Charlie’s Front Door – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

At this point you're 25 feet away from Charlie's back door.

At this point you're 25 feet away from Charlie's back door.

For almost four and a half decades, Charlie Elias, an avuncular septuagenarian with the energy of a teenager,  has greeted his customers and treated them like welcome guests at his eponymous Northeast Heights restaurant and bar. Charlie doesn’t always make it to work nowadays, but his son Jamie, who’s probably the same age today that Charlie was when I first discovered this long-time family favorite, is now the restaurant’s official ambassador, a smiling presence who meets and greets all patrons with the same homespun, genuine friendliness as his father.

Charlie was thirty-something when he launched his Front and Back Door operation in 1966.  That type of longevity is rare today and speaks volumes about the loyalty generations of patrons have for Charlie and his restaurant.  An elder statesman among the Duke City’s New Mexican restaurants, Charlie’s Front and Back Doors haven’t changed much over the years, offering the same menu and same friendly service diners have come to expect over the decades.  Newcomers still experience confusion as to the “Front” and “Back” door names, believing them to be the same restaurant, but with front and back door entrances.

Salsa, Con Queso and Guacamole, a wonderful trio...

Salsa, Con Queso and Guacamole, a wonderful trio...

Charlie’s Front Door’s windowless frontage faces Menaul in the Hoffmantown Shopping Center.  It’s a restaurant built around a rectangular bar, which until you figure out is sunken, gives the appearance of a very short bartender.  Charlie’s Back Door is a bar that serves food.  It is accessed from a covered walkway.  Operating hours are slightly different, but both share the same  kitchen and menu.  Another commonality seems to be the friendliness of the wait staff, a genial group that is on-the-spot with refills and answers to any questions you may have.

On a hot sunny day, there may be no more welcome respite from the sun’s blinding rays and scorching heat than Charlie’s. The minute you walk in, the temperature seems to drop 20 degrees thanks to the restaurant’s subdued lighting and heat mollifying cooling system with seemingly restorative powers. Charlie’s Back Door (the bar) is darker than Charlie’s Front Door.  The ambiance at both seems to honor the European Spanish traditions rather than the stereotypical New Mexican or Mexican trappings found in so many New Mexican restaurants.

A Charlie's favorite--sour cream enchiladas.

A Charlie's favorite--sour cream enchiladas.

Charlie’s Front Door is renown for New Mexican comfort foods and authenticity. Nowhere else in town can you find quelites (lamb’s quarters, commonly referred to as wild spinach throughout Northern New Mexico), calabacitas (sautéed zucchini, onions and corn), fideos (a pasta dish with short spaghetti noodles and a mild tomato sauce) and even torta de huevo (fluffy eggs with chile, a traditional northern New Mexico Lenten season dish). These are dishes with which Charlie grew up in Santa Fe and still prepares the way his abuelita did.  These are dishes with which I grew up as well.

You might not call other items on the menu “traditional,” but they provide an interesting read with unique names such as Mexican banker (ham, turkey, cheese, Thousand Island dressing and green chile strips in a tortilla); Como Se Llama (literally “what’s your name,” a plate featuring Polish sausage and red or green chile); the Sheepherder Special (pastrami and green chile strips in a tortilla) and other equally interestingly named entrees.

The Kay's Special, a flour tortilla enveloping carnitas and topped with melted white Cheddar cheese and green chile

Every meal at the Front Door should start off with the sensational trio of salsa, chile con queso and guacamole. The salsa has its basis in New Mexican red chile and although not especially piquant has a pleasant flavor. The guacamole is thick and rich, fashioned with fresh avocados at their optimum in ripeness. Alas, the con queso is fairly typical of the gloppy genre so prevalent in Duke City restaurants.  Perhaps with a more piquant chile, it would inherit  some personality.  The chips are low in salt, but are also very thin and tend to crumble at the “weight” of a Gil sized scoop of salsa, con queso or guacamole.

At least once in your culinary explorations around the Duke City, you’ve got to try Charlie’s carnitas, cubed and shredded fried pork seasoned to perfection and served with fried potatoes like grandma used to make (boiling potatoes before frying them). These carnitas are among the very best in the Duke City and can be ordered with or without chile.  One entree in which those carnitas are featured is Kay’s Special in which a homemade tortilla is engorged with carnitas and topped with a melting white cheese and green chile.  Alas, you might have to be a turophile (a connoisseur of cheese) to truly enjoy this entree.  The cheese is an excess of richness, so much gooey goodness it should be served with an angioplasty.

Sopaipillas--big and fluffy clouds of deliciousness!

Sopaipillas--big and fluffy clouds of deliciousness!

Best in the city is an honor you might  accord to the sour cream enchiladas served with  turkey and melted white Cheddar cheese. The green chile and sour cream combination will perform a synchronized ballet on your taste buds and even though the portion is huge and oh-so-rich, you just won’t be able to stop eating these enchanting enchiladas.  Credit Charlie’s with using melted white cheese, a rarity in a city in which New Mexican restaurants top just about everything with a  boring yellow Cheddar.  Charlie’s is one of the few restaurants in town which uses turkey on its enchiladas.  Frankly it’s a welcome change.  The turkey is shredded, delicious and not that hermetically sealed cold cut turkey you might find in a refrigerated deli.  The chile has a nice level of piquancy that doesn’t necessarily come across until you reheat the leftovers.

When asked by New Mexico Magazine to write a “breakfast, lunch and dinner” article showcasing turkey for its November, 2010 issue, there was no doubt Charlie’s sour cream enchiladas would be one of the three meals I’d write about.  These enchiladas are no turkey.  In its annual food and wine issue for 2011, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded these enchiladas a “Hot Plate Award,” the magazine’s highest honor signifying appetizers, dishes, desserts and drinks “that we can’t live without.”

Charlie’s green chile stew is also a rarity in that it is replete with chunks of tender, pork.  At some New Mexican restaurants in the Duke City, Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t be able to find more than a hint of pork.  The green chile is only piquant enough to let you know it’s there, but not so hot it will moisten your brow or singe your tongue.  It’s a flavorful chile served hot, making it a perfect elixir for cool weather.

Green chile stew with a tortilla

At Charlie’s most entrees are accompanied by fluffy sopaipillas just begging for honey.  Alas, they must be poor beggars because it’s honey-flavored syrup that’s delivered instead. Order the off-the-comal hot tortillas and you get thick, substantial orbs spotted like a charred pinto pony, not the waifishly thin tortillas with which other restaurants insult their patrons. The tortillas have a homemade taste.

The fideos are another comfort food favorite that brings back memories of huddling around the dinner table during heavy winter snowfalls.  Unlike spaghetti which is seasoned (sometimes heavily) with oregano and garlic, this New Mexican vermicelli noodle dish is lightly seasoned and light on the tomato sauce, too.

Fideos, a New Mexican version of spaghetti?

