the grilled onions which are sweet and pearlescent.  The melted mozzarella lends an element of saltiness while the succulent shrimp serves as a nice foil for the meat.  Molcajete dishes were popularized in the Duke City area by Antojitos Lupe.  Cazuela’s version is a worthy contrast.

Molcajete de Carne

26 December 2015:  The Especialidades Marisco (Seafood Specials) section of the menu is brimming with netfuls of fresh, succulent seafood featuring pescado (fish), camarones (shrimp) and pulpo (octopus) entrees.  Although seafood isn’t widely thought of as “rich,” with the right sauce, seafood can be made as rich and calorific as virtually any meal.  The camarones crema de hongos (whole grilled shrimp in a cream sauce with mushrooms) is one of those almost too rich to finish dishes so good you’ll soldier on despite the sensation of being sated.  There’s a wonderful contrast between the earthy, fleshy fungi and the sweet, succulent shrimp you’ll find addictive.  This dish is served with a simple salad and your choice of Ranch or Italian dressings.

Camarones Crema de Hongos

Dessert options include sopaipillas, fried ice cream and tres leches cake. Your server will ask if you want your tres leches cake topped with a drizzle of chocolate or with fresh strawberries. In either case, it’s a delicious and unfailingly fresh cake that you’ll enjoy.

There are many things about Cazuela’s you’ll enjoy. It’s a hometown favorite Rio Rancho residents can’t get enough of. It’s on Sara Road directly across from Intel’s RR4 complex, but even though it’s not on the well-beaten path, it’s a destination restaurant to which you’ll return if you give it one visit.

Cazuela’s Mexican Grill
4051 Sara Road, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
(505) 994-9364
Web Site | Facebook Page

LATEST VISIT: 26 December 2015
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Parrillada (Carnitas), Chile con Queso, Taquitos with Salsa & Sour Cream, Gorditas, Chilaquiles, Tostadas de Ceviche, Pancakes, Camarones Crema de Hongos, Molcajete de Carne

Cazuela's Mexican Grill and Brewery Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Leilani’s Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Leilani’s Cafe on Gibson just west of Kirtland Air Force Base

Restaurants come and restaurant’s go.  It’s not hard to tell when a bad restaurant is nearing its demise. The telltale signs practically scream at you. Service is indifferent in spite of (or maybe because of) only a handful of guests to look after.  The food is uninspired, seemingly just something thrown together haphazardly.  A pall of gloom and malaise seems to pervade the ambiance, hastening your meal so you can get out of there quickly.  Such was the case when in August, 2015 I first visited the burger and fast food restaurant which formerly occupied a red, white and blue structure just west of Kirtland Air Force Base on Gibson. Needless to say, it wasn’t a restaurant about which I’d write, much less visit a second time. 

This is a tale of two restaurants at one location.  My experience at the former is described above.  It’s an experience validated by several  Yelp and Zomato respondents.  The latter is the complete antithesis of the former as I experienced it–as different in every way as one restaurant could be from another.  The latter, sporting a the not-so-New Mexican name of Leilani’s is a family-owned-and operated gem.  In terms of ambiance, it’s isn’t much different from its predecessor.  Attitudinally, there’s a world of difference.  At Leilani’s, guests are greeted warmly, invited to sit and looked after warmly during the duration of your meal.  Moreover, the food is obviously prepared to order and delivered fresh and delicious.

Two Types of Salsa with Chips

Leilani’s operating model is spelled out in its Web site: “We believe that great tasting food shouldn’t break the bank. That when our customer sits at our table it’s as if they pulled up a chair at their own dining room table. And that our staff feels like your extended family.”  These aren’t just words for the Segura family; it’s how they treat all their guests.  In my first two visits, the charming Lydia took very good care of me, rendering the same personable attention to every guest and still managing to make everyone seem special.

