Antonio’s: A Taste of Mexico – Taos, New Mexico


The affable Antonio Matus

Note:  Antonio’s has reopened in Taos.  More details to follow. 

A traditional corrido from the Mexican coastal state of Veracruz recounts the story of a smiling woman with magic hands.  The kitchen is the world of Maria Chuchena and the intoxicating aromas and incomparable flavors she concocts in that world are utterly unforgettable.  With her cooking, Maria fills the world with surprises.  If corridos have sequels and characters in folk songs bear offspring, Maria Chuchena’s progeny might well be Antonio Matus, chef and owner of the eponymous Antonio’s: A Taste of Mexico in Taos, New Mexico.  Like the corrido, Antonio is from Veracruz and like Maria Chuchena, the kitchen is his world.  It is where he has been filling Taos with utterly unforgettable surprises for more than a decade.

After working in several dining establishments in the Taos area, Antonio launched his self-titled restaurant at the historic El Torreon Hacienda in El Prado, just north of Taos.  The hacienda which dates back to 1847 sits on acreage given to the Valdez family by the famous and infamous Padre Antonio José Martínez, the ecclesiastical leader of northern New Mexico whose unique style of Catholicism was in direct opposition to Archbishop Lamy, the French archbishop who reorganized the Catholic Church in the Southwest.

Antonio's, a block west of the Taos Plaza

Antonio’s, a block west of the Taos Plaza

In 2005, Antonio’s relocated to a modest, but very charming and stylish Norteno adobe hacienda in Ranchos de Taos. Its intimate and welcoming milieu accommodated about 40 patrons in the main dining room with additional seating at the bar.  Naturally distressed dark wood floors, muted yellow viga ceilings and burnt orange walls hosting folkloric murals created a memorable ambience though it was Antonio’s food which made the most lasting impression.

Antonio’s, the restaurant was to close in 2007, but Antonio, the popular chef, opened Rellenos Cafe by Antonio just southeast of the Taos Plaza.  In a maze of tiny rooms, the restaurant focused on less expensive fare including take-away offerings and even free delivery service to businesses on or near the plaza.

Rellenos Cafe wasn’t large enough to contain the flavors that needed to express themselves under Antonio’s skilled hands.  In the spring of 2009, Antonio’s reopened, this time in a historical building on Guadalupe Plaza reputed to have housed the town’s original brothel.  Stories abound about tunnels under the plaza that led from the jail to this den of iniquity.  The tunnels were rumored to have been used by local lawmen to come and go unseen.

One of the dining rooms at Antonio's

One of the dining rooms at Antonio’s

Characteristic of Antonio’s previous restaurants, his new venue is a beautiful shrine to his cuisine.  A bright, airy courtyard befitting the cool Taos evenings complements a bright and expansive restaurant with multiple dining rooms.  The color pallet is muted with walls showcasing the evocative art of Taos artist Charles Collins.  His oil paintings tend to be profoundly spiritual and have a sense of timelessness and peace.

Next door is Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, a relatively new church (circa 1961) by New Mexico Catholic church standards.  The peals of church bells resonate as if to call parishioners to mass.  The timbre of their tintinnabulation seems just part of the character and ambience at the restaurant.

Ambience not withstanding, it’s Antonio’s cuisine which is the biggest draw to his restaurant.  His menu strikes a balance between contemporary and traditional, exotic and local.  The genesis for many of his dishes is his native Veracruz, a region influenced by the convergence of cultures and the warm coastal waters of the Mexican Gulf.  The menu also features fare from the Puebla area, considered Mexico’s “cradle of corn.”

Mahi Mahi Ceviche

Mahi Mahi Ceviche

When Antonio introduced one of the dishes for which Puebla is best known, he had no idea the dish would become his restaurant’s most popular entree. Although traditionally a Christmas dish, Antonio enjoyed it year round as a child growing up in Mexico and surmised perhaps his loyal patrons might enjoy it as well. Today, his Chile Relleno en Nogada is so popular his restaurant often sells out well before closing time–much to the chagrin of hungry patrons.