Until Albuquerque banned smoking at restaurants, Charlie’s wonderful food competed with cigarette smoke for the olfactory attention of patrons. Thankfully now diners can enjoy that food without inhaling the choking blue haze.

Charlie’s Front Door
8224 Menaul, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 31 July 2010
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salsa, Carnitas, Sour Cream Enchiladas, Sopaipillas, Fideos, Quelites, Green Chile Stew

Charlie's Front & Back Door on Urbanspoon

Monroe’s New Mexican Food – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Monroe's on Osuna in the Northeast Heights

Monroe's on Osuna in the Northeast Heights

If I’ve learned anything from dining at Monroe’s, it’s that I shouldn’t leave the restaurant with any regrets.  Invariably what I end up regretting most often is that I didn’t have the green chile cheeseburger, one of the very best in town, if not the Land of Enchantment.  It’s a green chile cheeseburger so good that I’ll order it during three consecutive visits before ordering anything else on the menu–and when I don’t order it, I lament not having had my ardor quelled by its utter deliciousness.

Some may question how a restaurant with such an “Anglicized” appellation as Monroe’s can possibly proffer such an enchanting green chile cheeseburger, much less any other  excellent New Mexican cuisine.  Frankly, it could have been even worse.  Monroe’s was originally owned by a Scandinavian named Monroe Sorenson who owned a small chile parlor on the corner of Rio Grande Boulevard and Mountain.  So, the restaurant’s name might well be Sorenson’s, a name you might  otherwise associate with lingonberries, lutefisk and even reindeer meat.

In 1979, Miguel Diaz, a native of Puerto Rico who grew up in New York, purchased Monroe’s and moved it to a refurbished gas station on Lomas (1520 Lomas, N.W.) where it remains today.  A newer location in the Northeast Heights (6051 Osuna, N.E.) hasn’t been around nearly as long, but has a loyal, if not passionate, following.  In fact, finding a place to seat during lunch on weekdays is a challenge and on Sunday, it’s even more more daunting, so popular is this family favorite.

The capacious interior of Monroe's in the Northeast Heights

In 2007, Miguel Diaz was named New Mexico’s restaurateur of the year by the New Mexico Restaurant Association, a tribute to his fifty plus years in the industry, community support and dedication to his staff.  In his half-century in the hospitality business, Diaz has amassed an impressive resume that exemplifies the American ideal working your way to the top.  He has served as soda jerk, short-order cook, Italian and French chef, restaurant manager and ultimately, owner of two very successful Monroe’s restaurants in the Duke City.

His background and work ethic seems to indicate he would have been successful at any chosen endeavor.  Diaz played semi-pro baseball, served in the United States Army’s 82nd Airborne, and was an original member of the Army’s All American Chorus, paratroopers who drop from the sky to perform at concerts.  He moved to Albuquerque in 1975, launched a snack bar in the bank building at Louisiana and Menaul then a year later, bought Monroe’s.  The rest, as the proverbial “they” say, is history.

Perhaps recognizing a credibility advantage to marketing its products with a Hispanic name, Monroe’s sells its red and green chile as well as other products under the Miguel’s label. A real treat is Monroe’s red chile honey in which New Mexico’s favorite fruit (chile, not honey) makes its presence felt as our favorite topping for sopaipillas. Monroe’s sopaipillas, by the way, are flaky and substantial puffs of dough just beckoning for that honey.

Monroe's salsa and fresh chips

Monroe's salsa and fresh chips

Aside from the outstanding green chile cheeseburgers, Monroe’s menu includes sandwiches, New Mexican platters, “gringo” dinners (as they’re called on the menu), breakfast plates and house specialties. There’s literally something for everyone on the menu. Monroe’s exemplifies the tandem concept in which the entire wait staff is responsible for your satisfaction. During a typical meal, you’ll be attended to by several people, all unfailingly courteous and helpful. Monroe’s calls it the family concept.

Monroe’s has withstood the ravages of competition because it remains at its roots a neighborhood gathering place.  The menu and Web site indicate Monroe’s want its customers to make themselves at home, have fun and help them get to know you and any special needs you may have. Special orders and substitutions aren’t frowned upon because of the restaurant’s “aim to please” and “customer first” attitudes. It’s no wonder this restaurant has such a loyal following.

Serving more than 150,000 pounds of chile per year, you might expect that Monroe’s knows its chile and your expectations would be met.  The chile at the Old Town area location seems to pack  just slightly more heat than at the Northeast Heights restaurant though that doesn’t at all mean it “dumbs down” its product  for its Northeast Heights clientele (whose demographics are actually well-diversified).

A pineapple shake made with real ice cream and served cold

Monroe’s salsa is chunky and flavorful with chile, not jalapeno, as the primary flavor and heat generator. Though the salsa is only about a medium on my piquancy scale, it is a flavorful salsa, the type of which you might consume two bowlfuls of before your meal.  Salsa and chips aren’t complimentary, but the “on-the-spot” wait staff will replenish them faithfully.  The chips are oversized, crispy and low in salt.  They also appear to be house-made, not store bought.    Salsa  and chips are a marriage as successful as burgers and fries.

Did someone say burgers and fries?  As oft reiterated, the  green chile cheeseburger is the best, but certainly not the only, reason to visit Monroe’s. The beef is hand-formed into an oversized patty which drapes over the lightly toasted six-inch buns and is blanketed in a molten layer of unctuous cheese. The chunky green chile is nestled gently on the top part of the bun. There is only one way to improve on this green chile cheeseburger and that’s with green chile that is more piquant. For fire-eaters like me, Monroe’s version, while sporting a nicely roasted flavor, needs a bit more “bite you back” piquancy.  Of course, I say this about almost every green chile cheeseburger.

You can have your green chile cheeseburger with traditional French fries, sweet potato fries or onion rings, all of which complement the burger very well.  The best from among this tasty triumvirate of sides, are the sweet potato fries.  Monroe’s slices its sweet potatoes thickly then fries them to perfection so that their outside texture is crispy and the inside is soft and tender.

The famous Monroe's green chile cheeseburger

The famous Monroe's green chile cheeseburger

While green chile cheeseburgers make other New Mexico sandwiches green with envy, the humble red chile cheeseburger is rarely even listed on many restaurant menus.  Not so at Monroe’s where the red chile cheeseburger may be nearly as good as its more famous green sibling.  The red chile is flecked with ground beef and is a beautifully earthy red.  It is also delicious, albeit not as piquant as this volcano-eater likes best.  To compound your adventure in red chile flavor appreciation, ask for your fries to be covered in the red chile.  You’ll wonder why you ever liked ketchup at all.

Burgers and fries, as frequenters of malt shops and drive-ins everywhere know, go best with thick, rich milkshakes.  Monroe’s offers vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and pineapple shakes as good as you’ll find anywhere in Albuquerque.  They’re made with real ice cream and are served cold and thick.  Sucking this fabulous, frozen shakes up through a straw will test your lung-power, if not your mettle; many guests will resort to spooning out the contents.  In either case, expect a teeth-chattering and delicious experience.