Based on name alone, you might expect Leilani’s would serve Hawaiian food and that it would be arrayed in luau splendor.  Leilani, which translates from Hawaiian to “heavenly flowers” or “royal child” is actually the name of the owner’s daughter.  Instead of poi, lau lau and poco moco, the cafe serves Mexican and New Mexican food and is open every day but Sunday for breakfast and lunch.  Before launching at its Gibson location in September, 2015, Leilani’s operated for three years as a private restaurant for employees of The Downs racetrack in Albuquerque.

Chicken Tacos with Beans and Rice

At many restaurants, the practice of serving complimentary salsa is going the way of the Coelophysis (New Mexico’s official state dinosaur).  Leilani’s doesn’t just bring you one salsa. You’re treated to two distinctly delicious and incendiary salsas, one green and one red. The salsas aren’t served in thimble-sized dispensers, but in sizable plastic ramekins. You’ll run out of chips before you run out of salsa. Both the red and the green are equally piquant and addictive. The red salsa is a bit thicker with the punch of jalapenos, the invigorating freshness of cilantro, the sharpness of white onions and the juiciness of tomatoes. The chips are crisp and low in salt.

4 November 2015: If you’ve ordered tacos recently, you’ve probably been taken aback at how pricey they’ve become. Though inexpensive to prepare, restaurants have marked them up so much you’d think they were made of rare and treasured ingredients. During my inaugural visit to Leilani’s, chicken tacos were the special of the day and they weren’t priced like gold bullion. Three tacos brimming with marinated, grilled chicken, shredded white and yellow Cheddar, lettuce and tomatoes were served with refried beans and rice. Though inexpensive, this generously plated lunch is a real steal considering the quality and deliciousness of the ingredients. The cubed chicken was impregnated with a savory-smoky marinade that enlivened the chicken.

The New Mexico Cheeseburger with a mountain of Ribbon Fries

10 November 2015: In the Land of Enchantment, the green chile cheeseburger has become synonymous with New Mexico’s burger. Seeing a burger called “New Mexico Cheeseburger” on Leilani’s menu, therefor, piqued my interest. Surely it would be a green chile cheeseburger in the fashion we’ve all come to know and love them. Instead, Leilani’s New Mexico Cheeseburger is an intriguing twist on our sacrosanct state burger. It’s constructed from a hand-formed quarter-pound patty, slice of mozzarella, breaded chile relleno, bacon, lettuce and tomato. The chile relleno is the most compelling aspect of this burger, but not necessarily the most delicious. That honor belongs to the hand-formed beef patty which is perfectly seasoned, juicy and perfectly delicious at an 80/20 beef to fat ratio. There’s only one “bummer” to this burger and it’s that the buns fall apart from the sheer volume and moistness of the ingredients. Still in all, it’s a burger so good you won’t mind sharing it with your hands.

10 November 2015: Burgers are available with your choice of French fries or ribbon fries. Savvy diners will opt for the ribbon fries. Not only do you get a mountain of them on your plate, they’re absolutely terrific. By strict definition, however, they’re not fries, but potato chips, some of the best you’ll have. In fact, only the patates at Gyros Mediterranean are on par with these terrific tubers. The ribbon fries are so good they don’t need anything else, but if you want to spice things up a little, ask for Valentina hot sauce, a tangy-piquant way to liven up anything.

As if an excellent meal served by a very pleasant family isn’t enough, Leilani’s Cafe offers a reward card. After nine entrees, the tenth entree is free. Here’s betting a lot of reward cards will be redeemed.

Leilani’s Cafe
5901 Gibson, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 349-8820
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 10 November 2015
1st VISIT: 4 November 2015
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salsa with Chips, Chicken Tacos, New Mexico Cheeseburger, Ribbon Fries

Leilani's Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Antojitos Lupe – Bernalillo, New Mexico

Antojitos Lupe Authentic Mexican Cuisine in Bernalillo

Gustavo Arellano, the brilliant and hilarious author of Ask a Mexican, a widely syndicated newspaper column published mostly in weekly alternative papers, has become one of my go-to sources of entertainment and information, particularly regarding our common and beloved Spanish lexicon.  His inimitable wit and perspective is amusing and enlightening.  Take for example his translation of the word “antojitos.”

in an article published in his parent newspaper, the Orange County Weekly, Arellano observes that “the Spanish menu entry antojitos translates as “appetizers,” but the expression connotes more than mere snacks. It derives from the noun antojo, which describes the cravings unique to pregnant women. Antojitos, then, is “little cravings,” and Latinos know that their before-the-main-meal bites should be so appetizing that expectant females snarl at husbands to seek these delights at ungodly hours.”

