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, my highest rated restaurant of any genre 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 and his devoted wife Mary Ann Gonzales left us in 2013, their effervescent daughter Antoinette and sons Jordan and Travis continue to provide the hospitality for which Mary & Tito’s is renowned. Better yet, they oversee 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.  Interestingly, Mary & Tito’s continues to win over lifelong New Mexicans who never heard of the restaurant until it was featured on the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods Dining Destinations program.

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 glistened on my dearly departed friend Ruben Hendrickson’s forehead with every bite, but he persevered 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–contrary to what the Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern once reported on Bizarre Foods: Dining Destinations). 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 dear friend Ruben Hendrickson, who for more than a year was engaged in a Holy Grail type quest to find the best carne adovada in the Albuquerque area, was 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.”   The Santa Fe Travelers Billie Frank and Steve Collins called it “the best carne adovada we’ve ever had.”  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 stood 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.

Two Tacos

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.  The Mexican turnover is the most popular item at the restaurant, surpassing even the nonpareil carne adovada.

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 dessert (that’s singular, but when you serve a dessert as wonderful as the New Mexican wedding cake, who needs anything else) available at Mary & Tito’s.

Salsa and Chips

18 August 2017: It took me 45 visits to sample everything on the menu at Mary & Tito’s, the very last item being a Mexican Pizza.  Described on the menu as “fry bread, refried beans and cheese,” it’s so much more than that.  It’ll remind you most of the fry bread tacos served at Indian Pow Wows and on reservations.  The canvas for this unique pizza is a deep-fried sopaipilla similar to the one used on the Mexican turnover.  The sopaipilla is topped with lots of refried beans, red chile, sprinkled with cheese and lined with lettuce and tomato.  Unlike Indian-style fry bread tacos, the fry bread at Mary & Tito’s is crisp and crunchy, not soft and pliable.  It doesn’t make the top ten list of items I’ve had at Mary & Tito’s, but you could put that red chile on a leather boot and it would be delicious.

7 December 2017: A deeper perusal at the menu (which by now I should have memorized considering the number of times visited) revealed one other heretofore untried item.

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

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.  My friend Bill Resnik calls it “one of the ten best things I’ve ever put in my mouth.”  In its February, 2013 edition  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

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?

Carne Adovada Flautas

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 Cafe”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!

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 fabulous New Mexican Wedding Cake. Photo courtesy of Sandy Driscoll.

“The inside of Mary and Tito’s Restaurant on Albuquerque’s 4th Street doesn’t look like much: vinyl tablecloths, walls plastered with family photos. But the kitchen produces some of New Mexico’s best chile—not the meaty stew, spelled chili, served across the border in Texas, but the pepper-based sauce that holds pride of place in New Mexican cuisine.” That’s how the Wall Street Journal began its feature “Why Doubling Down on the Chile is the Way to Go.” The feature boasted “New Mexico’s red and green chile sauces are so good, why not opt for both at once?” Red and green chile are precisely why the Land of Enchantment celebrates Christmas all year long. No one does it better than Mary & Tito’s.

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.

The James Beard Award of Excellence. 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.

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 August 2017
# OF VISITS: 45
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, Mexican Pizza, Mexican Turnover, Salsa & Chips, Carne Adovada Flautas

Mary & Tito's Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Owl Cafe & Bar – San Antonio, New Mexico

The World Famous Owl Cafe in San Antonio, New Mexico

7 March 2017Over the past five years, the Owl Cafe in San Antonio, New Mexico has been the most frequently launched review on Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog.  From January 1st through April 7th, 2017, the review of the Owl has been launched more often than any other review on 37 occasions.  It’s been among the top five most frequently launched reviews 95 times (out of 98 days) since January 1st.  The Owl review is the third most frequently launched review (behind the Buckhorn Tavern and Mary & Tito’s of all time.  What accounts for the Owl’s popularity?  It truly is a timeless institution beloved for its consistently excellent burgers.
San Antonio may be but a blip on the map, but its storied and pioneering history make this sparsely populated agricultural community arguably one of New Mexico’s most important towns.

