At about 75 miles each way, Cuba, New Mexico is almost equidistant between Albuquerque and Farmington. Regardless of starting point, the drive to and from Cuba is one of the Land of Enchantment’s most spectacular. A preponderance of scenic vistas and an otherworldly, multi-hued topography make the drive a sightseer’s delight. The stratification of multi-hued earthen layers, will remind you of colorful Navajo sand paintings while hulking hoodoos (columns or pillars of bizarre shape caused by differential erosion on rocks of different hardness) will inspire awe, none more so than the nipple shaped Cabezon Peak, a dramatic 7,785 foot volcanic formation that commands the skies.
I must admit that most of my enjoyment of those incomparable vistas has been on the return trip from Cuba. For some reason, I always seem to be in a hurry to get there with a single-mindedness of purpose only a seeker with a yen to be sated can truly understand. In my quest to fulfill that longing, I’ve even resorted to corrupting the innocent, once convincing my friend Sandy that her new Prius could reach speeds of over 100 miles-per-hour on the long, straight stretches of U.S. Highway 550. So what would drive two law-abiding, upstanding citizens of good repute to risk life and limb at the expense of enjoying the scenery?
The answer, of course, is El Bruno’s Restaurante Y Cantina, considered by the cognoscenti as one of the very best purveyors of New Mexican food in the Land of Enchantment. For nearly four decades–since 1975–savvy diners have made their way to Cuba for traditional and contemporary New Mexican food crafted from Hazel Herrera’s family recipes. Hazel and her husband Bruno are the genial proprietors of this storied restaurant, the destination of hungry legions who, like me, probably wait until the return trip to enjoy the vistas which give New Mexico the sobriquet “land of enchantment.”
There’s plenty to see on the premises of El Bruno, too. A colorful mural on an exterior west wall depicts a New Mexican woman carrying a basket brimming with green, red and yellow chile peppers while other field hands harvest New Mexico’s official state vegetable from fecund and verdant fields. The entrance to El Bruno’s is through a wooden bell gate into an expansive courtyard. A large Spanish bell is poised above the gate as if to call in hungry patrons to a meal with its timbre and tintinnabulation. On the wooden gate is carved the Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of the Americas. To many New Mexicans there is no truer manifestation of welcome.
Not surprisingly, the restaurant’s interior ambiance is superb (although what can truly compare to the unrivaled scenery on the way to Cuba). Being surrounded by the enrapturing art of Taos artist Miguel Martinez (renowned for painting beauteous women with almond-shaped eyes) as well as by charming antiques makes it an attractive milieu for any meal. A canopy of huge vigas overhead and earthen-hued tones add to the New Mexican ambiance. Ambiance not withstanding, it’s the food for which so many visit El Bruno.
For Albuquerque’s El Bruno’s enthusiasts, the news in August, 2010 that this terrific destination diner would be launching its first satellite, and in the Duke City, too, was as welcome as news that the Lobos had been invited to the big dance. Notice that it wouldn’t open in December as originally announced was then akin to learning the Lobos had lost to BYU. After a couple of false-starts, El Bruno’s finally opened on March 7th, 2011 in the spot vacated by long-time tenant Garduño’s of Mexico. Ironically, the restaurant is situated on the intersection of Fourth Street and Garduño Road.
Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos, a long-time contributor and friend of this blog, was one of the very first Burqueños to visit El Bruno’s. He came away impressed by some things, but disappointed by others indicating “perhaps my anticipation, nursed by several delays in opening, created a mystique which set too high a bar.” With an ease of words I admire, Bob also relayed that El Bruno’s “captures what folks expect of an inviting New Mexican cantina, but avoids a formality to a place.”
An inviting New Mexican cantina is an apt description for El Bruno’s which straddles the line between casual and formal dining with a motif that includes bright earth-tone colored walls, earthenware sconces, tin light fixtures and other Southwestern accouterments. Immediately to the left as you walk in is the bar-dining room and beyond that is an elongated north-facing room bathed in sunlight. The equipales furnishing (tables and chairs) in both these rooms are crafted from fibrous materials removed from maguey cactus and fixed with leather bands. The restaurant includes several other dining rooms including one in which intimate booths are partially shielded by purplish drapes. The art of Miguel Martinez festoons several walls.
The menu is extensive. All the favorites from the original El Bruno’s are available. A separate menu depicts lunch specials, all of which are named for Albuquerque area locales: Placitas, Bernalillo, Los Lunas, Corrales, Ranchitos, Rio Rancho and the Cuba plate (one cheese and one beef enchilada, red and green chili (sic), beans, rice and melted cheese). Appetizers range in price from eight to fourteen dollars and include such surprises as camarones Mexicanos marinated in El Bruno’s pinon sauce and traditional shrimp ceviche. There are seven creative salads on the ensaladas section of the menu.
Enchiladas and tacos occupy an entire page on the menu. Shrimp and crab enchiladas (topped with chile con queso and fresh green chile) are just one of the six different enchilada offerings, all of which can be made with blue corn tortillas. Platos de pollo (plates showcasing chicken), de la parillada y del mar (from the grill or the sea) and fajitas y carnitas share a page on the menu. The other two sections of the menu showcase Antojitos Mexicana and Platos de Combinacion on one page and burritos, chimichangas, los burgers and “para los niños” on another. The menu is replete with surprises, some items of which you won’t see at other New Mexican restaurants in Albuquerque.
