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MARY & TITO’S CAFE – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Mary & Tito's may serve the very best red chile in Albuquerque

Mary & Tito’s, THE very best New Mexican restaurant in the world!

Old-timers whose opinions I respect consistently rate Mary & Tito’s as Albuquerque’s best restaurant for New Mexican food, a restaurant that has been pleasing the most savvy and unindoctrinated palates alike since 1963.  It takes a lot to impress some of those old-timers, none of whom see much substance in the flash and panache of the nouveau restaurants and their pristine veneer and effusive, over-the-top flamboyance.  These guys and gals are impressed only by New Mexican food the way their abuelitas prepared it–unadorned, authentic and absolutely wonderful.  If you want to evoke their ire, take them to one of the chains.  Worse, try sneaking some cumin into their chile.

Just how good is Mary & Tito’s?  In an October, 2009 span of two days, three people whose opinion on food I value weighed in, prompting me to ponder that question and not just take for granted that it’s “one of” the very best restaurants in New Mexico. World-travelers Randy and Bonnie Lake experienced an epiphany during their most recent visit, marveling at just how much better Mary & Tito’s legendary red is than other red chile they’ve ever had.  Bill Resnik who’s authored a cookbook on New Mexican cuisine was more to-the-point, asking why it hasn’t been accorded a “30″ rating–the epitome of perfection in my rating system and a rating I have not bestowed upon any restaurant anywhere.

Mary Ann Gonzales for whom the restaurant is named passed away on Tuesday, September 17, 2013.  She was a great and wonderful lady!  Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

A dining experience at such an ideal would have to be absolutely flawless with uncompromising standards and an obvious commitment on the restaurant’s part to providing a dining experience I would want to repeat over and over again.  Obviously the food would have to be more than good; it would have to tantalize, titillate, enrapt my taste buds with every morsel.  Every facet of the meal would have to be like a well synchronized and beautiful ballet in which each course is a prelude to the next and leaves me absolutely lusting for the next bite.

There have been times (many, in fact) in which a magical endorphin high from Mary & Tito’s red chile made my taste buds so unbelievably, deliriously happy that I’ve sworn nothing quite as good has ever crossed my lips.  Immediately after each meal at Mary & Tito’s, I want to repeat it, usually right then and there.  It is simply my very favorite restaurant in New Mexico and now my highest rated in the Land of Enchantment and one of the highest rated across the fruited plain.

Mary & Tito’s legendary carne adovada. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

I’m not the only patron this loyal to Mary & Tito’s.  In truth, the restaurant’s walls could probably be covered with framed certificates and accolades feting it as the “best” in one category or another. Instead, you’ll find family photo montages along with photos of some of their loyal customers. For ambiance, this homey restaurant might not win any awards, but for outstanding New Mexican cuisine, it has secured a place in the hearts and appetites of their many guests.

Although the legendary Tito passed away in 1990, his devoted wife Mary Ann Gonzales and their effervescent daughter Antoinette provided the hospitality for which Mary & Tito’s is renowned. Better yet, they oversaw an operation that serves what is arguably the best New Mexican food in New Mexico (ergo the entire universe)–and unequivocally the very best red chile anywhere.  A spry nonagenarian, Mary remained a peripatetic presence at the restaurant virtually until passing away on September17, 2013.  Guests at Mary & Tito’s will miss seeing her energetically flitting to and from tables to make sure her customers are enjoying their meals.  Invariably, they all are!

Mary & Tito's green chile burrito stuffed with guacamole and rice--one of the very best burritos in the universe!

A rare sight–green chile on a burrito at Mary & Tito’s where red is best!

The red chile has culled a legendary reputation among aficionados. Slathered generously on your entrees, it is a rich red color. At first impression it tastes great, but the more you eat more of it, the more the piquant heat builds up. Oh, the wonderful burn!  Beads of perspiration glisten on my friend Ruben’s forehead with every bite, but he perseveres through that endorphin generating heat with what can only be described as a lusty fervor.  Even when the particular crop of chile isn’t particularly piquant, Mary & Tito’s red chile is always wonderful, so good some frequent guests have no idea what the green chile tastes like.  It’s been so long since I’ve had the green chile that I no longer remember what it’s like.  The red chile is available meatless for diners of the vegetarian persuasion.