In 1629, San Antonio was the site on which Franciscan friars planted the first vineyard (for sacramental wine) in New Mexico (in defiance of Spanish law prohibiting the growing of grapes for wine in the new world.) San Antonio was the birthplace of Conrad Hilton, founder of the ubiquitous Hilton Hotels and more importantly, one of New Mexico’s original legislators after statehood was granted in 1912. San Antonio was also the gateway to the Trinity Site in which the first atomic bomb was detonated in 1945. While these events are historically significant, they are also inextricably bound by one common element–the uncommonly ordinary facade that houses the extraordinary, world-famous Owl Cafe.

owl05

The Owl Cafe and Bar

Conrad Hilton’s father once owned the saloon in which the bar (pictured below) in the Owl Cafe once held prominence and presumably sold the fruit of the vine whose progenitors may have been among New Mexico’s original grape stocks. According to local lore, the fathers of the nuclear age spent much of their free time cavorting at the Owl Cafe where original owner Jose Miera installed a grill and started crafting the green chile cheeseburgers that would ultimately achieve unprecedented acclaim.

Ostensibly, the restaurant was named the Owl because legal gambling was conducted at all hours of the night in the back of the restaurant, ergo by “night owls.” Today feathered fowl are still important to San Antonio’s local economy as thousands of bird watchers flock to the nearby Bosque del Apache Wildlife Refuge to crane their necks for a glimpse of geese, ducks and cranes. The Owl Cafe offers welcome respite from the pleasures of bird-watching.

The long bar from the original Hilton hotel

The long bar from the original Hilton hotel

Rowena Baca, a descendent of the Owl Cafe’s founder and current proprietor of the Owl Cafe, holds on to tradition, preparing the world-famous green chile cheeseburger in much the same way as her grandfather did. The meat is ground on the premises, patties are hand-formed and the ingredients (mayo, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion cheese and green chile) are unfailingly fresh. On a double meat burger, the succulent meat and melted cheese bulge out beyond the buns. The meat positively breaks apart (the consequences of not using filler and an optimum fat to lean ratio) and its juices make consuming one a lip-smacking, multi-napkin affair.

The green chile is as near to green chile nirvana as you’ll find on any burger in New Mexico. Non-natives might find it a bit hot, but locals think it’s just right. Ironically, it’s not green chile grown within easy walking distance in San Antonio’s famous Sichler Farms, but a special blend of chile from the Albuquerque Tortilla Company. The reason given is that the Albuquerque Tortilla Company’s Chile is already roasted, peeled, chopped and sealed for freshness. Somehow it makes sense.

Double meat, double cheese green chile cheeseburger, one of the very best in New Mexico (ergo, the universe)

Another Owl tradition you can’t help but notice is all the dollar bills tacked on the restaurant’s walls. Patrons leave messages or write their names on dollar bills then tack them on any available free space. Once a year, the money is collected and given to charity with more than $20,000 donated thus far.

On an average summer day, the Owl Cafe will serve an average of six to seven hundred burgers. The population of San Antonio rivals that of a larger city during lunch and dinner hours when the Owl’s several parking lots are overflowing with hungry diners. The front dining room will accommodate only a few of them. Fortunately the restaurant has several dining rooms; you’ve got to go through one to get to another.

What the Owl Cafe does with all the dollar bills tacked to its walls

What the Owl Cafe does with all the dollar bills tacked to its walls

In 2003, Jane and Michael Stern, rated the Owl Cafe’s green chile cheeseburger on Epicurious.Com as one of the top ten burgers in America–lavish praise indeed for one of New Mexico’s historic gems. It has garnered similar acclaim by other notable critics, having transcended the generations by sticking to a time-tested formula of providing great food at reasonable prices. Disputably there may be better green chile cheeseburgers out there, but there are none more famous.

For more than a quarter century, award-winning journalist Charles Kuralt hit the road on a motor home, crisscrossing the fruited plains where waving fields of wheat passed in review and snow-capped mountains reached for cobalt colored skies. Kuralt loved the cuisine of the Land of Enchantment. In his book America, he declared the Own Cafe in San Antonio, New Mexico “one of the best food tips” he’d ever gotten.

