El Bruno – Cuba, New Mexico

El Bruno in Cuba, New Mexico

Fool that I am, after my first visit to El Bruno’s in 1997, I spent half an hour pondering how best to describe the restaurant in alliterative prose–adobe abode of amazing adovada, beguiling bastion of bountiful burritos, captivating citadel of chile con queso, earthen edifice of enchanting enchiladas–and while El Bruno is all of those and so much more, a simplified yet wholly accurate description would be “one of the five or six best New Mexican restaurants in the state.”

El Bruno’s is almost equidistant between Albuquerque and Farmington, about 75 miles away from each. The drive is spectacular with a preponderance of scenic vistas and an unbelievable, multi-hued topography that includes hulking hoodoos (columns or pillars of bizarre shape caused by differential erosion on rocks of different hardness) and the nipple shaped Cabezon Peak, a dramatic 7,785 foot volcanic formation. The vistas, and especially the stratification of multi-hued earthen layers, may remind you of colorful Navajo sand paintings.

El Bruno (Courtesy of Sarah Rose)

El Bruno (Courtesy of Sarah Rose)

El Bruno’s is also an excellent stopping point on the way to Chaco Canyon and indeed, on one memorable visit to the epicenter of the Anasazi’s world, we had lunch on the way to Chaco and dinner on the way back. Just as Chaco Canyon is steeped in legend, El Bruno’s has culled a legendary reputation of its own. In 2000, El Bruno’s garnered recognition for crafting a Guinness World Record largest burrito, tipping the scales at over 4,300 pounds.

La Virgen de Guadalupe at the gate to the courtyard

While portions at El Bruno’s tend to be prodigious, most diners aren’t out to set records–unless it’s for most enjoyment in one meal. The menu is replete with New Mexican favorites, all of which exemplify the highest standards of the genre.  The recipes come from Hazel Herrera’s family.  Hazel and her husband Bruno (for whom the restaurant is named) have been capturing hearts and taste buds since 1975.

On June 5, 2006, El Bruno was consumed by a fire which destroyed one of the very best New Mexican restaurants in northern New Mexico. El Bruno’s re-opened in early October, 2006, albeit in a smaller location directly across from the original restaurant.  What was once a Frostee-Freeze restaurant and an old house next door was transformed over a period of two years into what is now a spacious restaurant with all the charm of its predecessor.

A mural on the west side of the restaurant

The remnants of the Frostee-Freeze are apparent only from the restaurant’s western frontage.  What was once a relatively small fast-food drive-in is now so seamlessly connected to the sprawling edifice which houses the restaurant that you might think the connection has always been in place.  The Frostee-Freeze portion of the complex now houses the restaurant’s kitchen where Hazel’s recipes are crafted.

As with its predecessor, the rebuilt El Bruno’s parking lot is expansive.  It has to be to accommodate all the hungry patrons, many of whom drive more than an hour just for lunch and dinner.  The exterior west wall includes a colorful mural of a New Mexican woman carrying a basket brimming with green, red and yellow chile peppers while other field hands harvest New Mexico’s official state vegetable from fecund and verdant fields.

The entrance to El Bruno’s is through a wooden bell gate into an expansive courtyard.  A large Spanish bell is poised above the gate as if to call in hungry patrons to a meal with its timbre and tintinnabulation.  On the wooden gate is carved the Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of the Americas.  To many New Mexicans there is no truer manifestation of welcome.

Chips and salsa at El Bruno's

Not surprisingly, the restaurant’s interior ambience is superb (although what can truly compare to the unrivaled scenery on the way to Cuba). Being surrounded by the enrapturing art of Taos artist Miguel Martinez (renown for painting beauteous women with almond-shaped eyes) as well as by charming antiques makes it an attractive milieu for any meal.  A canopy of huge vigas overhead and earthen-hued tones add to the New Mexican ambience.

El Bruno’s salsa is splendiferous, a magnificent medley of rich, red tomatoes and piquant green chile. While the salsa is superb and you’ll be tempted to consume several bowlfuls, limit yourself to one then order the restaurant’s signature chile con queso. Not only is the creamy chile con queso some of the best you’ve probably ever had, it’s served with crispy tostadas (fried flour tortillas) instead of chips. The queso is enlivened with green chile that bites back.  There’s green chile in every chip.