In addition to shakes, Monroe’s serves Coke products,  raspberry tea, coffee, hot tea, hot chocolate; orange, apple or cranberry juice (eight-ounces); domestic and imported beer; wine and premium margaritas.

Red chile on a Monroe's cheeseburger.

Red chile on a Monroe's cheeseburger.

Enamored of enchiladas? At Monroe’s, you can have beef, chicken or carne adovada enchilada platters either rolled or flat, with blue corn or yellow corn tortillas, with or without a fried egg on top and topped with red or green chile (or both).  Better still, order a combination enchilada platter and you’ll have one of each.  The carne adovada is especially notable.  The marinated pork is rich and tender, so good it will make grown men (at least this one) swoon with delight.

In its 12th edition, Frommer’s Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque Travel Guide, author Lesley King listed “Northern New Mexico Enchiladas” as among “the most unforgettable Northern New Mexico Experiences,” indicating that there are few things more New Mexican than the enchilada.  Few enchiladas are made as well as Monroe’s carne adovada enchiladas, especially when they’re made with blue corn tortillas and served flat, the way they’re served throughout Northern New Mexico.  Neither the red or green chile are especially piquant, but both are flavorful.

New Mexican platters at Monroe’s are served with Spanish rice, refried beans, a sopaipilla and chips and salsa.  The Spanish rice is fluffy and moist, a welcome change from the clumpy, desiccated rice so often served in New Mexican restaurants.  The refried beans are delicious, topped with melted, shredded Cheddar cheese.  The sopaipillas are among the very best in Albuquerque.  They’re best eaten immediately after they arrive at your table, when you can open them up and are welcomed by steaming wisps of doughy freshness wafting toward your nostrils.  Monroe’s serves their sopaipillas with real honey, not the honey-flavored syrup.

A combination enchilada plate with red and green chile and a fried egg on top

Another New Mexican standard prepared exceptionally well at Monroes are tacos.  If you’re thinking all tacos are the same, Monroe’s might just change your mind–especially since you can have them your way with either soft- or hard-shelled corn tortillas or soft flour tortillas all engorged with the meat of your choice (beef, chicken, or carne adovada).  The taco platter is a meal, not a snack, especially if you opt for your tacos constructed with soft flour tortillas.

The tortillas are served warm and have a slightly charred pinto pony appearance that typifies New Mexican flour tortillas. Taco toppings include lettuce, diced tomatoes and Cheddar cheese.  Not surprisingly, my favorite of the three meats is the carne adovada, which at Monroe’s is akin to a religious experience.  Alas, it’s so good there’s never any left to take home.

With the closure of the long defunct Ramon’s, Monroe’s serves the best taco fingers in town.  Taco fingers, if you’ve not had them, are hand-rolled tacos which are deep-fried and served with salsa for dipping. You get six to an order, and that’s not enough once your mouth quickly discerns what a wonderful taste treat they are.

Three tacos on flour tortillas with refried beans and rice

Monroe’s invites you to start your day off right, no matter what time it is with a breakfast menu the envy of other restaurants.  Breakfast plates are served with hash browns and toast or tortilla.  It probably won’t surprise you to read that my favorite breakfast entree is carne adovada and eggs.  Few things in life make getting up in the morning so much to look forward to as much as carne adovada, but I digress.  The breakfast menu also includes omelets, enchiladas, skillet dishes and of course, the ubiquitous New Mexico breakfast burrito.

Daily specials are not to be ignored at Monroe’s and they tend to go quickly.  The stuffed prime rib, for example, has been long gone by the time we arrived during two late lunch visits.  Monroe’s will literally stuff prime rib with whatever you want, another example of their customer-centric spirit, but typically will stuff it with green chile and cheese.  It’s a uniquely New Mexican, uniquely Monroe’s twist on a popular upscale cut of beef.

Gringo dinners–served with French fries, calavacitas, garden salad and Texas toast–aren’t entirely “gringo” thanks to the inclusion of calavasitas (zucchini, whole kernel corn, onions), a New Mexico favorite.  The gringo dinners include chicken finger dinner, chicken fried chicken dinner, hamburger steak dinner and pork chop dinner.  Frankly, the sandwich menu, would be entirely “gringo” were it not for the inclusion of green or red chile on the sandwiches: Monroe’s grill (turkey, Swiss cheese, avocado, green chile on rye), Kathy’s Special (ham, egg, cheese and green chile on a tortilla), grilled ham and cheese, red chile dog, red chile cheese dog and a classic B.L.T.

Sopaipillas just beckoning for honey

An excellent dessert choice when available is the green chile apple pie a la mode which is magically delicious–not too tart and (characteristic of Monroe’s) not too piquant, but both taste sensations complementing one another.  Alas, this pie isn’t always available which is tragic considering just how good it is.  Perhaps a grass roots campaign is in order asking for it to be instated on the daily menu.  We’ve never tried the chocolate mousse pie that is available daily, reasoning that nothing could possibly be as good as the green chile apple pie a la mode.

Monroe’s may be one of my favorite restaurants in the Duke City area for green chile cheeseburgers, but there are many other reasons to visit this long-time family favorite which is still going strong after nearly a half-century of serving Duke City patrons.

16th & Lomas
Albuquerque, NM
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 18 July 2010
COST: $$
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Taco Fingers, Green Chile Apple Pie, Sopaipillas, Salsa and Chips, Combination Enchilada Plate, Soft Tacos

Monroe's on Urbanspoon

Los Equipales – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

Equipales furniture.

Equipales style furniture at Los Equipales

CLOSED ON FRIDAY, JUNE 26, 2015: Crafted from fibrous materials removed from maguey cactus and fixed with leather bands, equipales furniture graces the sala of many a New Mexican home and certainly many more homes south of the border. Originally produced for the comfort of Aztec landlords and priests, equipales furniture has been around since before Columbus.

Even Montezuma, the nefarious ruler of Tenochtitlan, reputedly cherished a favorite equipale-type chair. It’s likely he sat on that chair while consuming a daily repast that may have included the traditional Aztec staples of the day: corn, chilies, beans, potatoes and other foods native to the Americas during his time. Legend has it that Montezuma’s daily constitution also included 50 golden goblets of thick, red dyed hot chocolate flavored with chili peppers.

Los Equipales Restaurant, like Mexico City in the heart of Albuquerque.

Los Equipales Restaurant

Los Equipales, a fabulous Mexican fine dining restaurant patterned after some of the fine cosmopolitan restaurants of Mexico City, serves many of the staples with which the Aztec despot may have been intimately familiar, albeit prepared and served within the temperature controlled climes of an attractive, modern edifice. It opened in December, 2005.