The hamburger steak dinner

The hamburger steak dinner

In his celebration of America’s favorite dish, filmmaker George Motz traversed the fruited plain in search of some of the country’s most unique burgers for his 54-minute film Hamburger America which made it to the airwaves in 2004. In 2008, he followed up his award-winning documentary with a state-by-state tome listing what he considers the best burgers throughout the fruited plain. Motz loved The Owl calling it “a friendly place, a family saloon with an excellent burger on the menu.”

The menu isn’t limited to burgers. Savvy diners will order the hamburger steak dinner, a bounteous platter that will fill you up for just over ten dollars. This platter includes a juicy hamburger patty (no charring anywhere), a small mountain of hand-cut French fries, a salad with your choice of dressing (including a pretty good blue cheese dressing), Texas toast and bowls of green chile and beans. Make sure you get the grilled onions atop that hamburger steak. It’s an unbeatable combination.

A bowl of green chile and a bowl of beans--sheer pleasure!

A bowl of green chile and a bowl of beans–sheer pleasure!

The other “must have” in addition to an outstanding green chile cheeseburger is a bowl or side of beans with green chile. The aroma of steaming green chile wafts through the dining room as your waitress approaches and you’re the envy of any diner who may not have ordered this favorite of New Mexican comfort foods. The beans are frijoles, whole pinto beans, not refried or black beans you’ll find elsewhere. Ironically, as proud of New Mexicans are to claim green chile as our official state vegetable, we’re often hesitant to admit frijoles share official state honors with green chile. The frijoles at the Owl Cafe will remind you why real New Mexicans love and are proud of their precious pintos.

The Owl Cafe has several other menu items, but rarely do you see anyone foolhardy enough to order say, a hot dog or nachos. It is entirely forgivable, however, to order a patty melt (pictured below), one of the very best of its kind anywhere. One of the reasons this patty melt is oh, so good is obvious. The same wondrous beef patty used on the Owl’s world-famous green chile cheeseburgers is used to create this pulchritudinous patty melt. Two slices of American cheese drape over grilled sweet onions complete the masterpiece sandwiched between two slices of light rye. It’s a fantastic alternative to green chile cheeseburgers.

Patty melt at the Owl Cafe

7 March 2017:  The Owl’s French fries are terrific.  They’re not the homogeneous, flavorless out-of-a-bag travesty, but are hand-cut and fried to a golden-brownish hue.  Texturally, they’re about as perfect as fries can get.  They’re crispy and firm on the outside and light and fluffy on the inside.  Don’t ever make the mistake of ordering these fries with cheese.  Conceptually cheese fries might sound like a good idea, but when the cheese is the gloppy out-of-a-can variety (typically found in ballpark nachos), it’s just blanketing very good fries with cheese glop that’s not worthy to be on the same plate.

Skip the dessert at the Owl and head next door to the San Antonio General Store where Anne Lund serves some of the very best homemade fudge anywhere as well as ice cream (Dreyers), drinks, snacks and sandwiches. Lund actually bought the General Store from Rowena Baca’s daughter and spent about a year perfecting the wonderful fudge (which is made with real butter and cream). Perfect is the operative word for fudge in which you can taste the quality and a whole lot of love from a confectionery artist. 

Chile Cheese Fries

The Owl Cafe is open Monday through Saturday from 8AM to 9PM and is closed on Sundays.

The Owl Cafe & Bar
State Hwy. 1 and U.S. 380
San Antonio, New Mexico
(575) 835-9946
Facebook Page

LATEST VISIT: 7 March 2017
# OF VISITS: 7
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger; French Fries, Beans and Green Chile, Hamburger Steak Dinner, Patty Melt

Owl Bar & Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Rex’s Hamburgers – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Rex’s Hamburgers, An Albuquerque Institution

From 1988 through 2005, Rex’s Hamburgers stood practically alone in offering Duke City consumers an alternative to the homogeneous gobble-and-go offerings of deep-pocketed fast-food chains like McDonald’s, Burger King and Wendy’s. Rex’s earned and retained the hearts of Albuquerque diners for nearly 20 years. During its halcyon days, it garnered the long defunct’s Abq magazine’s “Best of Albuquerque” honors for several consecutive years.

