Rachael Ray, the hyper-bubbly kitchen diva recently divulged that casinos pipe in the fragrance of cumin because it causes gamblers to lose their inhibitions and gamble without guilt. Cigarette smoke and cumin…that doesn’t sound like an olfactory arousing aroma combination to me, much less one which would lure anyone to a purlieu of poker and slots. Now, if casinos figured out how to pipe in the intoxicating aroma of chile being roasted, New Mexicans might never leave.
Marcia Nordyke, the Public Relations Director for the Hatch Chile Festival believes the aroma of chile being roasted would make a wonderful air freshener. My friend Bill Resnik says it would make a great aftershave, albeit one which would leave anyone within range perpetually hungry. There’s no disputing the incomparable fragrance of of roasting chile is absolutely intoxicating, a veritable aphrodisiac to chile lovers everywhere. Why hasn’t the state legislature it adopted it as New Mexico’s official state fragrance?
Alas, only in autumn is the Land of Enchantment’s clear, salubrious air perfumed by the wondrous wafting of chile being roasted. It’s the essence of enchantment for our nostrils–coming to a roadside stand or parking lot near you from late August through mid-October. For the remaining nine months in which we’re deprived of this rapturous redolence, the only aroma which approximates roasting chile is that of chile simmering over a stove.
That’s the aroma which greeted me during my first visit to Taco Sal’s in nearly a decade. Taco Sal’s is one of Albuquerque’s elder restaurants, a veritable institution serving Albuquerque since June 29, 1961. To survive fifty years in a tough market is an incredible feat indeed, warranting Taco Sal’s inclusion on the New Mexico Culinary Treasures Trail, a celebration of independent mom-and-pop restaurants which have stood the test of time to become beloved institutions in their neighborhoods and beyond.
Taco Sal’s is named for Sally “Sal” Gabaldon, who along with her doting husband Felix opened the restaurant in what was then a relatively new shopping center in the city’s east side which was just beginning to sprawl toward the Sandias. Sal become a beloved institution for her trademark greeting of “Hi, doll” as well as for a menu of traditional New Mexican dishes prepared very well. Taco Sal’s has changed hands several times since Sal’s halcyon days. Now in her mid-80s, she still visits the restaurant regularly.
Taco Sal’s is no longer owned by the Gabaldon family, but new owners seem to have continued Sal’s tradition of hospitality (though, unfortunately not the price structure depicted in the menu above). Not only does the terrific aroma of simmering green chile greet you as you step through the front door, you might even get a “hi, doll” greeting from one of the friendly wait staff. Taco Sal’s is a restaurant frequented by regulars, some of whom have been visiting for decades. The friendliness is just one of the reasons.
9 June 2011: Another reason is the con queso which is served in a bowl constructed of the same corn from which the chips are made which means its edible, too. Although the con queso looks like the gloppy processed cheese served at sporting arenas, it’s much better both in consistency and especially in flavor. The con queso packs a discernible punch–maybe not enough to water your eyes, but enough for you to know there’s chile in there. The chips are relatively low in salt and are formidable enough for large scoops of con queso or salsa.
24 December 2013: It seems to be an unspoken rule that the most piquant item on the menu at most New Mexican restaurants is salsa. If the salsa doesn’t much of a bite, it’s likely the New Mexican cuisine will be insipid. The salsa at Taco Sal’s doesn’t bite back in the least, not even as much as some salsas made in New York City. It’s got good flavor and freshness, but not much viscosity and piquancy. The chips are light, crispy and low-in-salt.
9 June 2011: During my General Douglas McArthur “I have returned” visit to Taco Sal’s, I spent as much time watching what was delivered to other tables as I did perusing the menu. The entree of choice seemed to be the two chile relleno plate, two chile rellenos topped with green chile and served with your choice of refried beans, Spanish rice or papitas. After seeing it delivered to two tables in a row, several of us, all in separate tables in close proximity to one another, followed suit. It was an excellent choice.
9 June 2011: Two Hatch chiles are stuffed with Cheddar cheese then deep-fried to a crispy consistency and topped with your choice of red or green chile. Green chile on green chile is a good choice. Top it with a fried egg for good measure and a nice contrast between piquancy and the richness of a perfectly fried egg over easy. The chile is about medium on the piquancy scale which is pretty good considering the chile at some restaurants barely registers on the taste buds. It’s a flavorful chile with an even better fragrance. The refried beans and Spanish rice are both good.
24 December 2013: To my point on the lack of piquancy on the salsa, not all batches of chile, both red and green, are created equally piquant–even from the same crop, same vendor and same degree of heat. It’s a strange phenomena with which all New Mexicans are familiar. Unless you buy nothing but “hot” chile you’re almost always guaranteed that your “medium” chile will sometimes lean toward “mild.” That was the case with the two stuffed sopaipilla plate pictured above. One sopaipilla was stuffed with ground beef and one with carne adovada. One was topped with green chile and the other with red. There was plenty of delicious to go around, but not much bite.
Sopaipillas are complimentary with many entrees. These are sopaipillas which merit a child’s name for them–sofa pillows. Tear open into these golden, puffy treasures and steam escapes, a perfect invitation for honey to be introduced into the welcoming cavity. You’ll want to order another one (or four).
It won’t be another decade before my next visit to Taco Sal’s which has recaptured some of the charm of Sal’s days. More importantly, a meal at Taco Sal’s is reminiscent of Taco Sal’s when it was one of Albuquerque’s very best New Mexican restaurants.
Taco Sal New Mexican Restaurant
9621 Menaul Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 24 December 2013
1st VISIT: 9 June 2011
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Con queso, Two Chile Relleno Plate, Sopaipilla, Stuffed Sopaipilla, Salsa and Chips