Here’s an interesting bit of Jeopardy level trivia which you might contemplate the next time you dine at this Rio Rancho spot: In the Spanish golden age, a “cazuela” was the gallery located above the tavern in the back wall of a theater–the area in which women were segregated. Today “cazuela” is a Mexican word for casserole meal.
Cazuela’s restaurant is a friendly, family owned operation, which in 2007, saw some significant changes, including the move to a much larger facility. The new location allows owner Francisco Saenz to expand his menu, extend hours of business and even cater large events. It’s got a banqueting facility that will accommodate large crowds.
The original site of Cazuela’s was a tiny, time-worn building that had seen better days. Saenz managed to infuse it with charm and warmth. A west-facing window included a bamboo curtain image of the Virgen de Guadalupe, the patron saint of the Americas (and, oh by the way, New Mexico, too).
Over the years, Cazuela’s became part of the fabric of the community. When a motorist crashed through the building and forced the restaurant to close for several months, loyal patrons practically went into withdrawal. Though then ensconced in a tiny building, Cazuela’s obviously has a big heart–and a big menu that belied the restaurant’s size.
Cazuela’s is now situated in an expansive edifice which once housed Rio Rancho’s Sports Corral. The Corral’s batting cages are still part of the property, but gone are other facets of the long-time sports complex. Saenz practically gutted the building, investing significant capital in completely transforming it into a classy restaurant. With a lease to buy option, he has big plans for Cazuela’s.
Enter through the north-facing door and you’ll see why the restaurant is named Cazuela’s. A large painting of a casserole dish hangs prominently. There are several Mexican paintings hanging on the restaurant’s walls, all framed in the unique style of Old Mexico. An arched doorway takes you from the front dining room to a more expansive dining room. Several half-moon shaped arches throughout the restaurant give you visibility to a beautiful venue that facilitates tranquil and relaxing dining. Each table has the name “Cazuela’s” carved into it.
The dining rooms are bright and airy with plenty of room to spread out. Ceiling fans allow for air to circulate and help drown out the sound of the televisions in each dining room. Both table and booth seating are comfortable. The two most important thing about Cazuela’s didn’t change with its move to a larger facility.
The first would be service. Cazuela’s wait staff is among the most attentive in town. It’s a knowledgeable wait staff whose recommendations you can trust. From the moment you’re greeted until the minute you leave, the wait staff will make you feel like a welcome guest. They check up on you frequently without being intrusive and they anticipate when you need a refill.
The second is the food. Sure, the menu expanded, but that’s just more of the same delicious food residents of the City of Vision have come to love. It’s fresh, flavorful and almost all made on the premises.
That starts with the chips and salsa. The chips are made from deep-fried corn tortillas. These are some of the best chips in town–thick and redolent with the flavor of corn. Your first order of chips and salsa is complementary and subsequent orders cost a pittance.
The salsa is also delicious. It’s a bit on the thin side, but makes up for that with a smoky and mildly piquant flavor invigorated with cilantro, tomato and jalapeno. If you can taste freshness in a salsa, this might be what it tastes like.
Cazuela’s serves breakfast all day long with a menu which includes traditional Mexican favorites such as chilaquiles, pancakes, eggs and bacon as well as New Mexico’s ubiquitous breakfast burritos. The chilaquiles are terrific, some of the very best in New Mexico in large part because they’re made with those fabulous Cazuela’s chips. This dish is simplicity itself–deep-fried tortilla chips smothered in green chile and cheese then topped with a fried egg. The green chile is of medium piquancy and imbues the chips with both a softening quality and a memorable flavor. The runniness of the yolk makes it even better.
You might not expect a Mexican grill to excel at pancakes, but Cazuela’s would give any pancake house a run for their money. Whether you order a full-sized portion or a short stack (two pancakes), you’re in for a treat. The pancakes are nearly the circumference of the plate and are served with syrup tinged with more than a discernible hint of vanilla. They’re served steaming hot so the butter melts easily.
Several caldos (soups) are also in the offering–posole, menudo, caldo de pollo (chicken soup) and albondigas (meatballs). Appetizers include chile con queso with the same amazing chips that accompany orders of salsa. This con queso doesn’t become gloppy as some con queso is apt to become. It’s a multi-cheese blend with a nice consistency and good flavor.
