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. Paintings of local artists festoon the muted yellows and earth tones of the restaurant’s walls.
During lunch, Abuelita’s large dining room is bustling with activity and with boisterous, happy patrons enjoying their victuals. Service isn’t hurried but here it does a heart good to wait for an order to be delivered. I’m always wary of plates delivered within seconds after placing an order. The pace at Abuelita’s allows you to luxuriate over the salsa and chips and because plates are prepared to order, your plates arrive at your table piping hot.
The salsa has a rich red tomato taste much like a spicy V8 juice with a jalapeno kick flecked with cilantro. It’s replenished faithfully and along with the crisp chips is low in sodium. Best of all, it’s complementary and two plastic tubs of salsa are delivered from the start so you don’t have to ask for replenishment five or six chips into your salsa soiree (yeah, I admit to enjoying a bit of chip with my salsa).
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 more than half taco and half sopaipilla. In fact, I might argue that the foundation for this entree isn’t a sopaipilla, but a buñuelo. A buñuelo is essentially a flat sopaipilla, 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. You’re going to want Abuelita’s green chile, by the way. It’s got a sweet, earthy flavor and a nice bite.
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. 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.
The menu includes several burgers, including a tortilla burger with green chile. Also available is chicken fried steak and an eight-ounce strip steak option called a Ranchero steak. At under 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 and is intended to be topped with green chile (only my chilephobic dining companion asked that it be omitted.)
The papitas are in the style popularized at Sadie’s Dining Room in Albuquerque. That would be fried cubes of potato perfection. These tubers aren’t peeled either, so you get the whole potato flavor.
You can have your enchiladas rolled or flat (Northern New Mexico style), with cheese, beef or chicken and of course with the requisite egg atop. The beef is well seasoned but the red chile is has “gringo” heat, albeit with a nice flavor. Better is the carne adovada featuring fork tender pork cubes marinated in the same chile. The carne adovada platter comes with papitas, cubed potatoes that native New Mexicans prefer to French fries.
The best plate we’ve had at Abuelita’s is the chicharones burrito. 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.
Nearly flat and just slightly greasy sopaipillas are served with most lunch and dinner platters. They’re low in salt and a perfect repository for honey. For dessert, another nice option are the natillas served warm and sprinkled generously with cinnamon.
621 Camino Del Pueblo
LATEST VISIT: 16 December 2008
# OF VISITS:3
BEST BET: Salsa and Chips, Natillas, Carne Adovada, Chicharones Burrito, Tacopilla, Ranchero Steak