Montezuma would have loved Los Equipales. You can bank on it! Well, almost literally. The commodious restaurant is situated on a building which once housed a branch of the Sunwest Bank. The overhangs under which cars would park to transact their drive-up banking seem startlingly out-of-place.  Step into the restaurant, however, and you know instantly you’re in the lap of Mexican hospitality and luxury. You’ll be escorted to your table (which is adorned with a white tablecloth) where you’ll be seated on sturdy but surprisingly comfortable leather equipale chairs.

Three salsas and chips at Los Equipales

The artwork is eclectic, the most notable piece being a portrait of free-spirited Frida Kahlo and her trademark unibrow. The walls are painted in muted mariner’s colors–a foamy sea blue and the peachy pink color of coral. The dulcet tones of soothing Mexican music playing soft and low may, in the words of crooner Johnny Rivers, make the rest of the world seem so far away and small.

Fresh manjares del mar, seafood delicacies from the bounteous waters of coastal Mexico and traditional entrees from Old Mexico garnish the menu. The aromas wafting from the open kitchen are positively intoxicating, their genesis include the recipes of master chef Henrique Valdvinos who has plied his craft at many fine restaurants in his native Mexico. Valdvinos got the restaurant started off on the right foot.

Queso Fundido with Chorizo and a side of tomatillo salsa

During a tenure that lasted about a year, Chef Valdvinos was the restaurant’s most effusive ambassador, a peripatetic host and consummate emissary who often graced our table with a short visit to ensure all is to your liking.  He is gone now, but left the restaurant in great hands with the Martinez family, the most visible member of which is Erika Price, a gracious hostess with a luminous smile. The wait staff is equally pleasant and professional, eager to answer your questions and offer their astute recommendations.

At Los Equipales, an emphasis on presentation is apparent, with everything from appetizers to entrees to desserts providing a visual appeal that will heighten your anticipation. Esthetically balanced textures, colors and portions speak volumes about the class which permeates this upscale Mexican restaurant.

Ceviche at Los Equipales

A tantalizing troika of sensational salsas ($2.50) served with crisp, lightly salted chips makes an excellent introduction to a memorable meal. The most potent of the three is a rich, red arbol chili salsa which packs a piquant punch that will raise your endorphin levels while exciting your mouth. A flavorful, lime blessed green tomatillo salsa and a more traditional salsa ranchera (roasted tomatoes, roasted jalapenos) aren’t quite as incendiary, but are bursting with flavor.

Fromage fanatics (make that queso querientes or cheese lovers) will enjoy the queso fundido immensely.  This is an unapologetically rich dish of melted Mexican cheese punctuated by house-made chorizo, a spicy porcine blend that tempers the queso’s richness.  Mexico’s decadently delicious version of a cheese fondue is accompanied by fresh corn tortillas just off the griddle.  One of the chefs likes his tortillas just a bit crispy and that’s the way he sends them out to guests, but that only seems to enhance the flavor of corn.

Dinner might also start off with an “amuse bouche,” a complementary palate pleasing bowl of arbol chili dusted ranch dip served with sliced jicama, cucumber and carrots. The freshness of the vegetables and the invigorating flavors of the dip are indicative of the little touches that make Los Equipales so unique and more than a “cut above.”

Enchiladas de camaron, the best I've ever had anywhere!

Enchiladas de Camarones (Shrimp Enchiladas)

Another starter not to be missed is the restaurant’s outstanding ceviche, fresh fish marinated in lime juice, tomatoes, cilantro and vinegar. Even a “small” sized portion of this delicious raw fish catalyzed in the marinade of acidic juices is big enough to share.  The restaurant’s well-designed Web site even explains the etymology of the word “ceviche,” conjecturing that the name may have come from the Quechua word “siwichi,” adding that another likely basis is the Spanish word “escabeche” (marinade) which itself is derived from an Arabic term.

At Los Equipales, the mariscos are in a class by themselves–better than at any of the long-standing mariscos restaurants in Albuquerque.  Chef Valdvinos introduced us to the arroz marinero, a seafood medley of fresh shrimp, oysters, scallops, clams and fresh fish cooked with a flavorful rice not quite the consistency of risotto. The seafood is sweet and succulent, almost as if just plucked out of the sapphire waters of the Pacific. The oysters (on the half-shell) and the scallops are particularly sweet and delicious.

Camarones al Tequila

Another lunch menu standard featuring grilled shrimp are the Camarones al Tequila, seven shrimp bathed in a rich and creamy tequila sauce. The shrimp are sweet and delicious, a hallmark of seafood at Los Equipales, but that sauce places it in the rarified class of sublime.  Erika confirms that the recipe for the tequila sauce comes from her mother who was certainly inspired to genius with this magnificent sauce.  Shrimp has never been bathed in a more succulent  sauce. You’ll be asking for tortillas so you can sop up every last bit of that sauce.

Enchiladas de camaron (shrimp enchiladas) started as a  special of the day, but they were so popular that they are now standard lunch menu fare. I’ve had seafood enchiladas all over America, but none nearly as wonderful as those served at Los Equipales. What makes them so special is the sweetness of the shrimp which is perfectly complemented by a lightly spiced chili sauce and two excellent melting cheeses, the Cheddar-like queso de Chihuahua and queso Asadero which is somewhat similar to Monterrey Jack cheese.

Tostadas de Tinga, a specialty of

Tortas de tinga, a specialty of the Hidalgo region

Perhaps the restaurant’s most decadent, certainly its most expensive at $65 (as of July, 2010), celebration of seafood is in the parrillada de mariscos for two.  Parrillada, a Spanish word for mixed grill, is a coastal Mexican specialty that has caught on north of the border.  Few restaurants do it nearly as well as Los Equipales where this bounteous treasure includes two lobster tails, twelve mussels, twelve shrimp, twelve clams, two oysters and two scallops grilled and served over the restaurant’s sensational tomato-garlic sauce.

Two large platters are delivered to your table, showcasing an artistic array of seafood arranged in an oblong fashion, the centerpiece being the lobster tail.  The lobster meat is succulent and sweet imbued a nice hint of the roasting process. and perhaps, a sheen of butter.  Alas, there may not be even six ounces per tail of this delicious decapod.  The garlic sauce emphasizes the sweet qualities of the seafood, not the oft sharp flavor of garlic some disdain.  It’s a terrific tomatoey sauce which seems to bring out the best in the seafood, every morsel of which is delicious.

A seafood bounty that includes two lobster tails and much more

Land-lovers will lust over some of the restaurant’s meat entrees. The carnitas de puerco, marinated chunks of deep-fried pork tenders are drizzled with a tomatillo sauce and served with buttery guacamole. The pork has the tenderness of lamb kebab as you might find served at a fine Persian restaurant. It is on par with the best carnitas you’ll find anywhere in New Mexico. Also quite wonderful is the carne a la Tampiquena, skirt steak strips grilled and marinated to perfection.