Ask the vivacious Antoinette what makes Mary & Tito’s red chile so uniquely wonderful and she’ll tell you that the chile starts off like the chile at most New Mexican restaurants. The difference is in what is done with it.  Mary & Tito’s chile has been purchased from one Hatch grower for years and it’s ground from pods, not made from powder. Beyond that, the restaurant doesn’t adulterate the chile with other than salt and garlic (absolutely no cumin). There is magic in this purity.  There’s also purity in its almost mesmerizing red-orange color and if you look at the edges of your plate, you won’t see the tell-tale signs of the excessive use of a thickening agent such as corn starch.  There’s none of that in this red chile!

A guacamole, beans and rice burrito with red chile. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

The green chile (as I remember it) isn’t quite as piquant, but it is very tasty and generously applied to your entrees. For the best of both, ask for your entree to be served “Christmas” style so you can taste both the chile rojo (red) and chile verde (green). Vegetarians can also ask for it without meat.  My friend Lesley King, the wonderful writer whose monthly “King of the Road” column used to grace New Mexico Magazine, visited Mary & Tito’s for the first time in May, 2010 and recognized immediately that at this legendary restaurant, it’s all about the chile, finding both red and green as good as could possibly be made.

My friend Ruben, who for more than a year was engaged in a Holy Grail type quest to find the best carne adovada in the Albuquerque area, is absolutely besotted with Mary & Tito’s rendition. It’s carne adovada the way it’s supposed to be with tender tendrils of moist, delicious pork ameliorated with the best red chile in the metropolitan area.  Cheryl Jamison, the scintillating four-time James Beard Award-winning author, calls the carne adovada “absolutely spectacular.”  As with most entrees, it’s served with beans and rice, both of which are quite good.

A large combination plate: taco, tamale, cheese enchilada, beans and rice

In New Mexico Magazine‘s “Best Eats” issue for 2011, Mary & Tito’s was recognized as having the best carne adovada in the Land of Enchantment.  As one of the seven culinary experts who selected and wrote about New Mexico’s best, it was the choice with which I most agreed.  Though every other honoree is worthy of “best eats” selection, Mary & Tito’s carne adovada stands out, the best of the best!

The enchiladas are certainly among the best in town and I appreciate the fact that you can have them rolled or stacked (my preference with three corn tortillas), the way they’re served throughout Northern New Mexico. Natives and newcomers alike ask for a fried egg on top of the enchiladas, a flavor-enhancer that improves on a New Mexican entree that doesn’t really need any improvement. An “extra beef” option means enchiladas with even more fantastically well seasoned beef.  With red chile, they will make your taste buds ecstatic.

The Monday Special: A large combination plate–taco, chile relleno and cheese enchilada

Burritos are nearly a foot long and served overstuffed. One of the very best burritos anywhere features guacamole, beans and rice along with the aforementioned red or green chile. It is more than half a pound of New Mexican food greatness, especially when the guacamole practically erupts when you press your fork into the burrito.  It’s become the only dish capable of prying me away from the carne adovada–except when I have the combination plate, stuffed sopaipilla, chiles rellenos… I love it all!

With chips, that guacamole is simplicity itself (avocados in their prime, garlic, lime juice, salt), but it is some of the best guacamole in town. The freshness of guacamole made daily from the best avocados is evident.

Chile relleno covered in red.

Chile relleno covered in red.

The chile rellenos are also among the best I’ve ever had, far superior to their world-famous brethren served at Mesilla’s fabled La Posta restaurant. A thin, crispy batter envelops a piquant pepper stuffed with a sharp Cheddar cheese. Each bite produces an endorphin rush and taste explosion.  The rellenos are available on the combination platter as well as a la carte.  As with other entrees at Mary & Tito’s, they’re best smothered with that miraculous red chile.

My friend Sr. Plata had the privilege of first-time visits to both Chope’s and Mary & Tito’s within two weeks of each other.  In his estimation, the chile relleno at Mary & Tito’s is far superior to Chope’s version (which is often considered THE standard-bearer for the genre in the Land of Enchantment).  New Mexicans from the southern half of the state, in particular, might consider it sacrilege, but Sr. Plata reasons that Mary & Tito’s superior red chile is the difference-maker.  He’s calls it the essence of purity and deliciousness.

