There have been Mexican restaurants in the Land of Enchantment for as long as there have been restaurants. While the distinction between Mexican restaurants and New Mexican restaurants has become less obfuscated over time, there is still a tendency among many casual diners to think “a Mexican restaurant is a Mexican restaurant.” That errant thinking is probably due to the preponderance on this side of the border of Mexican restaurants from the northern Mexican state of Chihuahua.
The cuisine of Chihuahua is characterized by its simplicity, reflecting the resilience of its people, settlers of a land steeped with rugged terrain, craggy mountains and rough lands in which great temperature variations exist between scalding heat and almost freezing cold. Dehydrated chile is a staple of Chihuahua. When reconstituted, flour is added to thicken it for such popular favorites as enchiladas, tacos, chile rellenos, quesadillas, beans and tamales, all foods with which New Mexicans are intimate. The cuisine of this region is also characterized by the use of melted or roasted cheese, much of it courtesy of the large Mennonite population in the area.
In the past decade or so, New Mexico has seen a growing number of restaurants from states other than Chihuahua. Because Mexico spans several climatic zones and a diverse topography, its cuisine varies from region to region. The favorite foods of the Mexican coast may not even be available further inland. Inland foods may not be as commonly served on the coasts. Ah, those coasts! Mexico’s beautiful and varied coastal waters are not only pristine in their azure purity, they yield an abundant and unsurpassed assortment of deliciously prepared delicacies from the sea. Restaurants such as Mariscos Altamar celebrate that cuisine.
The introduction of mariscos restaurants featuring the succulent seafood of Michoacan and Nayarit was followed shortly by the launching of Papa Nacho’s, a restaurant featuring cuisine from the state of Sinoloa. Patterned after some of the fine cosmopolitan restaurants of Mexico City is Los Equipales, a fine-dining establishing offering foods with which even the despotic Montezuma would have been acquainted. Guadalajaran gastronomy from the the largest city in the state of Jalisco which borders the Pacific ocean, could be found at Dahla’s Central Mexican Cuisine in Rio Rancho until it closed in 2010. The culinary traditions of the Veracruz-Chiapas region were honored at Bernalillo’s La Bamba Grill, an off-the-road gem which closed in 2009. There are other examples, but if you’ve been to these treasures, you get the picture-any generalization of Mexican food is unfair and it is wrong.
A visit to any of the aforementioned restaurants is, in fact, an adventure in the discovery that the cuisine of Mexico is as varied as its 31 free and sovereign states. Still, that culinary diversity seems under-represented in the Duke City because the cuisine of Puebla is not more prominent.. Puebla, known as Mexico’s “cradle of corn” is considered by many culinary scholars as the birthplace of Mexican food as we know it today. It was in the tile-clad kitchens of Puebla’s convents where dignitaries were entertained that lavish dishes such as mole poblano and chiles en nogada were first made.
Puebla’s culinary significance spans time immemorial–from its roots in the ancient techniques and rudimentary ingredients of its indigenous peoples to the Spanish influenced cuisine of the colonial period and the resultant mix and subsequent and continuous evolution. Not only is Puebla famous for its incomparable culinary diversity, it is renown or the beauty of its kitchens which tend to be colorful in their utilitarian function. Beautifully painted clay pots and exquisite Talavera tile and pottery are integral to the culinary experience.
A cursory perusal of the menu is all it takes to figure out that Guicho’s Authentic Food Restaurant is a compendium of the incomparable cuisine of Puebla. The name Guicho itself has nothing to do with Puebla, but is a nickname given to the restaurant’s owner Jose Luis (much as in the way men named Ignacio are often nicknamed “Nacho”). Jose Luis and his family are from the Mexican state of Puebla and they are proud to showcase their state’s incomparable cuisine.
They are also proud to showcase the incomparable beauty of their state on colorful murals painted on the restaurant’s walls. One mural depicts an Aztec warrior kneeling beside what might be a funeral pyre on which lies a beautiful maiden, perhaps a sacrifice to appease the gods. The model for the maiden is Jose Luis’s daughter, a teenager equally at home speaking in English or Spanish. A painting of a citadel aflame depicts Puebla’s role in the Mexican Army’s defeat of French forces at the Battle of Puebla on May 5th, 1862 (today celebrated as Cinco de Mayo).
The windows throughout the dining room are framed with what appears to be Talavera tile, the tin-enameled earthenware. The time-honored techniques used to create this rich earthenware produce a hard opaque white glaze which serves as a canvass for colorful, enamel-painted designs. On closer inspection you’ll find that the window frames are not Talavera tile, but an artist’s rendition (a very good one). A large ceramic statue of La Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of Mexico and the Americas, stands on a tall niche carved into one wall. There is truly something to see at every turn at Guicho’s.
Unfortunately there’s also something…too much…to hear as well. The booming sounds of Mexican rap emanating from tinny speakers competes with the raucous sounds of a Mexican comedies from a blaring television. This is the sole detractor from an otherwise very good–and very authentic–meal.
That authenticity begins with licuados, the fresh and delicious Mexican aguas frescas (Spanish for fresh waters). Aguas frescas are a combination of either fresh fruits, seeds, cereals and sugar and water blended together to make a refreshing drink. Sometimes served from large barrel-shaped containers, aguas frescas tend to be almost cloying in their sugar content. That is courtesy of the increasing use of vendor provided aguas frescas throughout Mexican restaurants in America. At Guicho’s, the aguas frescas are made on the premises and they are definitely not overly sweet. Instead, they taste as the fruit should taste, whether in season or not.
