Pete’s Cafe – Belen, New Mexico
Located along the braided routes of the historic Camino Real (the Royal Road) which skirts the Rio Grande, Belen remains the hub for two major rail lines. To this day, an average of 70 trains travel through Belen every 24-hour period. In 1901, to capitalize on the railway traffic, the Fred Harvey Company built one of the sixteen Harvey Houses it would build in New Mexico. Belen’s Harvey House provided lunch and dining facilities in close proximity to the tracks. The Harvey House was bustling with railroad crews well into the twentieth century’s fourth decade and served as a social center for the community until its closure shortly after World War II ended.
Four years after the war to end all wars, Pete and Eligia Torres launched Pete’s Cafe across the street and acequia from the old Harvey House. Though neither had any restaurant experience, they delighted travelers and railway employees with their cafe–even though the Torres family didn’t begin serving New Mexican cuisine for about twenty years when local traffic surpassed train traffic.
With more than sixty years of serving the community of Belen, Pete’s continues to thrive because it operates under a simple philosophy: Not the best because it’s the oldest; it’s the oldest because it’s the best. For nearly six decades, Pete’s has held steadfast to three strong commitments, the first based on the belief that chile is basic to New Mexico. Pete’s celebrates the growing, harvesting and preparation of chile in the family home across generations. That chile is prevalent in the menu. Surprisingly, it’s not chile grown in the Belen area, but from a farm in Hatch which has been providing some of the very best chile in New Mexico for years.
The second commitment centers around authenticity. The chile Pete’s selects is prepared fresh daily. Great care is taken to ensure the use of fresh ingredients, proper cooking time and temperature and strict adherence to to time-tested recipes. The green chile, in particular, is better (by far) than any green chile served in the Duke City where green chile serves as mere plate decoration in some restaurants–it has minimal flavor and no piquancy.
The third and most important commitment is the striving to ensure consistency in the flavor of each and every meal served daily. Pete’s wants to provide their loyal patrons with the same delicious taste they have come to expect over the years.
My first visit to Pete’s Cafe was in 1979 when at a mere 30 years old it was already very well established as perhaps the most popular restaurant in Belen. Today, as the city’s oldest restaurant, it is practically venerated. Pete’s Cafe is a local institution! Over the years Pete’s has grown from a one-room diner with a capacity of forty to a sprawling restaurant that can accommodate 140 patrons in several tastefully decorated, art-filled dining rooms.
The front room includes exposed red brick with green foliage reaching skyward toward skylights that bring in New Mexico’s sun. A large dining room beyond the kitchen has a unique latilla ceiling while a north-facing room includes stained glass windows. Every dining room features either or both woven tapestries and framed paintings or prints. Just above the fireplace on an east-facing dining room is a framed picture of Pete Torres, who passed on to his eternal reward in 1977. Eligia’s photograph is at his right.
Married four years when the restaurant opened in 1949, Eligia has remained a constant presence from the onset. She still comes to work every day and serves as the restaurant’s official chile tester, ensuring the consistency and authenticity that defines Pete’s commitments to their patrons. Eligia’s daughter Theresa Padilla and her husband Alfred work hand-in-hand with her.
Being restaurateurs is part and parcel of the Torres pedigree. Pete, Jr. and his wife Hortencia founded Teofilo’s restaurant in Los Lunas. Teofilo’s is situated in a yawning hacienda registered as a State Landmark. Eligia’s grandson Japhen Torres opened the Zia Cafe, a New Mexican restaurant in Chicago’s Lincoln Park area. All indications are that Chicagoans love Zia’s sopaipillas and salsa. They darned well should! After all, the Zia Cafe has a long and proud heritage defined by commitment to chile, authenticity and consistency.
Around Belen, locals recite one of the mottos for which Pete’s is known–Pete’s Cafe: beef or bean, red or green. New Mexicans know this is in reference to with what your burritos or sopaipillas are stuffed as well as how they are topped.
Shortly after you’re seated, a basket of crisp chips and a small porcelain ramekin of fiery salsa make it to your table. The salsa is a rich red jalapeno based salsa with a bite to it. A re-serving of salsa is complementary. After that there’s a small charge. Even better than the salsa is Pete’s chile con queso which I rate up there with the con queso at El Bruno’s in Cuba. Pete’s con queso is made from a blend of Cheddar and Velveeta cheeses, jalapenos and other ingredients, some of which we were unable to discern, perhaps even caramelized onions. In any case, it is quite good!
