Gil's Thrilling (And Filling) Blog

Follow the Culinary Ruminations of New Mexico's Sesquipedalian Sybarite. 834 Restaurant Reviews, More Than 6300 Visitor Comments…And Counting!

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
# OF VISITS: 7
RATING: 16
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salsa, Carnitas, Sour Cream Enchiladas, Sopaipillas, Fideos, Quelites, Green Chile Stew

Charlie's Front & Back Door on Urbanspoon

Lucky Boy – Albuquerque, New Mexican

Sr. Plata stands in front of Albuquerque's Lucky Boy restaurant where East meets West and green chile cheeseburgers meet egg rolls.

Sr. Plata stands in front of Albuquerque’s Lucky Boy restaurant where East meets West and green chile cheeseburgers meet egg rolls.

During its seventh season, the X Files television series in which FBI agents investigated paranormal phenomena featured an episode in which a ravenous Lucky Boy employee in California struggled against his craving for human brain matter (almost anything goes in the Golden state). The most paranormal thing about the Duke City Lucky Boy is its “east meets west” dining concept. Nowhere else in town can you order Chinese and American food so inexpensively and from the very same menu.

If you think about it, ordering inexpensive Chinese and American food from within one menu shouldn’t be such an anomalous event–especially when you consider that many of Lucky Boy’s patrons are UNM students, many of whom know how to stretch a buck. It’s not just UNM students who patronize this hole-in-the-wall. You might just as soon find faculty and staff also indulging in inexpensive (but good) food.

Lucky Boy's genial proprietors hard at work.

Lucky Boy’s genial proprietors hard at work.

Lucky Boy is a quintessential American mom and pop (make that mama-san and papa-san) diner tended lovingly by Chinese proprietors named Suzy and Ron who know what many of their customers are going to order as soon as they walk in. You’ll do a second-take the first time you see a steaming wok preparing noodles next to the sizzling griddle on which burger patties are being cooked.  Lucky Boy has been around since 1968 and it shows.  The restaurant is somewhat bedraggled and is certainly dated with 1960s style paneling on the walls and well-trodden tile on the floor.

Lucky Boy’s green chile cheeseburger is six inches of well seasoned meat and standard (lettuce, pickles, tomato, onions) but high quality condiments, including a tangy Day-Glo colored mustard and ketchup sauce the proprietors refer to as Lucky Boy sauce. The green chile is flavorful and more piquant than at many New Mexican restaurants and proprietors of the green chile cheeseburger (Lotaburger comes to mind).  The buns are lightly toasted, but so thick they obfuscate the flavor of the burger.

Green chile cheeseburger from Lucky Boy

Lucky Boy was one of 48 restaurants, drive-ins, diners, dives, joints, cafes, roadside stands and bowling alleys selected for the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, a celebration of New Mexico’s iconic burger.  That placed it in select…make that elite, company.  It wouldn’t be too much of a stretch to call Lucky Boy’s green chile cheeseburger one of the city’s most popular, if not best of its genre.

The menu also includes an Egg Foo Young sandwich, a culinary curiosity served in St. Louis as a “St. Paul sandwich” and which you won’t find in Minnesota. At Lucky Boy, you can have the Egg Foo Yong sandwich with hamburger meat and the condiments which normally accompany a burger (including the aforementioned Lucky Boy sauce, chile and green chile). It’s a great sandwich with or without the beef patty!

Sr. Plata holds a Egg Foo Young sandwich with green chile, meat and cheese from Lucky Boy

Sr. Plata holds a Egg Foo Young sandwich with green chile, meat and cheese from Lucky Boy

Lucky Boy’s French fries are only so-so (fairly standard) while we’ve found the chocolate shakes to be rather gloppy and bland. Lucky Boy offers more than the standard Pepsi or Coke soft drinks. RC Cola and Diet Rite in a can are among the different sodas featured.

Egg Foo Young Sandwich with Green Chile, Meat and Cheese

Egg Foo Young Sandwich with Green Chile, Meat and Cheese

Chinese fare includes sweet and sour pork, Mandarin chicken and other American favorites. Aside from the Egg Foo Young sandwich we haven’t sampled any Chinese entrees but have observed that there’s almost a fifty/fifty split among patrons ordering burgers and Chinese food.

Lucky Boy
3521 Constitution, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 268-2785
LATEST VISIT: 16 December 2013
# OF VISITS: 8
RATING: 18
COST: $
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Egg Foo Yong Sandwich

Lucky Boy 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.

Monroe’s
16th & Lomas
Albuquerque, NM
242-1111
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 18 July 2010
# OF VISITS: 12
RATING: 19
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