Albuquerque’s Nob Hill district is arguably the Duke City’s cultural and culinary hub with a widely eclectic mix of restaurants. Despite its culinary diversity, one dining demographic that hasn’t been well represented has been New Mexican cuisine. It’s not through lack of effort, however, as several New Mexican restaurants have opened and closed in the area, most being very short-lived. In late December, 2010, Dennis Serafin made a concerted effort to change the fortunes of New Mexican restaurants in the Nob Hill region by launching his eponymous “chile hut.” Since then the highly regarded Cecilia’s Cafe has also entered the food fray.
Situated on the southwest corner of Central and Solano just east of Carlisle, Serafin’s Chile Hut occupies the former site of Blackbird Pies, Quinn’s Bistro, Jamaica Jamaica and a host of other failed restaurants. From the outside, it hardly resembles the adobe hued stereotype of New Mexican restaurants. Its quaint cottage-like structure seems more tailored for say, a little German restaurant. In fact, were it not for the “Chile Hut” portion of the colorful signage, you might dismiss Serafin’s as another quaint and wildly eclectic Nob Hill eatery. New Mexico’s Zia sun symbol, spangled in neon and lit up at night, sits atop a leaning signage pole that protrudes nearly to Central Avenue.
The interior of the restaurant is comfy-cozy but can be a bit on the crowded side at only 2,100 square feet. The largest of three dining rooms is the front dining room in which you place your order at a counter. Wall space is festooned with New Mexican themed accoutrements and can be categorized as “something to see everywhere you turn.” One wall on the back dining room is virtually wall-papered in framed covers of vintage Life magazines. Another wall showcases framed newspapers of such historical events as the assassination of JFK. Still another wall pays tribute to the UNM Lobos.
Serafin’s offers breakfast from 7 to 11AM every day but Monday. The breakfast menu includes New Mexican standards such as burritos, huevos rancheros and carne adovada as well as American favorites such as hotcakes, French toast and omelets. Breakfast plates are served with pinto beans, home-style potatoes, red or green chile and your choice of white or wheat toast, tortilla or sopaipilla.
The lunch and dinner menu offers six different burritos, seven New Mexican plates (including an Indian taco plate) and both red and green chile cheeseburgers. Salsa and chips aren’t complimentary, but are listed on the restaurant’s “must have” menu along with hot dogs, nachos and chile cheese fries. A number of sides and extras are also available. The beverage menu includes some of the usual suspects (Pepsi products) as well as orange juice, chocolate milk, beer, wine and Route 66 brand sodas (the root beer is quite good). Desserts include a flan Dennis Serafin raves about as well as ice cream, biscochitos and housemade cinnamon rolls.
The name on the marquee is “chile” and that is precisely the specialty of the house at Serafin’s. If you’re tired of so-called red and green chile which lacks in both piquancy and flavor, you’ve come to the right place. Serafin’s chile packs a punch, but not so much that you’ll be reaching for water after every bite. Call it pleasant piquancy, a discernible heat in every bite. The green chile, a sun-dried blend, is especially flavorful with vivid hints that chile is, after all, a fruit. The red chile is a rich reddish orange.
The “must have” menu has it right in listing salsa and chips (though I’m still very much in the dark as to how hot dogs could be categorized as “must have” in a New Mexican eatery). The salsa is thick and chunky with flecks of jalapeño for heat. Served in an all-too-small ramekin, it’s also pleasantly piquant, accentuating not only heat but the natural sweetness of the tomatoes from which it’s made. The chips are thick and large enough for Gil-sized scoops of salsa.
The New Mexican plates menu offers a medium and a large combination plate, the differences being a chile relleno, your choice of sopaipilla or tortilla and $4.95. Hindsight being 20/20, I’ll opt for the medium plate next time because the relleno was the least palatable item on the plate. We found it mushy, greasy (old cooking oil) and overly breaded. Contrast that with the tamale which is easily the best item on the combination plate with a perfect balance of corn masa and tender tendrils of chile marinated pork. The beef taco could stand for just a bit more seasoning…or an infusion of the restaurant’s wonderful chile.
The carne adovada is slowly simmered in red chile. The slow simmering renders the pork rich and tender, so much so that it falls apart with just the slightest press of your fork. It’s not quite as delicate in flavor as the best carne adovada, courtesy perhaps of the infusion of Mexican oregano which can leave an astringent aftertaste. As with other New Mexican plates, the carne adovada is served with Spanish rice and refried beans. The refried beans, like the red and green chile, are exemplars of the way New Mexicans have been preparing them for generations. The Spanish rice is…well, Spanish rice (yawn).
Serafin’s Chile Hut has shown that New Mexican restaurants have a place in Nob Hill. Its red and green chile are good enough to make it a long-time fixture in the area.