A veritable melting pot of cultures from throughout the world, the Duke City has a laid-back attitude toward diversity, a live and let live realization that our differences aren’t as important as all we have in common. Perhaps nowhere is that acceptance better practiced than at Kirtland Air Force Base, appropriately bordered by Albuquerque’s International District. Back in the early 1980s, I had the privilege of being stationed at the largest military installation in New Mexico where my closest friends and colleagues were from New York, Trinidad, Barbados, Georgia, California and Indiana. Not only were our backgrounds vastly different, so were many of our opinions and ideologies.
Aside from our common patriotic values, what most brought us together was our love of culinary diversity. We not only broke bread together, we broke tortilla, pita, croissants, arepas, Challah, chapati, naan, lavosh, injera and every other variation of the staff of life we could find. Ever the proud New Mexican, it pleased me to no end to see how quickly and how deeply a love for New Mexican food became ingrained in my colleagues, some of whom have retired in New Mexico where they continue to enjoy the Land of Enchantment’s incomparable cuisine.
Our favorites, and not solely because of proximity to the base, were Cervantes and the long defunct Mint Cafe, both of whom served the most piquant chile in the city at the time. With a sadistic glee, we delighted in taking new members of the dreaded Inspector General (IG) staff for New Mexican food, challenging them to test their mettle against the potent peppers we loved so much. It gave us more than a measure of satisfaction to see the dreaded nit-pickers’ brows glisten with sweat as their tongues and taste buds were singed by the red and green we loved so much. Because the IG staff rotated every two or three years, there were always novitiate staffers to break in.
The diversity and broad-mindedness of retired and active duty personnel explains, to a large extent, why the area immediately surrounding Kirtland Air Force Base has always had such broad culinary diversity. That area–what is now called the International District–is home to one of the city’s oldest Vietnamese restaurants (Saigon Far East) and was, until it closed, home to one of the city’s sushi pioneers (Taka Sushi). In recent years, it has seen the opening of the Duke City’s second Pupuseria Y Restaurante Salvadoreño, a highly regarded Asian fusion restaurant in the Asian Grill and several other restaurants my friends would (and some do) enjoy very much.
In 2009, Antonio’s Cafe & Cantina opened its doors–or more accurately reopened its doors–in the Siesta Hills Shopping Center. It’s situated in the front half of the sprawling complex which houses The Bird of Paradise bar and is next door to the Bird of Paradise Liquor Store, all three owned by the Gabaldon family. The restaurant sits far back in the strip mall and from Gibson is obfuscated somewhat by the Copper Canyon and Pizza 9 restaurants. The Gabaldons previous restaurant endeavor in the complex was Jack’s Pizza which is still available in the bar area. This is the second instantiation of Antonio’s operated by the Gabaldons. Here’s betting this one makes it–provided the word spreads quickly. John Lucas, a faithful reader of this blog, is doing his part, recommending Antonio’s highly as a restaurant serving “excellent food.”
Step into the dining room and chances are there won’t be many diners occupying the dozen or so tables. That’s both a shame (considering the quality of the food) and a surprise considering visitors to the restaurant’s Web site will, as of this writing, qualify for a free lunch. The dining room is relatively stark with none of the stereotypical trappings and accouterments of most New Mexican and Mexican restaurants in the city. Any commotion will come from the back room where an expansive bar and several pool tables draw in larger and more boisterous crowds.
The menu is somewhat abbreviated–seven New Mexican plates, fourteen New Mexican dinners, five soups and salads, six appetizers and a number of a la carte items and sides. There aren’t any surprises–no hybrid or reinvented faux New Mexican dishes–only authentic dishes prepared in traditional ways. Well…mostly. There is this one salsa that’s just a bit different. It’s wholly unlike traditional New Mexican salsa crafted from tomatoes, onions, garlic and either green chile or jalapeños. It’s an a dark, sweet salsa which I surmise is made from ancho chiles (known as chile pasilla in the Michoacan region of Mexico), an aromatic, brownish-reddish chile that smells somewhat like prunes and has a mild, rich and slightly sweet taste with a hint of residual bitterness. Anyway, this is an “either you love it or you don’t” type of salsa, but you’ll never get the wait staff to tell you exactly what’s in it that makes it so sweet. In fact, they no longer even ask the cook who’s made it clear, that’s one secret which won’t be divulged.
This surprise of a salsa is one of two salsas brought to your table along with crisp, low-salt chips resilient enough for scooping up salsa. The other salsa is more traditional, a jalapeño and tomato-based blend of medium piquancy. Salsa and chips are complementary with the New Mexican dinners, but additional orders will cost you $1.50. The New Mexican dinners include beans and rice as well as four of the most puffed-up sopaipillas you’ll ever see served with real honey, not that honey-flavored syrup some restaurants serve. The sopaipillas are humongous and they’re served straight out of the fryer. Don’t let them cool down; eat them while the wisps of steam waft upwards to your awaiting nostrils.
An excellent choice from the New Mexican Plates portion of the menu is the carne adovada skillet served with papitas, beans and Spanish rice. Carne adovada is the quintessential New Mexican dish, a dish we can proudly call our own…a dish that didn’t originate in Mexico, Texas, Arizona or anywhere else. As such, New Mexican restaurants should be well-practiced and highly proficient at preparing this succulent marinated pork dish. Antonio’s certainly is. Their rendition of carne adovada is fork-tender and delicious, each porcine cube marinated in a mild, but tasty chile. The papitas form a perfect partnership for the carne adovada. Also cubed, the papitas are fried to a golden hue and are perfectly salted.
The enchilada dinner–three rolled chicken, beef or cheese enchiladas with onions, garnished with shredded lettuce, diced tomatoes and topped with melted Cheddar and your choice of red or green chile–is also quite good. It’s better if the accommodating kitchen staff will let you have one of each type of enchilada so you can have the best of three worlds. The best of the three is the chicken enchilada which is moist and tender. The enchiladas are rolled in lightly fried corn tortillas. Melted shredded Cheddar decorates and flavors them. This dinner is served with beans and Spanish rice, both of which are quite good. The means, in fact, are some of the best in town.
An a la carte taco, a crispy corn tortilla engorged with ground beef, lettuce, chopped tomato and melted Cheddar is a nice vehicle for the traditional New Mexican salsa. The ground beef is well-seasoned but is greatly improved by the fresh-tasting salsa. Tacos are but one of several items on the a la carte section of the menu.
Antonio’s Cafe & Cantina is a fine addition to the International District’s diverse and delicious dining scene. It’s a restaurant I imagine my Air Force colleagues and I would have added to our restaurant rotation.
Antonio’s Cafe & Cantina
5409 Gibson, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 5 February 2011
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Enchiladas, Carne Adovada Skillet, Sopaipillas, Tacos