Cecilia’s Cafe – Albuquerque, New Mexico
Pasqual Baylon’s devotion to the Mass and the Holy Eucharist was so fervent that even when assigned kitchen duty, he remained so enraptured in adoration of the Eucharist that angels had to stir the pots to keep them from burning. It’s deliciously ironic, therefore, that San Pasqual is the recognized patron saint of Mexican and New Mexican kitchens, a beloved saint whose smiling countenance graces many a kitchen, including the one in Cecilia’s Cafe, one of Albuquerque’s most authentic (and best) New Mexican restaurants.
On the day Cecilia opened her cafe back in 1999, she found a small retablo (a painting with a religious theme) of San Pasqual on her restaurant’s stoop. To this day, no one knows who left that retablo which now hangs near the kitchen’s entrance. If you’re inclined to believe in miracles…or at least in a favorable omen, San Pasqual was portend of greatness for this humble little restaurant.
When Cecilia says the secret ingredient in her cooking is love, she knows it comes from her heart, but she also doesn’t discount divine inspiration from her kitchen’s patron saint. One meal at Cecilia’s Cafe and you’ll probably be disposed to believe her food is inspired. If you’re a native New Mexican, you might even call it miraculous. That’s because this is New Mexican food the way it’s been prepared by and for New Mexicans for generations. It is unadulterated and in no way “anglicized” for touristy tastes. This is the real thing!
Cecilia worked at several restaurants (including Little Anita’s, Garduno’s and Garcia’s) before embarking on her restaurant venture. Because her goal is to deliver authenticity and consistency to her customers, she insists on preparing all the food herself (with Pasqual’s angels no doubt lending a hand). The result is no less than some of the very best New Mexican food in the city–far better than the food at any of the restaurants in which she worked.
Cecilia was born and raised in Albuquerque’s North Valley and is a stickler for the details–the little things that make a difference between authenticity and a parody. Preserving centuries old New Mexican culinary traditions is one of the reasons she opened her restaurant. It’s also one of the reasons she insists her daughters Stephanie and Claudette work with her. Cecilia wants to ensure they learn traditional New Mexican culinary techniques and is even teaching them how to prepare those dishes (such as meat empanadas) they might not like. Her daughters have learned much more than cooking. Their engaging and friendly personalities are obviously a reflection of the old-fashioned New Mexican manners they’ve learned from their mother.
Cecilia’s Cafe is the essence of an off-the-beaten path restaurant. Situated in a hundred year old plus brick edifice a few blocks south of Central Avenue, it is both amazingly obscure and surprisingly well known. Cecilia’s loyal clientele include white- and blue-collar workers who have frequented her cafe from the start. That clientele includes former ambassador to Spain Ed Romero, a New Mexico native. Romero gave Cecilia the wood-burning stove that keeps her homey restaurant warm. Considering its relative anonymity until “discovered” in 2009, you might wonder if the faithful throngs wanted to keep this divine dining destination a well-kept secret.
Much of Albuquerque didn’t learn about Cecilia’s until the Albuquerque Journal’s luminous restaurant critic Andrea Lin rated it three and a half stars, a rating rarely accorded by the fire-eating Wisconsin native. Though not a native, Andrea has come to realize that true greatness in chile is rare, even in New Mexico, so for her to use that adjective to describe Cecilia’s chile, it has to be something special.
Today, Cecilia’s is no longer a well-kept secret thanks to an episode of Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives which aired on February 16th, 2009. Host Guy Fieri couldn’t get enough of Cecilia’s chicharrones (more on those later) and appreciated the multiple layers of flavor in Cecilia’s made from pods red chile. He even took a stab at frying sopaipillas and watching tortillas on the griddle (under Cecilia’s watchful eye, of course). Today, a monitor on a wall shows the “Triple D” episode perpetually.
In January, 2010, the Travel Channel traveled from coast to coast to uncover the 101 tastiest places to chow down–”joints serving some of the biggest and best dishes of deliciousness around.” The only New Mexico restaurant to make the list–at number 45 on the chow down countdown–was Cecilia’s Cafe, a downtown Duke City institution. The program described Cecilia’s as “where they serve up New Mexican food so messy not even a stack of napkins won’t help.” The description aptly described the Fireman’s Burrito, “a burrito bursting with so many mouthwatering and mind-blowing fillings, they serve it with a side of…apron.” The Travel Channel gave it a “four-napkin” rating.
This behemoth burrito was created by Cecilia at the behest of two local firemen Cecilia describes as “characters” who came into the restaurant famished and asked for something really big. Cecilia put together sausage, bacon, eggs and hashed browns then loaded them into a homemade tortilla and piled on red chile, green chile, beans and carne adovada. She topped the “gloriously messy mound of chow” with cheese and red and green chile. Cecilia says it weighs between two and a half and three pounds, depending on who makes it. When she makes it, it’s always three pounds. This is the Fireman’s Burrito on the menu for just over a ten spot. There’s also a competition-size burrito which goes for $42 (as of February, 2012), but it’s yours at no charge if you can finish it in an hour. Because it’s roughly the size of a barge (seriously–it’s the length of a table and is more than three-inches high), only one gurgitator has managed to finish it and he did so in 36 minutes. Nearly eighty others have tried and failed.
Call it sacrilege if you will, but I believe Cecilia’s red chile is in rarefied company along with Mary & Tito’s, The Shed, La Choza and Pete’s Cafe when it comes to capturing the essence of outstanding red chile. Cecilia uses only Chimayo red chile and has it ground specially for her. It’s a dark, rich and earthy chile that isn’t adulterated with flour or with cumin, that accursed spoiler of chile (Cecilia and I commiserated on the use of that vermin spice cumin, both aghast that any self-respecting New Mexican cook would use it on chile).
