Harla May’s Fat Boy Grill – Belen, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Harla May's in Belen

Harla May’s in Belen

Many of us who grew up in small town America during the 60s sometimes pine for the more innocent days of our youth–the days before cable television gave us hundreds of channels (and nothing to watch) and video games became the only form of exercise (albeit, of their thumbs) our children get.

Back then, the movie theater was the town’s cultural center. It was where small-town America congregated to see Hollywood blockbusters (about two years after they hit the big cities) as well as movies which introduced our innocents to the Hell’s Angels, Bruce Lee, Godzilla and campy Sonny and Cher movies.

The small-town American theater in New Mexico also meant Cantinflas, the campesino once referred to by Charlie Chaplin as the greatest comedian in the world.

The famous big boy and other nostalgic items

The famous big boy and other nostalgic items

It meant not only American “shoot ’em up” Westerns featuring rugged cowboys, rowdy rustlers, round-ups and home on the range, but the Mexican equivalent–movies featuring the exploits of charros, the traditional cowboys of central and northern Mexico.

The small-town American theater was where boys and girls went to hold hands in the dark back in the days when “getting through the bases” took considerably longer than it does today. It truly was a more innocent time.

There was no such thing as multiplex or megaplex theaters with their stadium seating and upscale amenities. Those would come later and they would drive the small-town theater our of business. The Oñate Theater in Belen, New Mexico was the quintessential small-town movie theater. Ensconced in the heart of the heart of the city directly across the street from the Anna Becker Park, it was built in 1932 and served Belen for decades. The 1950 edition of the Film Daily Yearbook indicates the theater had a seating capacity of 600.

Nostalgia abounds at Harla May's.

Nostalgia abounds at Harla May’s.

After its closure, the venerable Oñate fell rapidly into disrepair and was literally on the path to destruction when visionary entrepreneur Anthony Baca, a Belen resident, salvaged it. Baca first conceptualized the idea of converting the theater into a restaurant in 1993. The conversion was a laborious, painstaking process considering the theater’s state of decline–a process which included leveling the floor and removing most of the theater’s original seats.

Baca launched his restaurant, Harla May’s Fat Boy Grill, in September, 2004. Today the Oñate’s proud lights once again illuminate the town center at night and while the still functioning movie screen no longer features blockbuster movies, breakfast-goers on Sunday mornings now clamor to see their favorite teams in action on a bigger screen than you’ll find at any sports bar.

You won’t find any listings for a Harla May in Belen’s White pages. Baca made it up. Nor are there outward signs that the Harla May character on the menu and Web site was inspired by Baca’s lovely bride of more than 25 years, the restaurant’s gracious host Carmen. The Harla May character seems to be a composite of 1950s pin-up Bettie Page and Daisy Mae Scragg, Li’l Abner’s beautiful and faithful girlfriend–both characters possessing an alluring mix of seductiveness and innocence.

Memorabilia crawls every nook and cranny

Memorabilia crawls every nook and cranny

The tagline beneath Harla May’s image reads, “We relish your buns,” the sort of double-entendre you can’t help but appreciate.

The restaurant has become a veritable museum with thousands of items of memorabilia (not the vintage knock-offs you see at some 50s themed restaurants) adorning just about every space on the theater walls. A trip down memory lane is definitely in order.

That trip begins in what used to be the theater’s lobby where a circa 1940s Coca-Cola machine stands next to what was once a concession stand. The lobby is your starting place for a nostalgic tour of a bygone era. The red and white checkerboard suspender attired Bob’s Big Boy mascot seems to watch over diners in the restaurant’s upper tier seating area. Framed photographs of celebrities share space with copies of Life magazine published in the 1950s and 60s. Marilyn Monroe and Betty Boop are celebrated there, too, as are the larger-than-life athletes of the era.

On a corner wall by the restaurant’s entrance are empty movie reels which once held photographic film (back in the days before digital) for movies which may well have been shown at the Oñate. One photograph on the wall depicts the Oñate’s marquee when it featured the 1946 movie My Darling Clementine. Automobile rims, hubcaps, various car parts and several out-of-state license plates hang on the walls as do album covers from the days before iPods and music downloads. The baby boomers among us will marvel at just how the world has changed. Some of us may even wish it hadn’t changed so much and so quickly.

