The Burrito Lady – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Consuelo Flores, the Burrito Lady

Consuelo Flores, Albuquerque's beautiful Burrito Lady

It is the blood of the Lunas to be quiet,
for only a quiet man can learn the secrets of the earth that are necessary for planting
— They are quiet like the moon.”
Bless Me Ultima, by Rudolfo A. Anaya

For nearly seventy-years, Consuelo Flores’s father harnessed the secrets of the earth to raise some of the best, most piquant green chile  in Puerto de Luna, an agrarian community about ten miles outside of Santa Rosa, New Mexico which was made famous by Rudolfo Anaya’s classic novel.  He imparted those secrets to his daughter who grew up participating in all facets of the chile “life cycle”–planting, harvesting, roasting and cooking.  Today Consuelo, Albuquerque’s beautiful Burrito Lady, demonstrates every day just how well she learned those secrets by preparing some of the most delicious chile in Albuquerque.

Consuelo uses only chile of the “hot” variety, admitting it’s not as good as the green chile her family raised.   After years of working in other restaurants, Consuelo launched the Burrito Lady restaurant because it’s the only way she could get New Mexican food as good as she makes it home and she wanted to share her culinary skills with Albuquerque.  Her perpetual smile is like a ray of sunshine on a dreary day. Her effervescent personality lights up her restaurant and if you’re a regular, she treats you like family.

The Burrito Lady restaurant proves great food can be prepared in the tiniest of kitchens.

The Burrito Lady restaurant proves great food can be prepared in the tiniest of kitchens.

Consuelo’s petite restaurant is ensconced in an unexceptional Northeast Heights strip mall heretofore distinguishable only because of the gigantic inflated plastic reptiles atop the pet shop next door. Not much bigger than two standard office cubicles, the non-kitchen portion of the restaurant barely has room for three small tables, a counter in which orders are taken, a sideboard with brick-a-brack and not much more. The Burrito Lady is empirical proof that it’s the quality of the product that counts, not the size of the restaurant.

Hungry patrons queue outside to place their orders and though it may take a while for their orders to be taken and filled, you won’t see anyone leave–and pity anyone audacious enough to try cutting in line. A weighty take-out business accounts for much of the traffic as employees of nearby businesses call ahead for enough burritos to sate their buddies back at the office. Some of those take-out gophers also leave with sodas a plenty–not just to slake their buddies’ thirsts but to extinguish the heat generated by the capsaicin blessed chile on those burritos. The menu’s assertion “if you like it hot” isn’t in reference to a lack of air conditioning. The Burrito Lady serves red and green chile you can respect.

The roast beef burrito with red chile.

The roast beef burrito with red chile.

While burritos may be the name on the marquee, this hole-in-the-wall also serves stuffed sopaipillas, enchiladas, homemade tamales, enchiladas and tacos at very affordable prices that belie the outstanding quality of the product.  The sole dessert offerings, a homemade chocolate cake topped with a chocolate frosting and a luscious chocolate brownie with just the right amount of walnuts can put weight on you just by ogling it lustily; that’s how rich it is.  The Burrito Lady  even exerts her independence from Coke and Pepsi products by offering a phalanx of soft drinks heretofore unavailable elsewhere: Big Red, Cherry 7-Up, Strawberry, RC Cola and more.

Eleven breakfast burritos and eleven lunch burritos showcase Consuelo’s  cooking with such atypical (at least in the Duke City) ingredients as chicharrones (the crackling, deep fat fried pork treat New Mexicans love) and calabacitas (summer squash). The breakfast burritos are big enough to fill you up for the entire day, but once you bite into one, you won’t stop until it’s gone.  You can have your burritos hand-held or smothered with chili (sic) and cheese.  Daily specials are available for each day of the week, however, the restaurant is open only Monday through Friday from 6:30AM to 2:00PM.

The supreme breakfast burrito lives up to its name...and then some!

The supreme breakfast burrito lives up to its name...and then some!

