Grandma: “Tonight, me and your aunt are gonna go visit some friends
and we’re not gonna be back till tomorrow.
We’re gettin’ a little low on steak,
so I got Lyle comin’ over tomorrow to take care of it.”
Napoleon: “Well, what’s there to eat?”
Grandma: “Knock it off, Napoleon. Make yourself a dang quesadilla!”
“Gosh!” It took a cult movie about a high school misfit lacking all the skills girls like–such as nunchaku skills, bow hunting skills and computer hacking skills–for the humble quesadilla to became a pop culture meme. Described by movie critic Roger Ebert as “the kind of nerd other nerds avoid,” Napoleon Dynamite was the quintessential dorky loser, a carrot-topped dweeb who lived with his grandmother and subsisted on a diet consisting largely of steak and tater tots.
Napoleon’s grandmother not only dissed the quesadilla with the inference that this beloved treat is a dang second rate afterthought, she had the effrontery to pronounce it “kay-saw-dill-aw,” a pronunciation waiters and waitresses throughout New Mexico hear every day from visitors not necessarily from Napoleon’s home state of Idaho. Because of Napoleon’s grandmother, Urban Dictionary now defines the quesadilla as “Something you want to make when you’re low on steak and there’s nothing else around to eat.”
Had the exchange between Napoleon and his grandmother not been so freakin’ funny, the citizenry of the Land of Enchantment might have taken collective umbrage at the tawdry treatment of our tasty tortilla treat. Perhaps in Preston, Idaho quesadillas are constructed from boring half-moon shaped tortillas of dubious origin stuffed with gooey, gloppy, flavorless cheese, but in New Mexico quesadillas are a magnificent mainstay crafted with inspiration and love. The quesadilla may have been invented in Mexico, but it’s been perfected in New Mexico!
Here the quesadilla can be served as a snack, appetizer, entree, sandwich and even dessert. Often the tortillas are griddled on cast iron stoves and the sundry ingredients with which they are stuffed are limited only by the imagination of the cook preparing them. It’s not just cheese that fills our quesadillas though a quality queso is integral. More often than not, our quesadillas include New Mexico grown chile, an addictive additive which improves the flavor of anything with which it comes in contact.
In 2010, a new restaurant was launched which celebrates the versatility and deliciousness of the quesadilla. Fittingly it’s in Albuquerque’s Old Town and it is owned and operated by a direct descendent of one of the original families which founded Albuquerque. In 1706, a number of families left Spain to avoid the Spanish Inquisition, eventually to settle in the Old Town area. Among those families, the De Garcia family became one of the most prominent landowners in the area, ultimately laying claim to much of the town which would become Albuquerque.
Today all that is left of the De Garcia family estate is situated in the Old Town area. The Garcias remain one of the last remaining original families left in Old Town that continue to own and operate at least some of their original property. Shawn Mondragon, a descendent of the original De Garcia settlers is the proud owner of the Quesadilla Grille, a charming eatery ensconced in the Poco A Poco (Little by Little) Patio off one of those quaint side streets that give Old Town so much character. Mondragon, by the way, is not only a very genial guy who treats diners like welcome guests, he’s one of the Duke City’s best known personalities, going by the name Chaz Malibu on 98.5 of your FM radio dial.
The restaurant is housed in a home built by Nick Garcia in the 1900s. Several homey familial touches remain including trasteros in which family treasures are proudly displayed. Spanish architectural touches abound including deep nichos in which santos are honored. Stately vigas lend an air of stability belied by the creaky floors overhead on the second floor. Brick flooring on the front dining room lends period authenticity while faux wood laminate flooring with a distressed wood look and feel in the back dining room could fool non-experts like me.
True to the restaurant’s name, quesadillas are featured fare, but these aren’t dang quesadillas to be eaten only when you run out of steak. Shawn Mondragon has concocted an inventive menu in which the quesadilla is all it can be. There are a lucky thirteen different quesadillas on the menu with variations available on several of them. Perhaps in recognition that in modern America a quesadilla alone might not make a meal, all quesadillas are accompanied by a trip to the “fry bar” and a drink unless you prefer an a la carte quesadilla.
