Western View Diner & Steakhouse – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Neon Spangled Route 66 Sign

Since the 1930s, neon signage has been a prominent and vital part of Route 66 as it meanders through Albuquerque. From the foothills of the Sandias in the east to the parched desert expanse of the west, Route 66 is festooned with vibrant neon signage that cuts a luminous swath through the city. The nocturnal spectacle of glowing neon might be the siren’s call that has drawn generations of “cruisers” to Central Avenue.

One of Albuquerque’s most prominent neon spangled signs celebrates Route 66 as it spans across all four lanes of Central Avenue near its intersection with Coors Boulevard Southwest.  Literally at the shadow of that span is the Western View Diner & Steakhouse which has been pleasing weary travelers and hungry locals since 1941 thanks to generous portions of reasonably priced and delicious comfort food with a homemade taste that comes from years of plying its culinary craft.

The Western View Steak House and Coffee Shop

To say the Western View Diner & Steakhouse was at Albuquerque’s western fringes back when it launched seven decades ago is an understatement.  Aside from sagebrush and vast expanses of horizon, there wasn’t much in the city this far west.  The Western View is one of the very few surviving restaurants which predate the tremendous expansion that has seen the city’s population skyrocket from just over 36,000 in 1941 to over half a million in 2010.

Because of its longevity, this venerable Albuquerque institution was, in 2010, named to the New Mexico Tourism Department’s “Culinary Treasures Trail,” an initiative which honors those rare and precious family-owned-and-operated gems operating continuously since at least December 31st, 1969.  As with all the restaurants on the list, the Western View Diner & Steakhouse is an independent mom-and-pop restaurant which has stood the test of time to become beloved institutions in its neighborhoods and beyond.

The Western View Dining Room

The menu primarily features American standards with New Mexican and Greek entrees thrown in for good measure. The diner has been owned by three successive Greek proprietors, the most recent being Stavros Anagnostakos.  Like many august diners, the Western Diner’s character is in its austerity, its staff and its clientele. One wall features vintage black and white photographs of the stars of yesteryear. Frequent diners prefer to sit at a stool along the counter. That gives them the best vantage point for the dessert tray and better access to the chatty and accommodating wait staff.

Yes, this venerable restaurant has character to spare despite lacking the over-the-top flamboyance of the anointed local favorites and cookie-cutter chains. It’s informal and inexpensive, unpretentious and welcoming…a genuine anachronism. It’s no wonder its parking lots are always full. Look around the dining room. What you’ll see is generations of families, many of whom grew up visiting the restaurant. This is a neighborhood institution which has been doing the right things right for its faithful patrons.

Biscuits with Butter and Jam

The Western View Diner serves breakfast all day long. There’s something almost musical in the clanking of spoons as they stir coffee at all hours of the day. There may also be nothing more arousing (to both genders, but particularly men) at 3PM than the sizzle of crisp bacon on the frying pan and its accompanying aromas as they waft throughout the dining room. That’s what we experienced during our inaugural mid-afternoon visit when at least half the dining patrons were partaking of breakfast.

5 December 2010: Although the diner is renown for its fluffy, house-made biscuits and gravy, an excellent alternative are the pancakes. A short stack means two fluffy orbs that nearly cover the entire plate. A dollop or two of creamy butter, a ladle of syrup and you’re in carbohydrate heaven. It’s been our experience that long-established diners serve the very best pancakes and the Western Diner is no exception. The Western View is also quite accomplished at American breakfast standards. Regardless of what you order–breakfast or lunch–a biscuit or ten is a must.  These biscuits have a rare “biscuit integrity” in that they don’t crumble and fall apart when you attempt to slather on some butter and jam.  Moreover, they’re very tasty and are excellent for sopping up gravy.

New York steak with mashed potatoes and gravy.

New York steak with mashed potatoes and gravy.

17 June 2007: One of the entrees for which this restaurant is known is steak (hence the “Steak House” on the marquee). For just about a dollar an ounce, you can treat yourself to a fresh-cut New York steak that’s heavy on flavor and surprisingly light on the gristle and fat you might expect for an inexpensive cut of beef. Grilled to your exacting specifications (we like salt, pepper and garlic on both sides), it’s a carnivore’s dream. The New York cut is much better than we’ve had at many an Albuquerque steak restaurant, especially at the price.