In 2006, Los Equipales began a celebration of the diverse cuisine of Mexico’s various regions by offering specialties unique to those regions for two week periods.  Today, specialty dishes from each of Mexico’s 31 states are featured periodically to keep the menu fresh and interesting.  Frequent visitors never know what to expect and leave themselves in the Martinez family’s capable hands to introduce something they’ve never had before.  I’ve often argued that Mexican food can’t be pigeonholed because of its tremendous diversity.  Los Equipales proves it every day.


Pictured above are tortas de tinga, a specialty of the Hidalgo region. This beautiful dish begins with simple boiled and shredded chicken which is prepared in a broth of aromatic spices then sautéed with chorizo, chopped potatoes, onions, roasted and peeled tomatoes, chipotle chiles, vinegar and other herbal spices. Topped with fresh ranchero cheese, this is outstanding entree teases your taste buds with savory, sweet and piquant tastes.

An absolute “must-have” postre (dessert) at Los Equipales, if you have room, is the signature tres leches cake, as rich and moist as you’ll find anywhere. As you slice through it with your fork, its juices practically ooze with delicious goodness.  The tres leches cake is house-made as are all the desserts featured in this Mexican restaurant nonpareil.

House-made tres leches cake

If Los Equipales remains consistent with its formula of impeccable hospitality and generous portions of delicious food, it might soon be regarded as possibly the very best Mexican restaurant in the city.  It was accorded Best Mexican honors in the Alibi’s annual Best of Burque’s Restaurants awards in 2007 ending El Norteno’s multi-year dominance in the category.

Alas, innovation and success don’t always keep a restaurant in the public’s mind–especially when a restaurant is off the well-beaten, well-eaten path.  The American dining public–and I include myself here–can be a fickle lot. We tend to gravitate toward the new kids on the block, the newcomers anointed by critics as the next great thing in town.  Our previous favorites seem to lose their sheen and we take a “been there, done that” attitude to yesterday’s pretty new faces.  The end result is that many of those former favorites wind up closing and we’re left wondering what went wrong.

During a visit in July, 2010, we found Los Equipales surprisingly and sadly lacking in the true life’s blood of a restaurant–paying guests.  It’s often said that the American public has a very short memory and being obfuscated from heavily trafficked Central Avenue, there aren’t visual cues to trigger the memories of the outstanding meals you may have had at Los Equipales.  Here’s hoping this review will trigger some of those memories and you’ll return to this fantastic restaurant before it’s too late.  Thank you to Jim Millington (feedback below) for triggering my memories.

Los Equipales
4500 Silver, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 11 July 2010
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Ceviche, Carnitas De Puerco, Arroz Marinero, Enchiladas de Camaron, Parrillada de Mariscos, Queso Fundido, Salsa and Chips, Tes Leches Cake, Horchata, Limonada

Los Equipales on Urbanspoon

The Hollar – Madrid, New Mexico

The Hollar in Madrid, New Mexico

The Hollar in Madrid, New Mexico

It wasn’t that long ago that if you played “word association” with almost anyone outside the Mason-Dixon line, the first thing coming to mind if you used the term “Southern food” was probably something like “heapin’ helpins’ of hillbilly hospitality.”

During their nine-year run as one of the most popular comedies in the history of American television, the Clampetts, a hillbilly family who relocated to Beverly Hills after finding oil on their property, introduced “vittles” to the American vernacular.  Vittles, of course, meant such “delicacies” as possum shanks, pickled pig jowls, smoked crawdads, stewed squirrel, turnip greens, and owl cakes.  “Weeeee Doggies,” now that’s eatin’.”

To much of America, the aforementioned delicacies were culinary curiosities–bumpkinly and provincial food no one outside the deeply rural south would eat.  Because the Beverly Hillbillies predated the Food Network and the culinary awakening of America, those stereotypes as to what constitutes Southern food became deeply ingrained in the fabric of American culture.

The interior of The Hollar

The interior of The Hollar

In 2008, Gary Paul Nabhan published Renewing America’s Food Traditions, one of the most important books written about American food. This terrific tome celebrates the vast diversity of foods which gives North America its distinctive cultural identity, an identity reflecting the vast and unique hodgepodge of cultures.  In an example of gerrymandering Congress would envy, Nabhan remapped North America’s boundaries into thirteen basic food “nations” or culinary regions.  He named each region for its ecological and cultural keystone foods.

The culinary region which includes Southern Arizona and New Mexico into northern Mexico, for example, is called “chili pepper nation.”  Three distinctive food nations define the South: “Chestnut Nation”–northern Georgia through West Virginia; “Crab Cake Nation”–the mid-Atlantic down to the Florida coast; and “Gumbo Nation,” the Gulf Coast.

These three culinary nations proudly showcase distinctive traditions and ingredients spawned from a veritable stew of multicultural influences which evolved into Southern food as we know it today.  Those influences include Native and African Americans as well as Scottish, French, Spanish and so many others which were ultimately responsible for Soul food, Creole and Cajun cooking, barbecue and more.  To pigeonhole Southern food into a finite category is to not understand Southern food at all.

Hollar Burger with Prosciutto and Provolone

Hollar Burger with Prosciutto and Provolone

Having lived in Mississippi for eight years, we knew not to compartmentalize Southern food which we thought we had seen described and defined every conceivable way.  That is, until reading an email from a long-time reader of this blog.  When Robyn Black described a restaurant in Madrid, New Mexico which serves “a kind of continental southern food…not the kind of ya’all southern food, but a lot more upscale” in an ambiance “as comfortable as an old shoe, but a lot prettier,” we were intrigued.

When she added that “This is a place that should not be missed, whether you are just passing through or staying in Madrid.  In fact this is a place that is worth driving to from just about anywhere,” and personalized it with “Gil Garduno, this is a restaurant you should not miss,” a visit became inevitable.

The restaurant Robyn described so invitingly is called The Hollar.  In the vernacular of the South, a hollar is a term for “a small valley between mountains,” an apt description for Madrid itself.  Long-time Country music fans are undoubtedly familiar with part-time New Mexican Randy Travis’s “Deeper Than The Holler” which describes the lyrical way a country boy expresses his love (i.e., “My love is deeper that the holler, stronger than the rivers, higher than the pine trees growin’ tall upon the hill…)”

New York Steak and eggs

New York Steak and eggs

The Hollar is the brainchild of owner-chef Josh Novak who matriculated at Le Cordon Bleu culinary school in Atlanta, perhaps the heart of the South.  It is situated in the rustically charming wooden structure which previously housed the Tocororo Cafe, a highly regarded Cuban restaurant which we loved.  Robyn assured me that “Tocororo may have been good, but The Hollar which has taken it’s place is stellar!”  She called chef Novak “an outstanding, innovative chef!”