A huskless tamale smothered in red chile

You won’t find sopaipillas with honey at Mary & Tito’s, but you will find a “Mexican turnover’ resembling an overgrown empanada or Italian calzone. It’s made from sopaipilla dough stuffed with meat, beans, rice and chile then deep fried. It’s Mary & Tito’s version of stuffed sopaipillas and it’s (not surprisingly) among the very best in the city.

Entrees include some of the best refried beans anywhere…and I mean anywhere in the country. They have that “prepared with lard” taste all good refrieds have. Spanish rice also comes with every entree as does a tomato and lettuce garnish. Garnish is one of those plate decorations many people discard. With Mary & Tito’s fabulous red chile, it’s just something else with which to sop up every bit of that chile rojo.

Enchiladas with a fried egg and red chile

Enchiladas with a fried egg and red chile

Your first bowl of salsa is complimentary and it’s so good you’ll certainly finish it off quickly and order another. The chips, like the salsa, are lightly salted and crisp, the perfect size and texture to complement the tomato rich salsa.  The salsa has a nice piquancy but other than tomatoes and chile, there are no discernible additives such as garlic and onion.

Only the con queso gets a less than outstanding mark at Mary & Tito’s. The cheese has that “melted Velveeta” feel and taste and is somewhat gloppy.  Authenticity and utter deliciousness,however, aren’t spared on the chicharrones which compete with those at Cecilia’s Cafe for best in the city.  Chicharrones are Pieces of pork crackling cooked until crunchy and most of the fat is rendered out.  A plateful of chicharrones and a bowl of that legendary red are a great way to start any meal.

Carne Adovada Omelet

Carne Adovada Omelet

Another excellent entree unique to Mary & Tito’s is a carne adovada omelet.  Yes, you did read that correctly.  It’s a multi-egg omelet folded over that outstanding carne adovada then covered in the red chile of my dreams.  There’s no need for any of the usual omelet ingredients when you’ve got carne adovada.

Compliment Antoinette on an outstanding meal and she’ll invariably credit “the guys in the kitchen.” Those guys, the Arguello brothers–Patricio and Louis–are following Tito’s recipes and keeping his culinary legacy alive.  They’ve been working at Mary & Tito’s since they were but teenagers, schooled under the watchful eye of Tito himself.  They’re well versed at their craft. Antoinette will, however, take credit for the terrific desserts available at Mary & Tito’s.

Salsa and chips at Mary & Tito’s

For dessert, an absolute “must have” is Mary & Tito’s take on traditional New Mexican wedding cake, a yellow cake made with walnuts and pineapple and topped with a cream cheese frosting is spectacular.  Antoinette has been making this cake for better than 30 years (though she doesn’t look much older than 30 herself) and says she’s made it thousands of times.  You won’t find any better in New Mexico.  You won’t find anything close.

In January, 2010, Mary & Tito’s was announced as the 2010 recipient of the James Beard Award’s “America’s Classic” honor. A James Beard Award signifies the pinnacle of achievement in the culinary world, the country’s most coveted and prestigious culinary award while the “Americas Classic Award” honors “restaurants with timeless appeal, beloved for quality food that reflects the character of their community, and that have carved out a special place in the American culinary landscape.” Mary & Tito’s is the true, timeless American classic–beloved in the community with the highest quality food reflecting the character of New Mexico.

Chicharones, Mary & Tito’s style. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

Mary and Antoinette received the award at a ceremonial dinner on May 3, 2010 at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in New York City.  Governor Bill Richardson celebrated the honor by proclaiming May 12th “Mary & Tito’s Day” in New Mexico, a well-deserved honor for an exemplary restaurant.

While writing an article entitled “Ode to the Chile Pepper” for the September, 2011 edition of New Mexico Magazine, I had the privilege, pleasure and honor to interview the owner of the Hatch chile farm which supplies Mary & Tito’s with their fabulous chile. Leticia Carrasco is justifiably proud of the Sandia chile her farm provisions to a James Beard award-winning restaurant. She could not have been nicer–a great person supplying great chile to a great family. How fitting is that?

The James Beard Award of Excellence. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

29 April 2013: In January, 2013 Food & Wine Magazine compiled a list of the nation’s “best taco spots.”  The only New Mexico taco spot recognized was Mary & Tito’s for which Food & Wine acknowledged the “famed secret weapon of this mother-daughter-run operation is its fiery red chile sauce–killer with succulent braised pork in the New Mexico classic carne adovada, or drizzled over beef tacos in crispy corn tortilla shells.”  New Mexico’s best tacos at Mary & Tito’s?  Why not?  They’re fantastic!

