Tia Betty. If the name conjures images of a dowdy old woman, a face etched with wrinkles and thinning grey hair pulled back neatly into a bun, you’re probably not alone. Not even the youthfully ribald nonagenarian Betty White can alter the contemporary stereotypes ascribed to the increasingly anachronistic name Betty. It wasn’t always the case. In fact, there was a time Betty was one of the most popular girl’s name in America and not just as a diminutive of Elizabeth or Bethany.
According to the Social Security Administration, Betty was the fourth most popular girl’s name in the 1920s with more than 283,000 babies so christened. Betty was an even more popular name in the 1930s when it ranked second among all girl’s names and was given to more than 300,000 infant girls. The name declined in popularity in successive decades–from 11th in the 1940s, 35th in the 1950s, 102nd in the 1960s–before dropping from among the 200 most popular girl’s names cataloged by the federal government.
There was also a time the name Betty conveyed images of voluptuous sexiness, especially on the big screen (though not even animated features were exempt). The most enduring sex symbol of the Depression Era remains Betty Boop, an animated siren able to convey both innocence and sensuality. Vivacious Betty Grable was the number-one pin-up girl of the World War II area and was heralded for having the most beautiful legs in Hollywood. Her successor as pin-up queen, Bettie (give me some license on the spelling) Page not only had gorgeous gams, she was named the girl with “the perfect figure.”
It’s the unmistakable countenance of Bettie Page that comes to mind when you first espy the logo for Tia Betty Blue’s restaurant on San Mateo. From the long, luxurious jet black hair with its trademark pageboy hairdo and short, pixie bangs to the shimmering red lipstick, the similarities are remarkable. Tia Betty could be Bettie Page’s doppelganger (or at least a sexy sister). Get past the similarities and the differences are glaring–the tattoo on the shapely shoulder, the waitress tray balancing several food orders and the red flower on the waxen hair.
Tia Betty Blue’s was rollicking on the day of our inaugural visit. Owner Daniel Boardman admits he once had an Aunt Betty, but she couldn’t cook. She also didn’t look like the salacious fetish model. Tia Betty Blue’s Duke City Fix profile describes the mysterious aunt as “the body and soul of one of Albuquerque’s newest, quirkiest, and spiciest restaurants, Tia Betty Blue’s.” There’s no way that profile or the image on the logo belong to a dowdy old woman. There’s no way this chic eatery and coffee shop bespeaks anything but youth.
Okay, so maybe the exterior of the converted two-story home isn’t exactly swanky, but attitudinally this is one hip and happening place. How many Duke City restaurants do you know which celebrate “Tattoo Friday,” a weekly event in which everyone with a visible tattoo gets a discount?. Tattoos are also celebrated on large print black and white framed photographs adorning one dining room wall. On the opposite wall are paintings of Mexican luchadores, wrestlers whose identities are protected by colorful masks designed to evoke archetypal images of animals, heroes and gods.
The main dining room is narrow with room for only seven two-seat tables. Weather permitting, larger parties can enjoy New Mexico’s sunshine under patio umbrellas. The counter at which you order is festooned in tile mosaic with four framed menus overhead: Coffee and Tea, Breakfast, New Mexican Food and Sandwiches. It’s not an especially large menu, but where it lacks in volume, it more than makes up in authenticity and creativity. Tia Betty prepares authentic New Mexican cuisine in-house including carne adovada prepared daily, atole (a sweet-hot blue corn porridge seasoned with cinnamon) and large (24-ounce) bowls of frijoles or posole for hearty eaters. The frijoles are New Mexican pinto beans from Estancia slow-cooked with salt-cured pork and topped with fiesta green chile or Tia’s housemade red chile.
Some of the creativity takes license with New Mexican cuisine, but no one will complain when they sample such deliciousness as a New Mexico Po’ Boy (housemade carne adovada, cheese, onions, lettuce, Fritos and pickled jalapeños) or a tamale boat (two steamed tamales covered in Tia’s housemade red chile and topped with Fritos). The foul chile despoiler cumin has no place in Tia Betty’s menu. That chile is available five different ways: red, green, vegetarian red, vegetarian green, and gluten-free chopped green. Side dishes include such traditional New Mexican favorites as calabasitas and a small cup of either frijoles or posole. The red chile, by the way, comes from Chimayo, which owner Daniel Steadman once called home, too. The menu is an homage to northern New Mexican home cooking, the very best in the Land of Enchantment!
