There’s no denying the ever-increasing popularity of Mexican food across America, but it may surprise you to learn that in the estimation of some sources, it has supplanted Italian food as the favorite ethnic cuisine in the land. Marketplace, a nationally syndicated business oriented radio program with more than nine-million listeners a week, says there’s no bones about it, calling Mexican food “the most popular ethnic food in the U.S., bigger than Italian or Chinese.” Askmen.com confirms only that “Mexican has become one of the three most popular cuisines in the U.S., with nearly 90% of the total population having tasted it.”
According to Marketplace, there are some 90,000 or so Mexican restaurants across the fruited plain. The loose categorization of “Mexican restaurants” not only includes our incomparable New Mexican cuisine and our neighboring state’s Tex-Mex, but such chains as Chevy’s, Chipotle, El Torrito, Taco Bell and others of the ilk. Lest you become agitated that such Mexican “in name only” restaurants would make a sacrosanct list, the truth is that even among restaurants owned and operated by Mexican immigrants you’ll find pretenders serving less than authentic Mexican cuisine. Sometimes they do so to remain competitive in markets saturated for so long by the aforementioned chains that the local dining public knows no better. In other cases, would be authentic restaurants sacrifice authenticity for convenience when they’re not able to find key ingredients at a reasonable price.
Several years ago, the proliferation of chefs not properly trained and steeped in the culture behind Japanese cuisine so rankled the ire of Japanese chefs that they formed advocacy groups aimed at protecting their highly traditional and exquisitely artistic form of cooking. The Mexican government has followed suit, founding the Mexican Restaurant Association (MERA), a trade association chartered to encourage the spread of more authentic cuisine. More than 1,000 members strong, MERA recognizes that advocacy is just so much empty air without action so it helps members locate and negotiate better prices for authentic ingredients which are often very difficult to find.
It’s indicative of our famous attitude of acceptance (or perhaps the sheer number of tourists) that Taco Bell has survived for so long in New Mexico. For most of us, however, “run for the border” is a much more literal term–as in head out to our favorite purveyor of magnificent and authentic Mexican food. Fortunately, the Land of Enchantment has long been blessed to have a plethora of irrefutably authentic Mexican restaurants, some so good you might swear you’ve been transported to the Land of Montezuma.
When my compadre Rico Martinez craves “real Mexican food,” he heads to Delicias Cafe which he considers “better than any Mexican restaurant I’ve tried in Albuquerque.” Rico has become Delicias unofficial publicist, waxing poetic about his new favorite on Urbanspoon and telling everyone he knows about it. I wish he had told me sooner. Delicias is every bit as good as he said, maybe better. Best of all, it’s got that real south-of-the-border authenticity aficionados like Rico and me crave.
That authenticity is confirmed by my friend and fellow blogger Steve Coleman of Steve’s Gastronomic Home Page. Steve is an authority on Mexican food, having traveled extensively throughout our southern neighbor. For years he also chronicled his visits to Mexican restaurants in El Paso on his very well written blog. He knows what he’s talking about so when he says “one thing I like about Delicias is its ability to reproduce the same kind of experience that could be found by walking into any restaurant at random in Cuidad Juarez or other cities in the state of Chihuahua, you can take it to the bank.”
Ironically when you walk into Delicias Cafe at the Fiesta Del Norte Shopping Center in Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights, it would be a stretch to imagine yourself at a Mexican restaurant in the Mexican state of Chihuahua. That is, until the inimitable aromas of wonderfully seasoned Mexican food waft toward you. In terms of ambiance, you have to look closely to find any of the stereotypical decorative touches of a Mexican restaurant, particularly those of the faux Mexican restaurants. In fact Delicias Cafe doesn’t seem to have changed much of the ambiance of Perennials Restaurant, its predecessor at this bright, east-facing restaurant.
The genesis of the aromas which greet you at the door can come from any number of items on the menu, a veritable compendium of Mexican food favorites. Delicias Cafe, which has three sister restaurants in Las Cruces and one in El Paso, is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner though you can have breakfast any time of day. The menu showcases the cuisine of Delicias, a city in Chihuahua some 250 miles from Cuidad Juarez. Delicias translates literally from Spanish to “delights,” a well-earned term for the food at this delightful restaurant. It also sounds a bit like “delicious” which is also fitting.
Shortly after you’re seated, a complimentary basket of chips and a bowl of salsa are delivered to your table. The salsa isn’t especially piquant, but it’s got a very fresh, lively flavor with just a hint of jalapeño and garlic. The chips are large and thin, but substantial enough to scoop up Gil-sized portions of salsa. Service is so quick that you probably won’t finish your first bowl of salsa before your appetizers or entrees are delivered.
The Antojitos de Banqueta (appetizers and snacks) menu lists only seven items, perhaps a consequence of portion size–both appetizers and entrees–being almost profligate in size. Finish your appetizer and you probably won’t finish your entree. If you don’t order an appetizer to make sure you have room for your entree, you’ll miss out on such terrific starters as sopes, three fried corn masa patties topped with sundry ingredients: asado on one, chile verde on another and beans on the third. At first glance the sopes resemble small, thick tortillas and in a sense they are. The sopes are also topped with lettuce, shredded cheese, chopped tomatoes and an acidified cream.