You haven’t had a chile relleno unless you’ve had Antonio’s; it’s wholly unlike any chile relleno you’ve ever experienced. Antonio engorges a poblano pepper with pork, apples, pears, tomato, onion, garlic and raisins then seasons the unlikely amalgam with such spices as cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. He then smothers the entire concoction with a walnut brandy cream sauce and serves the beauteous entree with rice and beans.

It may sound like a dessert offering, but it isn’t. Unlike the fusion of sweet and savory tastes in many Asian dishes, there is a clear demarcation between tastes. There is also tremendous synergy as this sweet and savory combination works very well together. Its aroma is like cinnamon-blessed apple pie and there are hints of fruit in every mouthful, but there’s also the flavor of delicious pork. Every morsel is like an orgiastic competition within your taste buds with all 10,000 of them coming out the winner.

Salsa and chips at Antonio's

Salsa and chips at Antonio’s

The three-page menu includes such house specialties as Barbacoa de Borrego, a marinated and roasted leg of lamb; Cochinita Pibil, pork marinated in achiote and citrus juices then roasted; Elk Fajitas served with all the works; and Seafood Paella. A page is also dedicated to appetizers, soups and salads, all of which are beautifully described.

One of Antonio’s most popular appetizers is Guacamole which is prepared table-side from a wheeled cart and is served with salsa and chips. Sure, you’ve had guacamole all over New Mexico and after a while, most of it has a familiar sameness (maybe even boringness). Antonio’s guacamole is unique and not just because of the entertainment value of watching someone prepare it for you. Avocados are mashed at the peak moment of deliciousness then mixed with tomatoes, cilantro, jalapenos (essentially a pico de gallo) and lime.  You’re welcome to request the level of piquancy you want in your guacamole, an invitation for chileheads like me to turn it up a notch.

The salsa is a beautiful, rich red with just a hint of a piquant bite and the hint of smoky chipotle.  Chips are low in salt and formidable enough to scoop up Gil-sized portions of salsa.  The salsa isn’t watery so it doesn’t run off the chips and onto your lap.

Guacamole made tableside

Guacamole made tableside

Chips are also served with another popular appetizer, Mahi Mahi Ceviche. In Hawaiian, Mahi Mahi translates to “strong-strong,” but is more commonly known as Dolphinfish (even though the fish isn’t related to the dolphin) or Dorado.  Its flesh is firm and has a sweet flavor with little of the characteristic “fishy” flavor of some aquatic foods.  It’s an exceptionally delicious fish, especially when served in flavor combinations of sweet and tangy.

Antonio’s Mahi Mahi Ceviche is not only delicious, it is beautiful courtesy of chopped tomatoes, cilantro, and avocado.  The citrus infusion makes the combination sing, but if lip-pursing seafood starts to get to be a bit much, you can cut the taste with an accompanying chipotle dressing that’s got bite and flavor.

Carne Asada a la Tampiquena is so prominent in Mexican restaurants that it’s become passé. At Antonio’s, we discovered the most tender Tampiquena style grilled beef tenderloin steak we’ve ever had in New Mexico. Marinated in spices and lime, it also had absolutely no fat or sinew, giving it a “melt in your mouth” quality. As Barbara Streisand might say, “it’s like butter.”

Chiles rellenos en nogada

Chiles rellenos en nogada

It’s only fitting that Antonio’s would excel at another Yucatan specialty, Cochinita pibil, a traditional slow-roasted pork dish in which an entire suckling pig is marinated in a strongly acidic citrus juice, colored with annato seed ( a derivative of achiote) then wrapped in banana leaf for roasting.  Unwrapping the banana leaf is similar to unwrapping a tamale or even a Christmas gift.  Enveloped by the banana leaf is some of the most tender and juicy pork you can find.

