Kim Kardashian and Kris Humphries. Jessica Simpson and Tony Romo. Rihanna and Chris Brown. These are pairings so unnatural that there’s seemingly no way they’d ever work together…similar to good food and convenience stores. The notion of convenience store food conjures images of salty, cylindrically shaped dry meat snacks with the texture of sawdust and air-filled bags of Cool Ranch Doritos. This is stereotypical convenience store fare, as unappetizing as donut holes.
Now mention New Mexican food and gas station in the same sentence and the likely image conjured would make all the sophomoric six year-olds among us giggle, the notion of “gas” not having anything to do with petroleum. Visionary entrepreneur Mick Coker had the confidence in his New Mexico food products to launch his business at a convenience store-gas station in the Northeast Heights. The rest, as they say, is history. The Sandia Chile Grill’s inaugural location launched in 2004 at the Winner’s Circle gas station at Harper and Barstow. A second location on Montgomery just east of I-25 followed shortly thereafter.
From its onset the Sandia Chile Grill’s made-to-order burrito concept elevated gas station dining from a fast food grab and gobble experience to a uniquely sublime New Mexico dining extravaganza, albeit one without on-site seating. The aroma of tortillas on the grill quickly had patrons making a bee-line to the little grill that could at the back of the convenience store portion of the gas station. While relatively little space is required to operate what is essentially a to-go diner, Coker saw his business grow to the extent–as much as 4,000 meals in a busy month–that a real restaurant storefront was in order. He launched the Sandia Chile Grill restaurant at the Del Norte Shopping Center, essentially moving from the Winner’s Circle gas station not that far away.
A native New Mexican (born in Belen), Coker saw two obvious reasons for the name Sandia Chile Grill, the first being Sandia chile which grows in the Mesilla Valley. Sandia chile ranges from four to six-inches long and dries to a deep burgundy color. It’s one of the most delicious of all red chiles and is served at such fabled New Mexican food treasures as Mary & Tito’s. Sandia is also the name of the mountain range backdropping the city of Albuquerque.
At the restaurant, the staff has the room to operate and customers have comfortable seating in which to dine. Though much of the restaurant’s business remains carry-out, it’s nice to have an alternative when you want it. As at the service station, burritos dominate the menu: breakfast burritos, steak burritos, steak and chicken burritos, chicken burritos, pork burritos and even veggie burritos. Some burritos are named for professional wrestlers (Ultimate Warrior, Undertaker, Junkyard Dog, Mankind and the Macho Man). There are also burritos named for Mexican western characters: El Matidor (sic), Bandito, Caballero and El Jeffe. The menu also includes stuffed sopaipillas, enchiladas, tamales, rellenos and tacos–the New Mexican food essentials which can’t be prepared at the gas station sites.
One word of advice–study the menu on the Web site before you visit. There are a lot of choices! Even though the friendly counter staff won’t rush you in the least, you might not want the person standing behind you glowering impatiently and tapping her toes incessantly (as happened to me during my inaugural visit). You also can’t go wrong with a recommendation from the staff, especially if Mick Coker himself is taking your order. Alternatively, you can take an easy (and delicious) route and order all-you-can-eat green chile chicken stew for under five dollars. You can also eat contently in the knowledge that cumin has no place anywhere on the menu. Nor does Mick buy and reheat any products from Sysco or Shamrock. The only product not prepared in-house are the tortillas which are procured from the same folks who provision Little Anita’s.
If you haven’t been to the Sandia Chile Grill in a while, you’ll quickly note several changes. In 2009, the facility was approved by the Food and Drug Administration (FDA) to can all its chiles and sauces for nationwide distribution. In 2012, the Cokers opened a brewery–and an award-winning brewery at that. Within months after launching, they entered seven items in a New Mexico State Fair competition, earning five medals including a “best of show” in the professional division. The blue and red-ribbons are on display in the restaurant. The menu also features several gluten-free items (nachos, green chile chicken stew, chicken quesadillas, chicken enchiladas, steak tacos and more).
Another gluten-free option is the Sandia Chile Grill’s unique big chips and salsa. The “chips” are fresh-cooked corn tortillas the size of 45RPM (that’s revolutions per minute for your Generation Yers) records (analog storage mediums on flat discs). The salsa is excellent with a pleasantly piquant bite courtesy of jalapeños and red chile (you’d be surprised at how infrequently New Mexican restaurants actually use chile on their salsa). The chips are formidable enough for Gil-sized scoops of salsa. They’re also left unsalted so you can salt to taste.
Aside from the standard New Mexico restaurant offerings of red and green chile, the Sandia Chile Grill also features a “Milanesa” sauce, a white, cheesy sauce similar to the Alfredo sauce so popular in Italian cuisine. One of the burritos adorned with Milanesa sauce is Mick’s Pick, ostensibly one of the owner’s favorites. Weighing in at more than one pound, Mick’s Pick features a tortilla of medium thickness enveloping a double portion of chicken, bacon, Milanesa sauce, cheese and red or green chile (or both). The chicken is cut into very small cubes and appears to be mostly white meat; I didn’t find any sinewy pieces in the entire burrito. The Milanesa sauce complements red and green chile well, but is a stand-out on its own.
One of the burritos named for a professional wrestler is the Ultimate Warrior, the sobriquet of a grappler considered “the ultimate archetype of strength and intensity.” Fittingly, the Ultimate Warrior is one intensely delicious burrito, especially if it is “smothered” in red and green chile, both of which have a nice bite. The Ultimate Warrior is engorged with chopped steak, bacon, chorizo (made on the premises), potatoes, salsa and cheese. It’s a behemoth of a burrito, weighing in at more than a pound which means you’ll probably be taking some home. My Kim, who used to agree with Albuquerque The Magazine‘s selection of Lotaburger‘s burrito as the city’s second best (Frontier‘s was named best) now believes The Ultimate Warrior is better.
Five different taco options are available on the menu. Even though the tacos are made with Taco Bell style hard-shelled tortillas, that’s the only comparison. The tacos at the Sandia Chile Grill are excellent. At first glance, it may appear the tacos are mostly lettuce, but beneath that lettuce is some wonderfully seasoned hamburger meat and shredded Cheddar cheese. A small plastic tub of salsa accompanies an order of tacos and it is terrific salsa at that.
Mick Coker and his son Clinton are immensely proud of their New Mexican heritage and like most proud New Mexicans, know one of the day’s most difficult decisions is whether to have red or green chile…or both. They help make that decision easier for their guests by offering excellent New Mexican cuisine showcasing both.
Sandia Chile Grill
7120 Wyoming Blvd, N.E.,
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 22 January 2013
1st VISIT: 18 August 2007
# OF VISITS: 2
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Mick’s Pick, Tacos, The Big Chief, The Ultimate Warrior, Chips and Salsa