The first entree to strike my fancy was Enchiladas Suizas, a fabulous dish invented in Mexico City’s Sanborn’s restaurant. As you’ve probably surmised, “Suiza” means Swiss, a tribute to the fact that this dish uses both cream and cheese. Delicias Cafe rendition is among the very best I’ve ever had. Three rolled corn tortillas are engorged with finely shredded white meat chicken then are covered in a sauce of tomatillo, jalapeño and sour cream with shredded cheese in the mix, too. The enchiladas have a delightfully slightly sour tanginess that impregnates the perfectly prepared poultry. The enchiladas Suizas are served with beans and rice, but these are hardly standard. The beans have that prepared in lard flavor while the rice is fluffy with nary a clump.
As if the Enchiladas Suizas weren’t enough, my delightful waitress also brought me a bowl of Caldo de Res, a beef stew with large pieces of vegetables and rice. She told me this hearty, delicious stew came with the enchiladas. This near-entree sized stew is as good as they come with a beef-flavored broth as comforting as broth comes. The vegetables are perfectly prepared and fresh-flavored while the rice is a pleasant surprise.
Coincidentally on the date of my inaugural visit, Barbara Trembath, a long-time friend of this blog and another of my most trusted sources of restaurants throughout the fruited plain, visited Delicias Cafe a few hours before I did. Though she was positively giddy over the entire menu, she was most excited about the fact that the restaurant has four different chilaquiles dishes and described them as “hands-down the best.” If the chilaquiles con mole are an indication, she’s absolutely correct. More than most mole, this one has the prominent flavor of chocolate, one of its chief ingredients. It’s a dark brown mole redolent with complex flavors. Order it with the shredded chicken which is light, fluffy and moist. For breakfast, the chilaquiles are served with two eggs, beans and hash browns.
Belly-busting, belt-loosening, stomach swelling–there are many ways to describe portions at Delicious (not necessarily a Freudian slip) which offers several platters large enough to feed a family. One of the very largest and most delicias (see, they’re synonymous) is the Patron Platter: a jumble of two eggs, diced ham, onions, cubed potatoes, jalapenos, mushrooms and cheese served with a tortilla, two strips of bacon, two sausage patties and a corn chorizo quesadilla. If that sounds like a bounteous buffet, it may as well be. Where but on a buffet might you find bacon, sausage and ham together in one plate? This buffet on a plate is not only prodigious, it’s so good you’ll finish it all.
Shame on me for not having already mentioned just how accommodating and friendly the wait staff is. Delicias is one of those rare restaurants in which “have it your way” is a reality. In three visits, each member of the tandem wait staff as well as the manager have visited my table to make sure I had everything needed to enjoy my meal. It’s a genial wait staff eager to please. The menu offers seventeen different burritos and if one doesn’t quite have everything you want, just tell your server and the sky’s the limit. You can smother your burritos in your favorite sauce: green sauce, red sauce, Delicias sauce (tomatillo sauce), mole sauce and even Suizas sauce. A breakfast burrito with eggs, ham and beans topped with extra Suizas sauce became a favorite after one bite. That Suizas sauce is absolutely addictive.
Traditional American entrees abound on the menu where in addition to four hamburgers, a club sandwich and French fries, you’ll find oatmeal, omelets, French toast and hot cakes. The hot cakes are among the best in Albuquerque, better than at many paragons of pancake perfection. The batter is infused with vanilla, just enough to be discernible but not so much as to make them cloying. The hot cakes are golden hued and of medium thickness. They’re served with heated syrup and easily melting butter.
In the unlikely event you’ll be able to enjoy dessert after polishing off a prodigious platter of food, Delicias offers several post-prandial treats: fried ice cream, sopaipillas, flan and pastel tres leches. My Kim called the pastel tres leches the best she’s ever had. It would be hard to argue against it. It’s as spongy moist and decadent delicious as any tres leches cake in New Mexico. Press into it with your fork and you’re not only rewarded with magnificent milkiness, but with pudding-like layers of deliciousness. The tres leches cake is drizzled with chocolate and topped with whipped cream.
February 24, 2013: Delicia’s is one of a handful of restaurants in the Albuquerque area to serve molletes, a delightfully unique yet simple appetizer. Molletes are a sort of open-faced sandwich made from tortas bread (similar to French bread) layered generously with refried beans and cheese all toasted on a broiler. It’s simple in its execution and delivery. Though satisfying on their own, it’s hard not to contemplate how much better the molletes would be with some New Mexico green chile. Maybe next time we’ll sneak some in.
Aficionados of terrific tacos will find several options to assuage their yen. One taco more common in southern New Mexico than in the northern half of the state are tacos de alambre. Alambre is a Spanish word for “wire” which sounds like an odd name for these tacos. The genesis of the name is in dispute with some theories tying the name to the Moors who settled in Spain while others believe the name refers to the way the cheese in the mixture stretches out like thin wire when it sticks to the cook’s spatula while it’s being grilled with pre-marinated and cooked meats. In this case, the meats are ham, bacon and carnitas served on a plate with steaming corn tortillas on the side. These are terrific tacos.
Delicias Cafe lives up to its name. It is one of the most delightful and delicious Mexican restaurants in the city with a wonderful authenticity aficionados will love.
6001 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 24 February 2013
1st VISIT: 12 February 2012
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: Sopes, Enchiladas Suizas, Caldo de Res, Salsa and Chips, Chilaquiles con Mole, Patron Platter, Short Stack, Burrito with Suiza Sauce, Tres Leches Cake, Molletes, Tacos de Alhambre