In the February, 2013 edition of Albuquerque The Magazine  celebrated the Duke City’s best desserts. The fabulous Mexican wedding cake was recognized as the “to die for dessert to remember.”  I’m not too sure what that means, but if it means the Mexican wedding cake is unforgettable, the honor is certainly well deserved.  It’s certainly one of the very best desserts in New Mexico.

Mary & Tito’s fabulous New Mexican Wedding Cake. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

The cast and crew of This Old House, a Boston-based home-improvement and remodeling television show spent two days at Mary & Tito’s in April, 2013.  While filming a segment in Hatch, purveyors of New Mexico’s best chile told the crew that the very best example of chile is served at Mary & Tito’s.  The cast and crew proceeded to enjoy every item on the menu.  More converts!

Mary & Tito’s is one of those restaurants that elicits a craving only it can sate. It is the essence of red chile Nirvana.

MARY & TITO’S CAFE
2711 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505-344-6266
Mary & Tito’s Facebook Page

LATEST VISIT: 18 July 2014
# OF VISITS: 36
RATING: 27
COST: $$
BEST BET
: Enchiladas, Chile Relleno, Taco, Natillas, Guacamole Burrito, Carne Adovada Burrito, Chicharrones,  Mexican Wedding Cake, Carne Adovada Omelet, Carne Adovada, Combination Plate

Mary & Tito's Cafe on Urbanspoon

La Posta De Mesilla – Mesilla, New Mexico

The world-famous La Posta in Old Mesilla, New Mexico

If only walls could talk, you’d want the adobe brick walls at La Posta (The Inn) to recount their impressions of the veritable “who’s who” of Western history who once sought shelter within its fortified walls.  You’d want those walls to reveal their thoughts of legendary outlaw Billy the Kid who hung out at La Posta on his road to notoriety.  You’d want those walls to tell you about the steely presence of General Douglas MacArthur, who commanded Allied forces in the Pacific Theater during World War II. You’d want those walls to share their account of Generalissimo Pancho Villa, another sojourner who sought shelter at La Posta.  Certainly no raconteur could provide the details known only to the walls at La Posta when it quartered controversial frontiersman Kit Carson or for then General, later President, Ulysses S. Grant.   

Built in the 1840s by Sam and Roy Bean, themselves  historical luminaries, La Posta was originally a freight and passenger service.  After the Civil War, it became part of the Butterfield Stagecoach line which ferried passengers and mail from eastern outposts in Memphis and St. Louis to California.  During the 1870s and 1880s, the sprawling edifice was home to the Corn Exchange Hotel, which was, for decades, one of the finest lodges in the southwest. It wasn’t until 1939 that La Posta de Mesilla Restaurant began operating in the northwest corner of the building.

A brief recap of La Posta’s history

La Posta de Mesilla was founded by Katherine “Katy” Griggs Camuñez, a true renaissance woman and pioneer in the business world at a time and place in which such gumption was uncommon.  One of the marketing techniques she used to draw guests into her restaurant was the then relatively unheard practice of offering free chips and salsa, something New Mexicans took for granted until so many restaurants recently stopped the practice.  Katy wasn’t all business, however, showing a whimsical side in filling the lobby with exotic birds such as macaws and parrots as well as aquariums teeming with piranha. Some of the original birds are reputed to still be greeting guests (some with profanities allegedly learned from Katy herself).

In 1996 after Katy’s death, La Posta was acquired by her great niece Jerean Camuñez Hutchinson and her husband Tom who own the restaurant today.  Jerean and Tom have expanded and renovated the complex, adding indoor and outdoor dining areas to an already yawning complex.  The sprawling Territorial Style compound, on the National Register of Historical Buildings, now boasts of more than 10,000 square feet, with several shops.  The Griggs family, by the way, is as responsible for two dynastic New Mexican restaurants.  Katy’s daughter Consuelo and her husband Jack Thomas founded El Pinto in Albuquerque.