Dragon Lady's Pork Pot Stickers

Dragon Lady’s Pork Pot Stickers

Harla May’s serves breakfast, lunch and dinner. You can even call in your order and a member of the genial wait staff will have it waiting for you curbside. Harla May’s also hosts parties, weddings, reunions and celebrations of all sorts. Live entertainment is provided regularly (including a comedy show in November, 2009 headlined by Minnesota’s maiden of mirth Mary Mack). It’s easy to remember the restaurant’s hours: 10:57AM to 9:57PM Thursday through Saturday and 6:57AM to 2:57PM on Sundays. There isn’t anything about Harla May’s that’s forgettable.

Frampton might just come alive in your memories while you dine thanks to selections from Sirius Satellite radio’s Totally 70s which is piped through the restaurant’s sound system. Greg Brady himself, Barry Williams will be your host.

The menu includes everything from burgers to a 36-ounce USDA choice aged beef T-bone steak. It’s an ambitious menu with literally something for everyone. The appetizer section, called “Got the Munchies” includes many favorite starters, all cleverly named. Who, for example, could possibly want flaccid fries when you can have Harla May’s frisky fries? Why have picayune pot stickers when you can have the Dragon Lady’s Pork Pot Stickers?

The world famous Fat Boy

The world famous Fat Boy

These are pot stickers on steroids–nearly the size of an empanada. They’re fried to a golden sheen and are engorged with finely shredded pork and cabbage. Five pot stickers to an order will have couples fighting for the odd-numbered one left over.  Unfortunately, they’re served with an insipid sweet and sour sauce packaged in one of those confoundingly difficult to order packages, the type of which some restaurants use for jams.  These pot stickers deserve better.

Offered up with the pot stickers are two tubs of a garlic enhanced ranch dressing as well as the aforementioned packet of sweet and sour sauce. The pot stickers need neither, but if you’re inclined to dip them into something, the ranch dressing is quite good. Accompanying the pot stickers are some of the best sweet potato fries you’ll find anywhere.

Harla May’s signature entree is the Fat Boy burger, described on the menu as the ultimate one-pounder with the works: chile, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, grilled onions, Smokehouse bacon, guacamole and onion rings. At more than ten bucks, it’s a pricy burger but one that will ensure you won’t be hungry for a while.

Eat too many of these and you'll be called by its name, the Fat Boy.

Eat too many of these and you’ll be called by its name, the Fat Boy.

Years ago Burger King bragged that “it takes two hands to handle the Whopper,” a two-fisted burger that probably weighs in at a quarter pound or so. It pales in comparison to the Fat Boy, one of the biggest burgers to grace a grill in New Mexico. This burger is not only the size of the Sears Tower, it’s absolutely delicious. Two six-inch beef patties are perfectly prepared and seasoned. It’s embellished with complementary ingredients that adorn those patties with flavor.

Fire-eaters will want to substitute the standard chile used on the Fat Boy with Padilla’s Jarales “hot” green chile. Jarales, a small community south of Belen grows some of the most piquant peppers in the state, a chile that will not only set your mouth on fire, it will tantalize your taste buds. It’s an outstanding green chile, perhaps second on the Scoville piquancy scale to the chile at Santa Fe’s Horseman’s Haven restaurant.

Wimpier burgerphiles will downscale to Harla May’s standard burgers which are a “mere” half-pound of creativity. They might want to sink their teeth into Holley’s Hawaiian burger (with grilled onions, pineapple, green chile, cheese and smokehouse bacon) or maybe a buffalo burger (called the Rocky Mountain Ripper). This is a burger lover’s paradise, offering fourteen burgers.

HOLLEY’S HAWAIIAN Grilled onions, pineapple and green chile with cheese and smokehouse bacon.

HOLLEY’S HAWAIIAN Grilled onions, pineapple and green chile with cheese and smokehouse bacon.

If a green chile cheeseburger is what you crave, ask for the Flame Thrower which is made with Padilla’s Jarales “hot” green chile. Unlike with the Fat Boy, you won’t have a mountain of ingredients to deflect any of the heat.