17 June 2007: The steak is served with your choice of potato–baked potato after 5 PM, mashed potatoes and French fries before then. The mashed potatoes are among the best we’ve had in this city–far better than the de rigeur garlic mashed potatoes served seemingly everywhere. These are real potatoes with a buttery creaminess that reminds us of home. A thick piece of buttered Texas toast fills what little room is left on the plate. It, too, is so much better (and bigger) than Texas toast we’ve had elsewhere.

Chicken Fried Steak

3 April 2016: My friend Bruce “Sr. Plata” would like the next New Mexico Tourism Department’s culinary initiative to be a “New Mexico Chicken Fried Steak Trail” patterned after its Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail.  Though chicken fried steak is more the domain of Texas than it is of New Mexico, there are several potential chicken fried steaks in the Land of Enchantment that could grace such a Trail.  One would be the chicken fried steak at the Western View.  It’s a thin, pounded, lightly breaded steak covered with a rich, creamy gravy served with two eggs and home fries.  The gravy is ladled on rather generously which is a good thing if you love gravy…and this is a gravy you’ll probably love.  If not, refer back to my suggestion that you order one (or ten) biscuits.

3 April 2016: For my Kim, the quintessential breakfast to remind her of home in Chicago is a breakfast of pork chops. At the “Hog Butcher for the World” (a nickname for Chicago), you’re likely to get inch-thick pork chops even early in the morning. In Albuquerque, an order of two pork chops stacked atop one another wouldn’t equal an inch.  Though thin and about the diameter of a hamburger patty, the Western View’s pork chops are seasoned nicely (salt, pepper, garlic) and grilled well.  They’re served with two eggs and home fries.

Pork Chops and Eggs for Breakfast

17 June 2007: The Western Diner’s comfort food ensemble will warm the cockles of your heart as it sates your appetite. For those of my generation, it will bring back memories of home-cooked meals in which steamy plates of meatloaf, mashed potatoes ladled with brown gravy and corn were a Sunday tradition. The meatloaf, by the way, is in the best traditions of American diners–moist and served thick. Cut into it and steam wafts upward, an indication this dish is served hot, the way it should be. The gravy is thick with flecks of ground pepper swimming in the murky liquid. 

Western View’s diner has a rather extensive, multi-page menu that showcases New Mexican favorites–everything from tacos and burritos to combination plates brimming with food.  The combination plates are served with a fiery salsa that goes well on everything.  Alas, the chile is adulterated with cumin so we never order the restaurant’s New Mexican food.  Because seating is in fairly close proximity, we have noticed that diners who do order chile-laden items seem satisfied with their meals.

An old-fashioned chocolate milkshake with whipped cream

5 December 2010: Another old-fashioned standard reminiscent of bygone days in which malt shops were the hang-out of teenagers are milk shakes.  These are served in old-fogyish hard plastic glasses, the type of which probably predate most of you reading this review.  Made with real ice cream, the milk shakes are served thick and cold, easier to drink up with a spoon than with a straw.  They’re also served with a thick dollop of real whipped cream topped with a single cherry, another time-honored tradition.

5 December 2010: Of course, nothing goes better with shakes than the marriage made in malt shop heaven, a vintage cheeseburger and a mound of French fries. The deluxe burger is an ten-ounce beefy behemoth grilled to about medium well, topped with a single slice of American cheese and served on toasted buns. On the side are a plastic cup of green chile, a single tomato, four dill pickles, a slice of raw onion and shredded lettuce. This is an excellent burger, as good or better than several on the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail despite being as simple as a burger can be.

An old-fashioned cheeseburger with French fries

Order a burger and you might not be asked to what degree of doneness you’d like for it to be prepared, but the results are flavorful nonetheless.  The beef patty has a nice grilled flavor reminiscent of a burger prepared outdoors.  The neon green chile has a piquant bite that complements the other fresh ingredients.  Alas, the sesame seed buns have a hard time holding in all the ingredients.  The French fries are nothing special, pretty much boilerplate.