The supreme breakfast burrito lives up to its sobriquet and then some. Encased in a “just off the comal” fresh flour tortilla are beans, potatoes, eggs, chile (your choice of red or green (or both)), ham, carne adovada and crispy bacon enough for even Homer Simpson (whose two favorite animals are pork chops and bacon). The best part of waking up is holding one of these treasures in your hands even though the red chile will probably run down your fingers, so profusely is it applied.  This is one of the very best breakfast burritos in Albuquerque, an opinion seconded by the staff of Albuquerque The Magazine which in September, 2011 undertook the enviable task of selecting the city’s very best breakfast burrito.  The Burrito Lady was the eighth highest rated burrito from among dozens evaluated.

The red chile is superb–tongue tingling and delicious enough you’re going to want your burrito smothered with it. Try it on a chicharonnes burrito for an ultra special treat. If you’ve ever had a bad experience with Texas chicharonnes which New Mexicans might call “cueritos” (a tripe-like pork strips marinated in vinegar), the Burrito Lady’s version will restore your faith in crackling pork fat and the meaty pork which clings to it.  The crunch of the chicharonnes as you bite into this burrito is music to your ears; the flavor is a symphony for your taste buds.

The breakfast burrito supreme.

The breakfast burrito supreme.

The Burrito Lady also serves one of the best stuffed sopaipillas I’ve ever had. Crammed with a delectable roast beef, beans, rice and green chile hot enough to give me the hiccups, it might give you a week’s quota of endorphins…but, oh what a wonderful burn it will be. Your tongue will catch fire, your brow will perspire yet you won’t be able to stop eating this delicious treat.

The Burrito Lady restaurant just might restore your faith in the small family restaurant–good enough to expand, but so charming you wouldn’t want it to.

The Burrito Lady
938 Eubank, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 22 December 2010
BEST BET: Breakfast Burrito Supreme; Chicharrones Burrito; Stuffed Sopaipillas with Roast Beef; Frito Pie

Burrito Lady on Urbanspoon

Pelican’s Restaurant – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Pelican's Restaurant on Coors in Albuquerque's burgeoning West side

Pelican's Restaurant on Coors in Albuquerque's burgeoning West side

The remonstrance from a group of my foodie friends was vocal and animated when I contended that good seafood in the Duke City dining establishments not only exists, some of it borders on greatness.  One ardent detractor asserted that good seafood in our landlocked community is as rare as a good steak was on Gilligan’s Island.  Another argued that only at Pappadeaux, a national chain, could good seafood be found while a third reminisced that in the 1990s there were actually three restaurants–Cafe Oceana, the Rio Grande Yacht Club and Pelican’s–vying perennially for “best seafood” honors.

My rejoinder was to remind them of the half-dozen or so mariscos (Mexican seafood) restaurants in the Duke City, most of which serve very good to excellent seafood.  “Duplicity,” they cried, “when we think of seafood, we’re thinking of King crab, Ahi tuna, lobster and halibut.”  I then reminded them that Pelican’s continues to thrive in two Duke City locations–the original on the Heights (9800 Montgomery, N.E.) and a newer location on the burgeoning Northwest side (10022 Coors, N.W.).  They unanimously found merit in the case for Pelican’s, a popular seafood emporium that has served Albuquerque since 1975.

Sizzling mussels sautéed in white wine & garlic

Sizzling mussels sautéed in white wine & garlic

That’s more than three and a half decades of surviving, even thriving, in a tough restaurant market.  That means pleasing a widely divergent and persnickety range of Duke City diners–everything from the well-traveled sophisticates who have partaken of seafood fresh off the boat in a city by a shore somewhere to those who believe the end-all and be-all for seafood is Red Lobster and that Pelican’s is strictly a special occasion restaurant.

As with many seafood restaurants in landlocked areas, Pelican’s subscribes to a nautical theme designed to evoke the calming and peaceful feeling associated with the ocean.  Anyone who’s laid on the beach and watched the undulating waters can attest to the effect the salty sea air and the motion of the ocean have in stimulating the appetite–usually for seafood.