Chile con Queso--perhaps the very best in New Mexico!

The restaurant is renown for serving some of, if not THE best carnitas in New Mexico. Celebrated among patrons who have sampled these cubed carnivore’s delights, the carnitas are available in two dinner combinations: the poetic sounding carnitas con papitas and the carnitas a la Mex which come with rolled enchiladas, refried beans and homemade tortillas, all of which are wonderful.

What makes these carnitas incomparable is the quality of the sirloin (yes, sirloin, not pork as seems to be the case with most carnitas) which has the charbroiled taste of an outstanding steak. The papitas are silver dollar sized, dusted with fiery red chile and on par with those served at Sadie’s in Albuquerque (meaning they’re the best).

At many New Mexican restaurants when an entree includes a side of, but does not feature, enchiladas, the enchiladas are like an after-thought, generally not very good.  That’s not the case at El Bruno.  While carnitas may be the starring attraction of the aforementioned Carnitas a la Mex (pictured below), the enchiladas are main entree quality.  They are engorged with cheese and topped with your choice of red, green or Christmas style chile.  The beans and rice are topped with melted yellow and white Cheddar.  Garnish includes not only the perfunctory lettuce, but large sprigs of parsley (which has wonderful flavor ameliorating qualities and should not be solely relegated to plate decoration).

Carnitas a la Mex

Another entree for which El Bruno is renown is carne adovada, the incomparable dish of cubed and shredded pork which is marinated and simmered for hours in chile.  At El Bruno’s the carne adovada is among the most flavorful and tender of any in the state.  Its piquancy level is about medium and Mexican oregano is also discernible in its composition.  It arrives at your table steaming hot and just beckoning for you to try.

At El Bruno’s, the sopaipillas are to die for–whether you partake of these puffy treats as a delicious dessert with honey (real honey, not that honey flavored syrup inferior restaurants use) or as an incomparable entree, stuffed with chicken or beef and garnished with beans, cheese, chile, lettuce and tomato.

El Bruno's gigantic sopaipillas

In the July, 2010 edition of New Mexico Magazine, the magazine’s brilliant King of the Road Lesley King chronicled her visit to Cuba, New Mexico, a visit highlighted by her meal at El Bruno.  Her video can be viewed here.  Both her story and video are enthralling.

Eating at El Bruno’s is enchanting dining at its best.

EL BRUNO
Highway 44
Cuba, NM
289-9429

LATEST VISIT: 24 November 2008
# OF VISITS: 8
RATING: 23
COST: $$
BEST BET:Carnitas, Salsa, Papitas, Con Queso, Enchiladas, Stuffed Sopaipillas

El Bruno's Restaurante on Urbanspoon

Taos Pizza Out Back – Taos, New Mexico

Taos Pizza Out Back

“Come to Me, all who are weary and heavy-laden, and I will give you rest.” – Matthew 11:28

It’s unlikely the Taos Chamber of Commerce ever used that New Testament passage to lure visitors to Taos, but it would have made an excellent tourism slogan.  Taos, New Mexico seems to have a mollifying effect on weary souls.  It has been easing burdens and removing the yoke of the heavily laden for more than a millennium.

Taos calls its visitors to spiritual odysseys, to commune with incomparable beauty and serenity, to imbibe the exotic melting pot of cultures.  It has inspired dazzling creativity and intoxicated legendary artists such as D.H. Lawrence, Georgia O’Keefe, Mabel Dodge Luhan and Willa Cather.

Some have, in fact, described Taos as being more a state of mind than it is a location.  That state of mind would be a little unconventional–relaxed and informal with a “live and let live” element.  It’s that element which has made Taos a haven for counter-culture, an accepting habitat for hippies.  Taos does not follow the normal rules of society.  It is Bohemian in every respect.