As you ponder the menu, the friendly and accommodating wait staff will deliver your first bowlful of salsa and a basket of red and yellow corn chips. My initial impression, one shared by Bob the Villager, was that the salsa lacked the piquancy of other Fourth Street New Mexican restaurants. There was discernibly more heat in the salsa during my second visit when the medley of rich, red tomatoes and the jalapeños combined to titillate my taste buds with the heat they crave. This is good salsa and the chips are crisp yet substantial enough for Gil-sized scoops. There’s no chip-dipping in my table. In its September, 2012 edition, Albuquerque The Magazine named the salsa at El Bruno the very best in Albuquerque from among 130 salsas sampled throughout the city.
Alas, one of our very favorite dishes in Cuba, the magnificent chile con queso, was a disappointment in Albuquerque. In fact, it was downright “dumbed down,” lacking the piquancy the Cuban con queso contained. Though the queso was flecked with green (ostensibly green chile), it was as punchless as the University of New Mexico football team under coach Locksley. Without piquancy, the queso was reminiscent of the gloppy Velveeta genre. Instead of conventional chips, El Bruno’s con queso is served with crispy tostadas (fried flour tortillas). These “chips” are magnificent!
Fortunately one of the dishes we enjoyed most in Cuba is also on the menu in Albuquerque. That would be El Bruno’s fabulous carnitas, some of, if not THE best carnitas in New Mexico. Celebrated among patrons who have sampled these cubed carnivore’s delights, the carnitas are available in two dinner combinations: the poetic sounding carnitas con papitas and the carnitas a la Mex which come with rolled enchiladas, refried beans and homemade tortillas, all of which are wonderful. What makes these carnitas incomparable is the quality of the sirloin (yes, sirloin, not pork as seems to be the case with most carnitas) which has the charbroiled taste of an outstanding steak. The papitas are silver dollar-sized, dusted with fiery red chile and on par with those served at Sadie’s in Albuquerque (meaning they’re the best).
At many New Mexican restaurants when an entree includes a side of, but does not necessarily showcase, enchiladas, the enchiladas are an after-thought, generally not very good. That’s not the case at El Bruno’s. While carnitas may be the starring attraction of the aforementioned Carnitas a la Mex, the enchiladas are main entree quality. They are engorged with cheese and topped with your choice of red, green or Christmas style chile. The chile won’t set off any fire alarms with its piquancy, but it’s got a good flavor. The beans and rice are topped with melted yellow and white Cheddar. Garnish includes not only the perfunctory lettuce, but large sprigs of parsley (which has wonderful flavor ameliorating qualities and should not be solely relegated to plate decoration).
The “Los Burgers” menu features six half-pound burgers, including one served on a tortilla with green chile. Just as it’s not every great Italian restaurant that can make a decent pizza, not every great New Mexican restaurant can char-grill a decent burger. My frequent dining compañero Bill “Roastmaster” Resnik and I arrived at that conclusion after a couple of bites each of our burgers, both of which arrived at medium-well though we requested medium-rare and medium respectively. Mine was a Chaco Burger which is embellished with blue cheese crumbles, caramelized onions and chipotle mayo. The combination of caramelized onions and chipotle mayo is very sweet (much like a caramelized onion relish) and there weren’t enough blue cheese crumbles to provide any contrast (and I like my blue cheese breath-wrecking strong). If there was any bite to the chipotle, it, too, was obfuscated by the sweet caramelized onions.
Growing up in Northern New Mexico, fishing the pristine cold-water streams was a favorite pastime, but my brothers and I were pescatarian snobs. During camping trips into the wilderness where we subsisted solely on fish we caught, we threw back any rainbow trout which had made their way upstream from where they were stocked. Our taste buds craved New Mexico’s official state fish (yes, we do have one), the cutthroat trout, the most delicate and delicious of all fish you can find in the Land of Enchantment. Rainbow trout, we believed, were strictly for tourists and if we did take them home, we fed them to our neighbor’s chickens who pecked them to pieces and chased each other around the coop playing a combination of take-away and tackle. It was great fun at the time.
Thanks to a recommendation from the professor of the perspicacious palate Larry McGoldrick–or more accurately, his better half Jane who became besotted of an entree showcasing rainbow trout, my own opinion may have been forever changed. El Bruno’s piñon crusted rainbow trout is butterflied and pan-seared to a golden-hue then topped with a mango salsa–not enough to make the trout “fruity tasting,” but just enough to provide a light contrast to the delicate, fresh taste of the trout. The piñon crust is also delicate with barely a hint of the woodsy tasting nut. The trout is served atop a bed of fried spinach, a unique dish first created by the brilliant entrepreneur Tom Hamilton of the sublime Hamilton Chop House outside Durango. It’s served with a generous mound of red chile-dusted papitas and a garden salad (make sure you request the green chile ranch dressing).
It stands to reason that because of the pride El Bruno takes in preparing its carnitas, the fajitas would be something special and indeed they are. Sizzling strips of sirloin arrive at your table on a hot metal plate. The fajitas are served with sauteed onions and bell peppers, grated white and yellow Cheddar cheese, guacamole, lettuce, sour cream and flour tortillas. It’s the sirloin which stands out most because it’s a much higher quality cut than skirt steak which is typically used for fajitas. It’s chop house quality steak and it goes very well with whatever other ingredients you wish to use in crafting your meal.
Driving a few miles through the concrete urban jungle to get to El Bruno’s isn’t nearly as scenic as the 75-mile drive along Highway 550, but it’s a drive many Duke City diners have already started to make. The parking lots are as full now as they were during the halcyon days of Garduño’s and the food is so much better.
El Bruno’s Restaurante Y Cantina
8806 Fourth Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 4 December 2011
1st VISIT: 13 March 2011
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Carnitas con Papitas, Carnitas a la Mex, Chips and Salsa, Fajitas, Piñon Crusted Rainbow Trout