Pelican's bread with butter and cloves of butter

Pelican's bread with butter and cloves of garlic

The nautical theme is most pronounced in the original Pelican’s which includes a woody interior reminiscent of the creaky underbelly of an old fishing boat.  Ornamental bronze finished pendant lamps hang from the ceiling; it’s easy to imagine them swinging to and fro from the rocking of the waves.  Heavy ropes are lashed on beams, the symbol of strength and security.  Decorative life rings, the type of which are tossed overboard to rescue seafarers who fall overboard, are used throughout the restaurant as are other oceanic ornaments such as oars, fishing nets, and even a surfboard.  Sure it’s stereotypical, but a stucco New Mexico motif wouldn’t cut it.

The West side Pelican’s supplanted a failing Carraba’s Italian Grill restaurant in the Cottonwood Crossings development on the northeast corner of the Coors and Seven Bar Loop intersection and thematically is more like a woody fisherman’s wharf.  It is situated next door to the Outback Steakhouse, offering an excellent alternative to the popular Australian themed meatery.  A small fishing boat hangs from the ceiling while bubbling aquariums teem with colorful sea life.

Clam Chowder

Clam Chowder

Perhaps by default (especially with the 2005 closure of the Rio Grande Yacht Club), Pelican’s has been the very best seafood (non-mariscos) restaurant in Albuquerque by a nautical mile or more (although the December, 2010 launch of Desert Fish may change that landscape). Best of all, it’s locally owned and operated although there are two other Pelicans in El Paso. From the moment you’re seated, the friendly wait staff dotes on you.  It’s not the saccharine service you’ll get at the chains which dot restaurant row along the Coors Bypass; the wait staff at Pelican’s works to earn your business, the way it should be.

While you contemplate the menu, the wait staff will start you off with a basket of out-of-the-oven bread with whipped butter and roasted garlic, both of which are faithfully replenished when you finish them (and you undoubtedly will, they’re so good).   The bread has a hard-crusted exterior and a soft interior in which both butter and the roasted garlic spread easily.  This is true garlic bread!

Pinon Crusted Tilapia topped with red chile butter

Pinon Crusted Tilapia topped with red chile butter

One of the most inviting appetizers on the menu and one at which Pelican’s excels is Oysters Rockafeller, a dish first created in 1899 at the famous Antoine’s in New Orleans.  Because of the richness of the sauce (liberally interpreted at restaurants throughout the world), the dish was named for John D. Rockefeller, the richest man in America at the time.  Pelican’s rendition is five plump oysters on the half shell topped with Pernod-spiked spinach and melted cheese.  It’s a rich and indelicate starter that will win over even the most onerous oyster hater.

Another appetizer sure to please are the Sizzling Mussels sautéed in white wine and garlic served with two slices of toasted bread.  The white wine and garlic broth are tailor-made for the bread which you’ll use to sop up and lustily consume as much of that savory broth as you can.  Characteristic of good mussels, they don’t really need the broth, but the sizzling metal plate on which they’re delivered is a nice touch because it keeps the mussels and broth warm.

New York Strip

New York Strip

Pelican’s menu showcases fresh fish, thick slabs of Angus beef steaks, shrimp and surf-and-turf.  The “Fresh Fish Report” includes tilapia, halibut, salmon, ahi tuna and rainbow trout.  Daily specials range from Alaskan King Crab Legs to Australian Lobster Tail and “All you can eat peel n’ eat shrimp.”  A Sunday brunch menu includes some of the most popular dinner menu items as well as traditional breakfast items such as French toast.  Entrees come with your choice of baked potato, wild rice pilaf, or French fries and Pelican’s famous bottomless bowl of salad.