Salsa and chips are complementary at Guicho’s. Similar to many Mexican salsas, this one is somewhat thin, though not to the extent that it runs off your chips like a sieve. The salsa relies heavily on cilantro and a blend of chiles (perhaps arbol) for flavor and heat intensity. The chips are homemade and substantial. They’re also fresh, low in salt and delicious.
The menu showcases a number of intriguing appetizers, most substantial enough for sharing. One of the best is the quezadilla (sic) synchronizada (so-called because the top and bottom tortillas are “synchronized” together). Two paper-thin flour tortillas envelop very thinly sliced ham and a thin sheen of the requisite melted queso. That’s it! Nothing else! Surprisingly, these are terrific quesadillas thanks in large part to some of the very best pico de gallo in Albuquerque, a pico constructed of very fresh, hand-chopped bell pepper, white onion, jalapeño and tomato.
The menu is as intriguing and appealing as a menu you’d find at a restaurant on Puebla itself. A number of dishes feature mole poblano, the thick rich chocolate-tinged sauce whose very origin is steeped in legend. One chile relleno entree includes several of the ingredients used to make chile rellenos en nogada, a traditional Puebla Christmas dish, but falls short on only a few ingredients.
What facilitated the ordering process during my inaugural visit was the fact that our first visit took place on a Sunday, the only day of the week in which another famous and uniquely Puebla entree is featured. That would be Barbacoa y Consome de Borrego al Estilo Puebla, essentially grilled mutton (lamb, if you prefer) and a clear consomme. The mutton arrives at your table exactly the way it was prepared–right on the bone. It’s up to you to extricate the tender meat from the bone, a task you can undertake with fork or fingers. The borrego is seasoned very well, removing any gaminess you might expect from mutton. It is also quite good, some of the best borrego I’ve had in years, in fact.
The consome actually comes from a pan at the bottom of the roaster which catches the drippings from the borrego. It is a richly flavored stock though quite “filmy” from the fat which drips down onto he soup pan. Don’t let that detract you in the least. This is a comforting soup, the type of which embraces you warmly and makes you feel good all over.
The oversized platter also includes grilled nopalitos (cleaned, sliced and lightly sauteed cactus pads), grilled jalapenos, sliced avocado and Mexican queso fresco. The nopalitos are sauteed with thinly sliced radish, tomatoes, onions and a little cilantro. They are reminiscent in flavor of a tame green pepper. The grilled jalapenos are terrific–incendiary enough to get your attention, but with a full-bodied flavor.
If you’re not in the adventurous mood or if you loathe lamb, Guicho’s has several more “conventional” (though not boring in the least) entrees available. Milanesas Rellenas, breaded pork steak stuffed with yellow cheese and ham, are a popular favorite. The pork steak is sliced thinly then pounded for tenderness. The breading is light and well-seasoned while the addition of ham and cheese surprisingly doesn’t give the entree the saltiness you might expect. This entree is served with rice, beans, French fries and corn tortillas. The beans are refried and they are outstanding!
For breakfast and brunch lovers, Guicho’s offers a number of eye-opening dishes, most quite simple and both filling and fulfilling. One of these is a combination platter showcasing longanizada, a pork sausage light on the flavor profile compared to chorizo; papas con rajas (potatoes with jalapeños), rice and beans. The rajas are sliced in a long and thin fashion, looking like bell peppers. One bite of the roasted hot peppers will certainly tell you these are several degrees of magnitude more piquant than the bell pepper. Three small mounds of rice in the colors of the Mexican flag (red, white and green) along with refried beans are excellent, especially for scooping with the accompanying corn tortillas.
One of the most special dishes for which the state of Puebla is renown is chiles rellenos en nogada which are wholly unlike the chiles rellenos with which most New Mexicans are intimately acquainted. On this dish, a poblano pepper is engorged with such unconventional ingredients as pork, apples, pears, tomato, onion, garlic and raisins all seasoned with cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger then smothered with a walnut brandy cream sauce. Guicho’s doesn’t offer chiles rellenos en nogada, but it does serve what might be termed as a poor third cousin–chiles rellenos de queso, one poblano pepper and one jalapeño pepper stuffed with cheese and topped with a nut cream and pomegranate. Unlike the more famous rellenos en nogada, these are not a melding of sweet and savory flavors. The queso fresco makes this most decidedly a savory dish. It’s not nearly as good as chiles rellenos en nogada, but it’s good in its own right.
Several dessert entrees will catch your eye though you might not have much of an appetite left after consuming the large portions served at Guicho’s. The platano frito, a banana sliced from top to bottom is slathered in a strawberry marmalade, drizzled in chocolate sauce, bordered by whipped cream topped with sprinkles and is served with two thin wafer cookies. Talk about a sugar rush. This pile of sweetness is a caloric overdose, the type of dessert your arteries can tolerate only infrequently.
Far less sugar-intensive are fresas con crema, strawberries with cream. The strawberries are just about equally tart and sweet while the cream is not of the sweet whipped cream variety Americans gravitate towards. It’s real cream, the rich, savory type.
Guicho’s reflects the high standards for which cuisine in Puebla is renown. It is a welcome addition to the New Mexico dining scene and goes a long way toward continuing to show that all Mexican restaurants are not alike.
Guicho’s Authentic Mexican Food Restaurant
4801 Central, N.E. (at Monroe)
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 26 June 2011
1st VISIT: 26 April 2009
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Milanesas Rellenas, Barbacoa Y Consome de Borrego, Licuado de Melon, Licuado de Sandia, Chiles Rellenos de Queso, Quezadilla Synchronizada, Platano Frito, Longanizada con rajas y papas, Fresas con Crema