All burgers are served with Harla May’s wonderfully seasoned and perhaps twice-fried fries. These are excellent fries and if, like me, you’re unable to fit the tomato, lettuce, pickle and guacamole on your Fat Boy, have the aforementioned vegetables as a salad (with the ranch dressing) and use the guacamole instead of ketchup. Harla May’s guacamole is rich and creamy, flecked with bits of chile. It’s guacamole you might want to consume by the spoonful.

Many menu items are named for family members, including Matt’s Favorite Spanish Flower, a deep-fried tortilla with beef or chicken, lettuce, tomato and two types of cheese. It’s topped with guacamole and sour cream.

Matt's Favorite Spanish Flower

Matt’s Favorite Spanish Flower

It’s easy to see why this is Matt’s favorite. While many tortilla-based, so-called taco salads scrimp on everything but lettuce and tomato, this Spanish flower abounds in the flavor of seasoned beef and cheese. It’s a good flavor. The fried tortilla is excellent as well.

The menu includes three cast iron skillet entrees including a carne adovada skillet filled with delicious carne adovada on top of papitas and two fried huevos.  For tongues not laced with asbestos, the carne adovada should come with a hazard warning. Not only is the chile addictive, it’s smoldering hot–as in some of most piquant chile you’ll find in New Mexico.  It’s the type of chile that will get your attention and capture your affection.  Alas, as great as the chile is, this skillet seems to showcase the papitas more so than the adovada.  The papitas to adovada ratio should be reversed.

If you manage to have room for dessert, the offerings won’t disappoint. Six ice cream (chocolate, vanilla and strawberry) desserts lead the cavalcade of calorie-laden sweets on the menu. In cold climes, however, you’ll want one of Harla May’s cakes or pies, all but one of which are named for a family member. Prodigious portions apply here, too.

CARNE ADOVADA Skillet filled with delicious carne adovada on top of papitas and two fried huevos.

Carne Adovada Skillet filled with delicious carne adovada on top of papitas and two fried huevos.

If your waitress recommends Noah’s Apple Dumpling, heed and obey. It’s a rich and delicious pastry engorged with sweet apples and topped with a warm cinnamon syrup. The pastry crust is thick, but as delicious as a sugar cookie. You won’t leave a crumb.

Another terrific dessert option is Ann’s Snicker Doodle Pie (which is nothing at all like the snickerdoodle cookie). Harla May’s rendition includes Snickers candy bar and portions of brownie. It’s drizzled with melted chocolate and will put calories on you just be being in its presence. Fortunately you won’t be in its presence for long because you’ll quickly dispatch of this scrumptious pie.

The Snickerdoodle

The Snickerdoodle

Harla May’s is much more than a terrific restaurant. It’s an experience to be shared and enjoyed by family and friends. It’s a cultural celebration of a somewhat more wholesome era that one fatalistic friend says predates the prelapsarian era to come. It’s the type of restaurant you don’t just visit–you experience it. It’s an experience you’ll long remember.

Harla May’s Fat Boy Grill
700 Dalies Avenue
Belen, NM

1st VISIT: 14 December 2007
LATEST VISIT: 21 November 2009
COST: $$
BEST BET: Dragon Lady’s Pork Pot Stickers, Matt’s Favorite Spanish Flower, Fat Boy Burger

Harla Mays Fat Boy Grill on Urbanspoon

Cafe Pasqual’s – Santa Fe, New Mexico

Cafe Pasqual, a Santa Fe Institution

Pasqual Baylon’s devotion to the Mass and the Holy Eucharist was so fervent that when assigned kitchen duty, angels had to stir the pots to keep them from burning.  It’s ironic therefore that San Pasqual is the recognized patron saint of Mexican and New Mexican kitchens, a beloved saint whose smiling countenance in the form of various art forms graces many a kitchen, including Katharine Kagel’s kitchen in the world famous Cafe Pasqual, one of Santa Fe’s most popular restaurants.

Cafe Pasqual is a very small cafe with seating for only 50 patrons sitting in very close quarters. Prospective diners place their names on a waiting list then typically wait half an hour or more to be seated, usually longer if they want a “private” table (where you’re still elbow-to-elbow with your neighbors). Quicker seating is usually available if you’re willing to share space in the large community table where you can break bread with diners from all walks of life.