A common element among the seafood is uncommon freshness.  The menu boasts of fresh and fresh-frozen seafood (and I’m not talking about Mrs. Paul’s frozen fish sticks here).  Modern trawlers are equipped to process and freeze the fresh catch immediately.  Some fish is best shipped fresh-frozen while other fish is best shipped fresh, albeit at low temperatures.  The result–fish at Pelican’s have a fresh and mild smell not that “fishy” smell that turns people off seafood.

If there are any complaints about Pelican’s, it’s that the restaurant’s menu is a bit anachronistic–a throwback to the 80s.  That’s especially true of the appetizer menu which includes such “yesterday” starters as mozzarella sticks and fried zucchini and mushrooms, both battered to order.  Old-fashioned surf and turf entrees are also a bit dated.  Then again, if something works, why change?

Shrimp Pelican with Sweet Potato Fries

One entree which really works is the Shrimp Pelican which may well be the restaurant’s most popular dish–even though there’s nothing radical or avant-garde about it. Butterflied and golden brown in beer batter, the shrimp are humongous (forgive the oxymoron) and gloriously sweet.  Even though my preference is generally for peel-and-eat shrimp with incendiary cocktail sauce, Pelican’s shrimp flood my memories with reminiscences of the first really great battered shrimp I ever had.

With some menu items, Pelican’s subscribes to the adage that “when in New Mexico, do as New Mexicans do” and in the Land of Enchantment, we serve our food–almost all of it–with chile.  Pelican’s menu tends to have at least entree with either green or red chile, including a piñon crusted Tilapia topped with red chile butter.  Because of its clean, mild flavor and because it tends to inherit the flavor of seasonings very well, tilapia is sometimes described as fish for people who don’t like the taste of fish.  Alas, while the tilapia is delicious, flaky and tender, the chile is hardly of the caliber of New Mexico chile served at a New Mexican restaurant.

Pelican’s is almost as highly regarded for steaks and prime rib as it is for seafood.  Carnivorous cravings will be sated with a line-up that includes teriyaki beef kabobs, choice center-cut top sirloin, choice ribeye filet mignon, market teriyaki center-cut top sirloin, New York strip and slow roasted prime rib au jus as well as a “Ranchero” center-cut top sirloin with Cheddar and green chile.  The New York strip (pictured above) is grilled to your exacting specifications.  At medium, it is juicy and delicious.  It’s also very tender with no sinew or excess fat.

Pelican's famous ice cream mud pie, a slab of decadence

Football sized baked potatoes include your choice of toppings (butter, sour cream, bacon bits, green onions).  Wisps of steam from the aluminum foil enveloped potatoes waft upward, hinting at perfectly baked potatoes.  Alas, appearances can be deceiving as we found out during a January, 2010 visit when undercooked potatoes were the sole let-down in an otherwise good meal.  The clam chowder is rich and very thick, but it would take Sherlock Holmes to find more than two bits of clam and the clams he might find are bound to minuscule and somewhat chewy.

Desserts are large enough to feed entire families.  Offerings include large wedges of New York style cheesecake topped with a strawberry or chocolate sauce (or both), a lip-pursing key lime pie and perhaps the single largest slab of pie in the Duke City, a humongous ice cream mud pie.  This slab of waist-expanding decadence is easily four-inches tall and that’s even before the whipped cream crowns this dessert.  Two types of ice cream–chocolate and mocha–layered on top of a thick Oreo crust make this a teeth-chattering post-prandial treat.  It’s a fine dessert, but much more than one person can handle.

Pelican’s is a very solid, if unspectacular restaurant that has survived nearly four decades and several generations in the Duke City’s constantly changing dining scene.  It deserves a place in any conversation about good seafood in Albuquerque.