The reason Duke City patrons were so loyal to Rex’s was because Rex’s was at the diametric extreme opposite of the chain restaurants. Whether ensconced in a strip mall or housed in a single tenant edifice, Rex’s offered real sit-down service at a relaxed and reasonable pace. Moreover, it served hamburgers the way they are intended to be prepared.  That means they started with real meat, never frozen, formed into a ball and flattened on the griddle with a spatula then allowed to cook slowly to retain the beef’s natural juiciness. Unlike at the Golden Arches, you never had to wonder what filler was used in Rex’s all-beef patty. It was always 85 percent lean and 15 percent fat, the time-tested optimum balance for optimum flavor. It was always served hot and with only the freshest of ingredients.

A double-meat green chile cheeseburger, one of the best in town

When Rex’s closed the last of its restaurants in 2005, the Duke City should have flown the city flag at half mast. Rex’s was one of the last of the independents, a true locally owned and operated mom-and-pop restaurant. The brainchild of Rex Thompson and his family, Rex’s had carved a niche in the burger market and a spot in the heart of discerning Duke City diners. As of the summer of 2008, our period of mourning can now cease. Rex’s is back, initially with a new moniker–Bubsters The Original Rex Burger Grill–but later to embrace its roots as Rex’s Hamburgers.

Also back are some of the recognized Rex’s touches–the golden oldies piped through the restaurant’s sound system, the familiar turquoise and mauve paint, posters of 50s icons and walls dedicated to the University of New Mexico Lobos.  Rex’s is located at the former site of the 505 Southwestern which operated a chile factory and restaurant at the site for years. The space is cavernous with the front portion of the restaurant providing comfortable seating and the back part dedicated to video gaming.  Even the way you order is familiar. A large menu showcasing all that Rex’s has to offer backdrops the counter at which you place your order. Take your seat and within minutes, a tray of deliciousness is bound for your table.

Rex’s famous onion rings

The menu includes all the Rex’s favorites which means not only hamburgers, but sandwiches, hot dogs, tacos, burritos, green chile stew and for the Texans among us, even chili con carne. Sandwich and burger platters include an order of french fries, an onion ring and Rex’s familiar applesauce. You can substitute onion rings for the fries if you’re so inclined.  The burger platters are a bit steeper in price today than they were when Rex’s cornered the sit-down burger market, but then, so is everything else. Besides, what’s a few extra cents when you’re talking freshness and burgers done right–when we’re talking Rex’s reborn!

The burgers are still adulation worthy with perfectly seasoned beef served to your exacting specifications. At medium with just a hint of pink, they are absolutely delicious. The double-meat burgers are still two-fisted behemoths bursting with flavor and moistness. These are still three or four napkin burgers replete with the great ingredients for which Rex’s was always known. The green chile actually registers on the piquancy scale and it’s got a nice, fresh-roasted flavor.  With a more piquant chile, it might be one of the two or three best green chile cheeseburgers in the metropolitan area instead of being merely among the top five or six.

Two tacos

There is one item for which Rex’s is nonpareil and that’s chocolate milkshakes.  Made with Dreyer’s premium ice cream and served bone-chilling cold, the chocolate milk is very chocolatey.  It’s an adult chocolate not something which will decay your teeth on the spot.  Other shake flavors include vanilla, strawberry, Oreo, cherry and we’ve even had a Caramel shake there once.

10 October 2015: Should you ever succeed in prying yourself from ordering one of Rex’s addictive green chile cheeseburgers, a phalanx of alternatives are available.  The “Southwestern” menu, for example, includes such New Mexican favorites as tacos, burritos, chile cheese fries, Frito pie, green chile stew and red chile with beans.  Burritos are engorged with your choice of beans, beef or both and topped with your choice of red or green chile.  As is often the case, many diners opt for “Christmas” style with both red and green adorning the burrito.  A combination burrito platter includes French fries, lettuce and tomato.  The seasoned fries are crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside.  The shredded cheese blanketed burrito is quite good with both red and green shining.

