Ajiaco Colombian Bistro – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Ajiaco Colombian Bistro on Silver Avenue in Nob Hill

If your perception of Colombia is of a nation beleaguered with drugs, terrorism and violence, you may just have to recalibrate your thinking.  In 2014, for the second consecutive year, a WIN-Gallup poll conducted in 65 countries revealed that Colombia has earned the distinction of being the world’s happiest country.  Known as the “Barometer of Happiness and Hope,” the survey reported that of 1,012 Colombian respondents, 86 percent consider themselves “happy” while only 2 percent report themselves as “unhappy.”   The United States, by the way, ranked as only the 31st happiest nation surveyed.

So what could possibly account for Colombia’s surprisingly high happiness quotient?  In discussing the survey results with my friend John (who’s married to a beautiful Colombian woman), I joked that if all Colombian women looked like Sofia Vergara and Shakira, it’s no wonder there’s so much happiness.  His response was that not only are all Colombian women beautiful, they can all cook, too.  What they’re cooking most he told me is ajiaco, a traditional Colombian chicken and potato soup.

My friend Bruce “Sr Plata” Silver in the front dining room at Ajiaco Colombian Bistro

It’s not surprising, therefore, that Albuquerque’s sole Colombian restaurant is named Ajiaco for the feel-good comfort food favorite of a nation increasingly celebrated for its gastronomic splendor.  Launched in 2014, Ajiaco Colombian Bistro, which is located on Silver Avenue in The Village, a complex which also hosts P’Tit Louis Bistro and Limonata Trattoria, isn’t the Duke City’s first Colombian restaurant. That distinction goes to the now defunct El Pollo Real which earned its reputation as much for Mexican food favorites (in particular the charbroiled chicken) as it did for Colombian cuisine. 

As was El Pollo Real, the Ajiaco Colombian Bistro is owned by Colombian immigrants Pedro and Nubia Sabogal, but unlike at El Pollo Real, the singular focus is solely on Colombian cuisine.  Adventurous diners who eschewed El Pollo Real’s Mexican offerings in favor of ajiaco, arepas and empanadas couldn’t be happier–both with the food and with the  stylish new digs.  Elegant hardwood floors throughout the restaurant impart an airiness and homey feeling which is enhanced by the main dining room’s open view to the kitchen.  You can’t help but stand agape at the burlap curtains in the front room which appear to have been made from large bags used to ship coffee.

Sancocho (Short Rib Soup) with Rice

Menu items are listed in Spanish with an English translation directly below.  It’s an intriguing menu with a very reasonable pricing structure.  Only a few items exceed the ten dollar price point and for the most part, those items are meant to be shared.  If you’re tired of paying entree prices for appetizers, you’ll also be thrilled with the aperitivos menu.  None of the eight appetizers crosses the six dollar barrier and empanadas can be had for under two dollars.  The menu offers two sopas (soups)–Ajiaco and sopa del dia (soup of the day). 

Not including the special of the day, the Platos (entrees or main courses) menu offers nine entrees including a vegetarian plate.  The amiable wait staff will also work with guests to craft a meal low-carb dieters can enjoy that doesn’t include rice or potatoes.  For an amazing introduction to Colombian cuisine that two can share, order the Picada which is brimming with steak, pork rinds, morcilla, chorizo, yuca, plantains and arepas.  A la carta items are also available to supplement your platos.  The postres (desserts) include torta de platano (plantain cake) and flan de cafe (coffee flan).

Platano Con Queso

As tempting and delicious as ajiaco is, it’s not sacrilegious to order the sopa del dia instead.  If the Sancocho or short rib soup is offered, it’s a worthy alternative.  Served with fluffy white rice on the side, the soup is served piping hot, perfect for a cold winter day.   While Sancocho, a term which translates loosely to “stew,” can be a complex soup made with a plethora of ingredients, Ajiaco’s version is deliciously simple–a seasoned broth; tender, de-boned short ribs and potatoes.  It’s the type of soup which should be ordered not by cup, but by bowlful. 

