For more than a quarter century, award-winning journalist Charles Kuralt had the type of job any aspiring sojourner would envy. He hit the road on a motor home, crisscrossing the fruited plains where waving fields of wheat passed in review and snow-capped mountains reached for cobalt colored skies. Observing that “thanks to the interstate highway system, it is now possible to travel from coast to coast without seeing anything,” Kuralt avoided the interstates, instead traversing America’s back roads and byways in search of real people with interesting stories to tell.
Kuralt loved New Mexico, which he noted in his terrific tome America, is really a misnomer. In his estimation, New Mexico “should be called Precambria for the sea that crashed upon its shores for tens of millions of years, or Mastadonia, for the mammals that later roamed its plains..; or Sandia for the mountain where the camp of an ice age hunter, the earliest known American was found in a cave…New Mexico is old, stupendously old and dry and brown, and wind-worn by the ages.”
Kuralt also loved the cuisine of the Land of Enchantment. In his book America, he declared the Own Cafe in San Antonio, New Mexico “one of the best food tips” he’d ever gotten. During his peridoc visits to the Duke City, the peripatetic wanderer also frequented Old Town’s La Placita restaurant which he considered one of his favorite feeding stations. In 1988, the legendary newsman featured El Patio in a CBS “Sunday Morning On The Road” segment.
El Patio was then but ten years old, but already becoming a formidable presence in the Duke City dining scene. It was then one of the few New Mexican restaurants in the UNM area, but that wasn’t solely the reason it garnered rave reviews and legions of loyal fans. Discerning UNM students appreciated the authenticity and deliciousness of the food; for many of them, it represented a home away from home where they could get cooking as good or better than mom’s. Those former students have raised a generation, many of whom followed their parents to UNM and to El Patio.
El Patio is ensconced in a converted home just south of Central Avenue on Harvard Drive. A telltale sign you’ve made it to the popular restaurant on this relatively low traffic drive is the can’t miss Taos blue Mexican picket fence. Beyond the fence lies the patio (El Patio), essentially the entire front yard, which is shaded by tall trees, a welcome respite from the sun’s heating rays. El Patio’s patio also welcomes dogs.
For the duration of its three decade plus, El Patio has been family owned and operated. Founding owners Dave Sandoval (a fellow Taoseño) and wife Gloria Sandoval remain involved, but much of the day-to-day operation has been transitioned over to their progeny, sons Thomas and Christopher who have made some changes, including the addition of a catering service and a sales operation which markets El Patio’s fabulous salsa and green chile. Both can be purchased in the restaurant and at several stores throughout the Duke City.
Thomas Sandoval, the elder sibling, is the chef while Christopher is the restaurant’s front-end man. Thomas acquired his culinary skills literally at his maternal grandfather’s apron strings. His grandfather taught him well. El Patio’s food is as good today as it was decades ago when it first blew me out of the water.
Interestingly, El Patio considers itself primarily a vegetarian restaurant, but that distinction isn’t readily apparent in its meat dishes which are as good, if not better, than meat-based New Mexican entrees at other restaurants. Even the most ardent carnivores, however, should at least try the vegetarian entrees which go a long way toward showcasing the delicious versatility of New Mexican cuisine. The restaurant’s vegetarian enchiladas, for example, are made with spinach instead of meat. The spinach imparts a spring-like freshness and healthful, but surprisingly (at least to meatatarians) delicious qualities to the enchiladas.
Many pundits rank El Patio among the top four or five New Mexican restaurants in Albuquerque, leaving one to wonder if voters on “best of” polls mistakenly stuff the ballots for “El Pinto” when meaning to vote for El Patio which is several orders of magnitude better. You’d think after the “dangling chad” episodes during the presidential elections in Florida, more extreme care would be taken in the voting process.
Salsa isn’t complementary at El Patio, but it’s worth the paltry pittance for which you pay for it, especially considering the attentive wait staff is on the ball to replenish each ramekin just as you’re running low. The salsa is jalapeno based, but I believe it includes a tinge of red chile powder. In any case, this is a wonderful salsa, some of the very best in the city. This flavorful salsa has a nice piquant bite that will get your attention without dulling your taste buds for your entrees. The accompanying chips are low in salt, crisp and formidable enough to scoop up ample amounts of salsa. In its September, 2012 edition, Albuquerque The Magazine named the salsa at El Patio the seventh best in Albuquerque from among 130 salsas sampled throughout the city.
The restaurant’s most popular entree, according to the menu, are the green chile chicken enchiladas. El Patio is so accommodating (one of the main reasons for its popularity), you can have dual meat–beef and chicken–enchiladas and you can have them Christmas style and on blue corn tortillas with the requisite fried egg on top. This best of all worlds approach for one of New Mexican cuisine’s most versatile entrees is my favorite way to have them. The shredded chicken is moist and delicious, prepared to absolute perfection. The beef is ground hamburger, not shredded beef as Mexican restaurants will serve on enchiladas, but the beef is well-seasoned and not refried as some restaurants are apt to do. The red chile is rich and flavorful at about a medium level of piquancy. The green chile has a fresh, fruity taste. Both are par excellence.
Carne Adovada is available in several dishes, including on a smothered or hand-held burrito. Because the chile with which carne adovada is smothered is oftentimes not the same chile in which the pork is prepared, my Kim will never order a smothered carne adovada burrito. She contends it allows her to better enjoy the purity of the adovada. El Patio’s adovada is outstanding, well worthy of a visit from my friend Ruben whose quest for the perfect carne adovada continues. The pork is spoon tender (that means even more tender than fork-tender) and absolutely delicious, a benchmark which competes with some of the very best in the city.
El Patio’s combination plate is the best way to introduce newcomers to some of the best the restaurant has to offer. A veritable platter is brimming with two enchiladas engorged with chile, a chile relleno and a taco (thankfully served on a small plate) all topped with shredded Cheddar and your choice of chile. The chile relleno is especially noteworthy. A single sweet-piquant chile is stuffed with cheese then battered and deep-fried. It’s quite good.
Each entree is served with pinto beans (not refried), potatoes and lots of garnish (lettuce and tomato). The potatoes have a consistency near being mashed. Similar to the boiled potatoes at Duran’s Central Pharmacy, they appear to be an anomaly at first in that they’re not crisply fried, but by your second forkful, you’ll be hooked. The potatoes have a sweet-savory marriage that makes them a joy to eat. The beans are perfectly cooked and absolutely delicious.
A la carte options abound for smaller appetites. A plain chicken taco is hardly plain when adorned with the restaurant’s moist chicken, shredded Cheddar cheese, lettuce, tomato and that sensational salsa. This is the type of taco about which dreams are formed.
Entrees also include complementary sopaipillas. Large, cloud-like and puffy, they emit wisps of steam as you cut into them to form a pocket for honey. These are not doughy as some sopaipillas are made, but rather have thin walls that are easy to penetrate, but not so thin that they’re sieves for the honey.
We’ve found service at El Patio extremely capable and more than accommodating, but then we tend to visit when the restaurant first opens (11AM seven days a week) and the choicest seating is available. Experience has taught us that this extremely popular restaurant fills up quickly–and for good reason. This is one of Albuquerque’s very best New Mexican restaurants, a genuine gem.
142 Harvard Dr SE
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 31 January 2011
# OF VISITS: 3
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Salsa and Chips, Sopaipillas, Beef and Chicken Enchiladas Christmas Style, Carne Adovada Burrito, Chicken Taco, Combination Plate, Carne Adovada Plate