Pelican’s Restaurant
10022 Coors, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 16 December 2010
COST: $$$
BEST BET: Shrimp, Oysters Rockafeller, Cracked Pepper New Yorker, New York Strip, Sizzling Mussels, Bread with Garlic Cloves, Ice Cream Mud Pie

Pelican's on Urbanspoon

Western View Diner & Steakhouse – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Neon signage on Route 66 to the immediate east of the Western View Restaurant

Neon signage on Route 66 to the immediate east of the Western View Restaurant

Since the 1930s, neon signage has been a prominent and vital part of Route 66 as it meanders through Albuquerque. From the foothills of the Sandias in the east to the parched desert expanse of the west, Route 66 is festooned with vibrant neon signage that cuts a luminous swath through the city. The nocturnal spectacle of glowing neon might be the siren’s call that has drawn generations of “cruisers” to Central Avenue.

One of Albuquerque’s most prominent neon spangled signs celebrates Route 66 as it spans across all four lanes of Central Avenue near its intersection with Coors Boulevard Southwest.  Literally at the shadow of that span is the Western View Diner & Steakhouse which has been pleasing weary travelers and hungry locals since 1941 thanks to generous portions of reasonably priced and delicious comfort food with a homemade taste that comes from years of plying its culinary craft.

From Route 66 just west of the restaurant

To say the Western View Diner & Steakhouse was at Albuquerque’s western fringes back when it launched seven decades ago is an understatement.  Aside from sagebrush and vast expanses of horizon, there wasn’t much of the city this far west.  This is one of the very few surviving restaurants which predate the tremendous expansion that has seen the city’s population skyrocket from just over 36,000 in 1941 to over half a million in 2010.

Because of its longevity, this venerable Albuquerque institution was, in 2010, named to the New Mexico Tourism Department’s “Culinary Treasures Trail,” an initiative which honors those rare and precious family-owned-and-operated gems operating continuously since at least December 31st, 1969.  As with all the restaurants on the list, the Western View Diner & Steakhouse is an independent mom-and-pop restaurant which has stood the test of time to become beloved institutions in their neighborhoods and beyond.

A short stack of pancakes

The menu primarily features American standards with New Mexican and Greek entrees thrown in for good measure. The diner has been owned by three successive Greek proprietors, the most recent being Stavros Anagnostakos.  Like many august diners, the Western Diner’s character is in its austerity, its staff and its clientele. One wall features vintage black and white photographs of the stars of yesteryear. Frequent diners prefer to sit at a stool along the counter. That gives them the best vantage point for the dessert tray and better access to the chatty and accommodating wait staff.

Yes, this venerable restaurant has character to spare despite lacking the over-the-top flamboyance of the anointed local favorites and cookie-cutter chains. It’s informal and inexpensive, unpretentious and welcoming…a genuine anachronism. It’s no wonder its parking lots are always full.  Look around the dining room.  What you’ll see is generations of families, many of whom grew up visiting the restaurant.  This is a neighborhood institution which has been doing the right things right for its faithful patrons.

Two strips of bacon, home fries and two eggs over easy

The Western View Diner serves breakfast all day long. There’s something almost musical in the clanking of spoons as they stir coffee at all hours of the day.  There may also be nothing more arousing at 3PM than the sizzle of crisp bacon on the frying pan and its accompanying aromas as they waft throughout the dining room. That’s what we experienced during our inaugural mid-afternoon visit when at least half the dining patrons were partaking of breakfast.

Although the diner is renown for its fluffy, housemade biscuits and gravy, an excellent alternative are the pancakes. A short stack means two fluffy orbs that nearly cover the entire plate. A dollop or two of creamy butter, a ladle of syrup and you’re in carbohydrate heaven. It’s been our experience that long-established diners serve the very best pancakes and the Western Diner is no exception.  The Western View is also quite accomplished at American breakfast standards.  Crispy bacon, home fries with a sprinkling of red chile and eggs over easy are made the way they should be.

New York steak with mashed potatoes and gravy.

New York steak with mashed potatoes and gravy.

One of the entrees for which this restaurant is known is steak. For just about a dollar an ounce, you can treat yourself to a fresh-cut New York steak that’s heavy on flavor and surprisingly light on the gristle and fat you might expect for an inexpensive cut of beef. Grilled to your exacting specifications (we like salt, pepper and garlic on both sides), it’s a carnivore’s dream. The New York cut is much better than we’ve had at many an Albuquerque steak restaurant, especially at the price.