On its own, the fry bar is worth a visit to the Quesadilla Grille. A wire basket brimming with fresh-cut fries arrives at your table steaming hot. The fries are thick cut, not to the Texas fry level, but much thicker than the fast food tuber variety. The fries are perfectly prepared, neither too flaccid nor too stiff. They are magnificent, some of the very best in the Duke City. The “bar” portion of your order is a trip to an “interactive topping station” where you can fill paper ramekins with your choice of several sauces: a fiery, smoky chipotle; standard garden-variety ketchup; a sweet onion sauce; cheese sauce and more. The sweet onion sauce is especially good though it might be a bit cloying for some.
Alternatively, you can opt for chips and salsa instead of the fry bar (or better yet, dine with a friend and order one of each). The chips are freshly made and served hot to the touch. They’re relatively low in salt and are large and thick enough for Gil-sized scoops of salsa. The salsa is pureed, nearly water thin which makes scooping a challenge. Dipping the chips is more appropriate. For a pittance more, you can “make ’em nachos” by adding cheese sauce from the fry bar and having the chips served with your choice of meat and jalapeños.
The quesadilla menu is at the very least an interesting and inventive assembly of tortilla wedges engorged with fillings you certainly won’t find in Preston, Idaho (or anywhere else, for that matter) . They’re made to order and arrive at your table hot and fresh. During my inaugural visit, the Philly Cheesesteak Quesadilla, was a no-brainer choice. Crispy, buttery tortillas cut pizza style into four triangular slices are engorged with grilled shredded steak, mayo, onions, bell peppers, Cheddar-Jack and provolone cheeses (with a green chile chaser). Take these toppings and nestle them into a hoagie roll and you’d have a Chile Philly Cheesesteak second in Albuquerque only to the one at Itsa Italian Ice.
We weren’t quite as enamored of the Malibu Meal quesadilla (grilled ham and pineapple quesadilla with honey and red chile powder). The ingredient composition had us hoping for something akin to Hawaiian-style pizza in which the salty savoriness of ham complements the tangy sweetness of pineapple. Instead, the honey dominates the flavor profile with its cloying sweetness. Not even a generous sprinkling of red chile comes across. Worse, the honey is lightly smeared atop the quesadilla and it transfers onto your hands. Had we treated this as a dessert quesadilla, we might well have enjoyed it more.
A better option is an Italian Meatball Quesadilla (Meatballs, Marinara Sauce, Mozzarella) which is more reminiscent of a pizza in both taste and texture than it is a meatball sub. Understandably, because they’ve got to fit in between tortillas, the meatballs are relatively small, but they’re seasoned well and complemented by a marinara sauce you could actually enjoy on spaghetti. Even though guacamole would probably go well, ask for a side of marinara sauce for dipping.
There are several dessert “quesadillas” on the menu. They’re called “dulcedillas” and there’s no queso involved. Fillings include peanut butter and banana with chocolate syrup, apples and cinnamon with caramel syrup and cherries and pineapple. Quesadillas are accompanied by your choice of three condiments: salsa, guacamole or sour cream. The guacamole is buttery and delicious.
I would be remiss if I didn’t relate my own Napoleon Dynamite type personal anecdote on this review. One of my good friends and colleagues, a fellow gastronome, named Alfredo Q. Guzman wouldn’t tell us what the “Q” stands for, so we started calling him “Alfredo Quesadilla Guzman.” We’ll have to bring him to the restaurant bearing his middle name.
The Quesadilla Grille claims to be “the only restaurant in the world which specializes in quesadillas.” It’s an idea whose time has come. It’s a treat long overdue for respect and recognition.
328 San Felipe Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 8 December 2011
1st VISIT: 27 August 2011
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Fry Bar, Chips and Salsa, Philly Cheesesteak Quesadilla, Italian Meatball Quesadilla