In as delicious a dichotomy as you’ll find on any novel, the chapter from Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory which most terrorized and traumatized children actually provides glorious fantasy material for many adults. In that memorable chapter, a gluttonous brat child named Augustus Gloop falls into a Chocolate River and is sucked through a pipe into a room in which fudge is manufactured. By being squeezed through the pipe, Augustus’s once endomorphic body (described in the novel as “fat bulging from every fold, with two greedy eyes peering out of his dough ball of a head“) is transformed and he emerges as an extremely svelte shadow of his former self.
For calorically overachieving chocoholic adults who struggle with the battle of the bulge, the notion of falling into a river of indulgent chocolate then being sucked into a pipe and coming out thin is fantasy indeed. While some adults might prefer that the river of chocolate be a brook of beer, the food fantasy of true New Mexicans who love our official state vegetable is to fall into a river of rich, delicious chile grown in the Land of Enchantment. That, alas, is fantasy. In the real world, we can visit Chile Rio Mexican Grill, perhaps the closest thing (at least in name) to a river of chile we’ll find in reality world.
Chile Rio, which opened on July 23rd, 2012 is hardly a river of chile, but chile does flow through many of the time-tested, traditional recipes executed by Executive Chef George Abeyta who’s been cooking for four decades, including more than 36 years as chef at Garduño’s of Mexico. The avuncular chef isn’t the only mainstay from Garduño’s to grace Chile Rio. Dave Garduño, the founder and long-time owner of his eponymous restaurant empire manages the restaurant which is owned by a partnership which includes Sharon Davidson, Jeannine Kosel and Dave’s daughter Theresa Kelly. All are peripatetic presences at the restaurant.
Thematically, there are some similarities to the Garduño’s restaurants with which Duke City residents will be quite familiar, especially in the use of vibrant colors, a fun and casual ambiance and of course, some of the most highly-regarded, premium hand-shaken “skinny” margaritas in town. Chile Rio is patterned after popular nightlife and dining hotspots in Mexican beach towns such as Cabo San Lucas which are renowned for their festive atmosphere, fun and excitement. As with Garduño’s, Chile Rio is very much a guest-oriented concept…and have I mentioned that it’s a fun place to dine.
The vibrant milieu has been so greatly transformed and optimized that it’s hard to believe it once housed the Allure Bar & Grill and before that Dickey’s, a Texas-based barbecue chain. Situated on Pan American Freeway west of I25, even its signage, resplendent in a flourish of bright red and blue, bespeaks of an invitation to fun. So does the expansive patio and its sun-shielding umbrellas. Illuminated at night, the signage and patio are like beckoning beacons calling teeming hungry masses to an evening of fun, frolic and food.
The lunch menu is a greatly abbreviated version of the dinner menu with prix fixe entree specials Monday through Friday from 11AM through 3PM daily. The dinner menu is much more interesting with a mix of Mexican and New Mexican entrees and botanas (appetizers) as well as a smattering of grilled favorites (such as sizzling skirt steak and chicken fajitas which are marinated in-house, slow-roasted carnitas and steak asada), street tacos and a Yucatan-style rotisserie chicken. Also available are cemita sandwiches, a real treat between sesame bread made famous during an episode of Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
In a guest-oriented departure from so many New Mexican restaurants, your first basket of chips and salsa are complimentary with additional servings costing a pittance. The chips are housemade and are thicker than the brittle and thin chips you might be used to. They’re also lightly salted and have a pronounced corn flavor. Two salsas, one red and one green, are featured and both are quite good though not especially piquant. The red is a two bowl minimum quality salsa.
A very special treat for guacamole lovers is having it prepared tableside to your specifications: hot, medium or mild. Don’t be surprised if the guacamole is prepared specially for you by Chef George or maybe even David Garduño himself. The guacamole is made with fresh California or Mexico avocados (two per order) depending on the season, fresh lime, white onions, garlic, cilantro and tomatoes (added last so they’re not mashed). The guacamole has a chunky and creamy consistency and is served with seasoned flour tortilla chips. The fact that guests can select their level of piquancy (hot is wonderful) places this at the top of my favorite guacamole starters in town.
The Botanas menu offers several ways to have Chile Rio’s terrific chips. In addition to the aforementioned chips with salsa and chips with guacamole, the menu includes Border Town Nachos (tri-color tortilla chips, frijoles charra, queso, jalapeño wheels, scallions, guacamole and sour cream), something called Tostada en Juantes (four mini corn masa shells with frijoles charra topped with queso fresca, salsa and guacamole) and a Queso Blanco Dip, one of the very best con queso appetizers in New Mexico. It’s a rich and creamy three cheese blend ameliorated with Hatch chile verde, pico de gallo and scallions served with both corn and flour tortilla chips. It’s reminiscent of the con queso made in southern New Mexico and is wholly an antithesis to the gloppy con queso served at ballparks.
Deciding which entree to have is a challenge, one that will have you perusing the menu time and again. There are so many options that your most difficult challenge will be ordering one of your usual favorites or something brand new. The Yucatan Rotisserie half-chicken is a little of both, a rotisserie chicken that’s different from most you’ve had. The chicken is marinated for 24 hours in a rub of achiote paste and citrus juices. The rotisserie seals in the juices and the marinade of earthy achiote and sweet-tangy citrus penetrates deeply. The Yucatan-style chicken is available with other entrees and should not be missed.