Though not listed as a dessert, the platano de queso (plantain with cheese and guava) is dessert sweet and dessert delicious.  A large hollowed-out roasted plantain is stuffed with melted quesito and caramelized guava chunks.  The Colombian quesito (cheese) is texturally similar to Mexican queso fresco and has a mild, slightly sweet taste that becomes exaggerated with the addition of the guava.  There’s not much sweet-savory contrast in this dish.

Grilled Chicken Breast with Pineapple, Salad, Plantains and Vegetables

The special of the day during our inaugural visit was a pechuga a la plancha (grilled chicken breast) served with plantains, a salad and a plate of sauteed vegetables.  Topped with grilled pineapple which provides a sweet contrast, the exceptionally moist and tender grilled chicken breast is simple yet remarkably tasty.  A simple salad (mixed greens, tomatoes, cucumbers) with a sweet-spicy mango-mustard dressing pairs well with the chicken breast as do sauteed vegetables (carrots, cauliflower, broccoli, squash). 

Arroz con pollo (rice with chicken), believed to be a Creole variant of Spanish paella, is a traditional dish of Spain and Latin American countries.  Traditional, however, doesn’t mean it’s prepared the same way or with the same ingredients in all the countries in which it’s served.  The version served in New Mexican family homes (forgive me, mom) may be the most boring, especially in comparison with the Colombian version.  Featuring a medley of vegetables, seasoned rice and moist shredded chicken breast, it’s as beautiful to ogle as it is delicious to eat.  With a texture somewhat similar to risotto and a vibrant color (courtesy of achiote), it’s one of those rare dishes it’ll be difficult to pass up in future visits to Ajiaco.

Arroz Con Pollo with Plantains and Salad

In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2017, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded Ajiaco Colombian Bistro a Hot Plate Award signifying the selection of its Bandeja Paisa as one of the “dishes…that’s lighting a fire under the city’s culinary scene.”  Considering the thousands of potential selections, to be singled out is quite an honor. 

Dining at the Ajiaco Colombian Bistro may not fully explain why Colombia is the world’s happiest country, but you’ll get the feeling that Colombians are happy in large part because their cuisine is so good.  Visit Ajiaco and you’ll be happy, too.

Ajiaco Colombian Bistro
3216 Silver Avenue, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 266-2305
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 8 January 2015
COST: $$
BEST BET: Arroz Con Pollo, Platano Con Queso,  Short Rib Soup, Pechuga a la Plancha

Ajiaco Colombian Bistro Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Panchito’s Restaurant & Bakery – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)


Panchito’s Restaurant & Bakery

“Let’s get one thing straight:
Mexican food takes a certain amount of time to cook.
If you don’t have the time, don’t cook it.
You can rush a Mexican meal, but you will pay in some way.
You can buy so-called Mexican food at too many restaurants
that say they cook Mexican food.
But the real food, the most savory food, is prepared with time and love and at home.
So, give up the illusion that you can throw Mexican food together.
Just understand that you are going to have to make and take the time.”
Denise Chavez, A Taco Testimony

Despite the title of her book, A Taco Testimony isn’t a celebration of the folded, hand-held treasures of diverse deliciousness enveloping meats, vegetables and condiments.  Nor is it a compilation of recipes detailing precisely how to create these homespun, rustic snacks as generations of families have enjoyed them.  At a surface level,  author Denise Chavez, a Las Cruces resident, writes about the familial and cultural experiences and dramas of growing up in Southern New Mexico.   From an allegorical perspective, the underlying message of A Taco Testimony is that if you understand a people’s food, you can understand their culture and beliefs.

So, what can be gleaned about Mexican people from the foods they prepare and enjoy?  If my Kim’s friend Luz Garcia is any indication, you’ll gain an appreciation for a hard-working, family oriented people who live life to its fullest.  Despite a stressful eight-to-five job in a challenging judicial field, Luz gets up at five o’clock every morning to make tortillas for her family.  She prepares all family meals and salsas from scratch and derives her greatest satisfaction from being surrounded by her husband and children for dinner every night.  Dinner is a family event shared at the kitchen table, not in front of the television.


The counter where you place your order

Every once in a while you’re fortunate enough to visit a Mexican restaurant in which it’s evident that significant time, care and love have been taken in the preparation of your meal.  In fact, the only element missing from Denise Chavez’s  Taco Testimony quote is “home” though with these restaurant gems, it’s easy to imagine a cook lovingly preparing such meals for his or her family as Luz Garcia does.  One such restaurant is Panchito’s Restaurant & Bakery on Fourth Street.