Antojitos Lupe Dining Room

Expectant mothers snarling! Ungodly hours!  Obviously antojitos should be good enough to elicit the type of carnal response usually reserved for something more than special…something great.  One could surmise that in a sense, antojitos are the Mexican equivalent of dim sum, but where antojitos translates to “little cravings,” dim sum translates to “a bit of heart” or “heart’s delight.”  In either case, Mexicans are passionate about their antojitos which in every sense are a heart’s delight.

Barry Popik, food etymologist extraordinaire explains in his fabulous blog that the word “antojitos” has been cited in American newspapers since at least 1937.  He credits Claudia Alarcon writing for  Chefs.com for shedding more light on the topic of antojitos: “Perhaps the most difficult group of dishes to explain in all of Mexican cuisine, antojitos are best described as small dishes that are meant to be consumed informally, either from street vendors at lunchtime, in cantinas with drinks before dinner, or at home or in the street as late night snacks.”

Salsa and Chips

In October, 2009, a new restaurant named Antojitos Lupe opened on the ill-fated corner of Camino del Pueblo and Avenida Bernalillo, a corner which has seen many restaurants come and go, all in short order.  The site’s previous tenant was Charlie’s Burgers & Mexican Food which lasted less than a year in that location.  Antojitos Lupe, it turns out, is the second instantiation of a popular and similarly named restaurant in the Duke City.  Lupe’s Antojitos and Mexican food on Zuni Road has been pleasing palates in southeast Albuquerque since 2007.  There are several other Mexican restaurants in that area, but Lupe’s has established a faithful following.  One reason might just be Lupe herself.  She is a delightful woman with a luminous smile and happy glow reserved almost exclusively for her Bernalillo restaurant.  She rarely visits her Albuquerque restaurant, but leaves it in the hands of a trusted staff on whom she relies to provide high quality victuals and service.

In Bernalillo, Antojitos Lupe has no competition from other Mexican restaurants and in fact, only a half-dozen or so restaurants of any kind call the City of Coronado home.  As such, when the corner complex which housed Lupe’s shuttered its doors in 2013, savvy diners went into mourning.  Our sorrow was short-lived because on October 30, 2013, Antojitos Lupe launched in a shiny new strip mall off heavily trafficked Highway 550.  Lupe’s, a veritable compendium of deliciousness from Central Mexico, was back and for that, we are extremely grateful.

Tostada de Ceviche

17 October 2009: Tostada de Ceviche

Contrary to the name on the marquee, the menu isn’t solely about appetizers.  There are a number of breakfast, lunch and dinner entrees available.  As you contemplate the menu, a complementary bowl of salsa with thick, crispy chips is brought to your table.  The salsa may be a nearly luminescent neon green tomatillo based salsa (called salsa verde) or it may be a thin, fiery red salsa.  The tomatillo salsa is only mildly piquant, but most definitely fresh tasting.  More prevalent flavor sensations come from the tanginess of limes and the sharp, fresh flavor of cilantro.  It’s a very good salsa, a bit on the watery side, but the chips are formidable enough to hold large quantities of it.  The chips are thick, crisp and low in salt.

A rotating array of Aguas frescas (including Pina, Jamaica and Horchata) to slake your thirst are served in Styrofoam cups.  If you wish to reduce your carbon footprint, try an ice cold bottle of Jarritos, the famous Mexican soda pops which come in nine delicious and colorful fruit flavors: Tamarind, Mandarin, Fruit Punch, Jamaica, Lime, Grapefruit, Guava, Pineapple and Strawberry.  The horchata is cold and delicious with a flavor more than vaguely reminiscent of the milk left over after eating a bowl of children’s breakfast cereal.  The pina (pineapple) is even better.

