“Why, this here sauce is made in New York City!”
“New York City? Git a rope!”
Uttered in a 1980s commercial for Pace picante sauce, those lines expressed the ire of several hungry cowboys who threatened to string up the cook for serving a “foreign” salsa (translation: not made in Texas). That commercial also brings to my mind the annual issue in which Hispanic magazine names its top 50 Hispanic restaurants across America.
The sentiment so eloquently expressed by those ravenous cowpokes is how many New Mexicans feel when Hispanic magazine lists among its top 50, only two or three New Mexico restaurants. It really rankles us when both Texas and California have four times as many selections on that list. Just as you won’t find too many cowboys who appreciate salsa made in New York City, you won’t find many New Mexicans who will freely admit that California, much less Texas, can have edible Hispanic food. Hispanic magazine further loses any credibility among New Mexicans if that top 50 list includes restaurants in, heaven help us, Georgia or Mississippi.
Hispanic magazine did have a lot of credibility among the Albuquerque dining crowd when, for three consecutive years (2002-2004), it named Padilla’s Mexican Kitchen among its elite fifty. For more than twenty years, Padilla’s has been the anchor tenant of a small shopping strip which appears to be doing a booming business–at least around meal time. If you arrive for lunch only a couple minutes past eleven, you’ll have to park on a side street somewhere because neighboring businesses have a strict prohibition against Padilla’s customers parking in front of their stores.
Arrive ten minutes past eleven and you’ll queue up behind a line of hungry patrons, most of whom were waiting outside the restaurant’s door until it opened promptly on the hour. It’s the only way employees of neighboring businesses can get back to work within the lunch hour.
For what it’s worth, most of Padilla’s patrons seem to be locals who know the difference between real New Mexican food and the kind that might be served in New York City. New Mexicans of several generations have made this restaurant one of the most popular dining establishments in the city. Unfortunately, it’s not one of the largest restaurants in town despite two dining rooms. If you’re seated in the front dining room, you might feel a little cramped as the line of diners queues up behind you and all eyes are seemingly on the deliciousness on your table.
Padilla’s is sparsely decorated. Several Southwestern landscapes festoon the walls. That’s to be expected in New Mexico. Out of the ordinary, however, are a number of elephant pictures and figurines throughout the restaurant. It turns out the owner, Mary Padilla likes restaurants (Padilla’s pachyderms?) and knows that elephants facing east with their trunks raised bring good luck. It’s certainly been more than good luck that has made Padilla’s such a success story because it’s certainly not its business hours. The restaurant is open only Monday through Friday from 11AM to 7:45PM. Patron loyalty is so strong that you’ll swear the same crowd which queued up before lunch returns to their place in line for dinner, and in some cases, they do.
The sense of triumph at finally being seated is akin to having won a small jackpot–the longer your wait in line, the more exhilarating your triumph. Once you are seated, a small bowl of salsa and some of the largest toasted tortilla chips you’ll find anywhere are quickly dispatched to your table. The chips are unfailingly crisp and have a pronounced corn taste. The salsa is like a nearly pureed tomato sauce with flavorful, piquant ingredients. It doesn’t quite run off your chips, but it’s also not the thickest salsa in town. At about medium heat, it’s also not among the hottest salsas around, but it’s much better than the aforementioned Pace Picante Sauce.
Padilla’s menu includes a la carte guacamole salad and a guacamole tostada only in season (other restaurants don’t seem to realize that fresh avocado is a seasonal item). Despite the name on the marquee–Padilla’s Mexican Kitchen–the food is definitely New Mexican through and through. All dinner plates are served with beans, rice and two sopaipillas. The daily special on Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday showcases the restaurant’s outstanding carne adovada: carne adovada dinner (Monday), carne adovada burrito (Tuesday) and carne adovada dinner (Wednesday). The Thursday special is carnitas, papas and quelites (canned spinach at Padillas but known as “lamb’s quarters,” a sort of wild spinach to native New Mexicans), a treat not that many New Mexican restaurants deign to serve.
A la carte orders (which you can upgrade to dinners for a pittance more) include a variety of burritos and stuffed sopaipillas. The stuffed sopaipillas are among the very best in town. That’s because they start with a base constructed of some of the most wonderful sopaipillas you’ll ever have. The sopaipillas are fabulous! They’re light and pillowy forming a perfect pocket in which to insert honey or meat and beans. It’s certainly worth upgrading from a la carte just so you can have two of these honey colored treasures. One of the a la carte items you should order is the restaurant’s tacos, made with crispy tortilla shells stuffed with seasoned ground beef, cheese, lettuce and salsa. One taco will be gone in six or seven glorious bites so you might be tempted to order two instead.
Padilla’s enchiladas are also quite good and served with chicken, beef or cheese. You can also have blue corn enchiladas (pictured above) which are even better. When your server takes your order, you’ll be asked whether or not you want onions on your entree, a courtesy you don’t see elsewhere.
Despite my whiny sniping at Hispanic magazine, I admire the gumption it takes to create a list that’s bound to stir up controversy. The magazine takes special care to recognize restaurants which have carved out a niche in a competitive market in the way outstanding restaurants do–with delicious food and good service that build a loyal clientele. Padilla’s has certainly done that.
Padilla’s has established itself as an Albuquerque institution, one of the city’s very best New Mexican restaurants. Credit that to tremendous fan loyalty–not only to the restaurant, but to Mary Padilla and her family, many of whom work in the restaurant. Despite lines snaking out the door just prior to opening time, no one really wants Padilla’s to expand into larger quarters. Expansion sometimes takes away the charm and personality that makes some restaurants locally beloved and Padilla’s is certainly one very loved restaurant.
Padilla’s Mexican Kitchen
1510 Girard, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 18 April 2007
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: Blue Corn Enchilada Dinner, Meat & Bean Stuffed Sopaipilla, Sopaipillas with Honey, Salsa