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