The Ladies’ (Viejas) Room

La Posta is a dichotomy–both an anachronism and a thoroughly modern enterprise.  Were it not for the motorized conveyances in its parking lot, you might swear you’re stepping back in time as you approach the restaurant.  As its 75th anniversary draws near, it remains one of the most famous and most popular restaurants in the entire southwest.  Sometimes 10,000 square feet aren’t nearly enough to hold the throngs of diners clamoring to eat there. Fortunately Katy’s whimsical diversions remain in place along with several sitting areas in which patrons can wait comfortably to be seated.  The lobby also hosts restrooms labeled “viejos” for men and “viejas” for women, two terms literally meaning “old man” and “old woman” respectively, but which when not used in humor may be construed as deprecatory.

Similar to La Posta’s indefatigable founder, Jerean and Tom Hutchinson have not let grass grow under their feet.  In June, 2013, they announced a partnership with Huerradura, a premium tequila-maker, to blend La Posta de Mesilla’s Herradura Private Reserve Double Reposado, to be sold exclusively at La Posta.  The barrel in which the tequila is aged is on display in the restaurant’s lobby.  This announcement came shortly after USA Today named La Posta one of the top ten restaurants in the United States for Mexican Food.  There’s no doubt La Posta’s walls were celebrating both achievements.

A pirranha at La Posta

Alas, change isn’t always welcome. In April, 2006, La Posta de Mesilla lost the heart and soul of its kitchen with the passing of Panchita Flores, matriarch of the kitchen.  Panchita cooked at La Posta until she was 91 years old just as health concerns had led her to hesitantly plan on retiring.  Panchita ran the kitchen for more than three decades before her death.  She made the red chile and salsa for which the restaurant is famous and never relied on a recipe to do her job.  Her cooking skills were instinctive, adding a pinch of this or a dash of that when necessary.  

Some long-time diners wil tell you La Posta’s food just hasn’t been the same since Panchita’s passing.  My friend Steve Coleman of OKGourmet.com believes “La Posta has had a substantial decline in its chile heat index. Even those who have never tried New Mexican cuisine before can probably feel safe that the food at La Posta will not be too spicy, but that the flavors found in this type of Mexican food can still be experienced.”  More than 70 percent of respondents on Urbanspoon indicate they like La Posta while Yelp reviewers give it 3.5 stars out of five.  La Posta must be doing many things right because they’re still serving more than 300,000 meals a year.

LaPosta07

Combination Plate

When you step into La Posta de Mesilla, your initial impression might be that ownership is capitalizing on the many tourists who frequent the restaurant.  On either side, you’ll find shops selling touristy bric-a-brac: souvenir t-shirts, gourmet food products such as bottled salsa and even jewelry.  Prefacing the main dining area is the colorful menagerie of fish, fowl and flora.  Floor to ceiling cages house tropical birds, tropical fish swim in large tanks and large trees and plants complete a tropical illusion.  It’s all very comforting.  

La Posta boasts of several dining rooms, the most popular of which is the Lava Room.  The Butterfield Stagecoach Trail horses once stabled there wouldn’t recognize the room which now features walls of ancient lava rock and tropical trees. Every dining room is ornamented with art and artifacts.  Much of the restaurant retains original ceilings, adobe brick walls, authentic wood vigas and latillas as well as tiled fireplaces.  The Pecan Tree Courtyard is a very popular al fresco option.

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Carne Adovada

The menu includes several popular favorites handed down over the centuries by the restaurant’s founding family.  It’s apparent that Panchita’s students in the kitchen paid close attention to the legendary chef.  Several items on the menu warrant “best of” consideration despite what nay-sayers decry.  Of particular note is the restaurant’s chile con queso, made with three different cheeses and New Mexico chiles.  It’s a creamy antithesis to the gloppy con queso too many restaurants serve.  Served with hot corn tortillas made on the premises by well-practiced tortilleras, this con queso is among the best in New Mexico.

The chiles rellenos, served sans sauce, are as authentic as they come and in our estimation, are second only to the rellenos at Chope’s in La Mesa among all chiles rellenos in the Las Cruces area.  The chiles rellenos are served two per order in a platter that includes refritos, rice and garnish. A whipped egg white batter sheathes green chiles with very little heat, but they’re generously stuffed with Monterey Jack cheese.  The relleno is cooked on a griddle until golden brown.  