The banana leaves, although completely inedible, are used for slow, moist cooking of tough (or tender as in the case of cochinita pibil) meats as well as for quicker steaming, baking or grilling of delicate ingredients such as chicken and fish. Used while still fresh and green, they lend a very moist quality to any food prepared in them and also imbue foods with a delicious herbal flavor.  The marriage of citrus tanginess and herbal freshness is heavenly.

Entrees are served with pinto beans, rice and just a bit of pico de gallo.  The pinto beans are perfectly prepared, but the rice is fairly unremarkable.

Cochinito pibil

Cochinito pibil

Flan is an Antonio’s dessert specialty, but other post-prandial options are available. One of the best is a chipotle infused  chocolate cake served with a rich vanilla bean ice cream. The cake is as light and moist as flourless cakes with a brown sheen of rich frosting and just an intimation of chipotle. The cold lushness of the ice cream added a dimension of teeth-chattering cold to the warm cake.

Having visited the more intimate and warm Antonio’s restaurant in Ranchos de Taos nearly three years before dining at the louder, more festive Antonio’s near the Taos Plaza, our preference would be for the former.  Antonio’s is a lively restaurant with tremendous appeal for crowds, but we found it just a bit loud.  Service is not quite as personable and attentive as we remembered from our inaugural visit, but the food was still first-rate—and the chile relleno en nogada is worth a visit in and of itself.

Maria Chuchena would be proud!

Antonio’s: A Taste of Mexico
122 Dona Luz
Taos, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 30 May 2009
1st VISIT:  29 September 2006
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Guacamole, Salsa and Chips, Carne Asada a la Tampiquena, Chile Relleno en Nogada, Mahi Mahi Ceviche

Seferino’s – Rio Rancho, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Seferino's New Mexican restaurant in Rio Rancho.

Seferino’s New Mexican restaurant in Rio Rancho.

One of the first things you notice when you step into Seferino’s New Mexican Restaurant is the large portrait hanging just above the hostess station of an avuncular bearded gentleman with an air of dignity and class.  Though he’s been gone for about a decade and a half and the restaurant which bears his name is in a new location, you can almost feel the comforting presence of Seferino Perea looming like a charming host bidding you welcome to his restaurant.

Seferino’s daughter Cathy sports the same snowy white halo as her father, dignified argentine locks everyone should be fortunate enough to age into.  Cathy, who along with her husband Joe Guitierrez own Seferino’s is a frequent presence at the Rio Rancho restaurant her father helped start.

The family patriarch, Seferino managed Perea’s restaurant with his son in Albuquerque before helping Cathy start up the restaurant named for him.  For nine years, Seferino’s was located on Rio Rancho’s main north-south thoroughfare, Highway 528.  A move to Southern Boulevard placed them in another heavily trafficked area and in an edifice nearly twice as large (4300 square feet) as their previous location (2400 square feet).

The interior at Seferino's

The interior at Seferino’s

Those comfortable confines served Seferino’s very well for years, but in 2009 the restaurant moved to its third Rio Rancho home since 1985.  It is now situated in the building which housed Weck’s for years.  The steady streams of dining traffic throughout its hours of operation are starting to find Seferino’s at its new location.  Many come for the all day breakfast menu and others for some of their favorite New Mexican food in the Rio Rancho area.  Portions are prodigious and service is excellent.

A second Seferino’s restaurant is located at 5801 Central Avenue in Albuquerque, ironically in the same complex that previously housed Perea’s New Mexican Restaurant, Cathy’s brother’s restaurant.  Chilepeno’s, a defunct restaurant in Cedar Crest was owned by Cathy’s son Rodney Guitierrez and his wife, Dianna.  The long line of restaurateurs in the Perea family has served New Mexicans for generations with no surcease in sight.