Burrito Platter

On Sunday, February 6, 2017, The Travel Channel aired a program showcasing some of the best fair foods in the nation for its Food Paradise series. The Land of Enchantment has hosted a fair since 1881–32 years before becoming a state. A mainstay for nearly five decades has been Rex’s Hamburgers. Rex Thompson demonstrated for Food Paradise how to construct a bacon-wrapped deep-fried green chile cheeseburger (fresh, handmade burger, topped with green chile and American cheese, wrapped in bacon and deep-fried to a crispy, brown perfection). Rex explained that his burgers are prepared “low and slow” seasoned with only salt and pepper. Rex’s bacon-topped green chile nachos were also showcased. If you haven’t been to the New Mexico State Fair in a while, maybe it’s time to make your way back.

Whether it’s known as Rex’s or Bubsters, there’s no mistaking the quality and freshness of a great meal at an Albuquerque favorite. There’s just something better about the world with Rex’s back in town.

Rex’s Hamburgers
5555 Montgomery, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505-837-2827
Facebook Page

LATEST VISIT: 6 February 2017
1st VISIT:  28 July 2008
# OF VISITS: 9
RATING: 21
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Double Hamburger, Onion Rings, Tacos, French Fries, Apple Sauce, Chocolate Milkshake, Burrito

Bubsters - Rex's Hamburgers Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

The Owl Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico

The Owl Cafe on Eubank (northern view)

Shortly before 6AM. on July 16, 1945, some of the world’s most brilliant minds ushered in the nuclear age with the detonation of the first atomic bomb, an occasion which later prompted Los Alamos Laboratory head J. Robert Oppenheimer to declare “Now I am become death, the destroyer of worlds.”  The transformative event occurred in a dry, desolate locale approximately 35 miles from bucolic San Antonio, New Mexico, the gateway to the Bosque del Apache National Wildlife Refuge.  The scientists who developed the top-secret bomb had been staying nearby in cabins rented from J.E. Miera, proprietor of Miera’s Owl Bar and Cafe. 

Posing as “prospectors,” the scientists frequented Miera’s for enthusiastic card games, cold beer and grilled cheeseburgers. In time, Miera’s son Frank Chavez, began adorning the burgers with fiery-hot diced green chile, unwittingly inventing  what is now a sacrosanct New Mexico icon, the green chile cheeseburger.  Despite what other claimants may say, San Antonio’s Owl Cafe is the progenitor to what James Beard Award-winning writer (and former restaurant reviewer for The Alibi) Jason Sheehan described in 2011 as “America’s best cheeseburger.”  The green chile cheeseburger is all that and so much more.

Albuquerque’s most famous anthropomorphic restaurant (view from the south)

In the 1980s, Albuquerque entrepreneur Ski Martin purchased the franchise rights to the original Owl Cafe and in 1986 launched Albuquerque’s first Owl Cafe on Eubank just a couple blocks north of Interstate 40.  With an upscale urban 50s ambiance and an anthropomorphic architecture featuring garish neon pink and turquoise lights, this metropolitan version has a much more expansive menu than the original restaurant, featuring several other sandwiches, some comfort food entrees and several New Mexican entrees.  A complementary bowl of beans with San Antonio green chile (albeit spelled “chili”) after you’re seated is one of the highlights of dining at this Owl.  A dessert display case may just have you wanting to lick the glass.

The one thing that might detract from giving your burger the full attention and adulation it deserves is the boisterous and  crowded ambiance of the Eubank location.  Throngs of hungry diners queue up for one of the booths in the elongated diner-style restaurant; less fortunate patrons (and children who want to spin around in them) are seated on the disc-shaped bar stools at the restaurant’s center.  A 1950s style juke box (for Millennials, this is a coin-operated, partially automated music playing device that plays selected songs from a self-contained media) playing songs from bygone eras plays almost continuously.  Smaller tableside jukeboxes are also available if you want the music closer to you.

The diner-like ambiance of the Owl Cafe

Cheers went up when in 2004,  Martin partnered with Frank Marcello (partner in other Albuquerque restaurant ventures such as Copeland’s and Zea’s and founder of the eponymous Marcello’s Chophouse) to launch Albuquerque’s second Owl Cafe in the Shops at I-25.  In 2005, a third Owl Cafe opened on the West side (10131 Coors Blvd) where great burgers were (and still are) direly lacking. Alas, both satellites closed within two years.  Twenty years after its launch, Albuquerque’s sole remaining Owl Cafe is still going strong.  In April, 2016, it was featured on an episode of the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods: Delicious Destinations.