Taquitos with salsa and sour cream are another option. Cazuela’s taquitos aren’t rolled up cigar-tight as you might find them in Espanola. Corn tortillas are engorged with a beef and bean amalgam then deep-fried. Served in orders of four, they are sizeable enough to share (not that you might want to, they’re so good).
Other staples of the expanded menu include daily specials, gorditas (considered the specialty of the house), tacos, burritos, enchiladas, combination plates and handmade tamales and tortillas. Visitors expecting New Mexico style cooking (and especially New Mexican chile) will be in for a pleasant surprise. This is old Mexico in all its culinary glory.
You might also be surprised by the restaurant’s rendition of gorditas (which mean fatties). Typically thick, deep-fried tortillas stuffed similarly to pita bread, Cazuela’s version actually has its ingredients piled on top. These gorditas start with handmade corn tortillas topped with shredded cheese, fresh tomatoes, lettuce and melted butter then smothered with red and (or) green chile. Beef, chicken or carnitas (braised pork cut into small cubes) can also be added.
In 2009, Cazuela’s added more than a page’s worth of mariscos to the menu including ceviche which you can order as an appetizer or as a plate with rice and beans. The tostadas de ceviche are available with either camarones (shrimp) or pescado (fish) marinated in citrus juices then piled atop a crisp taco shell with red onion, tomato and avocado slices. Cazuela’s does something other Mexican restaurants don’t do. It provides a small bowl of lime juice mixed with onion, cilantro, green chile and just a bit of flour so you can add even more citrus flavor to your tostadas. It’s something other restaurants should duplicate because the mix of tangy citrus and piquant chile is terrific.
The green chile is incendiary and it’s not of the “Grown in Hatch” variety. It’s a thin, smoky sauce with the fiery constitution of jalapenos and an excellent flavor that may have you scrambling for a heat quencher such as milk.
Cazuela’s gorditas may not follow the gorditas template, but they’re very good. They’re served with Spanish rice and some of the best refried beans in the metropolitan area. Eat several of the specialty of the house and you’re bound to become a gordito yourself.
When on the menu at the previous location, parrillada lived up to its billing as a “special of the day.” It’s one of my very favorite Mexican entrees. No matter where you travel in Latin America, you’ll find grilled meat (carne asada) on the menu. Restaurants called parrillas specialize in grilled meats and sometimes grill seafood (mariscos) and poultry as well. Only a few restaurants in the Albuquerque area offer parrillada.
Cazuela’s offers two parrilladas plates. The Nortena is made with carne asada, sizzling bacon, bell peppers, onions, chorizo and white cheese. The Carnitas Parrillada substitutes cubed pork for the carne asada.
Served in one or two person portions, parrillada is served in a cast iron plate which seems to retain its heat throughout the meal. While heavily laden with ingredients for which angioplasties should come on the side, this is an excellent dish.
The parrilladas plates are served with beans, rice, guacamole, sour cream and corn or flour tortillas. Some diners make tacos out of the grilled ingredients; others use their forks to stab mouthfuls of grilled goodness. Any way you eat it, parrillada is delicious.
Dessert options include sopaipillas, fried ice cream and tres leches cake. Your server will ask if you want your tres leches cake topped with a drizzle of chocolate or with fresh strawberries. In either case, it’s a delicious and unfailingly fresh cake that you’ll enjoy.
There are many things about Cazuela’s you’ll enjoy. It’s a hometown favorite Rio Rancho residents can’t get enough of. It’s on Sara Road directly across from Intel’s RR4 complex, but even though it’s not on the well-beaten path, it’s a destination restaurant to which you’ll return if you give it one visit.
Cazuela’s Mexican Grill
4051 Sara Road, S.E.
Rio Rancho, NM
LATEST VISIT: 31 March 2010
# OF VISITS: 5
BEST BET: Parrillada (Carnitas), Chile con Queso, Taquitos with Salsa & Sour Cream, Gorditas, Chilaquiles, Tostadas de Ceviche, Pancakes