The Hollar has interior seating for fewer than thirty guests, but weather-permitting, the place to dine is really the outdoor patio which seats up to 20 more people.  Enclosed by an agrestic coyote fence, it is an ideal milieu for enjoying a New Mexico day particularly when entertainment is provided–and if it isn’t, the people watching is always interesting.  The mostly monochromatic restaurant’s walls are festooned with unframed paintings by a local artist.   More colorful are the clientele, which seemingly typical of Madrid restaurants, is a mix of Bohemians and bikers.  It’s the tourists who seem out of place.

The abbreviated menu is inspired, the “continental Southern” Robyn described.  It’s Southern food with refinement to be sure, but it also includes some of the more simple favorites such as fried green tomatoes, fried pickles and fried chicken.  Lest you think the commonality among everything on the menu is “fried,” the menu also includes entrees you might not necessarily expect at a Southern restaurant–dishes such as a Nicoise salad featuring blackened tuna and a Balsamic vinaigrette.

Fried Green Tomato and Egg Biscuits

Fried Green Tomato and Egg Biscuits

Robyn recommends the shrimp stack which to her “amazement and palate’s delight” provided “an explosion of flavors to die for, something you might find in a five-star restaurant (without the five-star price or attitude).”   The shrimp stack is available for lunch or dinner, but not for Sunday brunch which as it happens was when Kim and I first visited.  The brunch menu is limited in terms of the number of items available, but limitless in its surprises and the culinary contentment it elicits.

One surprise is the Hollar Burger with Prosciutto and Provolone, an inspired burger combination that might seem more Italian than Southern were it not for the fact that a biscuit replaces the banal burger bun.  Unlike the crumbly biscuits I make at home, this one holds together surprisingly well despite the moistness of the beef.  In terms of circumference it’s not a big burger, but it stacks pretty high with a thick, juicy beef patty; crisp lettuce; and thinly-sliced prosciutto sheathed under melted provolone.  More importantly than it’s height is its depth of flavor.  It is a rich and delicious burger.

With today’s inflation the phrase “as tough as a two dollar steak” should probably be replaced by “as tough as a twenty dollar steak.”  The Hollar’s brunch menu features a New York Steak and Eggs for five dollars less than that, but this steak isn’t tough in the least.  It’s a tender and juicy steak–about eight-ounces–seasoned to perfection with nary any gristle.  In addition to the two eggs, this plate includes some of the very best grits I’ve ever had.  If you’ve never had good grits, you’ve never had Josh Novak’s smoked gouda grits which have a texture and flavor unlike any grits I can remember, even in Mississippi.

Fried green tomatoes with a Bourdelaise sauce

When Fanny Flagg’s best-selling novel Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe was published in 1987, it inspired many restaurants to try their hand at preparing this Southern favorite.  Most failed miserably, but The Hollar has perfected the formula–fried green tomatoes lightly coated with cornmeal crust so that when you bite into them, only the outer layer is crunchy while the insides retain a juicy tomato flavor.  One of the ways to appreciate the fried green tomatoes best is on a biscuit with fried eggs.  Wow!  Aside from my mom’s chokecherry jelly, I’ve never had anything better on a biscuit.

Lunchtime starters include a house salad, bruschetta, fried pickles, fried okra and fried tomatoes.  The fried okra is classic–lightly breaded and impeccably fresh.  You’ll find the okra crispy on the outside and  light and moist on the inside.  The fried okra is served with a creamy house-made Ranch dressing.

A starter of fried green tomatoes comes four to an order.  The tomatoes are served with a unique twist on Bordelaise sauce which is traditionally served with meats.  In fact, by virtue of its white gravy-like color, you’d probably never mistake The Hollar’s sauce with Bordelaise.  Appearance be darned, this is an excellent sauce which complements the fried green tomatoes very well.

A warm goat cheese salad

The Hollar’s lunch menu even offers a fried green tomato salad, one of five salads featured (the others being a Nicoise salad with seared tuna, a crispy chicken salad, a crispy shrimp salad and for vegetarians, a sauteed tempeh salad).  When available, the best salad may well be a warm goat cheese salad (pictured above).  This is a work of edible as well as aesthetic art showcasing a variety of greens, berries (black berries, strawberries, blueberries and raspberries), cherry tomatoes, sliced cucumbers, roasted red peppers and grilled chevre (goat cheese) from the South Mountain Dairy in Cedar Crest.

This is a sensational salad!  Served with house-made vinaigrette and Ranch dressings, it is a compilation of scintillating ingredients as fresh and delicious as possible.  The goat cheese is mild, creamy and only slightly sour, the way it should be.  It emboldens and complements the other ingredients, especially the berries.  The grilled red peppers are lightly marinated and have a sweet, ripened quality that renders them delicious.  The berries are an interesting and pleasant addition, bringing an element of tartness to the salad.

One of the highlights of our eight years living in Mississippi was in discovering a region in which fried chicken was practically a religion.  We’ve missed the golden-hued, crispy coating which enrobes perfectly fried and delicate chicken so good it makes adults swoon with ecstasy.  The Hollar’s rendition, though not traditional bone-in chicken, is the best we’ve found in New Mexico.  An entree of crispy chicken with cheese grits and grilled asparagus nearly elicited carnal responses of delight.  The white meat chicken breasts were moist and delicious with an exquisite coating reminiscent of the fabulous Southern-fried chicken we enjoyed often.  Better still, it is served with the aforementioned Bordelaise sauce which presents the qualities of richness and elegance.

Crispy chicken with cheese grits and grilled asparagus

The smoked gouda cheese grits are outstanding, better than any grits we enjoyed in the Deep South–much better.  I’d make the drive from Rio Rancho to Madrid just for the grits.  Then there’s the grilled asparagus which appears to have been marinated in a Balsamic sauce of some sorts.  The asparagus spears are tender and as fresh as they are in spring.  Aficionados of fried chicken won’t do better in New Mexico than this plate!

Biscuits play a prominent role in the  menu and as wonderful as they are, I can’t help but wonder what a good jam would add. Still, if you’re looking for a refreshing departure from the de rigueur New Mexico brunch standards such as breakfast burritos, The Hollar is a welcome change. If you’re looking for a great meal in a terrific setting, the picturesque drive to Madrid should definitely be on your horizon. My love for this charming restaurant is, as Randy Travis might sing, deeper than The Hollar.

The Hollar is open for lunch from 11AM through 3PM and dinner from 5 to 9PM Wednesdays through Saturday. Sunday brunch is available from 11AM to 3PM.

The Hollar
2849 Hwy. 14
Madrid, New Mexico
Web Site
LATEST VISIT: 10 July 2010
1st VISIT: 2 August 2009
COST: $$
BEST BET: Hollar Burger with Prosciutto and Provolone, Fried Green Tomato and Egg Biscuit, Coleslaw, New York Steak and Eggs, Warm Goat Cheese Salad, Crispy Chicken with Cheese Grits, Fried Green Tomatoes with a Bordelaise Sauce

Rincon Del Pollo – Albuquerque, New Mexico

El Rincon Del Pollo, the Chicken Corner, is aptly named.

El Rincon Del Pollo, the Chicken Corner, is aptly named.

