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Barelas Coffee House – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Barelas Coffee House

Barelas Coffee House

Quick, name the oldest neighborhood in Albuquerque. Most people would say Old Town which was settled in 1706 near the banks of the Rio Grande. Most people would be wrong. The oldest neighborhood in Albuquerque is actually the Barelas neighborhood, formally established as a ranching settlement in the late 1600s. The history of the central Rio Grande region began at and expanded from Barelas, once a thriving hub of commerce bustling with activity.

Both the Camino Real, the royal road to Mexico City and Route 66, America’s mother road passed through the Barelas neighborhood. Barelas was the seat of a flourishing railroad enterprise which facilitated a burgeoning economy.  The neighborhood began a precipitous decline in the 1950s when odoriferous emanations from an area sewage treatment plant drove people away. Then in the 1960s, shopping mall developments proved too formidable competition for long-established mom and pop businesses, the economic heart of the community.

Before long, the federal government was calling Barelas a “pocket of poverty” and what was once a thriving neighborhood languished. By the 1970s, Barelas was all but forgotten–perhaps a blessing in disguise because that allowed the preservation of historic buildings for which the community is best known today.

Everyone congregates at Barelas Coffee House.

Everyone congregates at Barelas Coffee House.

The 1978 launch of the Barelas Coffee House predates by almost a decade the revitalization of what has once again become a thriving neighborhood. A government neighborhood revitalization program later provided the means by which the restaurant could update its facade while retaining the look and feel that has made it a very popular dining destination.

Today, if you want to take the pulse of the city, you go to Barelas Coffee House where Albuquerque’s movers and shakers congregate for a great meal. They go there not only because the restaurant serves their favorite New Mexican food entrees, but because it’s where they can mingle with their constituency or with tourists exploring the off-the-beaten path charm of the neighborhood.

Everyone from corpulent Presidents (Clinton) to corpulent governors (Richardson) has broken bread (tortillas) at the Barelas Coffee House.  Despite hosting political and professional glitterati, this modest, maybe even self-effacing restaurant, remains a seat-yourself, absolutely no reservations, dining establishment in which long lines of frothing-at-the-mouth hungry diners are commonplace.

Huevos Rancheros, one of the best reasons to get up in the morning.

Huevos Rancheros, one of the best reasons to get up in the morning.

Vintage signage for carbonated beverages of “back in the day” adorns the walls. Who can forget Nehi Grape (Radar O’Reilley’s favorite) or Orange sodas? If you grew up quenching your thirst with these sweet, bubbly sodas, you’ll reflect nostalgically upon seeing this soda celebrated on the walls at Barelas.

If you’re New Mexican, your heart might swell with pride as you gaze at framed posters by Corrales artist Edward Gonzales, a rare talent whose depictions of New Mexico’s Hispanic peoples celebrate the Chicano experience in New Mexico and the Southwest.  The menu proclaims Barelas to be the “Land of Mi Chante,” chante being a colloquial New Mexican term for home. To area residents, this restaurant is like being home.

Once you’re seated, the menu is replete with popular New Mexican favorites calling for your rapt attention. Will it be huevos rancheros, a steaming bowl of beans and green chile, maybe menudo? The pinto beans–in a bowl by themselves or smothered in red or green chile–are among the very best in the city.

New Mexican plates are served with beans, rice, a tortilla and pork embellished chile. As with an increasing number of New Mexican restaurants, Barelas Coffee House charges for salsa and chips, but in this case, the cost is worth it. The chips are out-of-the-bag and unremarkable save for the fact that they don’t collapse under the weight of the salsa. The salsa is a highlight; it is unfailingly fresh and delicious at about medium on the piquancy scale. It’s a chunky jalapeno based salsa made with white onions, jalapenos and cilantro in proportions that make it memorable.

Enchilada plate

Enchilada plate

All plates arrive at your table steaming hot–not hot enough to scald your tongue, but at an optimum temperature to facilitate enjoyment. Few things are worse than New Mexican food served lukewarm.  The temperature, however, is the only thing that might be considered “hot” in some entrees. Neither the green or red chile are particularly piquant. They aren’t especially memorable either. It’s hard to discern anything either good or bad in the chile; it’s just there like the lettuce and tomato garnish no one requests.

A combination enchilada plate featuring a beef, carne adovada and chicken enchilada served Christmas style (pictured at left) is a thing of beauty with white and yellow cheese melting on top of the enchilada trio. Like a vain and shallow pulchritudinous woman, the best thing about the enchiladas is that they’re hot. It’s rare that beans and rice stand out in a combination plate, but along with tortillas, they do at Barelas. The tortillas arrive at your table just off-the-comal. These are substantial tortillas, not the paper-thin, assembly line tortillas some restaurants serve.

Carne adovada burrito plate

Carne adovada burrito plate

Confirming my observations on the chile is my Comptroller friend Ruben, a perfectionist who, in quest of the perfect carne adovada, painstakingly experimented with that dish to the point that his wife began to consider adovada a possessive mistress.  To say Ruben’s adovada is better than Barrelas’ rendition is a vast understatement. Some of that has to do with chile we both found uninspiring, but also has to do with the pork which didn’t shred easily at the press of a fork. We were also underwhelmed at the sans chile flavor of the cubed pork which just didn’t titillate our taste buds as great adovada is apt to do.