Despite the more extensive menu offerings at the Eubank based Owl Cafe, the green chile cheeseburger is still the biggest attraction–and for good reason.  The meat is ground on the premises, patties are hand-formed and the ingredients (mayo, lettuce, tomato, pickles, onion cheese and the world famous San Antonio green chile) are absolutely fresh.  Ski Martin and his team of cooks prepare each and every burger the same way he learned to prepare them at the San Antonio parent restaurant.

Beans with Green Chile

On a double meat burger, the succulent meat and melted cheese bulge out beyond the buns.  The meat positively breaks apart (a telltale sign that filler isn’t used) and its juices make consuming one a lip-smacking, multi-napkin affair.  On occasion, the green chile is as near to green chile nirvana as you’ll find on any burger in New Mexico.  Non-natives might find it a bit hot, but locals think it’s just right.  At other times, the green chile is barely noticeable and wouldn’t pose a bit of a threat to someone from, say, Mississippi.  Maybe that’s what happens when you commit the cardinal offense of spelling it “chili.”

In 2009, the Owl Cafe (irrespective of location) was selected for inclusion into the New Mexico Department of Tourism’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, a listing of the Land of Enchantment’s most outstanding green chile cheeseburger restaurants, drive-ins, diners, dives, joints, cafes, roadside stands and bowling alleys.  Though the green chile cheeseburger is ubiquitous throughout New Mexico, only 48 green chile cheeseburgers made it to this list.  The Owl was a repeat listing on the 2011 version of the Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail.   My friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate, rates the green chile cheeseburger at Albuquerque’s Owl as the fourth best in the Land of Enchantment.

Double Meat Green Chile Cheeseburger

While the dissolution of the marital institution seems to become more prevalent every year, there’s one marriage that has and probably will withstand the ravages of time–that’s the culinary union of the burger and French fries. The Owl Cafe serves fresh-cut French fries that are among the very best in the city.  Well salted and served with either red or green chile, these fries are fantastic.  Like many good fries, the potatoes aren’t peeled.  Perhaps even better are the sweet potato fries though you might just utter “fries be damned” if you opt for onion rings instead.  These thin-sliced, lightly coated rings are the antithesis of the overly breaded out-of-the-bag variety you’ll find at most restaurants.  The rings are served with a somewhat anemic horseradish sauce which could use more punch.

To make it a terrific triumvirate, order one of the Owl’s old-fashioned milk shakes or malts, both of which are thick, delicious and served cold.   Favorite flavors include chocolate, pineapple, strawberry, Oreo, vanilla and butterscotch. Malts and shakes are made with real hand-dipped ice cream and whole milk and are mixed in a tin, the way they were made in the 50s. They’re then served in a shake glass with the tin on the side, much like getting a shake and a half.  No 50s era diner would be complete without phosphates and egg creams and the Owl makes these well.

Onion Rings

The New Mexican food menu includes many popular favorites including enchiladas, a combination plate, quesadillas and carne adovada (unfortunately made with cumin).  Mom’s favorite quesadilla is one of the very best of its genre in town.  Sandwiched between two grilled tortillas sliced pizza style are refried beans, two types of melted Cheddar cheese, bacon and green chile.  The refried beans are terrific with a smoky aftertaste perhaps ameliorated by the crisp bacon.  The quesadilla is served with plastic tubs of guacamole, salsa and sour cream.

The dessert case usually includes several pies–apple, blueberry, peach and pecan, for example.  These pies taste better than they look.  One of the things which makes them special is a thin, crispy and buttery crust.  The other is the fruit fillings–real fruit, not the gelatinous, over-sweetened gunk.  The blueberry actually tastes like blueberry.  The pies are best served warm and topped with two scoops of vanilla ice cream.