An unconventional Greek salad

You’ll experience that Bohemian spirit as you turn off Paseo del Pueblo onto a gravel driveway and past a converted home to the restaurant out back, the back of the property, that is.  The restaurant looks like something out of one of the old hippie communes prevalent throughout Taos county in the 1960s.  Exterior construction is reminiscent of a converted simple wooden shed.  There is no gaudy signage or flashing artifice to greet you.  Tables and chairs are strewn throughout the yard as if the remnant of a drunken party or, more likely, a typical New Mexico wind.  Vintage metal signage for A&W and other period piece advertising is tacked onto the wooden fencing.  There are several 1940s style gasoline pumps on the grounds.

Step inside on a cold winter day and the heat of a gas log fireplace envelops you like a warm hug.  Seating in the front room is limited, but the large picture window makes it a preferred venue.  Seating is also limited in the main dining room where a view to the open kitchen is available.  Showcased behind a glass display case are some of the most scrumptious looking pastries you’ll ever glimpse.  The restroom walls and the restaurant’s tables are lined with butcher paper and crayons are provided perhaps to inspire a new generation of Taos artists.  The atmosphere shouts fun.

The wait staff, a mix of local students and Bohemian twenty-somethings, is as friendly and accommodating as possible.  Best of all, they don’t hover over you impatiently.  Order at your leisure.  It’s going to take some time to figure out what you want from among all the intriguing choices (in fact, the menu’s top banner reads “delicious decisions….decisions….decisions….decisions (you get the point).  Ask other diners and they’ll confirm that everything is good.

The Southwest pizza (no sauce)

There’s a lot more on the menu than the name on the marquee (if the restaurant had one).  In addition to customized (you choose the toppings) and specialty pizzas, you can choose from a selection of calzones, pasta dishes, soups and salads.  The salads feature a homemade basil-parmesan vinaigrette dressing that is simply amazing, easily one of the best salad dressings we’ve had in the Land of Enchantment.  If it’s been a long time since you’ve been excited by salad dressing, it’s a guarantee this one will change that with your first taste.  You get two small cream pitchers full of the stuff with each large salad.

The “basic salad” comes with a selection of organic greens (from a local greenhouse), julienned carrots, red cabbage, alfalfa sprouts and purple onion. Order a Greek salad and added to the aforementioned plentitude are feta cheese, Greek olives and pepperonici.

The Greek salad is a welcome departure from most we’ve had in New Mexico (which tend to be an uninspired mix of iceberg lettuce, feta cheese, tomatoes, feta cheese drenched in olive oil).  It’s a Greek salad several orders of magnitude more creative and better than perhaps any other in New Mexico with a melange of fresh and delicious ingredients.  Two small slices of focaccia come with each large salad.  The focaccia is a precursor to just how good the pizza is.

A slice of pizza

If it is pizza you’ve come for, the Taos Pizza Out Back’s pizzaioli artisans toss a mean pie, maybe the best in the state.  The pizza starts with a perfect canvas of organic flour pressed into a thicker than thin sheet of deliciousness.  The edges are braided and seasoned then topped with toasted sesame seeds.  Cheeses are tucked nattily under the breaded edges, a true stuffed crust pizza (eat your heart out Pizza Hut).

Customizing a pizza is an adventure in creativity.  Gourmet toppings include anchovies, artichoke hearts, fresh basil pesto, capers, smoked salmon, toasted walnuts and so much more, but why craft your own pizza when the Outback’s specialty pizzas are time-tested and certified “best in Taos” every year since 1999.

One of the best pizzas we’ve ever had in New Mexico (or anywhere else for that matter) comes from that awesome assemblage of specialty pizzas.  It’s the Southwest pizza, a masterpiece of basil pesto, Feta cheese, green chile, smoked Cheddar, roasted garlic and tomato.  Perhaps conspicuous by their absence are tomato sauce and mozzarella.  There are several pizzas with no tomato sauce, but you won’t miss it when the alternatives are basil pesto or honey chipotle chile sauce. There’s even a true white pizza with no sauce whatsoever.  The menu also includes several vegetarian friendly pizzas.

Smoked Cheddar and Feta cheese make for a bold departure from mozzarella.  It goes without saying that Smoked Cheddar has a smoky taste, but the cold smoke seems to impart a bit of sweetness without diminishing the sharp flavor.  Feta just makes everything better.  The texture of the crust is unique, more bread-like than chewy and those sesame seeds are just terrific.