Inventiveness isn’t exclusive to Tia Betty’s New Mexican offerings. The breakfast menu includes both a savory and a sweet version of a blue corn waffle boat. The eight-item sandwich menu showcases several creative items including a modern take on an old favorite, a Retro Bologna sandwich made with bologna, hard-boiled egg, cream cheese, mayo, red onion, lettuce and tomato. All sandwiches are available in a house-baked French or wheat loaf or a plain, tomato-basil or spinach tortilla wrap.
To get your day started off right, Tia Betty offers a nice selection of hot and cold coffees and teas. All espresso drinks are made with a double-shot and served in a sixteen-ounce cup in most cases. For a pittance you can add your choice of whipped cream: plain, chocolate, cinnamon or lavender. From the flavored latte selections, New Mexicans will most definitely appreciate the Azteca, two shots of chilled espresso, chocolate, cinnamon, whipped cream and a touch of chipotle chile. The chipotle sneaks up on the back of your throat with a pleasant piquancy that marries wonderfully with the chocolate. Several restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment have coupled chocolate and chile, but by adding coffee Tia Betty makes it a memorable menage a trois. This is one seriously terrific latte!
If coffee and tea aren’t your libation of choice and you’re tired of the Coke and Pepsi market dominance, Tia Betty’s has the largest selection of specialty, vintage, small-distribution, and unique sodas in the Duke City, by far, with more than 100 different flavors of soda pop (tonic if you’re from Massachusetts) in stock. The fridge is a veritable cornucopia of color and carbonation–from citrus flavors to colas, cream sodas, diet sodas, dry sodas, fruit-flavored sodas, ginger ales and ginger beers, kid favorites, root beers, sarsaparillas, birch beer and unusual flavors such as cucumber soda, bacon soda, peanut butter and jelly and more. You’ve truly been assimilated if you still want a Pepsi or Coke product after all these choices.
As is often the case, the most unique item on the menu is what appealed most to me. That would be the Curry Chicken Salad Sandwich (chicken, grapes, apple, almond, celery, mint, yogurt and mayo seasoned with garam masala and curry powder) which more than lived up to expectations. This is certainly not your dowdy aunt’s dainty, desiccated chicken salad sandwich. This is a grown-up, sophisticated chicken sandwich with ingredient combinations playing on the strengths of seemingly contrasting flavors which go surprisingly well together. This is a chicken sandwich you’ll actually remember long after you’ve lustily consumed it.
The Tamale Boat (two steamed tamales covered in Tia’s housemade red chile and topped with Fritos) is an idea whose time has come and it’s an idea that makes so much sense you’ll wonder why no one else has done it before. Think Frito pie but instead of ground beef and chile, this bountiful boat starts with steamed tamales. The corn on corn interplay of masa and Fritos is surprisingly good, both texturally and in terms of flavor. Chopped onions, tomatoes and lettuce top this boat, but the most memorable topper is Tia Betty’s housemade red chile, a rich, earthy blend that doesn’t shy away from heat.
For my Kim, a visit to a New Mexican restaurant is incomplete without carne adovada (unless it’s made with cumin). Tia Betty’s version won’t disappoint whether in the form of the aforementioned New Mexico Po’ Boy or the huevos con carne offering (two fried eggs over a mound of housemade carne adovada, a grilled tortilla, papas and beans). The carne adovada showcases tender tendrils of pork marinated in a rich, earthy red chile punctuated by piquancy and deliciousness. The frijoles are excellent. It’s easy to imagine consuming a 24-ounce bowl.
SECOND VISIT – 23 March 2013: My initial impression after our inaugural visit to Tia Betty Blues was that it could well be one of the very best purveyors of chile in New Mexico, but additional sampling would be required. It was a first impression that lasted, but we didn’t find ourselves back until nine months later. That was nine months wasted. Tia Betty Blues is most definitely one of the very best New Mexican restaurants in the state, a restaurant we’ll visit with more frequency.
The restaurant’s best seller is the aforementioned New Mexico Po’ Boy, a sandwich exclusive to Tia Betty Blues, a sandwich good enough to make it to my list of top sandwiches. This isnt just a sandwich; it’s a revelation in how delicious the right ingredient combinations can be. You’ll ask yourself why no one came up with such a creation sooner. The carne adovada is moist and delicious–tender tendrils of pork marinated in a pleasantly piquant and very flavorful red chile. The corn chips add a textural contrast and just a little saltiness and while pickling robs the jalapeños of their piquancy, it imbues them with a tanginess which serves as a foil to the slices of cheese. The Po’ Boy bread is a perfect canvas for a near perfect sandwich (it would be perfect were it not just a bit on the messy side).