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Cherry and Apple Empanadas

Duncan Hines, a pioneering restaurant critic, once called the Specialty of La Posta an “unbelievable dining experience.  The specialty features a starter of chile con queso and corn tortillas, guacamole salad (or tossed green salad), one rolled red enchilada, tamale, chile con carne, rolled taco, frijoles, rice and a sopaipilla.  Unfortunately, the “forget” portion of the term unforgettable seems to be a kitchen foible.  On both occasions in which I ordered the Specialty, both the con queso and sopaipillas were absent.  The items which did make it onto the plate were quite good, especially the rolled red enchilada and the rich, buttery guacamole salad.    

Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, vows for La Posta’s carne adovada, declaring that few restaurants in the Land of Enchantment prepare it as well.  My Kim, another avowed adovada lover, concurs with Larry. Unlike some restaurants whose portions of carne adovada are chintzy, La Posta is very generous, serving enough for two people or two meals.  Each tender tendril of chile marinated pork is absolutely mouth-watering.  The carne is hardly standard in its size and composition.  Some chunks are bite-sized only if you have the requisite large-sized mouth of a politician.  Others are dainty and fine.  The chile has just a bit more bite than some carne adovada which tends to be on the mild side.    

Sopaipillas, served with real honey, are outstanding, not to be missed!  They’re big and puffy enough for children to call them “sofa pillows.”  As good as they are, savvy diners will destroy their diets and have not only the sopaipillas, but the empanadas, too: apple, cherry, apricot or mincemeat turnovers served hot with ice cream.  The dough is a little thick on the edges, but you can get around that by cutting the empadas in half and eating from the middle out.  

La Posta de Mesilla is much more than a community fixture.  It’s become a national landmark on a historically significant complex that has served as a hotel, winery, stable, blacksmith shops and way station.  More importantly, since 1939 it’s become an internationally recognized “must stop” site for New Mexican food fanatics.  The nay-sayers who decry it as a “tourist trap.” Well, they don’t have to visit.  

La Posta De Mesilla
2410 Calle de San Albino
Mesilla, New Mexico
(575) 524-3524
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 6 July 2013
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Salsa, Chile Con Queso, Cherry and Apple Empanadas, Carne Adovada, Specialty of La Posta, tacos


View La Posta De Mesilla on LetsDineLocal.com »

La Posta de Mesilla on Urbanspoon

Mr. Powdrell’s Barbecue House – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pete Powdrell, Albuquerque's barbecue legend

Pete Powdrell, Albuquerque’s legendary barbecue king

If you believe in forever
Where baby backs are never bland
If there’s a barbecue heaven
Well you know Mr. Pete is lending a hand, hand, hand.

Shortly after Arthur Bryant died in 1982, the Kansas City Star published a cartoon depicting St. Peter greeting Arthur at the gates of heaven and asking, “Did you bring sauce?” A quarter of a century later, I can imagine St. Peter asking Pete Powdrell if he brought the secrets to his extraordinarily tender brisket.  What the legendary Kansas City barbecue giant Arthur Bryant was to sauce, Pete Powdrell was to beef. Albuquerque’s indisputable king of barbecue was called home on December 2nd, 2007, but he left behind an indelible legacy that extended far beyond serving some of the best barbecue in the west.

Pete was a second-generation sharecropper who in 1958 escaped the small town racism of Crosbyton, Texas to start a new life in Albuquerque. Fifty years later, Pete’s circle of friends and mourners included most of New Mexico’s political power brokers as well as tens of thousands of customers who loved his barbecue and the gentle man perpetually attired in overalls who prepared it.

Powdrell’s restaurant on Fourth Street is on the National Historic Register

To chronicle Pete’s life (and someone should) would be to celebrate the sheer determination and drive of a man whose greatest of many gifts may have been perseverance. He literally had not much more than the clothes on his back when he arrived in Albuquerque with his wife and eleven children, but he was determined to make a good life for his family.

Since 1962, the Powdrell family has operated several barbecue houses in the Duke City. Their initial restaurant venture, a take-out diner on South Broadway, launched four years after the family relocated to Albuquerque. The inspiration for Pete’s original, authentic Southern-style barbecue was family recipes he began perfecting during backyard and church cookouts in Texas. Those recipes dates back to the 19th century near Baton Rouge, Louisiana where his grandfather Isaac Britt began the Powdrell family legacy of incomparable barbecue.

