If I’ve learned anything from dining at Monroe’s, it’s that I shouldn’t leave the restaurant with any regrets. Invariably what I end up regretting most often is that I didn’t have the green chile cheeseburger, one of the very best in town, if not the Land of Enchantment. It’s a green chile cheeseburger so good that I’ll order it during three consecutive visits before ordering anything else on the menu–and when I don’t order it, I lament not having had my ardor quelled by its utter deliciousness.
Some may question how a restaurant with such an “Anglicized” appellation as Monroe’s can possibly proffer such an enchanting green chile cheeseburger, much less any other excellent New Mexican cuisine. Frankly, it could have been even worse. Monroe’s was originally owned by a Scandinavian named Monroe Sorenson who owned a small chile parlor on the corner of Rio Grande Boulevard and Mountain. So, the restaurant’s name might well be Sorenson’s, a name you might otherwise associate with lingonberries, lutefisk and even reindeer meat.
In 1979, Miguel Diaz, a native of Puerto Rico who grew up in New York, purchased Monroe’s and moved it to a refurbished gas station on Lomas (1520 Lomas, N.W.) where it remains today. A newer location in the Northeast Heights (6051 Osuna, N.E.) hasn’t been around nearly as long, but has a loyal, if not passionate, following. In fact, finding a place to seat during lunch on weekdays is a challenge and on Sunday, it’s even more more daunting, so popular is this family favorite.
In 2007, Miguel Diaz was named New Mexico’s restaurateur of the year by the New Mexico Restaurant Association, a tribute to his fifty plus years in the industry, community support and dedication to his staff. In his half-century in the hospitality business, Diaz has amassed an impressive resume that exemplifies the American ideal working your way to the top. He has served as soda jerk, short-order cook, Italian and French chef, restaurant manager and ultimately, owner of two very successful Monroe’s restaurants in the Duke City.
His background and work ethic seems to indicate he would have been successful at any chosen endeavor. Diaz played semi-pro baseball, served in the United States Army’s 82nd Airborne, and was an original member of the Army’s All American Chorus, paratroopers who drop from the sky to perform at concerts. He moved to Albuquerque in 1975, launched a snack bar in the bank building at Louisiana and Menaul then a year later, bought Monroe’s. The rest, as the proverbial “they” say, is history.
Perhaps recognizing a credibility advantage to marketing its products with a Hispanic name, Monroe’s sells its red and green chile as well as other products under the Miguel’s label. A real treat is Monroe’s red chile honey in which New Mexico’s favorite fruit (chile, not honey) makes its presence felt as our favorite topping for sopaipillas. Monroe’s sopaipillas, by the way, are flaky and substantial puffs of dough just beckoning for that honey.
Aside from the outstanding green chile cheeseburgers, Monroe’s menu includes sandwiches, New Mexican platters, “gringo” dinners (as they’re called on the menu), breakfast plates and house specialties. There’s literally something for everyone on the menu. Monroe’s exemplifies the tandem concept in which the entire wait staff is responsible for your satisfaction. During a typical meal, you’ll be attended to by several people, all unfailingly courteous and helpful. Monroe’s calls it the family concept.
Monroe’s has withstood the ravages of competition because it remains at its roots a neighborhood gathering place. The menu and Web site indicate Monroe’s want its customers to make themselves at home, have fun and help them get to know you and any special needs you may have. Special orders and substitutions aren’t frowned upon because of the restaurant’s “aim to please” and “customer first” attitudes. It’s no wonder this restaurant has such a loyal following.
Serving more than 150,000 pounds of chile per year, you might expect that Monroe’s knows its chile and your expectations would be met. The chile at the Old Town area location seems to pack just slightly more heat than at the Northeast Heights restaurant though that doesn’t at all mean it “dumbs down” its product for its Northeast Heights clientele (whose demographics are actually well-diversified).
Monroe’s salsa is chunky and flavorful with chile, not jalapeno, as the primary flavor and heat generator. Though the salsa is only about a medium on my piquancy scale, it is a flavorful salsa, the type of which you might consume two bowlfuls of before your meal. Salsa and chips aren’t complimentary, but the “on-the-spot” wait staff will replenish them faithfully. The chips are oversized, crispy and low in salt. They also appear to be house-made, not store bought. Salsa and chips are a marriage as successful as burgers and fries.
Did someone say burgers and fries? As oft reiterated, the green chile cheeseburger is the best, but certainly not the only, reason to visit Monroe’s. The beef is hand-formed into an oversized patty which drapes over the lightly toasted six-inch buns and is blanketed in a molten layer of unctuous cheese. The chunky green chile is nestled gently on the top part of the bun. There is only one way to improve on this green chile cheeseburger and that’s with green chile that is more piquant. For fire-eaters like me, Monroe’s version, while sporting a nicely roasted flavor, needs a bit more “bite you back” piquancy. Of course, I say this about almost every green chile cheeseburger.
You can have your green chile cheeseburger with traditional French fries, sweet potato fries or onion rings, all of which complement the burger very well. The best from among this tasty triumvirate of sides, are the sweet potato fries. Monroe’s slices its sweet potatoes thickly then fries them to perfection so that their outside texture is crispy and the inside is soft and tender.
While green chile cheeseburgers make other New Mexico sandwiches green with envy, the humble red chile cheeseburger is rarely even listed on many restaurant menus. Not so at Monroe’s where the red chile cheeseburger may be nearly as good as its more famous green sibling. The red chile is flecked with ground beef and is a beautifully earthy red. It is also delicious, albeit not as piquant as this volcano-eater likes best. To compound your adventure in red chile flavor appreciation, ask for your fries to be covered in the red chile. You’ll wonder why you ever liked ketchup at all.