17 June 2007: For dessert, an absolute must-have is the chocolate cake. A thick slab is easily big enough for two and is as delicious as any chocolate cake you’ve ever had anywhere. The frosting is thick yet not at all cloying as are the frosting in those hideous store-bought Plaster of Paris designer cakes. It’s diet devastating delicious. Other dessert options include baklava and several fresh house-made pies.  3 April 2016:  Among the luscious cakes masterfully created by the pastry chef is a lemon cake topped with lemon “salt.”  It’s rich, creamy and absolutely delicious with just enough lemony flavor to tickle your tongue.

Lemon Cake

There’s a reason the Western diner has survived more than sixty years. It leaves enticement to its food and not its facade. That’s the way it should be!

Western View Diner & Steakhouse
6411 Central, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 836-2200
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LATEST VISIT: 03 April 2016
# OF VISITS: 6
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: New York Steak, Mashed Potatoes, Texas Toast, Pancakes, Meatloaf, Guacamole, Deluxe Burger, Chocolate Milk Shake, Chicken Fried Steak, Lemon Cake, Pork Chops

Western View Diner & Steak House on Urbanspoon

K&I Diner – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The famous K&I Diner, Serving Albuquerque Since 1960

In 1960, Albuquerque’s population reached 201,189, more than doubling the city’s tally from the 1950 census. The start of a new decade began an era of expansion, a construction boom in which the burgeoning city began experiencing unprecedented growth. A proliferation of shopping centers was built to serve new neighborhoods.  Albuquerque was not yet overrun by horrendous, copycat chain restaurants; family owned and operated mom-and-pop dining establishments–like the K&I Diner–were (and still are) your best bet for a great meal.

1960 (March 2nd to be exact) was also the year in which Irene Warner opened Grandma’s K&I Diner (named for her daughter Kay Hess and herself) in the heart of Albuquerque’s industrial district in the far South Valley. She ran the eatery with her family for 39 years until her death at age 82 in 1999.  The matronly Irene was a fixture at her restaurant, a kind and gentle woman who made everyone welcome at her restaurant home. With a pronounced Southern drawl, she and her family kept things lively, often addressing their faithful patrons by “honey” or “sugar.”

The ghostly image in the background isn't Travis, the mysterious customer for whom the K&I Diner's most famous entree is named. It's Bill Resnik, the artist who painted this masterpiece displayed in the front dining room of the K&I.

The ghostly image in the background isn’t Travis, the mysterious customer for whom the K&I Diner’s most famous entree is named. It’s Bill Resnik, the artist who painted this masterpiece displayed in the front dining room of the K&I.

The restaurant has undergone several ownership changes since Grandma Warner passed away, but other than  some polish and veneer, pretty much left everything the same. For that Albuquerque diners are grateful.  The decor features antique brickerbrack donated by customers. Old stoves, a Pepsi dispenser (from back when a bottle of cold Pepsi cost ten cents), tube-operated radios and more eye-catching antiques will keep your interest while some placards may surprise you at how ribald humor was fifty or sixty years ago. One placard reads “big busted women float better.”

Ask anyone who’s been in Albuquerque for a few years and they can all recount their favorite memories of dining at the K&I. Most of them probably involve the “Travis,” a bean and seasoned beef burrito topped with cheese and chile then piled high with French fries. It’s an unlikely combination, but also a uniquely New Mexican one. The Travis is available in five sizes, the descriptions below of which are taken from the menu:

This behemoth is a quarter Travis.

This behemoth is a quarter Travis.

    • Travis on A Silver Platter – You’d better bring lots of friends to attempt this. Of course, if you can eat it by yourself in an hour or less and we mean ALL of it, it’s free.  It weighs over eight pounds and has been surmounted by only two people in the 40 years plus that it’s been available.
    • Full TravisEven the biggest of appetites would have a hard time finishing this one.
    • Half TravisIt can be done, but you’d better be happy.
    • Quarter TravisThis is the most popular size (pictured above), but some still need a to-go box.
    • Wimp TravisFor those who just don’t feel up to the challenge.

