Abuelita’s New Mexican Kitchen – Bernalillo, New Mexico
Abuelita–perhaps no word in the vernacular of Spanish Northern New Mexico evokes such veneration, reverence and, for those of us who have lost these heaven-sent treasures, a melancholy ache not even time can erase. The abuelita is the family matriarch, the heart of the extended family and the sagacious matron to whom you go for counsel, consolation and cooking. For generations, New Mexico’s abuelitas have been nurturing their families with the simple foods passed down by their own abuelitas. Before the proliferation of New Mexican restaurants, abuelita’s was where the family congregated–no special occasion was necessary because any time with your abuelita was a special occasion.
Dining at Abuelita’s New Mexican Kitchen in Bernalillo won’t replace dining at your own abuelita’s, but you’re guaranteed a good meal, sizeable portions and genial, attentive service. As at your own abuelita’s home, there’s almost always something going on in the kitchen. Abuelita’s is open for breakfast, lunch and dinner seven days a week and has been serving Bernalillo for more than a quarter-century. Paintings of local artists festoon the muted yellows and earth tones of the restaurant’s walls. Fittingly the shirts worn by the wait staff sport the motto “panza llena, corazon contento” or “full belly, happy heart.”
The Abuelita’s menu exemplifies just why native New Mexicans, especially those of Hispanic descent, cherish family memories centering around food. You’ll find dishes at Abuelitas with which we grew up: dishes you won’t find at most restaurants and even some dishes we experienced only seasonally. A Lenten menu includes a number of specials New Mexicans enjoy only during the forty days between Ash Wednesday and Easter. Among the most special of these Lenten dishes is torta de huevo con quelites which might be best described as egg fritters or fluffy egg “cakes” marinated in red chile while quelites are spinach. This can be a delicious dish and will always trigger the fondest of familial memories.
During breakfast, lunch and lunch, Abuelita’s large dining room is bustling with activity and with boisterous, happy patrons enjoying their victuals (translation: it’s loud). At breakfast, the tinkling of spoons as they stir the house coffee seems almost melodic when it’s not drowned out by conversation. Regardless of meal, service isn’t hurried, in part because the wait staff just seems to know everybody–and if they don’t know you, they might by the time your meal is done. That’s what dining in a small town restaurant is all about. The pace allows you to luxuriate over your coffee or the salsa and chips and because plates are prepared to order, your plates arrive at your table piping hot. At the risk of sounding xenophobic, Abuelita’s has not “dumbed down” its chile for tourist tastes, serving chile with the type of piquancy Bernalillo residents like.
24 January 2014: Hundreds of restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment pride themselves on breakfast burritos with many of them claiming bragging rights. Very few breakfast burritos in New Mexico are as worthy of bragging rights as the calabasitas and egg burrito (two scrambled eggs, diced squash, zucchini and onions) topped with both red and green chile. The calabasitas are perfectly al dente, crispy not mushy and very fresh. The eggs are fluffy and well seasoned and the tortilla is engorged with ingredients, topped with red and (or) green chile and melted white and yellow Cheddar cheese.
Both the red and green chile have a terrific bite, a welcome change from the insipid chile that’s become so commonplace. It’s the type of chile that pairs well with a hot cup of coffee, the heat of the coffee accentuating the piquancy of the chile. You can add your choice of bacon, sausage, diced ham or chorizo to the burrito for a pittance more. The ham has an endearing smokiness and goes well with the calabasitas. This is one of the very best breakfast burritos in New Mexico.
The salsa has a rich red tomato taste much like a spicy V8 juice with a jalapeno kick flecked with cilantro and white onions. A complimentary order of chips and salsa is brought to your table shortly after you’re seated. You’ve got to pay for second and subsequent orders. Both the salsa and the crisp chips are low in sodium. Best of all, the salsa has a nice bite with a pleasant piquancy locals love, but which won’t send tourists scurrying for a fire hydrant.
25 January 2014: The menu is replete with New Mexican specialties, some of which you might not ever see in your abuelita’s kitchen. One such unique entree is the creatively named tacopilla which is a portmanteau of the words taco and sopaipilla. Some might argue that the foundation for this entree isn’t a sopaipilla, but a buñuelo. A buñuelo is essentially a flat sopaipilla about nine inches around, but it resembles Indian fry bread (which is more dense and tastes more like yeast-leavened bread). Anyway, the buñuelo, er…sopaipilla is layered with refried beans, lettuce, tomatoes, guacamole and sour cream and if you so desire, shredded beef, ground beef or chicken. The shredded beef is your best bet. It’s moist and tender, like shredded carne adovada without the chile.
