Since the early 1980s when I was stationed at Kirtland Air Force Base, every vehicle I’ve owned has seemingly had a built-in auto-pilot with the destination 8810 Central, S.E. hard-coded. For years that was the address of the junior-most of two Albuquerque Milton’s restaurants, a classic American diner which consistently serves some of the very best diner entrees in the city. Milton’s was for me and my barracks-dwelling friends what Monk’s Cafe was to Jerry Seinfeld and his friends and what the Central Perk Coffee House was to the Friends cast. It’s where we commiserated with one another after a stressful day and it was where we celebrated good times.
When I returned to New Mexico after three years in England, one of the first destinations on my agenda was that familiar address on Old Route 66. Instead of friends who were no longer stationed at Kirtland, my dining companion was Kim, my bride of two years. As with many people who grew up in the “Hog butcher for the world,” (one of several nicknames for Chicago in Carl Sandburg’s 1916 poem “Chicago”), Kim is an unabashed meat and potatoes lover. The menu, an array of hearty and homespun comfort foods and blue-plate favorites was tailor-made for her Midwestern constitution. Mine, too, thanks to a selection of traditional New Mexican dishes.
Over time the Northeast Heights version of Milton’s which had long been my sanctuary and home away from home became Kap’s then the Acropolis Cafe and Kap’s again. In 2004, yet another transformation ensued with Kap’s metamorphosing into a Cowboy themed restaurant named Roper’s. Alas, that makeover met with an inauspicious beginning thanks to a less than favorable review from the then Albuquerque Journal food critic, the brilliant rhapsodist Kelly Koepke. Luckily my car’s auto-pilot doesn’t read restaurant reviews and has continued to find its way to Roper’s with us in tow.
Roper’s ambiance is definitely all cowboy–from barb wire framed prints of old west scenes to faux cow hides on the walls. Both types of music–country and western– are played on the sound system. Only a couple of the cheerful waitresses remain who over the years became part of the ambiance at whatever restaurant existed at the Wyoming and Central location. Some of them moved on after more than 20 years in the same location but the current staff is very accommodating and attentive, seemingly tending to dozens of tables simultaneously.
Roper’s menu continues the restaurant’s thematic paean to the Old West with “fancified cowboy grub” (thank you, Kelly)–or at least entrees named for Old West terms and places. American and new Mexican entrees still rule the roost, though you’re not likely to find them sans sobriquet. The eggs burrito breakfast I’ve ordered countless times over the past 25 years, for example, is now called the “Broken Arrow” and you can now ask for bacon, ham, sausage or cottage potatoes inside that burrito. The burrito is smothered by green or red chili (or both). It’s not quite the same wonderful chile taste that captured my affection so many years ago (it probably has something to do with the menu’s atrocious Texas spelling of “chili”), but the Broken Arrow remains one of my favorite breakfast burritos in town.
Whether topped with red or green chili, Roper’s New Mexican entrees are still a good way to start a morning or end the day. Despite the spelling “chili” (which my spellchecker tells me is so wrong) Roper’s chili bears no resemblance to the beef and cumin laden Texas chili. It’s unadulterated New Mexican chile prepared as well as many New Mexican restaurants prepare it. The menu even offers an extra hot green chile that actually got the attention of this chile masochist (in New Mexico pain is a flavor). You can also have a green chile country gravy that goes very well with biscuits and chicken fried steak.
Breakfast is served all day long and remains my favorite meal at Roper’s where an evening entree might well be pigs in a blanket (link sausages wrapped in pancakes and doused with syrup) or a Broken Arrow breakfast burrito. A favorite appetizer over the years has been the con queso, a bowlful of hot melted cheese punctuated with a pleasantly piquant green chile and topped with chopped green onions and tomatoes. Served with crispy chips, the con queso is rich and gooey, usually too rich to finish during the same meal in which it’s ordered.
The marquee in front of Roper’s during a January, 2012 visit invited diners to try the restaurant’s green chile cheeseburger omelet. For someone endeavoring to sample every one of the 66 green chile cheeseburgers on the 2011 edition of the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, the marquee was an invitation to sample a creative variation on the beatified burger. A multi-egg omelet is engorged with cheese and a large beef patty more akin to a hamburger steak than a burger patty then ladled with a generous dousing of green chile. The beef is well seasoned and moist, legions superior to the previously frozen patties adorning too many green chile cheeseburgers throughout New Mexico. This omelet is served with homestyle potatoes which you’ll enjoy most when you cover them with green chile.
Roper’s features some of the most unique pancakes we’ve ever had including the “Mexican griddle cheese cakes” in which green chile, cheddar cheese and ham are baked right into the pancakes. This unlikely combination of contrasting tastes is a great waker-upper. In its annual food and wine issue for 2011, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded Roper’s Mexican Griddle Pancakes a “Hot Plate Award” as the “Hot Breakfast” Albuquerque can’t live without. If “gussied up” pancakes aren’t your style, you can still order a short stack–two fluffy pancakes just waiting for butter and syrup. Short stack is a bit of a misnomer. Even though these pancakes are stacked only three high, each golden orb is about six inches in diameter. They’re also served warm in a winter weather comforting way.
If anything, a short stack will short-change you from the enjoyment of pancakes optimized for creativity and flavor. You’ll want as much of the Santa Fe pancakes as you can get. These bounteous blue corn pancakes are made with green chile, sausage and Cheddar-Jack cheese. “Not on my pancakes,” you say. That’s what my Kim first thought before being playfully goaded into trying them. She then proceeded to eat more than her share of the too-short-stack. Most pancakes with syrup cross the border into cloying. The combination of green chile, sausage and Cheddar-Jack add flavor dimensions of piquancy, savoriness and tangy-sharpness. These pancakes are a winner.
Roper’s lunch and dinner menu features many homestyle (particularly in Texas) favorites including pork chops, meatloaf, chicken fried steak and even liver and onions. Sandwiches and salads are also available including an intriguing fried catfish salad which you don’t have to be from Texas to appreciate.
You don’t have to have a car set on auto-pilot to find Roper’s. If you ever visited Milton’s on the Northeast Heights, you’re there. Don’t expect Milton’s because that’s a tall order Roper’s doesn’t quite fill. Still, it’s a nice diner that serves generous portions of hearty food.
8810 Central, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 15 January 2012
# OF VISITS: 4
LATEST VISIT: Broken Arrow, Mexican Griddle Cheese Cakes, Enchiladas, Tamales, Con Queso, Green Chile Cheeseburger Omelet