Although it seems Albuquerque’s population experiences an unprecedented population growth every decade, perhaps the ten-year period which most transformed the Duke City from an expansive frontier cow town to a modern metropolitan city was the 1950s. At the start of the decade, the city’s population was 96,815, but bolstered by a post-World War II boom, the population more than doubled to 201,189 by 1960. No successive decade has seen such growth.
With J.C. Penney’s, Sears and Montgomery Wards (as well as Woolworth’s) all located on Route 66, downtown was the the economic heart of the community. Consumers reveled in the availability of products and clothing heretofore available only through catalogs. To show off the high fashion available at those department stores and especially at Kistler-Collister (ironically situated near the city’s eastern outskirts) as well as the city’s hubs of haberdashery, fun-seekers headed for the Old Town Society Hall in the vicinity of Rio Grande and Central for spirited dancing.
Route 66 was festooned with vibrant neon signage that cut a luminous swath through the city. Only the historic Old Town district was spared the nocturnal spectacle of glowing and flashing neon. Savvy diners still managed to find their way to the Old Town Chile Parlor where John P. and Frances Apodaca owned and operated one of the city’s most popular restaurants in the same location (opposite the Old Town Society Hall) for over 40 years. The restaurant was housed in a hacienda that is more than 150 years old today.
That hacienda has been in Mike Tafoya’s family for nearly three quarters of a century, but it’s been a long time since it’s been used as a family home. After the Old Town Chile Parlor closed down, the edifice was home to Smiroll’s International Cuisine from 1974 to 2000. After Smiroll’s came Ambrozia and its contemporary global cuisine. Tafoya was a partner and chef in that enterprise.
With a heritage that includes a prominent historical restaurateur and a background as a chef at several fine-dining establishments in the Duke City, it’s only natural that Tafoya would continue the family tradition by launching a restaurant in the location that’s been in his family for nearly eight decades. That restaurant, the Old Town Pizza Parlor, is named in tribute to Tafoya’s grandparents and the restaurant lineage he inherited.
He also honors his grandparents with a vintage photograph of them beside an “In Loving Memory” placard under glass on the porch facing Rio Grande Avenue. It’s just one of the aspects of the restaurant which honors the history and tradition of the Duke City in the 1950s. Route 66 signage and memorabilia hang on the walls while under glass on every table you’ll find thematic imagery of that storied era.
One table recognizes the music of the beat generation with images of 45RPM (that’s revolutions per minute) phonograph records and pictures of music stars of the day. One table honors the sport teams prominent in the 1950s. Under glass in one table are post cards showcasing the memorabilia of the nifty fifties. There’s something to look at on each table, but it’s not overdone in the gaudy, kitschy style of many self-styled 50s restaurants.
The very first thing you see when you walk into the Old Town Pizza Parlor is the counter where you place your order. There’s an oversized menu behind the counter listing all the restaurant’s offerings, many of which are unique and intriguing. The menu starts with pizza which is available as a build it yourself option with sixteen different ingredient options as well as four sauce types: traditional–made with sweet tomatoes, garlic, extra virgin olive oil and spices; hot & spicy–traditional sauce with extra garlic and spicy chile peppers; white–creamy parmesan and roasted garlic.; and basil pesto with fresh local basil, pine nuts and grated Parmesan cheese. That’s having pizza your way, but you can also order one of the menu’s eight specialty pizzas.
Colossal calzones served with your choice of pizza sauce and garlic dip are next on the menu. The starting point for each calzone is ricotta and mozzarella which you can top with any three items from the available toppings. Extras include garlic herb bites (homemade pizza crust topped with garlic butter and sprinkled with a herb blend), pepperoni roll (baked dough wrapped around pepperoni and mozzarella and baked until golden) and meatball sliders (homemade meatballs topped with mozzarella and sandwiched between mini buns).
Pasta entrees feature over one pound of pasta and are served with parmesan garlic bread. The menu also includes crisp salads and hot soup (including mamma’s tomato soup (made with sweet tomatoes, roasted garlic and cream served with a grilled cheese sandwich). Eight-inch submarine sandwiches prepared deli style and served with chips and a pickle spear crown a menu that is quickly becoming an Old Town attraction in its own right. The restaurant also offers an all-you-can-eat pizza, pasta and salad buffet for lunch seven days a week.
If you like garlic strong enough to ward off Count Dracula and wreck your breath for days, the garlic herb bites might not do it. The garlic is discernible, but not overwhelming. In fact, it’s just one of several herbs well balanced for flavor harmony on a soft, cheesy crust served on a ten-inch tin plate. The cheesy bread is delicious, so good you probably won’t use much of the accompanying marinara sauce.
