“La Risa es el mejor remedio.”
(Laughter is the best medicine.)
Laughter is a mystery. Scientists don’t know why among all creatures throughout the Earth, only humans are hard-wired to be able to laugh. Not even the hyena has this capability. What scientists do know is that laughter has a variety of benefits to the human mind and body. Laughter: boosts the immune system, oxygenates blood and reduces stress. Laughter may also reduce pain and it certainly elevates mood.
When Ashley Wegele, a regular reader of this blog, told me about the La Risa Cafe in rural Ribera, New Mexico, I was intrigued…to say the least. Why would a restaurant call itself the Laughter (the English translation of “risa”) Cafe? Could their food truly be the best medicine? Are the restaurant and its food a laughing matter? Ashley assured me that wasn’t the case, emphasizing that she would visit more often if only La Risa was closer to her Albuquerque home. She raved about La Risa’s “delicious made from scratch food” and stressed that “their desserts are even better!”
If you’ve never heard of Ribera, New Mexico and La Risa Cafe, you’re probably not alone. Ribera is a small unincorporated village about forty miles northeast of Santa Fe and 20 miles south of Las Vegas on I-25. Its biggest claim to fame may be that the Imus Ranch, a working cattle ranch for children suffering from cancer or serious blood disorders, is located just east of the village. Rolling hills pass in review as you drive to Ribera. You’ll probably be in too big a hurry to get to La Risa to enjoy the scenery much, especially if you’ve visited at least once and know just how good the restaurant is. It’s a scenic drive you’ll enjoy more on the way back home.
La Risa is an exemplar of the term “family owned and operated.” It’s a true “mom and pop” operation serving Ribera since 2005 in a repurposed 100-year old home owned by Jake and Laura Boyd-Martinez. When they purchased the restaurant, it was called the “Sad Cafe” just like the Eagles song of that title. The Sad Cafe operated with nine microwaves. It did not have an oven or a stove. It just made sense that the addition of an oven, a stove and outstanding food would change sadness into laughter, hence the name La Risa. There are many touches throughout the restaurant that will bring a smile, if not laughter, to your face. The unisex bathroom doubles as a laundry room with washer and dryer tucked away behind double doors. The door to that bathroom is held open by a rock.
Now an oven and a stove alone don’t a great restaurant make. Laura Boyd-Martinez previously cooked and baked at such pantheons of Santa Fe culinary greatness as Cafe Pasqual’s, Harry’s Roadhouse and the Guadalupe Cafe, among others. Your meal at La Risa may well remind you of dining at one of Santa Fe’s best for both New Mexican comfort foods and pastries. While Laura is busily churning out one order after another, her two sons Jason and Randy are attending to the restaurant’s guests with courtesy and genial humor. The two are veritable whirling dervishes who somehow manage to keep up with the hustle and bustle in the dining room and a large screened patio.
As you walk into the restaurant, you’ll espy a slate board listing the specials of the day. New Mexican specialties (not all chile-based) dominate the menu and the specials board, but you’ll also find a nice selection of burgers, sandwiches, salads and comfort food favorites. La Risa showcases a homemade soup of the day and serves breakfast all day long. Appetizers include nachos, salsa, guacamole and queso. Instead of having any one of the former, try the restaurant’s Sunshine Sampler, a terrific triumvirate of salsa, queso, guacamole and chips, all of which are quite good. None have the potent piquancy fire-eaters live for, but they make up for it with great flavor.
When she authored Frommer’s Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque Travel Guide, my friend Lesley King listed “Northern New Mexico Enchiladas” as among “the most unforgettable Northern New Mexico Experiences,” indicating that there are few things more New Mexican than the enchilada. I couldn’t agree more and tend to consider enchiladas a good benchmark for restaurants which serve New Mexican food. La Risa’s blue corn cheese enchiladas are excellent–corn tortillas stuffed with your choice of beef and cheese, chicken and cheese or chicken, guacamole and cheese then smothered in a red or green chile (or both). When the menu says “stuffed,” it means over-stuffed. The red chile is rich, earthy and dark red. The green chile is more piquant. Both are superb!
Entrees are served with one or two sides: ham, bacon or sausage; chopped jalapeños, beans or posole, sticky peanut pasta, egg, home fries, salsa, red chile, green chile, Spanish rice, a sliced tomato, toast or English muffin, guacamole or sliced avocado. Conventional wisdom is that New Mexican entrees would warrant beans, Spanish rice or posole. Trust me to defy convention and try something entirely new and different. Okay, admittedly I thought I was ordering spicy peanut pasta (a Thai favorite) not sticky peanut pasta, but it was unconventional nonetheless. My Kim had the posole which was, alas, was tinged with just enough cumin to be discernible (for me, that means inedible).
The entree which most surprised us was the Carnitas Diablo: pork medallions marinated with rosemary and balsamic vinaigrette, topped with green chile, tomatoes and mushrooms. These carnitas are in rarefied company with the carnitas at El Bruno in Cuba meaning they’re the very best we’ve found in the Land of Enchantment. The “Diablo” part of the entree’s name may be a bit of a misnomer because the prevalent flavor profile doesn’t come from the green chile’s piquancy, but from the balsamic vinaigrette and rosemary. The pork is as tender as the most tender of carne adovada and so delicious we’d make the trip back to Ribera just for another helping.