Burgers and fries, as frequenters of malt shops and drive-ins everywhere know, go best with thick, rich milkshakes. Monroe’s offers vanilla, chocolate, strawberry and pineapple shakes as good as you’ll find anywhere in Albuquerque. They’re made with real ice cream and are served cold and thick. Sucking this fabulous, frozen shakes up through a straw will test your lung-power, if not your mettle; many guests will resort to spooning out the contents. In either case, expect a teeth-chattering and delicious experience.
In addition to shakes, Monroe’s serves Coke products, raspberry tea, coffee, hot tea, hot chocolate; orange, apple or cranberry juice (eight-ounces); domestic and imported beer; wine and premium margaritas.
Enamored of enchiladas? At Monroe’s, you can have beef, chicken or carne adovada enchilada platters either rolled or flat, with blue corn or yellow corn tortillas, with or without a fried egg on top and topped with red or green chile (or both). Better still, order a combination enchilada platter and you’ll have one of each. The carne adovada is especially notable. The marinated pork is rich and tender, so good it will make grown men (at least this one) swoon with delight.
In its 12th edition, Frommer’s Santa Fe, Taos and Albuquerque Travel Guide, author Lesley King listed “Northern New Mexico Enchiladas” as among “the most unforgettable Northern New Mexico Experiences,” indicating that there are few things more New Mexican than the enchilada. Few enchiladas are made as well as Monroe’s carne adovada enchiladas, especially when they’re made with blue corn tortillas and served flat, the way they’re served throughout Northern New Mexico. Neither the red or green chile are especially piquant, but both are flavorful.
New Mexican platters at Monroe’s are served with Spanish rice, refried beans, a sopaipilla and chips and salsa. The Spanish rice is fluffy and moist, a welcome change from the clumpy, desiccated rice so often served in New Mexican restaurants. The refried beans are delicious, topped with melted, shredded Cheddar cheese. The sopaipillas are among the very best in Albuquerque. They’re best eaten immediately after they arrive at your table, when you can open them up and are welcomed by steaming wisps of doughy freshness wafting toward your nostrils. Monroe’s serves their sopaipillas with real honey, not the honey-flavored syrup.
Another New Mexican standard prepared exceptionally well at Monroes are tacos. If you’re thinking all tacos are the same, Monroe’s might just change your mind–especially since you can have them your way with either soft- or hard-shelled corn tortillas or soft flour tortillas all engorged with the meat of your choice (beef, chicken, or carne adovada). The taco platter is a meal, not a snack, especially if you opt for your tacos constructed with soft flour tortillas.
The tortillas are served warm and have a slightly charred pinto pony appearance that typifies New Mexican flour tortillas. Taco toppings include lettuce, diced tomatoes and Cheddar cheese. Not surprisingly, my favorite of the three meats is the carne adovada, which at Monroe’s is akin to a religious experience. Alas, it’s so good there’s never any left to take home.
With the closure of the long defunct Ramon’s, Monroe’s serves the best taco fingers in town. Taco fingers, if you’ve not had them, are hand-rolled tacos which are deep-fried and served with salsa for dipping. You get six to an order, and that’s not enough once your mouth quickly discerns what a wonderful taste treat they are.
Monroe’s invites you to start your day off right, no matter what time it is with a breakfast menu the envy of other restaurants. Breakfast plates are served with hash browns and toast or tortilla. It probably won’t surprise you to read that my favorite breakfast entree is carne adovada and eggs. Few things in life make getting up in the morning so much to look forward to as much as carne adovada, but I digress. The breakfast menu also includes omelets, enchiladas, skillet dishes and of course, the ubiquitous New Mexico breakfast burrito.
Daily specials are not to be ignored at Monroe’s and they tend to go quickly. The stuffed prime rib, for example, has been long gone by the time we arrived during two late lunch visits. Monroe’s will literally stuff prime rib with whatever you want, another example of their customer-centric spirit, but typically will stuff it with green chile and cheese. It’s a uniquely New Mexican, uniquely Monroe’s twist on a popular upscale cut of beef.
Gringo dinners–served with French fries, calavacitas, garden salad and Texas toast–aren’t entirely “gringo” thanks to the inclusion of calavasitas (zucchini, whole kernel corn, onions), a New Mexico favorite. The gringo dinners include chicken finger dinner, chicken fried chicken dinner, hamburger steak dinner and pork chop dinner. Frankly, the sandwich menu, would be entirely “gringo” were it not for the inclusion of green or red chile on the sandwiches: Monroe’s grill (turkey, Swiss cheese, avocado, green chile on rye), Kathy’s Special (ham, egg, cheese and green chile on a tortilla), grilled ham and cheese, red chile dog, red chile cheese dog and a classic B.L.T.
An excellent dessert choice when available is the green chile apple pie a la mode which is magically delicious–not too tart and (characteristic of Monroe’s) not too piquant, but both taste sensations complementing one another. Alas, this pie isn’t always available which is tragic considering just how good it is. Perhaps a grass roots campaign is in order asking for it to be instated on the daily menu. We’ve never tried the chocolate mousse pie that is available daily, reasoning that nothing could possibly be as good as the green chile apple pie a la mode.
Monroe’s may be one of my favorite restaurants in the Duke City area for green chile cheeseburgers, but there are many other reasons to visit this long-time family favorite which is still going strong after nearly a half-century of serving Duke City patrons.
16th & Lomas
LATEST VISIT: 18 July 2010
# OF VISITS: 12
BEST BET: Green Chile Cheeseburger, Taco Fingers, Green Chile Apple Pie, Sopaipillas, Salsa and Chips, Combination Enchilada Plate, Soft Tacos