Not only does this entree exemplify plating as an art form, it’s indicative of the generous portion sizes and variety of accompaniment at Chile Rio. The chicken is served with sweet street corn, Rio coleslaw in a small, crisp tortilla bowl, pico de gallo which bites back and a sweet corn cake (a standard at Garduño’s). The corn-on-the-cob is sprinkled with cojita cheese which lends a saltiness and granular texture to the wonderfully sweet corn. The Rio coleslaw is not only beautiful to behold, it’s a delicious assemblage of corn niblets, black beans and coleslaw. The sweet corn cake is not quite dessert sweet, but has always been a unique Garduño’s offering.
My friend Joe O’Neill, founder, owner and on-air personality at KQTM-FM, The Team, Albuquerque’s best and highest-rated sports station, introduced me to Chile Rio. Already a frequent visitor to the restaurant, he raves about the carnitas stuffed burrito (which can also be engorged with Yucatan chicken or carne adovada), comparing its cheese sauce to the famous sauce used at Charlie’s Front Door, an Albuquerque institution for nearly five decades. That’s high praise indeed.
Another entree for which Garduño’s was long known was some of the very best fajitas in town. Chef George takes pride in serving them sizzling and smoking in a cast iron skillet platter. All eyes in the restaurant are instantly trained on the fajitas as they’re ferried to your table, an inviting fragrance wafting over everyone in the path of the smoke. Take your pick of tequila-lime chicken, beef skirt steak (my Kim’s favorite) or grilled vegetables. The beef skirt steak is as tender as a mother’s heart. Served with sauteed onion, bell peppers, zucchini, guacamole, pico de gallo, sour cream, frijoles charra and flour tortillas, it’s apparent Chef George hasn’t lost a step. These are excellent.
A recent article on Food Network Magazine entitled “50 States, 50 Sandwiches” has invited debate as to what New Mexico’s best sandwich is. Savvy sandwich savants would be hard-pressed to argue against the magazine’s selection of the outstanding Southwestern grilled cheese sandwich from the Mucho Gourmet Sandwich Shoppe in Santa Fe, but for the sake of debate, let me introduce a new contender. As you peruse the Chile Rio menu, don’t overlook the Cemita Sandwich offerings. Often called a “Mexican Dagwood,” the cemita sandwich originated in Puebla, Mexico (also the birthplace of mole and chiles relleno en nogada) is brand new to New Mexico, but not to viewers of the Food Network’s Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives.
The Cemita Sandwich is one of the most exciting meals between bread to come around in a long time, a revelation even to those of us which thought we really knew Mexican food. Culinary experts are so excited about the Cemita sandwich that Bon Appetit Magazine named it one of the top 25 food trends for 2013. Chile Rio offers three variations, one made with Yucatan chicken, one made with steak asada and one made with pork milanesa. The canvas for this masterpiece is a sesame bread bun atop of which are layered a chipotle crema, avocado spread and Oaxaca cheese. Onion, tomato, pickle and large-leaf papalo, a Mexican herb are optional, but wholly unnecessary. This can be a fabulous sandwich! The unctuous and creamy guacamole and incendiary chipotle crema may replace mustard as my favorite sandwich condiment. It’s a combination which adds punch to the slow-roasted pork carnitas which are tender and delicious.
The secret to this sandwich is the blending of ingredients in perfect proportion. Too much meat changes the flavor profile and masks the sauce. Too much sauce and the sandwich is messy. After bragging incessantly about the Cemita, my friend Paul Lilly and I visited Chile Rio and ordered it made with steak asada and pork Milanesa respectively. In both cases, the meat was too thick and the chipotle crema-avocado spread was lost entirely. By itself the carne asada would have made the very best steak sandwich in town, but we weren’t looking for a great steak sandwich. Similarly, the pork Milanesa was so large that it dominated the flavor profile. The best of the three Cemitas I’ve had is the one with Yucatan chicken. That’s because there was a luscious blending of flavors and ingredients that showcase the unique deliciousness of the Cemitas sandwich I named to my “Best of the Best for 2012” list.
Chile Rio offers only one burger on its menu, but it’s a unique burger well worth ordering. It’s an interesting variation on New Mexico’s iconic green chile cheeseburger in that it’s made with three chiles and is, in fact, called the Rio 3 Chile Burger. The three chiles are Hatch green chile (of course), breaded jalapeño wheels and pico de gallo. Not to be understated on the flavor profile, there are also three quesos on the burger along with lettuce, tomato and chipotle mayo on a hand-form ground sirloin patty. The Rio 3 Chile Burger is a multi-napkin affair brimming with flavor. Despite the three chiles, most New Mexicans will handle its piquancy easily.
Dessert options include sopaipillas, a favorite of New Mexico’s throughout the state; fried ice cream and churros. Often referred to as Spanish donuts, churros are indeed a fried pastry with a crunchy exterior and a soft, pillowy interior. They’re sprinkled with sugar and drizzled with a caramel sauce. Ask for a scoop of ice cream on the side to cut the sweetness and heat of the churros.
Chile Rio is sure to become an Albuquerque favorite with its fun and festive ambiance and interesting, delicious food served in generous portions by an enthusiastic wait staff which aims to please. Because I’ve already been asked numerous times, let me clarify that I’m not related to Chile Rio’s Garduño family though “Cousin” Theresa has quickly become one of my favorite restaurateurs in town. With a smile that would light up UNM’s Pit and a real customer oriented attitude, she really cares that guests to her restaurant have not only a great meal, but a great time.
4811 Pan American Fwy
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 10 January 2013
1st VISIT: 14 August 2012
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: Yucatan Rotisserie Half Chicken, Salsa and Chips, Guacamole, Cemita Sandwich with Carnitas, Cemita Sandwich with Yucatan Chicken, Rio 3 Chile Burger