Many of us who predate, however slightly, the explosion of institutionalized fast food retain a fondness for the remaining independent family restaurants whose arsenal in the competition for hungry diners consists of reasonable portions of great meals at budget-conscious prices. An Albuquerque restaurant which epitomizes those ideals is the El Camino Dining Room, captured brilliantly above by the fabulous photographer Deanna Nichols.
The El Camino was built by Clyde H. Tyler in 1950, five years after the latest “war to end all wars” and 13 years after Route 66 was “straightened” so that it would bypass Santa Fe completely. Albuquerque was much more innocent back then. Some might even describe it as a “cow town trying to be a city.” At the time, 44% of America’s population resided in rural areas and the Duke City’s population was only 96,800.
Despite no longer being part of Route 66, one of the city’s busiest thoroughfares was 4th Street on which commerce was burgeoning. It was the perfect location for an independent family restaurant, far from the cavalcade of Howard Johnson’s type restaurants which grew along the interstates.
Similar to Howard Johnson’s which prided itself on providing all the amenities travelers would need in one convenient location, El Camino also included a motor lodge (a hotel for motorists which provides direct access from rooms to the parking area). The motor lodge is directly across the street from the restaurant.
While El Camino doesn’t exude the pristine veneer or the effusive, over-the-top flamboyance of the chains that dominate today’s Duke City dining scene, it still exudes much of the charm that must have captured Albuquerque diners when it first launched more than half a century ago. That charm includes immaculate whitewash adobe walls, rough-hewn vigas and latillas painted dark brown, old-fashioned glass block windows and vintage signage. It extends to the warm service and hospitality.
Great service is a hallmark for the restaurant’s current proprietors Lydia Sakelaris, her daughter Mandy Chavez and her husband Gilbert. One of the three is always on hand to ensure their patrons receive outstanding service. The wait staff is typically on-the-spot with a refill and will check up on you unobtrusively to ensure your meal is a pleasant one.
Each table includes a small table-tent indicating the restaurant is proud to serve New Mexico grown green chile. Read closer and you’ll learn that today 82 percent of the chile consumed in the United States is foreign grown–from Mexico, Peru, China and India and that while U.S. chile consumption is skyrocketing, New Mexico chile production is in steep decline, down by as much as two-thirds of peak production. According to the New Mexico Chile Association, in 1992, 35,000 acres of chile were grown in New Mexico. In 2008, that number was only 11,000 acres.
The restaurant’s menu lists more than 60 dishes ranging from American comfort food favorites and diner specialties to New Mexican standards such as carne adovada and huevos rancheros, the house specialty. El Camino is open daily for breakfast and lunch and everything is made fresh daily. Best of all, if you want a green chile cheeseburger for breakfast or pancakes for lunch, you can have them.
Dinner plates are a bargain. Each plate begins with a bowl of chips and salsa and ends with fluffy sopaipillas. In between, your entree might be tamales, enchiladas, tacos or some other tempting main course, each served with sides of beans and Spanish rice. The chips and salsa are very good. The salsa is fresh and delicious, the genesis of its piquant bite being jalapenos. The chips are lightly salted and crisp, but formidable enough to hold Gil-sized portions of salsa.
The green chile stew is special: cubed potatoes, tender pork, piquant green chile and just a hint of Mexican oregano. As with other items on the menu, it’s served piping hot. The steamy bouquet of New Mexico grown green chile wafts upwards toward your merrily awaiting nostrils. The green chile is not quite medium on the piquancy scale, but it has a nice roasted flavor.
The tamales are some of the best in the city. I’ve often heard it debated as to whether tamales are about the chile infused pork or beef filling or about the corn masa encasing that pork or beef. Few tamales strike a perfect balance. Either the masa is so thick it overwhelms the meat filling or the meat filling and especially the chile don’t allow any of the masa’s corn flavor to come out. El Camino has the secret to great tamales down pat. The masa is redolent with corn flavor, the pork is tender and the chile tongue-tingling and delicious. The flavors coalesce beautifully!
Red chile is a starring attraction on several of the restaurant’s New Mexican entrees. Slathered on generously, but not enough to drown any entree, the chile has a nice flavor that will bring sweat to your brow without scalding the roof of your mouth. It’s a pure, unadulterated chile without the bitter cumin which some restaurants use to the detriment of their food.
A popular entree is the Chef’s Special Mexican Dinner which features Indian style blue corn tortilla enchiladas and the aforementioned extras (Spanish rice and beans). Whether stacked flat or rolled, the enchiladas are replete with flavor. The very best enchiladas on the menu are those engorged not with cheese or beef, but with carne adovada. The carne is tender and delicious, some of the very best in Albuquerque. Best of all, the corn tortillas are absolutely engorged; they’re not cigar-thin pretenders as you’ll find in too many New Mexican restaurants.
The combination plate features a tamale, enchilada and taco. It’s a great way to audition potential entrees during a future visit and you get three delicious entree quality items in one heaping plate.
In its June, 2010 edition, New Mexico Magazine celebrated New Mexico’s Best Eats, eight of the best dishes served in restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment. Two versions of each dish–a downhome version and uptown version were selected. The state’s very best downhome huevos rancheros come from the El Camino. There’s a good reason huevos rancheros are the specialty of the house and among the very best in the state. Fluffy eggs any style you desire, melted cheese, and red chile–that’s as good a reason to get up in the morning as any. Lounging on the plate with the huevos are some of the best papitas you’ll find anywhere. They’re more than silver dollar sized with a crispy, golden exterior and tender, cooked all the way through interior.
The menu doesn’t have a green chile cheeseburger per se, but you can order a cheeseburger and ask for it with chile strips. The chile isn’t piquant in the least, but it has a nice flavor. The burger is garnished with lettuce, onion and tomato, all fresh and delicious.
Chicharonnes, made with various cuts of pork, are made differently throughout Latin America and in parts of Spain. In New Mexico they’re typically cut into small cubes and fried to a near crackling crunch. That’s what we expected when ordering El Camino’s chicharones burrito. Instead, the burrito was engorged with a single almost pork chop sized piece of gristly, chewy pork. Unfortunately it didn’t taste like a pork chop and was difficult to eat. It’s the only thing we haven’t enjoyed at El Camino.
Papitas (called “home fries” on the menu) are part of a delicious breakfast triumvirate that also includes pork chops and two eggs, any style. The pork chops are porcine perfection–tender, well-seasoned and delicious with little excess marbling.
As with many old-fashioned 50s and 60s era family style restaurants, El Camino also serves wonderful pancakes. A short stack of two griddled orbs six-inch in diameter and slathered in butter and syrup. Now that’s breakfast!
El Camino Dining Room
6800 4th Street, N.W.
Los Ranchos de Albuquerque, NM
LATEST VISIT: 12 August 2010
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: Chef’s Special Mexican Dinner, Tamales, Sopaipillas, Green Chile Stew, Pancakes, Carne Adovada Enchiladas, Salsa and Chips