Cannoli

Not surprisingly desserts are fabulous, and as if you don’t pile on enough calories with the pizza, decadent and rich.  The cannoli, for example, isn’t just a fried pastry tube stuffed with a creamy Ricotta filling.  These are topped with homemade whipped cream, chocolate sprinkles and chocolate sauce.  Each bite is an adventure in sinful bliss.

The Taos Pizza Out Back has been pleasing pizza loving palates since 1999. It was originally called Outback Pizza, years before some lousy “Australian” steakhouse, but was sued for trademark infringement and changed its name. By any name, it would be fun and funky, brash and Bohemian. It would be truly Taos.

Taos Pizza Out Back
712 Paseo del Norte
Taos, New Mexico
(575) 758-3112
LATEST VISIT: 15 November 2008
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Greek Salad, The Southwest Pizza, Cannoli

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The Chili Stop – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

The Chili Stop knows its chile

The Chili Stop knows its chile

NOTE:  On November 15th, 2008, Ron Chavez sold the Chili Stop a mere four months after making green chile a religious experience.  I have not visited the Chili Stop since it changed hands and have heard mixed opinions on the Chili Stop post Ron.  I will update this review after my next visit.

Over the years it’s been my experience that almost invariably, New Mexican restaurants which violate traditional New Mexican grammar don’t prepare the object of their grammatical faux pas very well.  The grammatical transgression of which I speak is forgetting the “i” before “e” rule and committing the piquant peccadillo of spelling New Mexico’s official state vegetable with two “i’s” and no “e’s.”

It’s entirely forgivable that chile is technically a fruit, albeit one which packs an incendiary capsaicin punch, but like many New Mexicans, I feel personally insulted when presented with a menu offering “chili.”

That abhorrent spelling brings to mind something long-time New Mexico senator Pete Dominici supposedly once said on the Congressional record. Not one to mince words, “Saint Pete” is credited with saying “chili” is “that inedible mixture of watery tomato soup, dried gristle, half-cooked kidney beans, and a myriad of silly ingredients that is passed off as food in Texas and Oklahoma.

When Dale, a faithful reader of my Web site suggested I try The Chili Stop for a “great green chile cheeseburger,” my initial reaction was to question the authenticity of the product based solely on the spelling on the marquee. My preconception was cemented by the fact that the Chili Stop occupies the western side of the edifice which once housed the now defunct Bombay Grill and previous to that, a Chinese restaurant. The building still more closely resembles a pagoda than a restaurant, much less one that serves New Mexican food.   There’s a saying about assuming that would be appropriate here.

Salsa and chips

Salsa and chips at the Chili Stop

The inimitable aroma of green chile wafted toward us as we approached The Chili Stop. No ordinary green chile was this. The aroma was reminiscent of green chile roasting on a comal. Only the hissing and spitting of blackening chiles was missing.

The green chile which captivated us was simmering on a stove. We didn’t need to taste it to know it would be absolutely wonderful. The aroma was enough to make our mouths water. The chile, as it turns out comes from the Deming area in Luna county, an area not nearly as famous for its chile as Hatch, more than a hundred miles away. Perhaps it should be.

The Chili Stop is owned by Ron Chavez who moved back home to Albuquerque after retiring from the Los Alamos scientific laboratories. An avuncular gentleman, Ron has absolutely no compunction about the spelling of his restaurant’s name. His brother, a retired teacher who made several trips to South America told him “chili is a vegetable and Chile is a country,” a contention backed up by several sources. I couldn’t argue. Well, I could have, but feared he wouldn’t serve me any of the amazing siren-like chile tantalizing my nostrils and teasing my taste buds. For some of Ron’s chili, I’d spell it “chilly” if he wanted. It’s that good!

Green chile

Green chile--the very best in Albuquerque, maybe New Mexico!