Located one block southwest of the plaza in the heart of downtown, the split-level dining room is one of the most colorful venues in the City Different with a festive ambience that includes multi-hued, hand-painted Mexican tiles and murals. The hurried (but never harried) wait staff somehow manages to navigate the cramped quarters without spilling food all over the floor. Sometimes attired in tee-shirts depicting the Virgen De Guadalupe, patron saint of the Americas, they remain accommodating and friendly despite having to keep a nearly frenetic pace.

The colorful interior at Cafe Pasqual

The colorful interior at Cafe Pasqual

In 1999, Cafe Pasqual was accorded the James Beard Foundation’s “America’s Classics Award,” an honor bestowed to only four recipients a year. This prestigious honor recognizes locally owned and operated restaurants in operation for ten years or more that are beloved in their communities for their unique food and ambiance and which exhibit timeless appeal. Proprietor and chef Kagel was also nominated that year as the Best Chef in the Southwest, not her only nomination for this honor.

Cafe Pasqual is indeed an American classic, celebrating for more than three decades, culinary traditions inspired by New Mexico, Old Mexico and Asia (especially Thailand) with a pronounced dedication to fresh, seasonal, organic and naturally raised foods. In 2003, writing for Epicurious.com, authors Jane and Michael Stern declared Cafe Pasqual one of America’s top ten restaurants for breakfast. The restaurant was also a perpetual mainstay on Chile Pepper magazine’s “best of zest” listing of the best in Southwest restaurants.

The bustling corner cafe in the ever-familiar pueblo style building first opened in 1979 and has experienced overflow crowds for years.  Katharine Kagel’s philosophy, one which has guided her restaurant for years is to “gather together the best possible staff and ingredients to synergize unforgettable flavors in the most interesting and inspired way, with an eye to healthful preparation methods.”  As with so many other excellent Santa Fe restaurants she has cultivated relationships with suppliers, the growers of native and exotic fruits and vegetables used in the restaurant.  It makes a difference!

Huevos Motulenos

Huevos Motulenos

All the visits to Cafe Pasqual chronicled on this blog have been on Sundays when brunch is the featured fare. If breakfast is the most important meal of the day then the best way to greet an enchanting Sunday morning is by starting off with Mexican hot chocolate at Cafe Pasqual. Served in a glass instead of a mug, it is garnished with freshly grated cinnamon and packs a distinct, rich taste with addictive properties. It is easily the best Mexican hot chocolate we’ve ever had.

What makes Mexican hot chocolate so vastly superior to the usual cocoa power mixture is the Mexican chocolate itself.  Cafe Pasqual uses one and a half ounces of Ibarra brand Mexican chocolate in each frothy glass.  It is so rich and flavorful that true chocoholics will never return to the inferior powdered variety.  You can purchase Ibarra brand chocolate at the restaurant, by the way.

I read somewhere that your brain is most productive in the morning, but trying to decide what to order from an array of sumptuous sounding brunch entrees is a dizzying challenge–you literally want to order one of each. The good thing is you can’t go wrong with whatever you order; it’s all wonderful.

MM PAPAS FRITAS – home fries with red chile, green chile, or tomatillo d’arbol salsa, scallions, melted jack cheese and sour cream with a tortilla

MM Papas Fritas – home fries with red chile, green chile, or tomatillo d’arbol salsa, scallions, melted jack cheese and sour cream with a tortilla

Take for example the Huevos Motuleños, eggs-over-easy on corn tortillas with black beans, sautéed bananas (the things simians like, not banana peppers), feta cheese, peas, salsa fresca and green chile or tomatillo d’arbol salsa. There’s a special treat in every bite as complementary and contrasting ingredients meld together wonderfully to compete subtly for the rapt attention of your taste buds.

While Huevos Motulenos may sound like a motley assortment of disparate (complementary if you have an imagination) ingredients, its genesis is the Yucatan peninsula in a village named Motul.  A similar breakfast entree going by the name Huevos Yucatecos is available at the Tecolote Cafe a couple of miles west of Cafe Pasqual.  Both versions are outstanding, an excellent way to start the day.  What makes this dish unique–what makes this dish–are the sauteed bananas.  You’ll marvel at the sweet and savory flavor combinations, even better the sweet and piquant flavor melding. 