Huarache con carne asada

Huarache con carne asada

17 October 2009: It wouldn’t be a true antojitos experience if you don’t partake of at least one preprandial treat.  Perhaps the most intriguing are the Huaraches.  No, not the Mexican sandals popular with the Bohemian set. Barry Popik explains that huaraches are “thick, oval-shaped corn tortillas, often topped with meat, cheese, beans, and cooked cactus leaves.”  The name “huaraches” was either coined or popularized by a popular Mexico City restaurant named El Huarache Azteca.

The name fits.  Huaraches are shaped roughly like a human foot, and just as a human foot needs covering, the thick corn tortilla needs toppings.  Indented by hand so that it has “borders” to hold its component ingredients, one huarache at Antojitos Lupe is topped with ground beef, shredded lettuce, Mexican crema and queso fresco.  The ground beef is well seasoned and best of all, it isn’t refried  (fried once then reheated) as at some restaurants.  Even if you don’t add a smidgeon of salsa, this is a surprisingly flavorful meal starter.  Perhaps even better is a huarache topped with chorizo and potatoes.  The chorizo is nicely seasoned and imbues everything it touches with flavor.

March 1, 2012: A three taco plate with rice, beans and salsa

One entree highly recommended by the wait staff is the Bisteca Ranchera which at many Mexican restaurants is a supermodel thin slab of beef.  At Antojitos Lupe, that slab is cut up into small pieces and based on how well the flavors meld together, is sauteed with tomatoes and onions.  At least, this entree tastes as if it is all prepared together instead of the tomatoes and onions being added later.

17 October 2009: The Mexican state of Oaxaca is known as the “Land of Seven Moles,”–moles which can be found in such colors as red, green, black, brown and yellow.  Moles are an intricate sauce made by grinding and toasting chiles, seeds, spices and sundry ingredients.  Though they appear to be rather simple, moles are, in fact, highly complex and unique, no two cooks preparing it the same way.  While some New Mexicans won’t “deign” to eat mole, others find it a surprising alternative or even supplement to their beloved chile.One of the most common ways to have mole is over chicken and at Antojitos Lupe, “over” is an understatement.  A full chicken leg and thigh are thoroughly covered in mole.  In fact, the entree looks as if it chocolate has been applied by trowel, so densely covered is the poultry.  This is a messy entree guaranteed to require several napkins and copious finger-licking.

28 July 2012: Chile Rellenos with Beans and Rice

16 August 2011: Among the most intriguing items on the menu are three molcajete dishes.  A molcajete is essentially a seasoned stone mortar meticulously carved out of a single rock of vesicular basalt by a skilled artisan.  Not only are they esthetic, they are highly functional, used for crushing and grinding spices and as serving vessels.  That’s how Antojitos Lupe uses them.  The minute you place your order for one of the molcajete dishes, the round, three-legged mortar goes into the oven before your meal is prepared.  Your entire meal will be served in the cavity of the molcajete which retains heat for the entire duration of your meal.  This is “too hot to handle” heat that keeps your meal steaming hot for as long as half an hour.  The Molcajete Lupe is the house specialty, a spectacular melange of Mexican favorites: carne asada–thinly sliced grilled beef flank steak; pollo asado–grilled chicken; carne al pastor–marinated pork; queso fresco–a creamy, soft white cheese that tastes like a mild feta; nopalitos–verdant strips of nopal (prickly pear pads) cooked with onions; and finally, homemade corn tortillas.

Individually, each item on this entree is quite good, but as a collective, the entire dish is fabulous.  The juices from the sauteed onions and nopalitos coalesce with the al pastor to penetrate the chicken and beef, imbuing them with a surprisingly delicious flavor and a moist texture.  The corn tortillas make excellent tacos, engorged with a little bit of everything on the molcajete plus the side of beans and rice that comes with this entree.  The other two molcajete dishes are a chicken-based Molcajete Pollo dish and a meat based Molcajete Asada.