The Travis on a Silver Platter is a full six pounds and the platter on which it is served is big enough for the Thanksgiving turkey. A Wimp Travis is big enough for most people, but most men will order at least a quarter Travis or they risk being drummed out of the XY chromosome club.  As it approaches your table, your first inclination will be to wonder where the burrito is.  The mountain of fries covers every other component on the dish.  Like a treasure-hunter, you’ll have to get through several layers of fries before you get to the burrito.  The fries are excellent.

A half Travis

When he traveled to Albuquerque for a taping of the Travel Channel’s Man vs Food Nation (which aired for the first time on June 22nd, 2011) a stop at Grandma Warner’s K&I Diner was a must for host Adam Richman.  No longer an active competitor in man’s quest to eat ridiculous amounts of food, Richman recruited three Albuquerque residents–all named Travis–to test their gurgitator’s mettle against the Travis on a Silver Platter:  three flour tortillas, beef and beans, sausage-infused red chile and shredded Cheddar.  Once folded over, the burrito is covered over with green chile, cheese and a lettuce-tomato garnish  topped with a mountain of French fries.  Richman called the challenge an “indomitable feat of manhood,” and “maybe the hardest challenge we’ve ever shown.”

Given an hour to consume the entire platter’s worth of food, the three Travises (a student at UNM, a meteorologist for a local television station and a professional bull rider) were unable to surmount the challenge despite the urging of the crowd (which included UNM cheerleaders and Lobo Louie) and Richman’s encouragement.

Bert’s Mess

My own personal memories of the K&I Diner also involve the Travis. While stationed at Kirtland in the early 1980s, we used to take the dreaded Inspector General (IG) staff to the K&I and challenge them to finish a full Travis. Our hopes were that the IG staffers would get so full that drowsiness would set in after lunch and they wouldn’t be quite as nit-picky in their assessments. This usually worked with new staffers, but veteran IG members ultimately figured out our ploy. Still, they all enjoyed the K&I Diner as much as we did and made it a regular stop during their inspection tours of Kirtland.

Today, Air Force personnel (and no doubt, the infamous IG) still frequent the K&I Diner which despite four separate dining areas is usually packed for both breakfast and lunch. Newcomers with the gumption to try still think they have the mettle to consume an entire Travis, but invariably fail miserably (coincidentally miserable is the gastronomic state of anyone who succeeds).

The Leo

Elise Hunnicutt, a Del Norte High graduate now residing in deepest, darkest Westchester, New York shares one of her favorite K&I and Travis memories from the winter of 1982.  “The K&I was a favorite lunchtime stop for me when I worked for the Pepsi bottler in Albuquerque. I took two co-workers there one chilly day and instructed them on the fine points of ordering the Travis special. At the time, you didn’t use the word “Travis” when ordering, instead just proclaiming “Quarter” or “Half!” Your waitress would then call out the orders to the guys doing the cooking behind the counter. On this particular trip, I ordered my usual quarter. The first of my colleagues, obviously not embracing my guidance, slammed his fist on the table and demanded a Half. My other companion had no interest in the Travis and asked instead for a cheeseburger. Our waitress turned quickly toward the kitchen and said, “Quarter and a Half! And would someone please go down to Blake’s and get this idiot a cheeseburger?”

My friend Bill Resnik recalls the time he goaded a “Travis virgin” into ordering a full Travis. The behemoth platter arrived minutes later with a Dum Dum sucker on top. The acid tongue (but with a heart of gold) waitress presented it with “here you go, sucker!” Another time he asked the waitress how the meatloaf was that particular day.  The waitress’s retort, “I wouldn’t have it if I were you.  Grandma made it.”  Grandma was notorious for putting any leftover she could find into the lasagna–including lime jello.  After about three visits, the wait staff got to know you and treated you like a sibling.

Chicken Fried Steak, Two Eggs and Hashed Browns

The days of verbal jousting with the waitresses are long past and some of the restaurant’s personality left with Irene’s family and staff, but the K&I is and always will be, a memorable restaurant. Several local restaurants (Hurricane’s and Twisters come to mind) have attempted to duplicate the Travis and while some claim the pretenders are just as good, K&I veterans will vehemently defend the Travis as an incomparable original. In 1980, the Travis was trademarked, but that hasn’t stopped the pretenders.