The tacopilla is delivered folded over like a taco, but there’s no way you can eat it like that. You’re going to have to lay it flat and cut into it like a pizza in order to eat it. That’s a bit of a challenge considering the “elasticity” of the sopaipilla. It may be argued that the refried bean, shredded beef and green chile combination on a sopaipilla makes it an entree while the lettuce and tomato make it a sandwich. Whatever it is, it covers your plate and it’s a rare eater who can finish the entire Frisbee-sized behemoth.
25 January 2014: If tacopilla sounds too much like a reptilian monster which terrorizes Mexico City, Abuelta’s has your hook-up with normal sized tacos. Available in quantities of two or three (or you can order four or more a la carte) and served with refried beans and rice, these tacos are of the hard-shelled variety and are engorged with ground beef, cheese, lettuce and tomato. The ground beef is nicely seasoned without being too salty and doesn’t taste refried as at far too many New Mexican restaurants. These tacos are perfectly made for Abuelita’s salsa.
As you peruse the menu, you might be surprised to see chicken fried steak on the “New Mexican Specialties” section of the menu. So what makes chicken fried steak New Mexican? Why, green chile, of course. My friend Larry McGoldrick,, the professor with the perspicacious palate raves about Abuelita’s chicken fried steak with green chile gravy. If you prefer that your steak not be chicken fried, opt for the Ranchero steak, a six-ounce strip steak served on a bed of papas topped with green chile and served with Texas toast. For just over ten dollars, the Ranchero steak is surprisingly tender, wholly belying the leather-tough caliber of meat you generally find at that price range. It’s also well seasoned with salt and pepper. You can omit the chile if you so desire, but no savvy diner will omit the golden blonde, cubed papas which are so much better than any fries.
Abuelta’s is no one-trick pony when it comes to enchiladas, offering six enchilada dinners, all served with Spanish rice and refried beans. The enchiladas are rolled (though you can order them flat/stacked as they’re served in much of Northern New Mexico) and stuffed with your choice of cheese, beef, chicken, carne adovada, calabasitas and of course, with the requisite egg atop and your choice of chile. There’s not a bad enchilada on the menu, only good, better and best (the carne adovada).
There are also six burritos on the menu including one of the very best chicharones burritos you’ll find in the Land of Enchantment. Chicharones are made by frying pig skin and are sometimes called “cracklings” although in no case should they be as crisp as pork rinds. The best chicharones are just slightly crispy and have a smoky, bacon-like taste. At Abuelita’s, the chicharones are neither too crispy or too soft. They’re also delicious and generously packed into a tortilla where they share space with excellent refried beans.
25 January 2014: Abuelita’s carne adovada is yet another winner. The slow-roasted lean pork is marinated in red chile then smothered in either red or green chile. If you’ve never had red chile marinated pork smothered in green chile, you owe it to yourself to try it. It’s the best of both worlds. Abuelita’s carne adovada is oh so smooth and delicious with tender tendrils of pork you can chew even if you don’t have teeth. It’s among the best carne adovada in the area and displays its versatility in stuffed sopaipillas, burritos, enchiladas or on a lunch or dinner plate where it’s served with refried beans and Spanish rice as well as two sopaipillas.
Nearly flat and just slightly greasy and somewhat “elastic,” the sopaipillas are served with most lunch and dinner plates. They’re low in salt and are a perfect repository for honey (or honey-flavored syrup as served in the restaurant) For dessert, another nice option are the natillas served warm or cold (your choice) and sprinkled generously with cinnamon.
Abuelita’s New Mexican Kitchen is a hometown treasure serving New Mexican comfort foods in the ways they’ve been prepared for generations by abuelitas in their own kitchens.
Abuelita’s New Mexican Kitchen
621 Camino Del Pueblo
Bernalillo, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 25 January 2014
# OF VISITS: 6
BEST BET: Salsa and Chips, Natillas, Carne Adovada, Chicharones Burrito, Tacopilla, Ranchero Steak, Calabasitas Burrito