In an August, 2011 episode of the Food Network’s “The Best Thing I Ever Ate,” renown New York City chef Chris Santos declared Cafe Pasqual’s Huevos Barbacoa Con Chile D’Arbol the very best egg dish he’s ever eaten.  Chef Kagel’s eggstraordinary dish starts with corn tortillas which are then topped with refried beans, marinated beef cheeks pulled and shredded, eggs and the Chile D’Arbol garnished with cheese and cilantro.  Chef Santos declared the dish “amazing.”

The breakfast quesadilla is a similarly eye-opening, mouth-watering morning delicacy. A griddled spelt (a type of wheat) flour tortilla envelops jack cheese, guacamole, scrambled eggs and salsa fresca, ingredients joined together in perfect harmony to make early morning love to your mouth. At Cafe Pasqual, eggs are invariably prepared to perfection. It’s an art form not all restaurants have mastered.

Pecan-Coffee Tart with Apricot Compote and Chantilly Cream

Pecan-Coffee Tart with Apricot Compote and Chantilly Cream

Cafe Pasqual is renown for its breakfast and brunch entrees.  Using real eggs, real butter and real potatoes, it relies on nothing commercial or frozen.  Everything is absolutely fresh.  The sausage and chorizo is made on the premises as is the bread for the fabulous toast and sandwiches.  Breakfast is served all day long in the tradition of fine cafes throughout the world.  Breakfast lovers love this practice though it does challenge the kitchen to manage two divergent menus at once.  Cafe Pasqual has been doing it so long, they excel at it.

<In cafes throughout France, we enjoyed fried potatoes for breakfast and have been dismayed when restaurants serve out-of-the-bag hashed browns that sometimes look and taste like fried rubber bands.  Cafe Pasqual specializes in fried potatoes, offering a brunch entree called MM Papas Fritas, home fries with red chile, green chile or tomatillo d’arbol salsa, scallions, melted Jack cheese and sour cream with a corn or flour tortilla.  Ask for a couple of eggs on top of this concoction and you’ll have a New Mexico take on something we loved in cafes throughout France.

A grilled free-range chicken breast sandwich is yet another lively, titivated marriage of fresh ingredients that combine wonderfully to tantalize your taste buds. Homemade toasted green chile corn bread is the canvas on which marvelously mellow Manchego cheese; sweet, caramelized onions and roasted jalapeños form a preternaturally wonderful breakfast sandwich in which sweet, savory and piquant flavors are in seemingly equal proportion to one another.

Toasted Pinon Ice Cream with Caramel Sauce

Toasted Pinon Ice Cream with Caramel Sauce

Every table includes orange and raspberry marmalade, both of which epitomize the highest standards of their respective genres. Naturally you’ll have to order the restaurant’s freshly baked and intoxicatingly aromatic bread to take advantage of those fruity bread spreads.

The breakfast and brunch menus include several sweet-tooth sating entrees.  You can also satisfy your sweet tooth with one of the restaurant’s fabulous desserts.  Desserts change daily, but they’re all so good think of it as an excuse to try something other than the one you fall most in love with.  For me, it’s the pecan-coffee tart with apricot compote and Chantilly cream.  It’s akin to a richer, more flavorful, more adult-like and not as sweet pecan pie.

My consolation prize when the pecan-coffee tart isn’t available is the toasted piñon ice cream with caramel sauce.  Being the restaurant’s best-selling and most requested dessert, the toasted piñon ice cream has made it onto the daily menu.  You won’t find this ice cream at any grocery store.  It’s made on the premises and it’s fabulous.  Not even the bone-chilling cold of the ice cream can obfuscate the wonderful woodsy taste of piñon, the little nut New Mexicans love like no other.

Cafe Pasqual is so good we’ve theorized that the patron saint of New Mexico’s kitchens himself is crafting the wondrous kitchen concoctions. Its wondrous food will make a morning person out of anyone.

Cafe Pasqual’s
121 Don Gaspar
Santa Fe, New Mexico
(505) 983-9340
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 8 November 2009
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Salmon Burrito, Mexican Hot Chocolate, Huevos Motulenos, MM Papas Fritas, Pecan-Coffee Tart with Apricot Compote and Chantilly Cream, Pinon Ice Cream with Caramel Sauce, Toast with Jam

Cafe Pasqual's on Urbanspoon