According to local legend, the Travis was born when a frequent visitor (in true Western fashion, embellishments say it was a mysterious stranger) to the K&I asked for a burrito with everything on it but the kitchen sink. That’s what he got! The K&I Diner serves more than the Travis. Breakfast and lunch portions can best be described as “heaping” with daily specials available every day of the week. Over the years, the diner has added several other unique entrees in which piles of French fries are the topper, but none have approached the legendary status of the Travis. 

Chiles Rellenos with Fries

2 March 2011: “Bert’s Mess” is a pile of hot, crisp French fries topped with chunks of ham, bacon and sausage  (the triumvirate of porcine perfection) then smothered with red or green chile and topped with two eggs, any style.  The chile, as chile is apt to do, varies in piquancy almost from day-to-day.  There are days in which the chile has the bite of a bell pepper.  Fortunately each table has several heat-generating condiments such as Cholula Hot Sauce and Tabasco Sauce.  Even if you consider it sacrilege to desecrate New Mexico green or red chile by adulterating it with other hot sauces, both Cholula and Tabasco go very well with the fries.  Forget the ketchup.

28 April 2007: The “Leo,” ostensibly named for another loyal customer is a plate piled high with French fries and topped with seasoned beef, cheese and your choice of red or green chile.  About the only thing missing from these calorie overachiever’s dream is an angioplasty.  It should come standard.  The cheese is like a molten melted blanket which covers the entirety of the other ingredients with only a few fries rearing their delicious tops.  French Canadians have their poutine; New Mexicans would rather have The Leo.  Fries and cheese can’t be bested.

Seven year old Stevie Sunday attempts to put a dent on a K&I pancake

12 February 2016: Being a Catholic eating at K&I Diner on a Lenten Friday means having to abstain from meat.  Few things in life are as torturous as watching your dining companion indulge on a Half Travis (which is replete with delicious seasoned beef) when you can’t have one.  Sure the K&I Diner has plenty of entrees sans carne, but when you’ve got your heart set on a Travis, nothing else will do.  Not even the K&I’s chile rellenos, two housemade chile rellenos smothered with your choice of red or green chile and served with beans and fries with a tortilla on the side.  Admittedly, my longing for a Travis would have been minimized had the green chile been at least a little piquant, but it was so wimpy I had to add several shakes of Tabasco sauce to wake it up (and you should never have to adulterate green chile).  Note to self: don’t visit the K&I during Lent.

2 March 2011: The K&I Diner’s chicken fried steak breakfast is one of the best of its kind found this side of Texas.  The chicken fried steak is at least half an inch thick, not some thinly-pounded, boot leather-tough slab as you’re apt to find in other Albuquerque eateries.  It’s covered in a peppered white gravy and is served with two eggs, a pile of hashed browns and sourdough bread toast on the side.  It’s a prodigious breakfast not for the faint of heart.  The chicken fried steak cuts easily, a very good sign and it’s not breaded so thickly that you have to send out a search party to find the actual beef.  Best of all, it’s very good.

For more than 55 years, the K&I Diner’s formula of atmosphere, quick and friendly service and hearty portions has proven successful. It has stood the test of time and is an American classic in the finest sense.

K&I Diner
2500 Broadway, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 243-1881
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LATEST VISIT: 12 February 2016
# OF VISITS: 11
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: The Travis, The Leo, Bert’s Mess, Pancakes, Chicken Fried Steak, Chiles Rellenos

K & I Diner Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

El Pinto – Albuquerque, New Mexico

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

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

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

El Pinto’s verdant patio on an unseasonably warm October

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

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

The bar and lounge area

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chips and Salsa

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

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

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

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

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

Carne Asada Skillet, a brunch option

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

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

Green Chile Sausage Croissant

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

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

Sopaipillas

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

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

Levante

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

LATEST VISIT: 18 October 2015
# OF VISITS: 13
RATING: 15
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Queso Burger, Nachos, Salsa & Chips, Sopaipillas, Levante

El Pinto on Urbanspoon

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