The menu at Seferino’s is a veritable compendium of New Mexican favorites.  While prices have increased over the years, chips and salsa are still complementary.  That in itself is becoming a rarity.  The salsa derives its heat from jalapenos and its freshness from tomatoes (not the mushy stuff out of a can).  Onion is a subtle additive to the salsa.  More pronounced is the flavor of garlic, but it’s pronounced in a perfective manner.  The chips are formidable and sufficiently weight-bearing to sustain Gil-sized scoops of salsa.

Chips and salsa at Seferino's

Chips and salsa at Seferino’s

If you’re famished for fine New Mexican food or want to share a gargantuan meal with your dining companion, order the “super combination” plate which tips the scale at several hundred carbohydrate-laden calories.  The “star” of that combination plate is a carne adovada burrito which would make a huge meal by itself.  Tender pork chunks bathed in red chile are enveloped by a thick, house-made tortilla (definitely not the paper-thin tortillas served at many restaurants).

On a piquancy scale the red chile would fall somewhere between mild and medium (leaning toward mild).  It’s not an anemic chile from a “heat” perspective, but neither does it give you the endorphin rush of a piquant chile.  A less desirous quality in the red chile is the excessive use of a thickening agent (perhaps corn starch).  A pinch of flour is sometimes necessary to keep the chile and water from separating too much, but too much of any thickening agent (roux) ultimately impacts the purity, earthiness and flavor of the chile.  That’s the case with Seferino’s red.

The prodigious super combination plate also includes a wonderfully seasoned ground beef taco, a cheese enchilada, a cheesy relleno, Spanish rice and refried beans, enough food to feed a small family.  The refried beans have a “bacony” aftertaste, a huge plus.  They’re also topped with shredded, melted Cheddar.  The Spanish rice is a bit on the dry side, fairly characteristic of this misnamed but ubiquitous standard.

Enchiladas three ways from Seferino's

Enchiladas three ways from Seferino’s

Enchilada enthusiasts have several options at Seferino’s including a combination that includes a carne adovada enchilada, an enchilada engorged with chicken and an enchilada bursting with ground beef.  All three are rolled and topped with melted Cheddar cheese and chile as well as a heaping portion of the ubiquitous lettuce and tomato garnish so many people discard.

The best of the triumvirate are the chicken stuffed enchiladas.  That’s courtesy of very flavorful, well-seasoned, mostly white meat chicken, the kind which would make a great stewed chicken entree.  It’s moist and tender without being mushy.  During future visits, chicken enchiladas with green chile are definitely warranted.

Unlike with the generously stuffed carne adovada burritos, there just isn’t enough carne adovada on the enchilada to suit adovada aficionados, but what is there, is tender and delicious.  The adovada appears to have been marinated in a chile caribe, a more concentrated chile made from crushed pods.  Only the ground beef enchilada is unremarkable and in fact, a cheese enchilada might have been a better option for this combination plate.

Tamales at Seferino's

Tamales at Seferino’s

When the menu calls something a “plate,” it means the entire plate is likely to be covered in New Mexico food goodness.  The tamale plate (pictured above), for example is roughly the size of a frisbee and might challenge even Takero Kobayashi, the renown gurgitator to finish it all.  Two tamales (the size of the tablets on which the ten commandments were written) resemble a crimson and amber (red chile and cheese) island surrounded by a generous amount of refried beans and Spanish rice.

Even though they don’t provide the unwrapping (corn husk) experience some people cherish especially around Christmas time, the tamales are quite good.  The masa has a nice texture and is of perfect thickness–not so thick the corn taste overwhelms its meaty innards, but not so thin you can’t taste it.  Tender tendrils of pork are well seasoned and very flavorful.  In fact, my least favorite aspect of this entree might (for reasons previously mentioned) be the red chile.

Complementary sopaipillas are yet another endearing touch that has made Seferino’s a long-time family tradition in Rio Rancho.  The sopaipillas are thicker than most, but they manage to retain the puffy pockets that serve as perfect repositories for honey.  Alas, you won’t find real honey on the table.  Seferino’s serves honey flavored syrup, a short-cut too many New Mexican restaurants take.  Sure, real honey has the unfortunate tendency to crystalize and has some maintenance requirements, but it’s far better than the artificial pretender.