Red chicken Mole

Red Chicken Mole

1 March 2012: The caldo de res, a hearty beef and vegetable soup, is a meal in itself.  Served in a bowl equal in size to the swimming pool sized bowls used for Vietnamese pho, it’s big enough to share–not that you would want to.  To compare caldo de res with some Vietnamese soups wouldn’t be much of a stretch.  Both have restorative properties and are especially wonderful in cold weather.  Both are elixirs for whatever ails you, offering the comfort only a mother can match.  Both are flavored with marrow from bones.  Lupe’s caldo de res is made with bone-in beef shanks boiled for hours until tender. Mixed in are chunks of zucchini, carrots, chopped cabbage and mini corn on the cobs. It’s the beef broth which will absolutely delight you.  You’ll relish each spoonful, maybe even disposing of the spoon to slurp it up right from the bowl. 

22 March 2015:  One of the more intriguing dishes on the menu has the curious name “mole de oya.”  If you’re expecting mole in a pot, you’d be wrong.  Our server explained that the mole de oya dish has nothing to do with mole other than to share a name.  Instead, she elaborated, it more closely resembles the aforementioned caldo de res, the main difference being that the mole de oya is prepared with a hot chile.  Several of the signature vegetables on the caldo de res are absent from the mole de oya.  In fact, the spicy crimson broth includes mostly carrots, zucchini and the bone-in beef shanks aficionados de caldo (soup fanatics) love.

My friend Señor Plata enjoys his very first Molcajete Lupe

11 October 2015: Most often enjoyed during breakfast, chilaquiles are a good-at-any-time dish that’s both simple and complex.  At their essence, chilaquiles are constructed from the triumvirate of corn tortillas, salsa (or chile) and cheese.  The foundation for the dish is the tortillas which are cut up into quarters then fried and simmered in red chile until they absorb the sauce and become soft and pliable.  Queso fresco is then sprinkled on top.  The complexity is in any other ingredients (typically eggs, beans, meat and rice) added to the dish.  Lupe offers chilaquiles with carne asada, a very thin steak. 

11 October 2015:  If you’re in the mood for sandwiches, look no further than Antojitos Lupe which offers about a dozen different tortas, the delectable Mexican sandwich.  One of the more popular filler options is the torta al pastor, marinated pork cut up into tiny pieces and stuffed in between a soft, split bolillo bun with lettuce, tomatoes, avocado and jalapeños.  As beautiful a sandwich as it is when it’s just sitting on your plate, it becomes a falling apart mess when you unwrap and pick it up, as seemingly half your sandwich falls onto the plate.  That’s just a minor inconvenience, the spillage of excess ingredients.  There’s still plenty between buns and you’ll have some left over to eat with a fork.

Chilaquiles with Carne Asada

When we first discovered Antojitos Lupe, dessert options abounded, but the only way you’d have room for any is if you asked for a to-go box (some entrees, such as the Molcajete dishes, actually taste even better the next day).  Dessert options included flan, arroz con leche (a sweet rice with milk dish) and bionicos.  The very word “bionico” is intriguing.  For those of my generation, it conjures images of the Six Million Dollar Man, a television show chronicling the adventures of an astronaut “rebuilt” with “bionic” implants that enhance his strength, speed and vision

2 July 2010: Bionicos are so-named because they impart quick energy.  Lupe explains that bionicos are very popular for breakfast in parts of Mexico, not only because of their quick energy but because of their healthful qualities.  They are constructed of fresh, hand-cut fruits–strawberries, cantaloupe, papaya, pineapple, banana, apples–topped with granola, coconut, unsweetened yogurt and just a bit of syrup for sweetness.  Unlike some granola-based breakfast dishes, bionicos aren’t cloying in their sweetness; instead, the fruits impart their naturally fresh flavors–natural tanginess, sweetness, juiciness and tartness.  The dessert is easily large enough for two to share. 