Panchito’s is one of those restaurants you might drive by–perhaps on your way to another restaurant–without giving it a second thought. That is, if you notice it at all.  Fortunately my loyal readers not only notice new and interesting restaurants, they try them out then tell me about them, often with great enthusiasm.  Brecken Mallette (is there a cooler name in all of Albuquerque) was so enthusiastic after her first visit to Panchito’s, I immediately bumped several other restaurants on my list to visit it.  She raved about the tacos al pastor, huarache, carne guisada burrito and salsa bar.  Frankly she had me at tacos al pastor.


The salsa bar

Made well tacos al pastor (which translates from Spanish to tacos in the style of the shepherd) are the quintessential Mexican taco, so good you’ll swear off ground beef tacos (which many self-respecting Mexicans would never eat).  Tacos al pastor are a perfect combination of sweet and heat, savory and tangy.  Panchito’s version of tacos al pastor showcases cubed pork which has been marinated in a red chile adobo seasoned with savory and sweet spices (we discerned cinnamon and cloves) and prepared with small pineapple cubes.   A generous amount of the pork is nestled within two freshly made corn tortillas.  It’s up to you as to whether you add onions and cilantro or maybe a salsa.  These tacos need no amelioration.  They’re superb as is.

If you do want to add a salsa to your tacos al pastor, you’ve got a lavish salsa bar replete with piquant, rich and savory options from which to choose.  From pico de gallo to a mayonnaise-based guacamole, the salsa bar is one of the Duke City’s best.  It also includes sliced limes, chopped onions, shakers of red pepper and so much more.  The salsa bar is complimentary and includes a basketful of thin, low-in-salt chips.  Most of the salsas are fairly light so they’re of the “dipping” variety, not of the “scooping” genre.


Tacos al Pastor plate

Panchito’s Restaurant & Bakery serves both Mexican and Colombian food though it doesn’t showcase some of the uniquely Colombian dishes you’ll find at El Pollo Real Colombiana, the Duke City’s only other Colombian restaurant.  Instead, most of the menu will be familiar to diners who frequent the city’s varied Mexican eateries.  Panchito’s serves breakfast all day long with a menu which, in its entirety, lists only sixteen items.  From the counter at which you place your order, you can peer into the kitchen to watch your meal being prepared to order.  Better still, you can interact with the delightful family which owns and operates the restaurant.  To say they aim to please is a vast understatement.

You might think that with only sixteen items on the menu it would be easy to decide what you’re having.  Nothing could be further from the truth  You’ll want to order everything, especially on weekends when menudo and pollo a la Barbacoa (chicken barbecue) are added to the menu.  One thing for certain is you’ve got to order tacos al pastor, whether one or six.  They’re terrific.  You’ll also want to order one of the aguas de fruta (fruit waters).  The agua de melon is both thirst-quenching and delicious.  There are six items on the dessert menu though it’s unlikely you’ll have room for them.



In the 1960s, the American counterculture in its rejection of the “codifications of modernism” embraced the Mexican huarache, a traditional woven leather sandal.  Having worn a pair or two back in the day, it always amuses me to see huaraches on a menu at a Mexican restaurant.  The name fits.  Huaraches are shaped roughly like a human foot, and just as a human foot needs covering, the thick corn tortilla which serves as the base for this delicious dish needs toppings.  Indented by hand so that it has “borders” to hold its component ingredients, the Huarache Panchitos is topped with carne asada (grilled meat), beans, queso fresco, pico de gallo, nopales (cactus strips) and a savory-sour crema.  Panchito’s version of the Huarache is among the very best you’ll ever have.  Despite all the ingredients and their unique flavors, the pronounced corn flavor of the huarache still shines as do the fresh, perfectly prepared nopales.

There’s a pronounced corn flavor to the tamales, too.  Both red and green tamales are available, but red and green, in this case, doesn’t mean New Mexico’s fabled red and green chiles.  Worse, the red chile is made with cumin.  The green chile is more akin to a salsa and while it doesn’t have much bite, it does have a nice flavor.  Sprinkled generously atop the tamale is queso fresco which lends a mild, milky, fresh flavor with a sour-salty kick.  Tamales, like other dishes on the menu, are available a la carte and in your desired quantity.


