MARY & TITO’S CAFE – Albuquerque, New Mexico
Old-timers whose opinions I respect consistently rate Mary & Tito’s as Albuquerque’s best restaurant for New Mexican food, a restaurant that has been pleasing the most savvy and unindoctrinated palates alike since 1963. It takes a lot to impress some of those old-timers, none of whom see much substance in the flash and panache of the nouveau restaurants and their pristine veneer and effusive, over-the-top flamboyance. These guys and gals are impressed only by New Mexican food the way their abuelitas prepared it–unadorned, authentic and absolutely wonderful. If you want to evoke their ire, take them to one of the chains. Worse, try sneaking some cumin into their chile.
Just how good is Mary & Tito’s? In an October, 2009 span of two days, three people whose opinion on food I value weighed in, prompting me to ponder that question and not just take for granted that it’s “one of” the very best restaurants in New Mexico. World-travelers Randy and Bonnie Lake experienced an epiphany during their most recent visit, marveling at just how much better Mary & Tito’s legendary red is than other red chile they’ve ever had. Bill Resnik who’s authored a cookbook on New Mexican cuisine was more to-the-point, asking why it hasn’t been accorded a “30” rating–the epitome of perfection in my rating system and a rating I have not bestowed upon any restaurant anywhere.
A dining experience at such an ideal would have to be absolutely flawless with uncompromising standards and an obvious commitment on the restaurant’s part to providing a dining experience I would want to repeat over and over again. Obviously the food would have to be more than good; it would have to tantalize, titillate, enrapt my taste buds with every morsel. Every facet of the meal would have to be like a well synchronized and beautiful ballet in which each course is a prelude to the next and leaves me absolutely lusting for the next bite.
There have been times (many, in fact) in which a magical endorphin high from Mary & Tito’s red chile made my taste buds so unbelievably, deliriously happy that I’ve sworn nothing quite as good has ever crossed my lips. Immediately after each meal at Mary & Tito’s, I want to repeat it, usually right then and there. It is simply my very favorite restaurant in New Mexico, my highest rated restaurant of any genre in the Land of Enchantment and one of the highest rated across the fruited plain.
I’m not the only patron this loyal to Mary & Tito’s. In truth, the restaurant’s walls could probably be covered with framed certificates and accolades feting it as the “best” in one category or another. Instead, you’ll find family photo montages along with photos of some of their loyal customers. For ambiance, this homey restaurant might not win any awards, but for outstanding New Mexican cuisine, it has secured a place in the hearts and appetites of their many guests.
Although the legendary Tito passed away in 1990 and his devoted wife Mary Ann Gonzales left us in 2013, their effervescent daughter Antoinette and sons Jordan and Travis continue to provide the hospitality for which Mary & Tito’s is renowned. Better yet, they oversee an operation that serves what is arguably the best New Mexican food in New Mexico (ergo the entire universe)–and unequivocally the very best red chile anywhere. Interestingly, Mary & Tito’s continues to win over lifelong New Mexicans who never heard of the restaurant until it was featured on the Travel Channel’s Bizarre Foods Dining Destinations program.
The red chile has culled a legendary reputation among aficionados. Slathered generously on your entrees, it is a rich red color. At first impression it tastes great, but the more you eat more of it, the more the piquant heat builds up. Oh, the wonderful burn! Beads of perspiration glistened on my dearly departed friend Ruben Hendrickson’s forehead with every bite, but he persevered through that endorphin generating heat with what can only be described as a lusty fervor. Even when the particular crop of chile isn’t particularly piquant, Mary & Tito’s red chile is always wonderful, so good some frequent guests have no idea what the green chile tastes like. It’s been so long since I’ve had the green chile that I no longer remember what it’s like. The red chile is available meatless for diners of the vegetarian persuasion.
Ask the vivacious Antoinette what makes Mary & Tito’s red chile so uniquely wonderful and she’ll tell you that the chile starts off like the chile at most New Mexican restaurants. The difference is in what is done with it. Mary & Tito’s chile has been purchased from one Hatch grower for years and it’s ground from pods, not made from powder. Beyond that, the restaurant doesn’t adulterate the chile with other than salt and garlic (absolutely no cumin–contrary to what the Travel Channel’s Andrew Zimmern once reported on Bizarre Foods: Dining Destinations). There is magic in this purity. There’s also purity in its almost mesmerizing red-orange color and if you look at the edges of your plate, you won’t see the tell-tale signs of the excessive use of a thickening agent such as corn starch. There’s none of that in this red chile!
The green chile (as I remember it) isn’t quite as piquant, but it is very tasty and generously applied to your entrees. For the best of both, ask for your entree to be served “Christmas” style so you can taste both the chile rojo (red) and chile verde (green). Vegetarians can also ask for it without meat. My friend Lesley King, the wonderful writer whose monthly “King of the Road” column used to grace New Mexico Magazine, visited Mary & Tito’s for the first time in May, 2010 and recognized immediately that at this legendary restaurant, it’s all about the chile, finding both red and green as good as could possibly be made.