Another entree on the menu I won’t soon try again is the chicharonnes burrito. In New Mexico, chicharones are pieces of pork crackling cooked until crunchy with just a miniscule amount of fat for a crunchy tenderness. During a 2007 visit to the Barelas Coffee House, the chicharonnes were chewy and brittle, making them difficult to masticate.  Much better is the restaurant’s version of menudo.  In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2012, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded the Barela’s Coffee House  a Hot Plate Award signifying the selection of its menudo as one of the “most interesting, special and tasty dishes around.”  Considering the thousands of potential selections, to be singled out is quite an honor.

My two most recent visits to the Barelas Coffee House were hopefully an anomaly. After all, the restaurant has been going strong for more than a quarter century with no surcease to its popularity in sight. It is considered a landmark and local treasure just like the neighborhood that houses it.

Barelas Coffee House
1502 4th Street, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
505-843-7577

LATEST VISIT: 9 April 2008
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 17
COST: $$
BEST BET: Posole, Huevos Rancheros, Beans, Rice, Chips & Salsa, Menudo

  • Got Menudo? says:

    Gil – Do yourself a favor and try the menudo at Barela’s (if you like menudo that is :-)), without posole of course. Easily one of, in not the, best in ABQ.

    July 7, 2009 at 3:56 PM
  • EnjoyEP says:

    Actually, Barelas is one where I’d probably break ranks a bit with Gil’s review and rate it much, much more highly. In fact, Barelas is one of my personal favorites in all of the Duke City!!

    And my favorite item at Barelas (along with my old boss) – the chicharrones burrito…so unbelievably good, my mouth waters just thinking of one!

    The frijoles y arroz are both very good at Barelas, and their cheese enchiladas are spectacular. I’ve dined at Barelas many times, and I have never had a bad meal.

    To me, the ambiance at Barelas is a great attractor, too. I love the sprawling “house” and the screen doors on warm, sunny days; always packed, and I love the candy counter in front as well.

    August 7, 2009 at 9:38 AM
  • Leah says:

    I, too, have to disagree with Gil on this one. I absolutely love Barela’s and would rank it in my top 5 in the city, definitely top 10 in the state. I have eaten there about once/week for the last 8 years and cannot remember a single bad meal. The waitstaff is awesome, nice, and attentive and the food, well, it’s just delicious. My personal fav’s are the red cheese enchiladas, red huevos deluxe and the torta de huevo during Lent.

    May 25, 2010 at 11:09 AM
  • Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos says:

    Finally made it to the BCH ! Alas, I cannot take issue with Gil’s assessment despite a warm spot in my heart for Barelas being the first place I worked when arriving in The Q… before BCH when part of it was a tienda. One thing that stood out in those days of La Raza/Reies Lopez Tijerina/Brown Berets/MLK/National Guard @ UNM, was the warm acceptance extended to me by, if I may say, La Gente of Barelas to the Gringo.

    Alas, the Huevos Rancheros Deluxe, while indeed fine, was nothing especial. In terms of the chicharones, I personally prefer the smaller cubed ones as come in a sopapilla with beans, (ask for extra onions), and red chili(sic) from Casa de Benavidez’ back door take-out. As others have raved however, maybe such a ‘size’ preference is “set” by what you’re first exposed to…my memory is about 7am on a morn with a bit of nip in the air (let alone accompanying a cerveza) as a matanza was wrapping up just across the Rio Grande. I watched as my M-i-L took a freshly made tortilla off the late ’30s seafoam-green, cast iron “estufa de lena” from Sears http://tinyurl.com/3k392fn and made me my first burrito filled with fresh-off-the-fire chicharones (which I’d just finished tending in a harrowing disc) which she bathed in freshly made red chili(sic) from their 1/2 acre jardin! (Lest anyone missed it before: Why does a matanza begin about 4-4:30ish in the gawdawful AM? Du…uh…..Flies don’t start coming out till the sun (not just its glow) breaks over the Sandias!!!)

    My net line: A wholesome New Mexican meal awaits you at the BCH! as most NM restaurants. The BCH’s edge is that El Corazon de Barelas still exists in the wait staff. Beyond that, if you’re into the essence of what is “downhome” and what it was like for a “Mom n Pop” to risk steppin on up, this is a classic museum as you meander about the “nichos” of the setting. Alas and sadly, I went on a day the legislature was in Special Session. I now look forward to a return as I sat and imagined the ‘atmosphere’, the funk, what witnessing The Theatre of the Absurd must be like when the Politicos and Patrons are in attendance (holding court?) in the various nichos! In addition, for your readers into Prez Obama/Clinton, Y’all have the opportunity to sit your tush on a seating they may have enjoyed as they passed through on the campaign trail per their visits here!

    “Chow and Salud!”

    September 8, 2011 at 11:43 AM

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