Green tamale

My friend and frequent dining companion Bill Resnik enjoyed a torta, the flatbread sandwich the Huffington Post calls “the best (expletive deleted) sandwich ever.”  At Panchitos, the torta is a crusty bolillo bread masterpiece which you can stuff with your choice of meat: carne asada, al pastor, barbecue pork, chicken or ham.  It’s then topped with lettuce, onions, avocado, mayonnaise, mustard, cream, chili (sic) or hash browns.  This overstuffed beauty is one of those run-down-your-arms-good compositions you won’t mind wearing on your beard or clothing.  Bill enjoyed his torta with al pastor. 

Panchito’s is a thoroughly enjoyable little mom-and-pop restaurant which prepares delicious meals you’d be happy and proud to serve at home to people you love.

4501 Fourth Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 341-0977
LATEST VISIT: 22 November 2013
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Tacos Al Pastor, Huarache, Green Tamale, Agua Fresca de Melon, Salsa Bar

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El Pollo Real – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

El Pollo Real, Albuquerque’s home for authentic (and delicious) Colombian and Mexican cuisine

Jay : I’m home! Mmm, what smells so good?

Gloria : I’m making chunchullo, a traditional Colombian dish, for dinner with the family tonight. Chunchullo.

Jay : What is that… like, uh, tacos?

Gloria : Yes, like tacos.

Manny : No, it isn’t. It’s the small intestine of a pig.

Jay : Oh, geez. Why can’t we eat regular food like normal people?

Understandably, to this gastronome, the funniest scenes depicting the cultural clash between Gloria Pritchett and her family and friends involve food.  In the true tradition of the Latin stereotype, Gloria, the curvaceous Colombian bombshell portrayed by Sofia Vergara on the hilarious television comedy Modern Family likes her food spicy-painfully so.  Conversely, in true stereotypical “white person” fashion, other characters just can’t handle the heat.  In one memorable episode, Cameron, an exemplar of “Caucasianism,” takes Gloria to one of her favorite purveyors of piquancy in an effort to bond with her.  After one bite, he sprints from the table shouting “I feel like I ate the sun!”

Colombian art festoons the walls at El Pollo Real

Interestingly, Colombian food isn’t especially spicy–at least not in comparison with the cuisine of other Latin American nations.  As with most nations, Colombian cuisine varies by region.  In some regions, such specialties as guinea pigs and roasted ants are considered delicacies while in other regions Colombians are repulsed by these dishes.  The Colombian diet includes a lot of meat, poultry and seafood, particularly in coastal areas where lobster and fish are plentiful.  Fresh fruit is also abundant.  Shakira, one of the most popular and successful pop musicians in the world calls Colombian food “really good–and really fattening.”

Both Sofia Vergara and Shakira lament the scarcity of great Colombian food in the United States.  Perhaps they should visit Albuquerque’s International District where El Pollo Real has been pleasing Colombian food aficionados and poultry-loving palates since 2008.  It’s only fitting that the Duke City’s only Colombian restaurant is located in the  the city’s most diverse district where many of its most delicious dining destinations reside.  In International District fashion, El Pollo’s menu  offers not only Colombian culinary offerings, but foods from Mexico and Cuba…and contrary to the name on the marquee, this dynamic restaurant offers much more than chicken.

Yuca frita con salsa rosada (Fried yucca and pink house sauce)

El Pollo Real, which translates to “the royal chicken,” has one of the most intriguing menus of any Latin American restaurant in the city.   Peruse the menu and you’ll quickly note all the familiar sounding dishes, and if the names aren’t familiar, the descriptions of the dishes just might be.  Appetizers, which include salsa and chips, quesadillas, and guacamole with chips, are especially familiar, but you can’t get those at hundreds of Mexican and New Mexican restaurants throughout the state.  Try something different instead–such as arepas, maize-based bread served plain or filled, which were introduced to Albuquerque by Cafe Choroni, the superb but short-lived Venezuelan restaurant.