In 1928, the presidential campaign featured several slogans and ads promising an era of prosperity.  The most memorable of these was a boast that the Republican administrations of Warren Harding and Calvin Coolidge had “reduced hours and increased earning capacity, silenced discontent, and put the proverbial ‘chicken in every pot.’  And a car in every backyard, to boot.”

If a chicken in every pot is a measure of prosperity, then the Rincon del Pollo (Chicken Corner) Mexican restaurant on North Fourth must epitomize success and affluence.  That’s because this diminutive eatery specializes in all things chicken, albeit al estilo Mexicano (Mexican style).

The Rincon del Pollo launched in 2003 and was originally situated in the Northdale Shopping Center (which Duke City history buffs might recognize was built in 1961 by famed local builder Dale Bellamah).

A chicken in every pot and chicken figurines throughout the restaurant.

A chicken in every pot and chicken figurines throughout the restaurant.

Owners Rafiel Rivera and Ana Luna have created within their tiny space, a homey and welcoming atmosphere for their faithful patrons.  It’s not uncommon to see blue and white collar diners sitting practically side-by-side in the somewhat crowded restaurant. The main portion of the restaurant, where the lovely Ana takes your order, has but two tiny tables and a couple of stools.  In the summer indoor seating is a prized commodity because this is the only seating area in which cool air is provided.

A covered patio comes in handy, providing some respite when New Mexico’s ubiquitous spring winds are blowing with their usual ferocity.  Ana admits that in the summer her customers complain that the patio is too hot and in the winter they lambaste the cold.  Perhaps that’s why a brisk take-out business  exceeds the volume of sit-down meals served.

There’s not only a chicken in every pot at this colorful eatery, you’ll find ceramic chickens looking down at you from several high shelves.  The ambiance is completed by a crowing rooster in a neighboring home.  We initially thought the rooster was an ambience enhancing sound effect.

Chips and salsa

Every meal is prepared to order.  It’s not unusual for some of the popular menu items to be sold out by noon.  True to the restaurant’s name, chicken entrees dominate (eleven of them) the menu, but you’ll also find a few shrimp dishes, carne asada and several sides.  Also on the menu is homemade horchata and liminada (lemonade), some of the very best in town.

Chips and salsa are complementary and delicious.  Unlike the salsa served at so many New Mexican restaurants, El Rincon del Pollo’s salsa is made with an earthy red chile, not with jalapenos or some other pepper.  The salsa is thickened with just a bit of corn starch and has very few ingredients.  Neither Mexican oregano or garlic are discernible though onions are.  The chips are thick and low in salt with a pronounced flavor of corn.  Their thickness means you have to scoop up a lot of salsa to fully appreciate the melding of flavors.

El Rincon’s menu also includes several breakfast burritos (served until eleven), most of which don’t include chicken. Popular favorites include machaca (meat baked, simmered dried then reconstituted and prepared with green peppers and onions) dishes, but no chilaquiles.

Chicken in red chile.

Chicken in red chile.

The restaurant easily falls into the “cheap eats” category with nothing on the menu within a dollar of a ten spot.  Rincon closes at 3PM. Exterior signage indicates Rincon del Pollo serves American Mexican food, a characterization perhaps derived from the owners having worked in restaurants in Mexico, California, Massachusetts and now, the Land of Enchantment.  Their version of American Mexican food fortunately doesn’t lean toward Massachusetts style.

Rafael Rivera mans the kitchen where he cooks everything from scratch, fresh daily.  Instead of pouring a dish’s sauce on top of the chicken, he actually cooks the chicken in each dish’s sauce.  It does make a difference.

That difference is evident in the chicken dinner which you can have with red chile (pictured at right), green chile or Mexican style.  Rich red chile is slathered generously atop a four-piece (breast, wing, leg and thigh) roasted chicken.  It’s not a piquant chile and as such, allows you to appreciate the moist and delicious chicken.  Alas, the red chile has just a hint of cumin.  “For flavor,” Ana tells us.  There is no cumin in the green chile.

A burrito stuffed with chicken.

A burrito stuffed with chicken.

Entrees are accompanied by beans and rice, neither of which have the moistness of the chicken.  Both are also somewhat under-salted by Mexican food standards.  Though Ana says otherwise, the beans aren’t prepared with lard.  You could have fooled this native New Mexican.

The chicken burrito plate features one of the most delicious hand-held burritos in town (despite the cumin).  You can have this burrito slathered with chile, but it’s probably not something you want to do if you plan on eating it while driving down the road.  This burrito is engorged with moist chicken and chile along with various ingredients such as green peppers sliced very small.  It’s a handful and despite its moist contents, you won’t spill those contents all over your clothing if you’re careful.

The menu also includes a culinary curiosity even in New Mexico–carne adovada with green chile.  The only other restaurant in which we’ve seen this dish served is Papa Felipe‘s New Mexican Restaurant.  It’s such a culinary curiosity that James Beard Award-winning food journalists Jane and Michael Stern included Papa Felipe’s rendition in their terrific tome 500 Things to Eat Before It’s Too Late.

Carne adovada with green chile

Strictly speaking, El Rincon’s rendition of carne adovada is hardly the traditional version prepared throughout New Mexico–and that’s not just because of the green chile.  Instead of fork-tender, easily shredding chunks of pork, this version appears to be nothing more than roast pork cut into small cubes and served with a green chile sauce.  The pork isn’t tender and there’s no way any New Mexican would call this a carne adovada dish.  That’s not to say it isn’t a good dish.  Most New Mexicans will appreciate the piquancy and flavor of the chile.

Beef tacos make an excellent side dish.  Shredded beef, lettuce, cheese and a little bit of salsa make this a six or seven bite delight.  The taco shells are about halfway between crispy and pliably soft with just a bit of greasiness for flavor.

Horchata and beef tacos

Horchata and beef tacos

The horchata is homemade and served from a pitcher kept in the refrigerator.  Served over ice, it is topped with more cinnamon than you might be used to, but it’s refreshingly delicious.

Rincon Del Pollo
9129 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 8 July 2010
1st VISIT:  16 April 2007
BEST BET: Horchata, Chicken Burrito, Chicken With Red Chile, Beef Tacos

Ron Del Pollo on Urbanspoon

Circle T Burgers – Belen, New Mexico

Circle T Burgers: Serving Belen, New Mexico since 1958

The year was 1958.  The average American wage-owner’s income was $4,650 per year.  A Ford automobile cost between $1,967 and $3,929.  Milk was $1.01 per gallon.  Bread cost 19 cents a loaf and a can of Chef Boyardee spaghetti went for 19 cents a can.  First class US postage was raised to 4 cents after having held at 3 cents for more than a quarter-century.  A gallon of gasoline cost 24 cents.