As has become rather common in many New Mexican salsa and chips are no longer complementary but this is one salsa worth splurging (a pittance really) for. This salsa’s piquancy will sneak up on you and before you know it the roof of your mouth and tongue will be tingling with the spicy vibrancy of a fresh and delicious salsa. At many New Mexican restaurants salsa is often the most piquant menu item. That’s not the case at Cecilia’s whose chile can be quite incendiary. Another rare treat is that Cecilia sometimes offers a green chile-based salsa.
The menu includes many New Mexican favorites, all prepared to order. This isn’t fast food, or worse, frozen food thawed when ordered. Cecilia frowns on institutionalized restaurants who don’t use the freshest ingredients possible. Though I normally order my New Mexican entrees “Christmas style” so as to sample both red and green chile, Cecilia’s red chile is so good that it might be a while before I find out what the green is like. It’s that way at Mary & Tito’s, too.
That red chile shines on blue corn enchiladas engorged with shredded roast beef and topped with a fried egg. If it’s possible for your taste buds to be happy, this entree will do it for you. The roast beef, like all the meats Cecilia uses, comes from Nelson’s Market, a long-time Old Coors neighborhood institution and for my money, the very best meat market in the Duke City. The shredded roast beef is tender and delicious.
Having certified that Cecilia’s red chile is in exclusive company, we picked up Andrea’s gauntlet and ordered the carne adovada breakfast plate (hashed browns, two eggs any style, beans and carne adovada). The carne adovada is achingly tender and melt-in-your-mouth delicious–shredded pork marinated in luscious red chile and slow-cooked to perfection. As my friend Becky Mercuri might say, it’s so good I’d like to comb it through my hair. Guy Fieri called it “pulled pork gone wild” after spilling the contents of a hand-held carne adovada burrito onto his beard. Combing it through your hair or spilling it onto your beard might let it linger a bit longer, but in your mouth is where this carne adovada belongs. This is carne adovada you will dream about.
Not surprisingly, Cecilia’s brings authenticity to a New Mexican specialty few restaurants seem to do well any more. That would be chicharrones or pork cracklings (not pork rinds, but deep-fried cubes of pork with maybe a bit of pork fat thrown in for flavor). A six- or eight-ounce portion at Cecilia’s is served with just off-the comal flour tortillas. Fieri made the mistake of declaring that chicharrones are eaten like potato chips. “That’s pork rinds, baby.” Cecilia corrected him. She then showed him how they’re made–four hours of meticulous preparation time. Another venue for chicharones is in Cecilia’s chicharones and bean burrito (pictured above). Covered in cheese and smothered in heavenly red chile, it is among the very best burritos in the city. Guy Fieri declared them “the size of a small football.” Utterances of “wow” punctuated each bite he took of these delicious burritos.
Desserts rotate in and out at Cecilia’s whose prowess at baking is equal to its preparation of main entrees. Alas, sometimes the entire baking bounty is gone by noon courtesy of savvy diners buying the sweet stuff in bulk. This is definitely a case of their gain and your loss. One of the specialties of the house are natillas, a rich Spanish custard that is equally wonderful whether served cold or warm. Cecilia’s rendition is reputed to be fabulous, but if you don’t get it early, you might not get it at all. You’ll also want a cup or three of the Red Rock Roasters coffee specially ground for Cecilia. True to its name, this Albuquerque based coffee rocks!
Visit during the Lenten or Advent seasons and Cecilia might just be serving capirotada. To call this dessert “bread pudding” is a vast understatement. Made well, it is a terrific dessert. Made authentically, it can be extraordinary. Cecilia’s capirotada is extraordinary! Like most capirotada, its component ingredients include toasted bread, lots of butter, cheese and raisins. Cecilia also adds New Mexican roasted piñon which gives it a subtle hint of pine and for good measure, she might throw in cranberries to lend a tart taste. She also uses piloncillo, a Mexican brown sugar.
Capirotada isn’t the only traditional Lenten dish Cecilia prepares. During Lent, her menu might include quelites (wild spinach) and torta de huevo (a light egg-based dish served on Good Friday when Catholics abstain from eating meat). Non-Lenten desserts include some of the best chocolate brownies I’ve ever had. My friend Mike Muller said he’d dream about them after having lustily consumed the very last one left at Cecilia’s. Being the good friend that he is, he shared it with me. It’s so good, I might not have shared it.
The walls at Cecilia’s Cafe are adorned with several images of San Pasqual, as appropriate an inspiration as there could be for this wonderfully authentic New Mexican restaurant. As you partake of Cecilia’s wonderful red chile, visualizing Pasqual’s angels helping out in the kitchen won’t be much of a stretch. Get to know Cecilia and you’ll come to the realization that working miracles is a specialty for her.
In November, 2011, Cecilia launched a second instantiation of her popular restaurant just a few blocks from the original. Nob Hill crowds are starting to discover what the Downtown folks know. Cecilia’s next venture is even more ambitious–opening a restaurant in Manhattan. Don’t bet against Cecilia and her patron saint to make it a huge hit in Metropolis.
230 6th Street
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 11 June 2009
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: Blue Corn Enchiladas with Shredded Roast Beef, Carne Adovada, Salsa and Chips, Capirotada, Chicharones and Bean Burrito, Chocolate Brownies
2933 Monte Vista Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 10 February 2012
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Huevos Rancheros with chicharones, Salsa and Chips