The Chili Stop opened in June, 2008 in the 900-square-foot area which once served as the Bombay Grill’s kitchen. It is situated in the same building as the Arte de la Mano salon and has seating for only a few patrons.  Within weeks after launching, Ron received offers to expand his business to Rio Rancho and other parts of the Duke City. Though he plans to mull over those offers, he also plans to keep his inaugural restaurant venture.  Within weeks, he was also contacted by the Food Network who had heard about his fabulous green chile.

During his years in Los Alamos, Ron opened and sold four restaurants and introduced the breakfast burrito to the city on the hill nearly 30 years ago.  The reason his business will thrive is some of the very best green chile I’ve had in years. If, like me, you’ve lamented the lack of truly outstanding green chile in Duke City restaurants, you’ll love the Chili Stop.

The secret is in the way the deliciously earthy chile is prepared. It’s simmered for hours as called for in a secret recipe that’s been in the family for more than 35 years. This is green chile that packs a punch, the way it’s supposed to. Despite the “anglicized” name, this is no gringo chile (no offense intended).  A bowl of green chile will clear your sinuses. It’s served with ground beef and can be topped with shredded cheese to cut the capsaicin bite if you wish. You can also have it with New Mexico’s other official state vegetable, frijoles.

One of the best green chile cheeseburgers in New Mexico!

One of the best green chile cheeseburgers in New Mexico!

Prop your elbows on the table and your face as close to the chile as you can because you’ll want to imbibe all the aroma and all the flavor you possibly can from the neon green chile that will captivate you. The burning sensation will generate an endorphin rush that will remind you why you fell in love with green chile in the first place.

As Dale succinctly put it, the green chile cheeseburger is great–as in maybe the “best in the Duke City area” great. It’s at least as good as the green chile cheeseburger at Perea’s Tijuana Grill & Bar in Corrales. That puts it in rarified company as one of the best green chile cheeseburgers in the universe!

This burger starts with about six ounces of hand-formed beef topped with the traditional burger standards: mustard, lettuce, pickles, tomato and of course, phenomenal green chile nestled between sesame seed buns. It is a handful of moistness–about three napkins worth–and explosive flavor.

Here’s a secret only long-time New Mexicans know–the very best green chile cheeseburgers are served not in restaurants, but in the carnivals and fairs held throughout northern New Mexico.  The Chili Stop’s green chile cheeseburger is much like those served at carnivals. It would be easy to fall into the trap of having either or both the burger and a bowl of green chile, but that would be passing up too many other terrific menu items.

Cheese enchiladas with an egg on top

Cheese enchiladas with an egg on top

One of the “not to be missed” items are cheese enchiladas with a fried egg on top. If you prefer meat enchiladas, I would still recommend ordering the cheese enchiladas because there is beef a plenty on that outstanding green chile. The enchiladas are stacked, the way they’re made in Northern New Mexico. North, south, east or west, they really are among the very best!

The salsa is fresh and piquant at about medium thickness. The chips are relatively low in salt and more than capable of scooping up large quantities of salsa–if your tongue is laced with asbestos. The salsa is almost as piquant as the green chile.

The menu also includes both soft and hard-shelled tacos as well as a Navajo taco Ron’s staff raves about.  The soft taco is engorged with ground beef, shredded cheese and your choice of red chile. The hard-shelled taco also includes lettuce and one of the small touches that’s a difference maker in my book–cheese atop the meat so it can melt NOT atop the lettuce.

The Chili Stop is open for breakfast starting at 6AM. Breakfast burritos are featured fare. Unless you request otherwise, the burritos are hand-held, a large tortilla engorged with potatoes, eggs, bacon and of course, that soon to be legendary green chile.  You can also have your breakfast burritos smothered.   Have one (or two) for breakfast with a Diet Doctor Pepper and the endorphin rush will carry you through the rest of the day.

Over the years I’ve derided the spelling “chili” and am finally ready to eat crow about it and accept the fact that it’s not the spelling that counts, but the flavor. Of course, the crow would have to be topped with some of the Chili Stop’s fabulous green chili.

The Chili Stop
3600 Highway 528
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 7 November 2008
# OF VISITS: 5
RATING: 24
COST: $
BEST BET:Salsa & Chips, Green Chili Cheeseburger, Hard Taco, Soft Taco, Green Chili, Breakfast Burrito