Try the yuca (not yucca, New Mexico’s state flower) frita con salsa rosada, a starchy root vegetable often referred to as cassava which is deep-fried to a golden hue.  By itself the yuca didn’t completely win us over.   it is a bit on the desiccated side and has an inconsistent texture–crispy on the edges and somewhat elastic in the middle.  What did win us over is the salsa rosada, a vegetable stew-like salsa wholly unlike the salsa rosada (pink sauce) so popular in Colombia.  The salsa rosada is served warm and may remind you of a very comforting stew, albeit one with a bite.  A bowlful wouldn’t be enough.

Empanadas Colombianas (Colombian Empanadas)

In Colombia as in Chile where they are considered the national dish, empanadas are a popular appetizer.   El Pollo Real offers empanadas engorged with pork or chicken. These terrific fritters are constructed from the same cornmeal masa used to prepare arepas and are served two to an order with an incendiary salsa redolent with piquant peppers. The salsa will challenge even New Mexican fire-eaters.  The empanadas are served just off-the-fryer hot so that when you bite into them wisps of steam will escape.  Eat them too quickly and you probably won’t appreciate just how good they are.  Interestingly McDonald’s in Colombia has decided to adapt its menu to the local market and has introduced variations on numerous local foods such as the empanada.  It’s unlikely McDonald’s can ever duplicate the deliciousness of El Pollo Real’s version.

The restaurant’s most diverse, indulgent and expensive (under $25) offering is the picada para dos (literally “chopped for two”), a Thanksgiving platter-sized entree that should probably be para tres (for three) or cuatro (four).  The platter is piled high with little pieces of charcoal meat, charcoal chicken breast, Colombian sausage, morsilla, pork skin, corn cakes and fried plantains.  It’s a veritable feast for a famished family.  It’s also a great dish to preview just how well El Pollo Real prepares its charcoal-roasted chicken.  The charcoal imprint is very reminiscent of that left by charcoal grilling implements used in Vietnamese grilling.  In other words, the charcoal imparts a wonderful deliciousness.  The chicken is very moist and tender.  So is the charcoal grilled meat.

Picada Para Dos (Little pieces of charcoal meat, Little pieces of charcoal chicken breast, pieces of Colombian sausage, pieces of morcilla, Pork skin, corn cakes and fried plantain)

When morcillas (a blood pudding sausage made by cooking blood with a filler until it is thick enough to congeal when cooled) are served at any restaurant, I’m always grateful for dining companions who aren’t intrepid enough to try them.  That means I can have them all.  El Pollo Real’s morcillas are purplish sausages stuffed with rice, onions, pork, mint and of course, pig blood.  They make me grateful for grandparents who taught me to be open-minded about food.  The pork skins are essentially chicharrones or fried pork rinds.  They’re quite good as is the Colombian sausage.  The fried plantains are a perfect foil for all the protein, offering a slightly sweet contrast. 

The August, 2012 relocation of Pollito Con Papas  to Gibson Boulevard was certainly apropos because it meant  chicken as prepared in two bordering South American nations can now be found within two miles of one another in the Duke City’s International District.  There are few semblances between Peruvian poultry and Colombian chicken, but you’ll be hard-pressed to pick a favorite.  Both are outstanding–orders of magnitude better than what you’ll find at KFC.

Whole Chicken charbroiled and served with plantains, rice and an arepa

The charbroiled chicken can be ordered in quarter, half and whole sizes.  A whole chicken can feed a small family with two of each breasts, wings, thighs and legs.  It’s available Mexican style with beans, rice, salsa and warm tortillas or Tropical style with plantains, rice and a single arepa.  Go tropical!  The plantains are lightly fried and sweet, but not overly so.  The rice is buttery and delicious.  The arepa has a prominent corn flavor and is served steaming hot.  It’s the charbroiled chicken which really shines.

El Pollo Real is the type of restaurant even Gloria Pritchett’s family might enjoy. The menu has a wealth of dishes sure to please even the most finicky eater, but it’s also a treasure to adventurous diners who want to sample something new and different every visit.

El Pollo Real Colombiano
600 Louisiana Blvd, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 4 December 2012
1st VISIT:  10 November 2012
COST: $$
BEST BET: Picada Para Dos, Colombian Empanadas, Whole Charbroiled Chicken, Arepas

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