Albuquerque Melt

22 May 2016: The sandwich menu includes all the “usual suspects” found at most self-respecting cafes and diners.  You’ll find grilled cheese done three different ways, club sandwiches, French dip, Reubens and even a cold meatloaf sandwich.  You’ll also find a classic patty melt and a chile-infused variation called the Albuquerque Melt (Swiss cheese, grilled onions and green chili on grilled rye).  New Mexicans know that green chile improves nearly every dish to which it is added, including several desserts.  You may not ever again want a patty melt sans green chile.  That’s how significant the improvement is.  It also helps that The Owl’s beef patties are perfectly seasoned, generously proportioned and prepared to a medium-well deliciousness.  The light rye bread lets bolder flavors shine–flavors such as the sweet, caramelized onions and the mild meltedness of the Swiss cheese.

22 May 2016: Hawaii’s contribution to America’s burgeoning hot dog culture is the Puka Dog (puka, in this case, having nothing to do with the hipster beads worn in the 70s).  Larry will be heartened to hear the puka dog does not include spam.   It does involve a hunk of sweet bread being impaled on a heated rod, effectively toasting it on the inside while leaving the outside soft.  The resultant hot dog shaped hole is filled with a grilled hot dog and a fruit relish (mango, pineapple, papaya, coconut and banana for example).   The Owl Cafe’s  Hawaiian Dog is loosely patterned on the puka dog.  Nestled into a more conventional toasted hot dog bun is a split hot dog topped with a mango-pineapple salsa.  It’s not always a given that “salsa” implies piquant.  This salsa is dessert sweet, contrasting the salty smokiness of the hot dog.  It’s a combination not everyone will appreciate, but one no diner should dismiss without trying.

Hawaiian Dog

The most adamant detractors (you know the type–averse to change of any kind even though their last visit to the San Antonio Owl was decades ago) contend this Northeast Heights restaurant probably shouldn’t even bear the name of the original classic.  Me, I think The Owl is very competitive in an increasingly better burger market.  When its chile is hot, the Owl rocks!

The Owl Cafe
800 Eubank, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505)291-4900
Web Site | Facebook Page

LATEST VISIT: 22 May 2016
# OF VISITS: 11
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chili Cheeseburger; French Fries; Chocolate Shake; Beans; Blueberry Pie ala mode; Mom’s Favorite Quesadilla; Albuquerque Melt; Onion Rings; Sweet Potato Fries; Hawaiian Dog

Owl Cafe Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

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
Web Site | Facebook Page
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 Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

Pepper Pot – Hatch, New Mexico

The Pepper Pot serves Mexican and American food

You might expect that a village renowned as the “chile capital of the world” could also boast of restaurants which showcase chile of such high quality that they would be veritable Meccas to which diners from throughout the state would pilgrimage.  With a population of 1,648 (as of the 2010 census), Hatch has fewer than ten restaurants, many of which do indeed seem to draw nearly as many visitors from outside of Hatch as they do local residents and most of which do indeed showcase red and green chile.  For New Mexican food, the one restaurant which most locals name as their very favorite is the Pepper Pot.

Located in a converted residence, the Pepper Pot still resembles a family home, the give-away that it’s a business being prominent signage on a concrete plant stand.  Homey exterior implements such as an old-fashioned push mower and a miniature John Deere tractor adorn the lawn.  When you step into the restaurant and seat yourself in one of the dining room’s sixteen tables, you might notice that the ambiance is laden with Catholic symbols.  Even the flowers painted above the arched doorways resemble the roses on Juan Diego’s tilma.  A bulletin board recounts the great Hatch flood of 2006.

The Pepper Pot restaurant in Hatch, New Mexico, the chile capital of the world

What is conspicuously absent is any mention or memorabilia of arguably the restaurant’s most famous visitor.  In August, 2008, the Travel Channel’s indefatigable host Anthony Bourdain dined at the Pepper Pot during a filming of his No Reservations show.  His dining companions were Judd Nordyke (mayor of Hatch) and his lovely better half Marcia (coordinator of the Hatch Chile Festival) who schooled Bourdain on the fine points of red and green chile.  Bourdain declared Pepper Pot’s enchiladas “the best red enchiladas of his life.”