My dear friend Ruben Hendrickson, who for more than a year was engaged in a Holy Grail type quest to find the best carne adovada in the Albuquerque area, was absolutely besotted with Mary & Tito’s rendition. It’s carne adovada the way it’s supposed to be with tender tendrils of moist, delicious pork ameliorated with the best red chile in the metropolitan area. Cheryl Jamison, the scintillating four-time James Beard Award-winning author, calls the carne adovada “absolutely spectacular.” The Santa Fe Travelers Billie Frank and Steve Collins called it “the best carne adovada we’ve ever had.” As with most entrees, it’s served with beans and rice, both of which are quite good.
In New Mexico Magazine‘s “Best Eats” issue for 2011, Mary & Tito’s was recognized as having the best carne adovada in the Land of Enchantment. As one of the seven culinary experts who selected and wrote about New Mexico’s best, it was the choice with which I most agreed. Though every other honoree is worthy of “best eats” selection, Mary & Tito’s carne adovada stood out, the best of the best!
The enchiladas are certainly among the best in town and I appreciate the fact that you can have them rolled or stacked (my preference with three corn tortillas), the way they’re served throughout Northern New Mexico. Natives and newcomers alike ask for a fried egg on top of the enchiladas, a flavor-enhancer that improves on a New Mexican entree that doesn’t really need any improvement. An “extra beef” option means enchiladas with even more fantastically well seasoned beef. With red chile, they will make your taste buds ecstatic.
Burritos are nearly a foot long and served overstuffed. One of the very best burritos anywhere features guacamole, beans and rice along with the aforementioned red or green chile. It is more than half a pound of New Mexican food greatness, especially when the guacamole practically erupts when you press your fork into the burrito. It’s become the only dish capable of prying me away from the carne adovada–except when I have the combination plate, stuffed sopaipilla, chiles rellenos… I love it all!
With chips, that guacamole is simplicity itself (avocados in their prime, garlic, lime juice, salt), but it is some of the best guacamole in town. The freshness of guacamole made daily from the best avocados is evident.
The chile rellenos are also among the best I’ve ever had, far superior to their world-famous brethren served at Mesilla’s fabled La Posta restaurant. A thin, crispy batter envelops a piquant pepper stuffed with a sharp Cheddar cheese. Each bite produces an endorphin rush and taste explosion. The rellenos are available on the combination platter as well as a la carte. As with other entrees at Mary & Tito’s, they’re best smothered with that miraculous red chile.
My friend Sr. Plata had the privilege of first-time visits to both Chope’s and Mary & Tito’s within two weeks of each other. In his estimation, the chile relleno at Mary & Tito’s is far superior to Chope’s version (which is often considered THE standard-bearer for the genre in the Land of Enchantment). New Mexicans from the southern half of the state, in particular, might consider it sacrilege, but Sr. Plata reasons that Mary & Tito’s superior red chile is the difference-maker. He’s calls it the essence of purity and deliciousness.
You won’t find sopaipillas with honey at Mary & Tito’s, but you will find a “Mexican turnover‘ resembling an overgrown empanada or Italian calzone. It’s made from sopaipilla dough stuffed with meat, beans, rice and chile then deep fried. It’s Mary & Tito’s version of stuffed sopaipillas and it’s (not surprisingly) among the very best in the city. The Mexican turnover is the most popular item at the restaurant, surpassing even the nonpareil carne adovada.
Entrees include some of the best refried beans anywhere…and I mean anywhere in the country. They have that “prepared with lard” taste all good refrieds have. Spanish rice also comes with every entree as does a tomato and lettuce garnish. Garnish is one of those plate decorations many people discard. With Mary & Tito’s fabulous red chile, it’s just something else with which to sop up every bit of that chile rojo.
Your first bowl of salsa is complimentary and it’s so good you’ll certainly finish it off quickly and order another. The chips, like the salsa, are lightly salted and crisp, the perfect size and texture to complement the tomato rich salsa. The salsa has a nice piquancy but other than tomatoes and chile, there are no discernible additives such as garlic and onion.
Only the con queso gets a less than outstanding mark at Mary & Tito’s. The cheese has that “melted Velveeta” feel and taste and is somewhat gloppy. Authenticity and utter deliciousness,however, aren’t spared on the chicharrones which compete with those at Cecilia’s Cafe for best in the city. Chicharrones are Pieces of pork crackling cooked until crunchy and most of the fat is rendered out. A plateful of chicharrones and a bowl of that legendary red are a great way to start any meal.