Caldo de Res

Alas Antojitos Lupe no longer offers desserts.  As wonderful as the sumptuous sweets were, they weren’t moving very quickly and have been removed from the menu.  I kept the two previous paragraphs and the photograph on the review to remind patrons of what they’re missing.  Perhaps they’ll inspire a grass roots effort to bring them back (or at least the bionicos).

The lofty menu at Antojitos Lupe means future visits are inevitable.  Good cooking, attentive service and reasonable prices means there’ll be plenty of company at Bernalillo’s newest and only Mexican restaurant.  Then there’s Lupe herself, a perpetually smiling woman with the energy to multi-task as hostess, waitress, cashier and cook.  She’s sweeter than any of the desserts formerly offered at the restaurant.

Antojitos Lupe
180 East Highway 550
Bernalillo, New Mexico
(505) 867-2145
1ST VISIT
:  17 October 2009
LATEST VISIT: 11 October 2015
# OF VISITS: 8
RATING: 21
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Chicken Mole, Huaraches, Tomatillo Salsa, Bisteca Ranchera, Molcajete Lupe, Molcajete Asada, Bionicos, Mole de Oya, Chilaquiles, Torta al Pastor

Lupe's Antojitos on Urbanspoon

Mariscos La Playa – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Mariscos La Playa, a Mexican Seafood Restaurant on San Mateo

There’s deliciousness and there’s delicious irony on the menu at Mariscos La Playa.  The deliciousness is more readily apparent.  It’s part and parcel of virtually every item on the menu.  You have to understand a little Spanish to grasp the delicious irony which is outwardly manifested in the form of a soup called “Caldo Vuelve a la Vida,” literally ” Come-back-to-life-soup.”  The soup is a metaphor for the restaurant itself, the irony being that the restaurant itself has come back to life in Albuquerque after a hiatus of almost two years. 

Mariscos La Playa operated in the Duke City from November, 2006 through mid-2013.  Located on Central Avenue just west of Atrisco, the colorful Mexican seafood restaurant received significant critical acclaim from every online and print medium in the city.  Moreover, it earned popular acclaim among Mexican seafood aficionados.  Large crowds typified lunch and dinner at Mariscos La Playa, the third instantiation of a Mexican seafood dynasty founded and operated by Luis Ortega and his family who also own two locations in Santa Fe and one in Española.

One of the two dining rooms in the colorful and capacious restaurant

From a demographic standpoint, the original location was probably more ideally situated for the Duke City’s Mexican population.  The new location–on San Mateo just north of McLeod–is in what long-time friend of this Blog (and charter FOG member) John L calls “Mortgage Heights.”   It’s situated in a “challenged” (some might say “cursed”) location previously occupied by such tenants as the Prickly Pear Bar & Grill and before that Sabroso’s, both New Mexican restaurants. 

Visit the restaurant during a busy traffic day and you’ll quickly discern why the location is so challenged. If you’re driving south on San Mateo, you’ll find that there is no direct right turn to the restaurant and traffic can be so dense and busy that you may have to wait for a while to turn in.  Then there’s the phenomenon of the far right lane headed north.  For some reason, this lane is as tightly packed as a procession of ants headed toward a picnic.  But I digress…

Chips with three types of salsas

As with its predecessor on Central and its siblings in Santa Fe an Española, Mariscos La Playa is one of the most colorful restaurants in Albuquerque–not on the outside which is pretty homogeneous, but in the two capacious dining areas which are arrayed in a vivid pageantry of color.  From the vibrant ochre and sunshiny yellow walls to the painted seats, there’s something to catch your eye at every turn.  The sound system is tuned to a Pandora genre featuring Mariachi music, most of which is festive and all of which is thoroughly enjoyable. 

You’ll find the menu nearly as colorful as the restaurant.  It’s a veritable compendium of mariscos with a few landlubber entrees thrown in for good measure.  Menu items are listed first in Spanish with English translations directly below providing clear and detailed descriptions, including ingredients.  As you peruse the menu, you’ll want to indulge in agua de horchata served in a goblet larger than some aquariums.  The horchata is among the best in town.