The steak is served with your choice of potato–baked potato after 5 PM, mashed potatoes and French fries before then. The mashed potatoes are among the best we’ve had in this city–far better than the de rigeur garlic mashed potatoes served seemingly everywhere. These are real potatoes with a buttery creaminess that reminds us of home. A thick piece of buttered Texas toast fills what little room is left on the plate. It, too, is so much better (and bigger) than Texas toast we’ve had elsewhere.

Combination plate with beef enchilada, tamale and chile relleno

Combination plate with beef enchilada, tamale and chile relleno

Even lesser cuts of meat are pretty good. A combination plate of cheese enchiladas and a sirloin comes with a six-ounce slab of beef that is slightly tough, but flame-kissed flavorable and better than most steaks served in such combinations.  The enchiladas are indeed cheesy and can be ordered with either red or green chile. The green chile isn’t as piquant as I’d like, but it’s got a good flavor. This combination plate also includes Spanish rice that’s actually more than just edible and pinto beans like you might make at home.

The Western Diner’s comfort food ensemble will warm the cockles of your heart as it sates your appetite. For those of my generation, it will bring back memories of home-cooked meals in which steamy plates of meatloaf, mashed potatoes ladled with brown gravy and corn were a Sunday tradition. The meatloaf, by the way, is in the best traditions of American diners–moist and served thick. Cut into it and steam wafts upward, an indication this dish is served hot, the way it should be. The gravy is thick with flecks of ground pepper swimming in the murky liquid.

An old-fashioned chocolate milkshake with whipped cream

Another old-fashioned standard reminiscent of bygone days in which malt shops were the hang-out of teenagers are milk shakes.  These are served in old-fogyish hard plastic glasses, the type of which probably predate most of you reading this review.  Made with real ice cream, the milk shakes are served thick and cold, easier to drink up with a spoon than with a straw.  They’re also served with a thick dollop of real whipped cream topped with a single cherry, another time-honored tradition.

Of course, nothing goes better with shakes than the marriage made in malt shop heaven, a vintage cheeseburger and a mound of French fries. The deluxe burger is an ten-ounce beefy behemoth grilled to about medium well, topped with a single slice of American cheese and served on toasted buns. On the side are a plastic cup of green chile, a single tomato, four dill pickles, a slice of raw onion and shredded lettuce. This is an excellent burger, as good or better than many on the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail despite being as simple as a burger can be.

An old-fashioned cheeseburger with French fries

Order a burger and you might not be asked to what degree of doneness you’d like for it to be prepared, but the results are flavorful nonetheless.  The beef patty has a nice grilled flavor reminiscent of a burger prepared outdoors.  The neon green chile has a piquant bite that complements the other fresh ingredients.  Alas, the sesame seed buns have a hard time holding in all the ingredients.  The French fries are nothing special, pretty much boilerplate.

For dessert, an absolute must-have is the chocolate cake. A thick slab is easily big enough for two and is as delicious as any chocolate cake you’ve ever had anywhere. The frosting is thick yet not at all cloying as are the frosting in those hideous store-bought Plaster of Paris designer cakes. It’s diet devastating delicious. Other dessert options include baklava and several fresh house-made pies.

Rich, luscious chocolate cake

Rich, luscious chocolate cake

There’s a reason the Western diner has survived more than sixty years. It leaves enticement to its food and not its facade. That’s the way it should be!

Western View Diner & Steakhouse
6411 Central, N.W.
Albuquerque, NM

LATEST VISIT: 05 December 2010
COST: $$
BEST BET: New York Steak, Mashed Potatoes, Texas Toast, Enchiladas, Pancakes, Meatloaf, Guacamole, Deluxe Burger, Chocolate Milk Shake

Western View Diner & Steak House on Urbanspoon

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