Salad with blue cheese dressing

Salad with blue cheese dressing

The word “institution” is bandied about too easily these days, but in Mr. Powdrell’s Barbecue House, Albuquerque has a bona fide institution that continues to stand the test of time against the formidable onslaught and riches of corporate pretenders, many of whom fall by the wayside while Powdrell’s continues to thrive.  Drive by Powdrell’s and the wafting fragrance of hickory smoke literally invites you to step inside and partake of old-fashioned barbecue.  Not coincidentally, Pete’s son Joe will tell you his father was much like the hickory wood used at the restaurant–hard, stubborn and consistent.

The reason for Powdrell’s continued success–some of the very best barbecue in the west served by a warm family in welcoming milieus.  East side residents frequent Powdrell’s on Central Avenue between Eubank and Juan Tabo while west dwelling citizens visit Powdrell’s on North Fourth where barbecue is served in a stately brick home on the National Historic Registry.

Mushrooms

Mushrooms

Ann Powdrell, who was eleven years old when the family traversed the winding Route 66 in their move to Albuquerque, takes care of the kitchen in the Fourth Street restaurant.  She is a sweet, gentle woman with a raconteur’s gift for enthralling guests with stories about her fabled family.  On an infrequent slow lunch hour, she might even show you the veritable museum collection of family memorabilia upstairs.  More than likely, however, she’s in  the kitchen preparing the dishes which help make Powdrell’s the legendary barbecue restaurant it is.

Powdrell’s hasn’t been a local secret in a long time, but it’s a claim to fame of which we’re all proud. Over the years Albuquerque’s finest gift to Route 66 barbecue tradition has garnered a lot of recognition from beyond the Duke City.  In 2004, Sunset magazine published an article celebrating the west’s best BBQ. Calling the west a “barbecue frontier,” the magazine trumpeted Powdrell’s baby back ribs slathered with tart, spicy sauce.  Culinary sojourner Michael Stern, co-founder of the Roadfood Web and publishing dynasty loved Powdrell’s beef, proclaiming that “it isn’t the extraordinary tenderness that will make you happy; it’s this meat’s flavor.”  In his thematic tome, Dr. BBQ’s Big-Time Barbecue Road Trip! author Ray Lampe hits the road and introduces America to the best barbecue in the fruited plains. Mr. Powdrell’s Barbecue House was one of only four New Mexico venues singled out by the self-professed Dr. BBQ.

The combo platter

The combo platter

My first impression of this very special barbecue was formed in the late 1970s while living on the south side of Central Avenue not more than three hundred yards from Mr. Powdrell’s. With the most faint of breezes, the aroma of succulent meats smoked low and slow wafted toward my cramped quarters like an irresistible siren’s song. It was a tantalizing temptation no one could resist. The genesis of the olfactory arousing aroma was indeed hickory smoke-saturated meats, the memory of which imprinted themselves on my taste buds with an ineffaceable permanence. In Mr. Powdrell’s Barbecue House, barbecue Nirvana beckoned and I answered.

Over the past few decades my travels have allowed me to experience barbecue from the four American epicenters of barbecue excellence: Texas, Memphis, Kansas City and South Carolina. Though I have found barbecue that is more lauded, only Mr. Powdrell’s has the taste of being home.

Chicken Dinner-One half pound of barbequed chicken

Chicken Dinner-One half pound of barbequed chicken

The stately brick home on North Fourth street which houses Mr. Powdrell’s Barbecue House still looks very much like the family dwelling it once was. From the built-in china cabinets to the hardwood floors, it is an inviting setting for dining, an invitation infused by the provocative hickory smokers near the parking lot.

In describing the west’s barbecue as “unburdened by the orthodoxy of such hot spots as Texas and the Carolinas,” Sunset magazine may have well been describing Powdrell’s where the menu has a whole lot of Texas, a little bit of Memphis with a touch of Kansas City for good measure. In other words, the menu has a bit of everything then some.

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Chicken Wings Powdrell’s Style

Being unburdened, Powdrell’s can serve such non-traditional starters as mushrooms prepared in butter as well as all the favorite fried appetizer favorites.  It also serves some of the best blue cheese dressing in Albuquerque, a dressing ameliorated by just a bit of feta with some very high quality blue cheese.  It’s perfect–neither too thick nor too thin and runny, not too strong or sour.  It’s the blue cheese dressing Goldilocks would choose.