Ceviche de Camaron

As with its predecessor, the service at Mariscos La Playa is impeccable with one of the most attentive and polite wait staffs around–a hallmark of the Ortega family restaurants. Better still, the wait staff makes sure there’s no surcease to the salsa and chips or the incomparable creamy avocado-based dip. The salsa, a pico de gallo, is at least as good as the very best pico served at other Mexican restaurants in New Mexico. The third “salsa” is a thin bean dip served warm. It’s somewhat watery–like the brownish broth at the bottom of a bean pot after the beans have been extricated–with small bits of mashed pinto bean. A few more beans and slightly less broth would make it even more delicious and certainly neater for your attire.

The avocado dip is indeed something special. It melds sour cream, ripe avocados, tomatoes, onions and jalapenos into a creamy concoction that you might dream about the evening after consuming it. The version at Albuquerque’s Mariscos La Playa is unfailingly creamy but varies in piquancy depending on the potency and quantity of the jalapenos added. It’s terrific on chips or as an additive to any entree. 

Discada Norteña, a bacon lover’s dream

The start of a memorable meal might include tostadas de ceviche crafted from crispy (yet formidable enough to support handfuls of seafood) tostadas first layered with mayonnaise then heaped with either shrimp or a seafood combination, cilantro, onion and chopped tomatoes. It’s a colorful and delicious appetizer you can also have as an entree in which it comes as an order of three.  During our inaugural visit to Mariscos La Playa’s new location, we found the ceviche de camaron (shrimp) in dire need of desalinization, but the ceviche de pescado (fish) has a just right citrus influence.

If it’s true that men really are genetically predisposed to salivate at the aroma, taste or mention of bacon, male diners should try the Discada Norteña, grilled diced beef with bacon, onions, tomato and white cheese served with corn tortillas, lettuce, tomato and avocado. While all the ingredients go together very well, it’s the bacon that comes across as the prevalent taste–and that’s not at all a bad thing. This entree comes in portions for one or for two and is served in a flat, circular pan with a can of Sterno to keep it warm (at some point, turn off the Sterno or your bounty will cake up at the bottom).

Mariscada Fria

If seafood had been intended to be boring, it would be available only in monotonous chain restaurants purporting to “speak fish” and cater to “the seafood lover in you.”   It would mean Americans would be subjected solely to heavily breaded seafood with each item virtually indistinguishable from the other.  Fortunately, there are many ways in which to enjoy seafood and Mariscos La Playa prepares them all very well.  If you enjoy seafood combinations served warm–and this does not mean fried and breaded–there’s the mariscada caliente, a mixed grill of fish, shrimp, scallops, calamari and octopus.

For an entirely different and remarkably refreshing perspective on seafood, try the mariscada fria, a mix of seafood (shrimp, octopus and scallops) tossed with lime juice, shaved onions and chile de arbol.  Much like the amazing molcajete aguachile at El Zarandeado, it’s a dish that combines piquancy and tanginess to enliven very fresh and very well prepared seafood.  The seafood items virtually swim in the lime juice just waiting for your fork to extract them.  The presentation is interesting with the wide bowl ringed by sliced cucumber satellites.

Tres Leches Cake

There are several desserts on the menu, including the pastel tres leches (cake of the three milks). As its name implies, this cake is made with three kinds of milk: evaporated milk, condensed milk and either whole milk or cream. Butter is not an ingredient and as such, this is generally a very light cake with a lot of air bubbles. As you press your fork down on a tres leches cake, it should ooze with milky goodness without being soggy. Alas, we found the tres leches cake at Mariscos La Playa on the desiccated side, not at all living up to its name.

For seafood lovers, the two year absence of Mariscos La Playa certainly made hearts grow fonder and appetites more ready for a mariscos classic we hope never leaves Albuquerque again.

Mariscos La Playa
5210 San Mateo
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 884 1147
LATEST VISIT: 2 August 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Discada Norteña, Horchata, Tres Leches Cake, Ceviche de Tostada con Camarones, Salsa and Chips, Mariscada Fria

Mariscos La Playa Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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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