El Sarape – Albuquerque, New Mexico
Before the advent of political correctness, the unchecked use of controversial stereotypes was rampant throughout America. Starting in the 1930s, for example, ethnic caricatures in the guise of tchotchkes (salt shakers, cookie jars, plant pots and the like) could be seen in households throughout the fruited plain. Neon-spangled roadside five-and-tens dotting the motorways and byways were primary culprits in the sale of kitschy, tacky knickknacks propagating such stereotypes as mammies, cigar-store Indians and the Mexican peasant taking a siesta while reclining against a saguaro. The sleeping Mexican, often called Pancho, was particularly prominent throughout the Southwest. Generally attired in huaraches, pantaloons, a sash which doubled as a belt, a massive sombrero that hid his face and a colorful sarape, that image perpetuated the stereotype of the lazy Mexican.
While politically conscious Americans of all ethnicities found the sleeping Mexican offensive, in the border towns and in the barrios, the image was often used in front yards by families of Mexican descent as a symbol of home. According to Maribel Alvarez, an associate professor at the University of Arizona, Mexican workers viewed the sleeping Mexican not as a laughable stereotype or curio, but as a symbol of honor–a hard-working Mexican resting because he got up early for a long, noble day of hard work. That’s a “glass half full” perspective which speaks volumes about the optimism and self worth of the Mexican people.
The dichotomy of perspectives is always an interesting study in human dynamics, often pointing out that opinions are wide and varied, often with degrees of right and wrongness. This is clearly brought out in my avocation as a restaurant critic. Every restaurant I review seems to the favorite of some readers while other readers don’t think quite as highly about that same restaurant (to put it mildly in some cases). Enthusiastic readers recently recommended I visit El Sarape which they heralded as the “best Mexican restaurant in Albuquerque.” That’s quite a bold statement considering the Duke City is home to Los Equipales, El Norteño, El Zarrandeado and a host of other excellent purveyors of Mexican cuisine.
The fact that El Sarape is approaching two decades (first opening in 1997) in a tough restaurant market with a fickle dining public which gravitates toward the pretty new kid on the block eateries may be indicative of its quality. The fact that there have been until 2012 two other El Sarape restaurants–one on Isleta and one in Los Lunas (closed in 2012)–is certainly indicative of its popularity. The fact that the restaurant rose from the ashes like a Phoenix speaks volumes about its staying power. A fire on June 16, 2009 destroyed the original El Sarape which was attached to the Royal Motel, one of several structures on East Central razed under the city’s nuisance abatement laws.
We visited the scion of the original, just a few blocks east of its original location in a timeworn edifice which previously housed other Mexican restaurants (Villa Del Mar, for one). El Sarape’s menu showcases the foods of Mexico’s northern region with which Albuquerque diners are quite familiar. It also specializes in mariscos (seafood) from Mexico’s two coastal regions. The menu also has a smattering of New Mexican favorites such as chile rellenos. No sooner are you seated than a bowl of salsa and basket of chips are brought to your table. The salsa is of medium piquancy with fresh and lively flavors. The chips are light, crispy and thankfully only lightly salted.
Appetizers include tostadas de ceviche, often a difference-maker among Mexican restaurants of similar quality. At El Sarape, a crisp tostada is topped with a smear of guacamole then piled on are lettuce, tomatoes, jalapeños, onions, shredded white cheese and your choice of camarones (shrimp) or pescado (fish). The ceviche doesn’t have the citrus overload some Mexican restaurants offer. In fact, you may have to squeeze a few limes (provided) to bring out the citrus qualities which characterize ceviche. The shrimp are fresh and plentiful, a nice foil for the unctuousness of the guacamole and the piquancy of the chopped jalapeños.
The menu offers three quesadilla options including Quesadilla Variadas in which griddled flour tortillas envelop ham, chorizo and queso with guacamole, sour cream and beans on the side. Left on the griddle a bit too long, the quesadillas were almost cracker-like in their texture with prominent pinto pony-like char throughout. An accommodating waitress quickly remedied the situation, bringing us a not quite as charred quesadilla. It made all the difference. The Quesadilla Variadas is quite good with a nice interplay of highly contrasted pork products (ham and chorizo) against the melted white cheese. The beans are also good.
As with many Mexican restaurants offering mariscos, El Sarape has one dish whose sheer size had to have strained the fishermens’ nets. That would be the Charola de Mariscos, literally seafood platter. Served in a platter large enough to accommodate the Thanksgiving turkey, this decorative and delicious disc features fried calamari, breaded fish sticks, a half-dozen raw oysters and sauteed shrimp all encircling a pleasantly piquant housemade sauce. As with all nets cast into the sea, you’re bound to find something you’d throw back. For us it was the fried calamari which was breaded much too thickly. The sauteed shrimp (butter and garlic with dried chile peppers) was the best of the lot though peeling shrimp which has been swimming in butter can be a messy proposition. The housemade sauce made everything better.
In its annual Food and Wine issue for 2013, Albuquerque The Magazine‘s staff sampled “every dish of nachos in the city” and selected El Sarape’s nachos as the very best in the city. The magazine described these nachos as having “an amazing beef and bean distribution,” “the freshest chile,” and described them as “positively drool inducing.”
Whether or not El Sarape is, as some enthusiastic readers touted, the best Mexican restaurant in Albuquerque is, like the sleeping Mexican stereotype, a matter of perspective. Some readers will probably not like it quite as much as others do. For me, the fun is in the sense of adventure in trying new and different restaurants and discovering some good and some not quite as good in all of them.
5025 Central Ave NE
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 5 May 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
Charola de Mariscos, Quesadilla Variadas, Salsa and Chips, Tostada de Ceviche