The menu includes all the New Mexican favorites, but what distinguishes them from other restaurants is the red and green chile, both of which have an earthy, fresh flavor and plenty of heat. Unlike at lesser New Mexican restaurants, Pete’s red chile isn’t overwhelmed by thickening agents such as corn starch. It’s pure, unadulterated red chile that impresses itself on your taste buds and memory. The green chile is perhaps even more piquant.
Enchiladas are one of the entrees in which the true measure of a chile is revealed. Pete’s blue corn tortilla enchiladas, rolled and stuffed with beef then topped with a fried egg let that chile sing. No one single ingredient dominates this entree though the red chile is definitely the star. The enchilada dinner plate is served with beans you’ll want to take home with you. The great news is that you can–Pete’s sells bags of locally grown beans. The only detractor from an otherwise outstanding enchilada dinner is the lettuce and tomato garnish piled atop the enchiladas. I’ve had smaller dinner salads.
Still another entree in which the measure of a great red chile can be taken is carne adovada. Pete’s rendition ranks up there with the carne adovada at Perea’s Tijuana Bar in Corrales, Mary & Tito’s in Albuquerque and at La Choza in Santa Fe as the best we’ve had. There’s porcine perfection in Pete’s carne adovada. Each cube is fork tender and melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Unlike some carne adovada, it retains its moistness and every single cube seems to be from the very best part of the pork roast. This is the stuff of legend!
Stuffed sopaipillas are yet another specialty at Pete’s. The stuffed sopaipilla plate–two stuffed sopaipillas engorged with your choice of fillings (beans, beef, etc.) and topped with red or green chile (or both)–is big enough to share, but you probably won’t want to. This is a dish you’ll want to savor slowly as it showcases the wondrous chile which is slathered on generously. It bears repeating that the green chile is some of the very best in the state. It’s got those qualities which will remind you that chile is a fruit with just a hint of sweetness amidst the piquancy. The red chile is incendiary.
Another worthy platform for the chile is huevos rancheros which are not just for breakfast any more. At Pete’s, the huevos rancheros start with corn tortillas topped with eggs, ground beef, cheese and of course, two eggs prepared the way you want them. These are traditional New Mexican style huevos rancheros the way they’ve been prepared for generations. Huevos rancheros, by the way, have in recent years become a national craze, albeit often served with nouveau ingredients New Mexicans might find wholly inauthentic.
The menu has a line-up of a la carte items as well as dinner combinations and dinner plates. All combination plates and enchilada dinners include two sopaipillas. Pete’s sopaipillas have earned the reputation as the very best in Valencia county. That’s a contention with which you’ll agree. They’re light, flaky, puffy and wonderful.
A la carte tacos are a bargain at under two dollars a piece for generously stuffed shells bursting at the seams with beans and beef. Once you get past the garnish, there’s much deliciousness there.
There’s a lot of deliciousness in Pete’s desserts, too. Sweet-tooth offerings include the house specialty, a coconut cream or pineapple cream pie, both under two dollars a slice. There’s also walnut and carrot cake, Italian cream cake, Pete’s famous Adobe pie (Oreo cookie crust filled with coffee ice cream), ice cream, natillas and flan.
Natillas have been prepared in New Mexico for hundreds of years and Pete’s has the recipe down pat. Pete’s natillas are creamy and waist-expanding rich. The coconut cream pie is easily two inches thick courtesy of a fluffy meringue which has just a hint of caramelization. The coconut portion is Gilligan’s Island worthy. It’s rich, creamy and not overly sweet.
While many people seem to consider Los Lunas and Belen solely as “bedroom communities” for wage-earners in Albuquerque, they should also consider them as dining destinations. With restaurants on par or better than can be found in the Duke City–restaurants such as Pete’s Cafe in Belen and Benny’s Mexican Kitchen in Los Lunas–Valencia County is on the culinary map.
105 N. 1st Street
LATEST VISIT: 1 April 2011
1st VISIT: 27 October 2007
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Enchiladas, Carne Adovada, Tacos, Natillas, Sopaipillas, Tortillas, Bean Stuffed Sopaipillas, Huevos Ranchero, Coconut Cream Pie