Sopaipillas at Seferino's

Sopaipillas at Seferino’s

Seferino’s breakfast burritos, particularly those featuring chorizo, make getting up in the morning worthwhile.  If you want a more traditional American breakfast, several combination plates featuring eggs and crispy bacon (at least nine-inch strips) are available.  At the very least, order Seferino’s pancakes which are light, fluffy and wonderful.

It wouldn’t be the City of Vision without Seferino’s, a local institution beloved by generations.

1690 Rio Rancho Blvd, #B.
Rio Rancho, NM

LATEST VISIT: 20 May 2009
COST: $$
BEST BET: Super Combination Plate, Pancakes, Bacon, Enchilada Combination Plate, Tamale Plate

Seferino's New Mexican on Urbanspoon

Roque’s Carnitas – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Roque's Carnitas on the Plaza

Roque's Carnitas on the Plaza

In more cosmopolitan metropolises it isn’t uncommon to see sidewalk vendors plying their trade over chuck wagon stands and proffering high quality fast food such as hot dogs, tacos, gyros and sundry quick meal items. Some of the best food in cities such as Portland, Oregon can be found near city parks where enterprising street vendors concoct culinary magic on portable kitchens and what we typically deride as “roach coaches.”

Roque Garcia has made such a business an art form–a very successful one. In fact, Roque claims carnitas paid for his home outside Puerto Vallarta in Mexico and for the Mercedes Benz automobiles he likes to drive. Roque’s cart is stationed on the southeast corner of the Santa Fe plaza where the irresistibly smoky aroma of sizzling, marinated beef draws repeat customers and tourists like a siren’s call.

Despite posting a sign explaining what carnitas are, Roque is unfailingly patient with tourists who don’t necessarily know what it is they’re ordering; they only know they can’t resist the intoxicating aromas wafting from the strange cart.

Carnitas on the grill

Carnitas on the grill

During the past decade or so, national publications including the New York Times, Gourmet Magazine, National Geographic, Roadfood and others have waxed poetic about Roque’s Carnitas Stand which operates daily from Easter to Thanksgiving, weather permitting.

Roque keeps track of the publications in which his famous stand has been featured–132 as of May, 2006. Were it not for a scheduling conflict, he would also have been featured in a Food Network program in 2006.

Roque makes the most of his cart’s “advertising space” by listing several of the publications in which his stand has been featured. The cart also points out that Roque’s Carnitas are available for weddings, meetings, divorces and other events in which people gather to eat.

Santa Fe's famous cart--some of the many publications in which Roque's has been featured

Santa Fe's famous cart--some of the many publications in which Roque's has been featured

When you’ve got an outstanding product, you don’t need great menu variety and in carnitas, Roque has a fabulous product!

Roque’s version of carnitas are hand-sliced thin strips of prime beef steak marinated in sauce then grilled on an open fire together with onion and chile verde and served on flour tortillas (from the Albuquerque Tortilla Company) topped with homemade salsa.

Chicken carnitas are also available and are nearly as wonderful with their beef counterparts. Both are best eaten while standing and leaning slightly forward so as not to have the succulent juices splash all over your clothing. Napkins certainly come in handy.

The world famous Roque Garcia

The world famous Roque Garcia

Other menu items include pork and green chile tamales as well as excitingly refreshing jamaica (hibiscus) and lemonade drinks.

The word “institution” is bandied about too frequently, but in Roque’s Carnitas, Santa Fe has an institution for which we can all be grateful.

Roque’s Carnitas
Santa Fe Plaza
Santa Fe, NM
LATEST VISIT: 18 May 2009
: 7
COST: $$
BEST BET:Beef Carnitas, Chicken Carnitas

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