My friend and fellow gastronome Ruben Hendrickson was even more effusive about the red chile at the Pepper Pot, a chile he compared favorably to the sublime red chile at Mary & Tito’s in Albuquerque (a chile sourced from the Delgado Farms in Hatch).  He praised its lack of residual bitterness so prevalent in many red chiles and boasted of its smooth, earthy flavor.  Ruben is a realist, however, and is quite familiar with Murphy’s Law which posits that the more you brag about a restaurant, the more it will disappoint when you take guests with you.  Ruben and I visited on September 11, 2012, scant days after the Hatch Chile Festival.

One of the dining rooms at the Pepper Pot restaurant on a Tuesday lunch hour

As we perused the menu, we were surprised at how quiet the restaurant was. Conversations were in low, hushed tones.  Churches are more boisterous.  We theorized that the food is so good, it deserves the diners’ rapt attention.  The dining room was more than half full with a mix of locals and wide-eyed visitors.  The telltale sign that local farmers were also dining at the Pepper Pot was the long-sleeved (on an 85-degree day) shirts and hats they wore.  We surmised there were at least a few chile-heads in the premises, too.

The Pepper Pot is owned and operated by sisters Melva Aguirre and Rosaria Varela who prepare all dishes from scratch.  Their restaurant is open only for breakfast and lunch.  Their chile is obtained locally from the Lytle family, generations of which have farmed in the Hatch Valley since the late 1800s.  Jim Lytle, the patriarch of the family, developed the fabled Big Jim chile pepper which is featured prominently on Pepper Pot’s cuisine.

Salsa and chips

As you peruse the menu–a two-page compendium of New Mexican food with some American favorites (mostly burgers, salads and sandwiches) interspersed–a basket of chips and bowl of salsa will be delivered gratis.  The salsa is chunky and fresh, a mix of tomatoes, onions and jalapeños with a hint of cilantro.  It’s not an especially piquant salsa, but has a very nice flavor.  The chips, definitely not uniform in size, appear to be housemade from corn tortilla shells.

Enchiladas are available with your choice of  cheese or ground beef.  The cheese enchiladas are engorged with two cheeses and topped with even more cheese, resulting in a melting, molten mess of yellow and white deliciousness.  Add an fried egg over easy and you’ll have an even more beauteous runny mess.  Then there’s the red and green chile (you should try both).  The green chile is superb!  It’s the type of chile the Hatch Chamber of Commerce might select as an exemplar of what green chile should taste like.  It has a discernible fruitiness and a nice roasted flavor with a piquancy level of about medium.  Most plates are served with rice and beans, both of which are quite good.  The rice separates easily and isn’t clumpy as bad rice tends to be.  The beans are blanketed with a smattering of shredded cheese.

Enchiladas – Travel Network star Anthony Bourdain declared the Pepper Pot serves the best enchiladas ever!  The chile rellenos are also quite good.

Also quite good is a chile relleno.  It would have been outstanding had just a bit more attention to detail been paid in its preparation.  For example, the skin wasn’t completely peeled, resulting in the annoying texture of chile skin in your mouth.  The rellenos are moderately battered and are easy to cut into with a fork, a sign they’re well-made.  The chile envelope isn’t especially piquant, but the cheesy interior is bubbling hot and thoroughly delicious.

Eager to relive red chile memories of a past meal at the Pepper Pot, my friend Ruben ordered a plate of red chile with pork which also came with rice, beans and a flour tortilla.  One bite was all it took for him to discern this was not the same chile of his dreams.  It wasn’t the dreaded demon spice cumin which befouled its purity.  Instead, a surfeit of Mexican oregano was used which rendered astringent what was probably an outstanding chile.  The pork was cut into small pieces and might have been even better without chile (that chile, anyway).  My experiences with the red chile on my enchilada plate were similar to Ruben’s.  Thankfully I had green chile to fall back on.

Red chile with pork, beans, rice and a flour tortilla

On the strength of its green chile alone, the Pepper Pot Restaurant should be considered one of Southern New Mexico’s very best dining options.  It’s a restaurant worthy of being the local’s favorite for New Mexican food in the world’s chile capital.

Pepper Pot
207 West Hall Street
Hatch, New Mexico
(575) 267-3822
LATEST VISIT: 11 September 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: *
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Enchiladas (Christmas Style), Red Chile with Pork, Chile Relleno, Salsa and Chips

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