Tia Betty Blues doesn’t subscribe to any template of what others may think a New Mexican restaurant should be. It dares to be different–to be inventive, to take chances. It dares to allow chile to be chile. That means using chile that bites back, chile that isn’t just food coloring. The green chile chicken stew not only exemplifies the comfort food properties that make it a favorite any time of year, it accentuates the piquancy of the green chile along with its roasted flavor properties of red and green chiles. Tia Betty’s green chile chicken stew is an amalgam of papas, shredded chicken, corn niblets and black beans, all perfectly prepared and absolutely wonderful. It’s available in portion sizes of 24- or 12-ounces.
Tia Betty appears to have cornered the market on Fritos corn chips because they’re used, to great effectiveness, on several entrees. The Tia B. Breakfast Bowl, a giant bowl of papas and corn chips topped with carne adovada and two fried eggs smothered in red or green chile with shredded yellow and white Cheddar, is another one of those dishes so good you’ll wonder why you’ve never had anything like it before. My Kim put it quite succinctly in declaring the dish “the best Frito pie I’ve ever had–even better than the Frito pie at Perea’s Tijuana Bar & Restaurant.” In 2012, one of Albuquerque’s weekly periodicals recruited “some of the most knowledgeable food professionals” to put together a list of the city’s best dishes. When it came to Frito pie, one judge responded “Who in Albuquerque makes one? I’d love to know!” The majority of judges chose Bob’s Burgers. This paragraph lists two Frito pies which are much better. It’s a pity those knowledgeable food professionals didn’t know about them.
Third Visit – 24 March 2013: Tia Betty Blue’s is the type of restaurant at which some diners will order their favorite dish time after time while more adventurous diners will eventually try everything on the menu. The latter will find that almost every dish is favorite-worthy, including (some might say especially) the vegetarian options. The calabasitas tacos (three blue corn tortillas engorged with housemade calabasitas, cheese, tomato, onions and vegetarian red or green chile served open-face with sides of papas and beans) are outstanding. The calabasitas aren’t quite al dente with just a slight crunch–a far cry from the mushy calabasitas too many restaurants serve.
Behemoth burritos are also available on the menu, including The Big Chicken Burrito, a twelve-inch grilled tortilla engorged with house-stewed chicken, beans, papas, cheese, onions and tomato then smothered in your choice of red or green chile. Christmas-style is the choice for savvy diners. The red chile, from Chimayo, is a rich red and earthy with a hiccup-inducing piquancy you can respect. The green chile is almost equal parts roasted green and roasted red chile. If you’ve never had roasted red chile, you’ll find it sweeter and with a greater depth of flavor than roasted green chile. The house-stewed chicken is terrific, but there isn’t enough of it because there’s just so much of everything else. There’s lots of papas, lots of beans, etc. There’s also lots of flavor.
In three visits, my Kim has had carne adovada in one form or another. It’s Ruben Hendrickson-worthy carne adovada. Ruben, as regular readers know, is my adovada adoring friend who has spent years perfecting this porcine perfection. He will appreciate Tia Betty Blue’s version, made from fresh, never frozen pork sirloin marinated in that wondrous Chimayo red. On the Huevos Con Carne dish, the carne adovada shares a bowl with two fried eggs, two blue corn tortillas, papas, bacon and red or green chile. The combination of carne adovada and bacon is pork two ways. That in itself is reason enough to order this dish. The most obvious reason is the carne adovada itself which is absolutely delicious.
Tia Betty Blue’s order-taking system is as unique and fun as everything else in the restaurant. Rather than asking you for your name, your order-taker will hand you a card from a deck of playing cards published in 1943 by the Coca Cola Company. You place the card on your table and your server will find you. On weekends, an upstairs dining room opens up to accommodate overflow crowds. That dining room can also be opened up to accommodate large dining parties any day of the week.
Tia Betty Blue’s is so good, it’s made the name Betty cool again. Now if only a cool restaurant would open up somewhere that could make the elongated version of my name (no, it’s not Gilligan) cool.
Tia Betty Blues
1248 San Mateo, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 24 March 2013
1st VISIT: 2 June 2012
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: The Azteca, Huevos con Carne, Tamale Boat, Curry Chicken Salad Sandwich, Green Chile Stew Bowl, Tia B. Breakfast Bowl, The Original New Mexico Po’ Boy, Calabasitas Tacos, The Big Chicken Burrito, Huevos Con Carne