The menu includes a veritable smorgasbord of sumptuous sandwiches generously engorged with smoke-infused meats slathered with a tangy sauce. The sandwiches are excellent, but most diners queue for barbecue dinners, all of which are served with two sides and Texas toast.

Babyback Ribs with French Fries and Texas Toast

The combination platter (pictured above) features a pound or more of some of the best Mr. Powdrell’s has to offer–chicken, ribs, sausage, links and some of the very best brisket in the world.  The brisket is the pièce de résistance, indisputably the very best in town (and nothing else is even close). It is smoked at low heat for eighteen hours and when done is refrigerated then heated again. The process somehow imbues the brisket with an uncommon tenderness that belies what can be a leather-tough cut of meat.  Michael Stern is absolutely right in declaring the flavor of this meat to be your source of happiness. This is an absolutely delicious brisket that would convert the most staunch of vegetarians.

If you’ve ever lamented the dearth of truly outstanding chicken wings in Albuquerque, Powdrell’s will make a believer out of you.  These wings are imbued with a hint of smoke before being deep-fried to seal in that smokiness and flavor while melting off that layer of fat just underneath the skin.  They are then glazed with a tangy, spicy barbecue sauce so unlike the sauces wings restaurant describe as “inferno,” “nuclear” and the like, but which don’t deliver.  Powdrell’s sauce has the zesty tanginess of orange peel, the pleasant piquancy of peppers and the sweet-savory goodness of ingredients that work very well together.  The wings are moist, meaty and utterly delicious.

Special of the Day: Catfish, Brisket and two sides (Fried Okra and Corn on the Cob) with Texas Toast

The perfect accompaniment for those wings is a dish of black beans and rice quite unlike what you might see at a Cajun restaurant where such a dish isn’t prepared with smoked sausage, celery and a tomato sauce base. Ann Powdrell describes it as one of those dishes her mother created out of whatever was in the refrigerator. You’ll describe it absolutely delicious.

Not even the very best restaurants do all things well though the great ones tend to come close. At Powdrell’s as at most restaurants in Albuquerque, the Achilles Heel seems to be catfish. It’s the one dish I’ve enjoyed least at Powdrell’s and that’s not solely because of my eight years in Mississippi (America’s catfish capital) helped me appreciate the qualities of catfish done well. The coating on the catfish made it very difficult to cut into, normally an indication the inside is dry (it was). Fortunately the catfish was offered as a special of the day along with another meat. The brisket was as wonderful as the catfish was disappointing.

Broiled Trout

Much better is an entree of broiled trout which is as tender and moist as the catfish is tough and dry.  Two delicious filets are served with two sides and Texas Toast.  The filets are brushed lightly with butter and served with a nice char.  A squeeze of lemon or a small application of tartar sauce and you’re good to go.  The only drawback to eating broiled fish, no matter how good it may be, is being surrounded by the fragrant bouquet of bodacious barbecue.  You may want some of Powdrell’s barbecue sauce on the trout, too.

Powdrell’s meats are the antithesis of the type of meat to which I refer as Ivory Snow in that it’s NOT 99 and 44/100 percent pure. You’ll find a fatty or sinewy meat here or there and plenty of dark meat, but that’s, in part what Duke City diners have loved about Powdrell’s for generations. It’s a bit sassy and a bit imperfect, but always comforting and delicious.

The Rockin’ Po-Boy

In 2010, Powdrell’s East Side location was selected by Duke City voters as the inaugural winner of the city’s “rock this restaurant” challenge, qualifying for a complete make-over.  It’s a testament to just how beloved this bastion of barbecue has become over the years.  In honor of its selection, Powdrell’s introduced an “everything but the kitchen sink” sandwich called the “Rockin’ Po-Boy,” a beefy behemoth that would test the mettle of a professional gurgitator. Available in six- or twelve-inch sizes, this sandwich is engorged to its spilling point with beef brisket, pulled pork, smoked turkey, onion rings, French fries and coleslaw slathered with barbecue sauce.  There’s obviously no need for sides because they’re inside the sandwich.  You’ll be hard-pressed to finish this hard rockin’ sandwich.

Mr. Powdrell’s Barbecue House
5209 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 345-8086
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 28 September 2012
# OF VISITS: 13
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Barbecue Brisket, Chicken Wings, Rockin’ Po-Boy, Babyback Ribs, Okra, Corn-on-the-cob, coleslaw


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