In 1958, the United States had two-thirds of the world’s 47-million television sets and many of them were tuned in to Gunsmoke, Father Knows Best, Dinah Shore and The Jack Benny Show.  France gave the world the disposable Bic pen (which very few people under 20 have even heard of today).  Corningware dishes, the hula hoop and stereo records were introduced.  To pay for this copious consumerism, American Express introduced the first credit card. The “King” Elvis Prestley was inducted into the United States Army. Prince, Andy Gibb, Madonna and Michael Jackson were born.

In the world of sports, Pele scored two goals to lead Brazil to victory at the 1958 World Cup.  Wilt Chamberlain left the University of Kansas to play with the Harlem Globetrotters.  Ohio State defeated Oregon in the Rose Bowl while the St. Louis Hawks bested the Boston Celtics to win the NBA championship.  The New York Yankees claimed their unprecedented eighteenth title.  Closer to home, the University of New Mexico Lobo basketball team lost every game they played.  With future NFL Hall of Fame coach Marv Levy at the helm, the Lobo football team had a 7-3 record.

The interior of Circle T Burgers

In 1958, Belen, New Mexico wasn’t quite the bedroom community for Albuquerque it is today.  In fact, it was downright pastoral with many families continuing generations-old farming traditions.  Moreover, Belen was the hub of the Santa Fe Railroad, which to this day remains a major employer in the community.  Hard-working railroad workers, farmers and ranchers are a hungry lot, a fact that wasn’t lost on local entrepreneur Gil Tabet who in 1958 opened the first of two Circle T Burgers restaurants in Belen.

Tabet was a pioneer of sorts, introducing green chile on his restaurant’s burgers at a time when America’s love affair with the hamburger was just starting to ramp up.  Though it might surprise New Mexicans, almost no one in Valencia county was showcasing the area’s fantastic green chile on their burgers until Tabet led the way.  Soon other restaurants followed and the rest, as the proverbial “they” say is history.  Generations of Belen residents grew up on the Circle T’s food and remain steadfastly loyal today.

The Circle T on Belen’s Main Street has the look and feel of the 50s-style restaurant it is.  As you approach the restaurant from the north, you’ll espy a 1960s icon for A&W’s teen burger, a fiberglass statue of a teenager sporting a letterman’s sweater emblazoned with an encircled letter T.  The teenager is holding a frosted mug on one hand and a gigantic burger on the other.  A large sign confirms you are indeed at Circle T Burgers.  A large enclosed patio faces Main Street while an old-fashioned pick-up counter can be found on the restaurant’s southern parking lot, ostensibly for calling in your order in advance and picking it up quickly.

The icon for A&W’s teen burger is suspended on a pole near the restaurant’s parking lot

The restaurant’s real treasures are indoors where nostalgia abounds in the form of vintage art and period signage festooning the walls. You’ll want to stroll up and down the aisles and study the collection Gil Tabet amassed over the years.  A collection of framed photos back-lit by small LED (light emitting diode) lights is well worth checking out.  My favorite is one of Central Avenue (Route 66) in the Duke City looking east near the intersection of Carlisle.  It’s amusing to see all that’s changed since the photo was taken, probably in the late 1960s, and what remains the same in our beloved Land of Mañana.

Also on the walls are framed photographs of the I Love Lucy television show so popular in the 1960s.  A hooked rug depicting a chile ristra hangs on one wall as do many things of interest, including several framed newspaper articles celebrating the restaurant and the Tabet family.  Modernity is no stranger to Circle T, however.  Signage suspended from the ceiling directs you to the restaurant’s Wi-Fi hot spot and invites diners to visit the restaurant’s Facebook page.  It’s an interesting dichotomy.

The menu hangs above the order and pick-up windows.  It, too, is a period piece–essentially two menus flanking a Coca Cola sign.  On the left-hand side, the menu lists burgers which range in size from regular (1/6th pound) to jumbo (1/4th pound) to half-pounder.  Listed below these burgers are optional additives: chile, cheese, bacon and jalapeno.  Extra patties are also available.  An extra patty for a half-pounder costs nearly as much ($4.50) as the burger itself ($6.00), but locals tell of railroad workers who pound down those one-pounders with ease.  Other burger options include a tortilla burger and a taco burger, both with cheese and chile.

A half-pound green chile cheeseburger with an order of French fries

The right-hand side of the menu is captioned “Favorites” and it’s easy to see why.  Favorites include a jumbo barbecue burger, hot dogs, fried bean burritos, chicken wraps, chicken sandwiches, fish sandwiches, chile cheese fries, nachos with jalapenos, French fries and two sides: green chile or nacho cheese.  Though your intended meal may be a green chile cheeseburger, it would be easy to get get off-course.  Everything on the menu sounds delicious.

Should you stay on track and opt for the green chile cheeseburger, you’ll be rewarded with one of the very best in New Mexico.  The secret to this burger is definitely the green chiles the Tabet family purchases from Rosales Farms in nearby Escondido.  This chile bites back with a piquancy rarely found in Duke City burgers.  It’s a fresh, delicious neon green pile of deliciousness, spread generously on lightly toasted buns.  Other ingredients on this burger are fresh tomatoes, red onions, pickles, crisp lettuce and mustard.

Everything on the menu is prepared to order on a well-seasoned flat metal grill that retains flavors well and cooks at consistent temperatures.  The results are an excellent green chile cheeseburger, the type of which you might want a second or third, even if you order a half-pounder as I did.  The coalescence of fresh ingredients and the lean, fresh, hand-pressed beef coupled with terrific green chile places this burger in rarefied company as one of the very best in New Mexico.  That’s not just my contention.  Circle T competed in the governor’s inaugural green chile cheeseburger during the 2009 state fair and made an excellent accounting for itself.

Jumbo Barbecue Burger

Another surprising, albeit non-traditional burger, you won’t find anywhere else is Circle T’s jumbo barbecue burger, a quarter-pounder resembling a sloppy Joe.  It doesn’t taste like a sloppy Joe.  The ground beef on this magnificent burger is ameliorated with a tangy barbecue sauce tinged with red chile for even more bite.  It’s a handful and if you’re not careful, the contents may find their way onto your clothes (Murphy’s Law postulates that you’ll be wearing a white shirt when you eat one).

French fries are also quite good.  They’re the thin variety, the type of which you might find at LotaBurger, but they’re lightly salted.  That’s easily remedied or you can opt for a ketchup coverage instead.  To wash down your food, Circle T offers old-fashioned milk shakes.  They’re teeth-chattering cold and have a pronounced chocolate flavor chocoholics appreciate.

Circle T Burgers is on the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail.  It’s less than half an hour away from Albuquerque and well worth the visit.  Taste what Belen residents have enjoyed for more than fifty years–one of New Mexico’s true restaurant gems serving one of its best green chile cheeseburgers and so much more.

Circle T Burgers
523 South Main Street
Belen, New Mexico
(505) 864-4135
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 5 July 2010
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Half-Pound Green Chile Cheeseburger, Jumbo Barbecue Burger