La Risa’s dessert menu is formidable, reminiscent of the great dessert line-up at Harry’s Roadhouse. Deciding which of the decadent half-dozen or so sweet treats to order is a challenge as one temptation seems more inviting than the other. If you need visual confirmation of the wait staff’s descriptions, the house-made desserts are on display in a glass case in the front room. The Mexican-chocolate-mousse pie is too good to sit under glass. The rich adult chocolate mousse is dense, fluffy and delicious. The three berry (raspberry, blackberry, blueberry) pie a la mode is another dessert of which you’ll want more than a slice.
La Risa is open Thursday, Friday and Saturday from 11AM through 8PM and Sunday from 8AM to 6PM. Portions are more than generous and the service is friendly and attentive, but it’s the terrific flavors that will keep guests coming back even from long distances. You can always appreciate the great scenery on the way back home.
I started this review by discussing the importance of laughter. Allow me to share below, an example of how laughter, love and courage touched me very personally.
In 1999 my friend Bill Resnik’s wife Janet was diagnosed with stage four uterine cancer. Doctors told him her condition was grave and that she wasn’t going to make it. Understandably this news was devastating. The Resniks had just built their dream home and were hoping to someday raise a family of their own in that home. Now cancer threatened their idyllic plans. Bill and Janet had a storybook romance that began when she responded to a personal ad he had placed in a local newspaper–an ad tinged with humor that resonated with her. For years a successful stand-up comedian, Bill immediately discerned that she had a wry sense of humor compatible to his. They corresponded for a while before progressing from phone calls to dating and ultimately to marriage in 1992. Family and friends called Bill and Janet the perfect couple, true soul mates. Their love and laughter were contagious. Everyone enjoyed being around them.
Coping with cancer was sometimes more than Bill and Janet thought they could handle. At times when it became nearly overwhelming, they found solace in their Christian faith and in the sense of humor that had initially brought them together. Janet was a fighter, determined not to let cancer control her life. Together she and her ever attentive husband devoured every book they could find about her type of cancer. They also studied the effects on laughter on terminal illnesses and while studies were inconclusive, they figured that feeling bad didn’t make her feel any better. Fighting cancer meant neither Janet or Bill could give in to desolation and grief. They were determined to lead as happy and normal a life as possible under the circumstances and to face and combat her illness with humor.
Janet’s unique sense of humor bolstered the spirits of everyone around her, particularly those of her loving husband who was at her side throughout the ordeal. It didn’t take long before the health care professionals attending to Janet also reveled in her natural buoyancy and great humor. Similarly, other cancer patients garnered strength from her determination and joy in life. There were times when all she and Bill could do was laugh at their situation. Once when a blue marker was used to paint a point of reference on her body for radiation therapy, Janet told Bill it looked like half a happy face. With her own marker, she then proceeded to complete the smiley face. After chemotherapy had taken her wavy locks and left only a few wispy strands, Janet was standing in front of a mirror when Bill walked in. He asked her how she was doing and she replied, “I look like an ass with eyes.” They both had a good laugh.
Janet Resnik lost her battle with cancer on July 5, 2002. She had outlasted all her doctors’ expectations and some had even come to believe that she would receive the miracle for which they had all hoped. When anyone mentions her name, those who knew and loved her can’t help but smile. She had touched so many people in a life that was cut short all too soon. After his beloved wife passed away, Bill began to look for ways to keep Janet’s legacy alive–to do more than remember the wonderful times they shared. He wanted to honor her memory with something lasting and which would benefit others. He concluded that Janet’s legacy would also be served by sharing her great humor and the lessons they had learned during her battle with cancer about humor’s therapeutic value. He would create a humor workshop for cancer survivors (anyone who has ever received a diagnosis of cancer, whether or not the disease is active), their families, friends and caregivers. He called it Dare to Laugh: A Workshop for Cancer Survivors, Their Families, Friends and Caregivers on the Therapeutic Value of a Good Sense of Humor.
Through a combination of humorous exercises, tools and a healthy dose of comedic material, Bill made the workshop not only educational, but a lively audience participation session in which lightness, joy and hope would be the topics of the day. Participants learned how to find or create humor themselves whenever a “dose of laughter” was needed. Determined to take their minds away from the sadness and stress they faced daily–even if just for a few hours (but hopefully for much longer than that), Bill shared invaluable information regarding the therapeutic value of laughter, frequently peppering his discourse with humorous anecdotes that kept the mood light and joyful.
In sharing freely of his own personal experiences as a care-giver, he was also able to get participants to relate to him on a very personal level. Before ending the workshop, he asked the audience to draw a face that reflected how they felt at the end of the session. The happy faces confirmed that the workshop had been a resounding success. Even stronger confirmation of the workshop’s success–every one of the participants asked that the Dare to Laugh workshops be repeated and volunteered their time to support additional sessions. Not only had Bill armed workshop participants with information they could use to self-medicate through laughter, he helped lighten their burdens and recruited an army of “laughter ambassadors” to help lighten the burden for others. Somewhere his loving wife Janet is looking down at him and smiling.
La Risa Cafe
State Rd 3 Mile Marker 73
Ribera, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 31 March 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Carnitas Diablo, Chicken Guacamole Blue Corn Enchiladas, Sunshine Trio (Guacamole, Salsa, Con Queso with Chips), Three Berry Pie, Mexican Mousse Pie