Nachos are not a dish most of us would associate with Italian or pizza restaurants, but the Old Town Pizza Parlor actually offers a nachos-based appetizer similar to the one offered at Mario’s Pizza & Ristorante. The OTP White Nachos features a mountain of corn chips piled high with the restaurant’s signature white sauce, crumbled meatballs, smokey bacon bits, green chile, black olives, Roma tomatoes and fresh jalapenos. These are not the gloppy cheese nachos sold at ball parks. The smokey bacon bits and white sauce were a highlight, but the entire plate (large enough for a family of four) is a good starter.
Interestingly the menu indicates the garlic herb bites are made on the restaurant’s “homemade pizza crust,” but the crust served on the pizza is quite different than the garlic herb bite crust. On the pizza, that crust is very thin and very firm. There are no pretensions to New York style pizza crust here (if you expect pizza dough with a nice char on the bottom and bubbles on top, you’ll be disappointed). In fact, the crust is so firm it may not be possible to fold it vertically the way New Yorkers prefer their pie. Even the outer edges are thin, not much thicker than the pie itself.
Despite being waifishly thin, the crust is formidable enough to hold the generous ingredient pile-up the chef arranges on each pie. It’s formidable enough not to droop and sag beneath the sauce’s thickness and moistness. Not everyone will like this crust and if it sounds like it’s more serviceable than flavorful, that’s not my intent. It’s a sweet crust some people will like while others won’t.
The “Stampede” we had during our inaugural visit is a carnivore’s dream–Italian sausage, pepperoni, mini meatballs, smoked ham and ground beef–all good enough to convert vegetarians. Ingredients are locally procured and are unfailingly fresh and delicious. Bite into a piece of ham or sausage and you won’t get that “frozen, out-of-the-bag” taste you get from some meat ingredients on chain pizza restaurants. The sauce is lathered on thickly, but it’s a good sauce. It’s a blend of sweet tomatoes, garlic and that EVOO (extra virgin olive oil) chef Tafoya does so well.
When Matt Herman recommended the Old Town Pizza Parlor, he told me, “without a doubt it is the best pizza in town, bar none, and the pasta is even better. We’ve been there five or six times and it just gets better.” It’s been my experience that pizzerias don’t often do a good job with pasta (most of them drown the pasta with marinara sauce), but with Tafoya’s pedigree and Matt’s endorsement, pasta was a must.
The pasta dish beckoning most invitingly during our inaugural visit was the green chile Alfredo (fetuccini pasta topped with green chile parmesan cream sauce). True Alfredo sauce is rich with butter and melted Parmigiana-Reggiano and is light, silky and refined. You won’t find cream (especially heavy cream) on authentic Alfredo sauce, the way it was first created. You also won’t find true Alfredo sauce in Albuquerque (at least we haven’t), but the Old Town Pizza Parlor’s rendition is quite good nonetheless. It’s not overly rich or heavy like cream-laden Alfredo tends to be. It is a very flavorful sauce with just enough green chile to grab your attention without detracting from the Parmesan. The fettucini noodles are ribbon-like, perfectly prepared and have a melt-in-your-mouth quality. Add oven-roasted chicken to this entree for a pittance and instead of the desiccated foul served with many pasta entrees elsewhere, you’ll be treated to impossibly small cubes of juicy, delicious chicken. This is a very nice pasta dish!
Alas, as much as we enjoyed the green chile Alfredo, we found the meatball baked ziti (homemade meatballs, marinara, ziti and ricotta topped with mozzarella) during our second dish quite disappointing. My sauce of choice was the hot & spicy (traditional sauce with extra garlic and spicy chile peppers). The top layer in which the mozzarella was melted nicely atop the ziti noodles was a good introduction, but at the bottom of the bowl, a watery layer of sauce greeted us. It can be a challenge to create a pasta dish in which the sauce has a perfect viscosity top to bottom. It’s a challenge not surmounted on this dish.
The Old Town Pizza Parlor is a nice addition to Albuquerque’s Old Town area. Chef Tafoya honors Old Town tradition and his restaurant lineage while providing a pizza option for the 21st century.
Old Town Pizza Parlor
108 Rio Grande, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Latest Visit: 29 July 2012
1st Visit: 25 April 2009
# of Visits: 2
Best Bet: Green Chile Alfredo, The “Stampede,” Garlic Herb Bites, OTP White Nachos