Another excellent entree unique to Mary & Tito’s is a carne adovada omelet. Yes, you did read that correctly. It’s a multi-egg omelet folded over that outstanding carne adovada then covered in the red chile of my dreams. There’s no need for any of the usual omelet ingredients when you’ve got carne adovada.
Compliment Antoinette on an outstanding meal and she’ll invariably credit “the guys in the kitchen.” Those guys, the Arguello brothers–Patricio and Louis–are following Tito’s recipes and keeping his culinary legacy alive. They’ve been working at Mary & Tito’s since they were but teenagers, schooled under the watchful eye of Tito himself. They’re well versed at their craft. Antoinette will, however, take credit for the terrific desserts available at Mary & Tito’s.
For dessert, an absolute “must have” is Mary & Tito’s take on traditional New Mexican wedding cake, a yellow cake made with walnuts and pineapple and topped with a cream cheese frosting is spectacular. Antoinette has been making this cake for better than 30 years (though she doesn’t look much older than 30 herself) and says she’s made it thousands of times. You won’t find any better in New Mexico. You won’t find anything close. My friend Bill Resnik calls it “one of the ten best things I’ve ever put in my mouth.”
In January, 2010, Mary & Tito’s was announced as the 2010 recipient of the James Beard Award’s “America’s Classic” honor. A James Beard Award signifies the pinnacle of achievement in the culinary world, the country’s most coveted and prestigious culinary award while the “Americas Classic Award” honors “restaurants with timeless appeal, beloved for quality food that reflects the character of their community, and that have carved out a special place in the American culinary landscape.” Mary & Tito’s is the true, timeless American classic–beloved in the community with the highest quality food reflecting the character of New Mexico.
Mary and Antoinette received the award at a ceremonial dinner on May 3, 2010 at Lincoln Center’s Avery Fisher Hall in New York City. Governor Bill Richardson celebrated the honor by proclaiming May 12th “Mary & Tito’s Day” in New Mexico, a well-deserved honor for an exemplary restaurant.
While writing an article entitled “Ode to the Chile Pepper” for the September, 2011 edition of New Mexico Magazine, I had the privilege, pleasure and honor to interview the owner of the Hatch chile farm which supplies Mary & Tito’s with their fabulous chile. Leticia Carrasco is justifiably proud of the Sandia chile her farm provisions to a James Beard award-winning restaurant. She could not have been nicer–a great person supplying great chile to a great family. How fitting is that?
29 April 2013: In January, 2013 Food & Wine Magazine compiled a list of the nation’s “best taco spots.” The only New Mexico taco spot recognized was Mary & Tito’s for which Food & Wine acknowledged the “famed secret weapon of this mother-daughter-run operation is its fiery red chile sauce–killer with succulent braised pork in the New Mexico classic carne adovada, or drizzled over beef tacos in crispy corn tortilla shells.” New Mexico’s best tacos at Mary & Tito’s? Why not? They’re fantastic!
18 August 2017: It took me 45 visits to sample everything on the menu at Mary & Tito’s, the very last item being a Mexican Pizza. Described on the menu as “fry bread, refried beans and cheese,” it’s so much more than that. It’ll remind you most of the fry bread tacos served at Indian Pow Wows and on reservations. The canvas for this unique pizza is a deep-fried sopaipilla similar to the one used on the Mexican turnover. The sopaipilla is topped with lots of refried beans, red chile, sprinkled with cheese and lined with lettuce and tomato. Unlike Indian-style fry bread tacos, the fry bread at Mary & Tito’s is crisp and crunchy, not soft and pliable. It doesn’t make the top ten list of items I’ve had at Mary & Tito’s, but you could put that red chile on a leather boot and it would be delicious.
In the February, 2013 edition of Albuquerque The Magazine celebrated the Duke City’s best desserts. The fabulous Mexican wedding cake was recognized as the “to die for dessert to remember.” I’m not too sure what that means, but if it means the Mexican wedding cake is unforgettable, the honor is certainly well deserved. It’s certainly one of the very best desserts in New Mexico.
The cast and crew of This Old House, a Boston-based home-improvement and remodeling television show spent two days at Mary & Tito’s in April, 2013. While filming a segment in Hatch, purveyors of New Mexico’s best chile told the crew that the very best example of chile is served at Mary & Tito’s. The cast and crew proceeded to enjoy every item on the menu. More converts!
Mary & Tito’s is one of those restaurants that elicits a craving only it can sate. It is the essence of red chile Nirvana.
MARY & TITO’S CAFE
2711 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Mary & Tito’s Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 18 August 2017
# OF VISITS: 45
BEST BET: Enchiladas, Chile Relleno, Taco, Natillas, Guacamole Burrito, Carne Adovada Burrito, Chicharrones, Mexican Wedding Cake, Carne Adovada Omelet, Carne Adovada, Combination Plate, Mexican Pizza, Mexican Turnover, Salsa & Chips