Gustavo Arellano, the brilliant and hilarious author of Ask a Mexican, a widely syndicated newspaper column published mostly in weekly alternative papers, has become one of my go-to sources of entertainment and information, particularly regarding our common and beloved Spanish lexicon. His inimitable wit and perspective is amusing and enlightening. Take for example his translation of the word “antojitos.”
in an article published in his parent newspaper, the Orange County Weekly, Arellano observes that “the Spanish menu entry antojitos translates as “appetizers,” but the expression connotes more than mere snacks. It derives from the noun antojo, which describes the cravings unique to pregnant women. Antojitos, then, is “little cravings,” and Latinos know that their before-the-main-meal bites should be so appetizing that expectant females snarl at husbands to seek these delights at ungodly hours.”
Expectant mothers snarling! Ungodly hours! Obviously antojitos should be good enough to elicit the type of carnal response usually reserved for something more than special…something great. One could surmise that in a sense, antojitos are the Mexican equivalent of dim sum, but where antojitos translates to “little cravings,” dim sum translates to “a bit of heart” or “heart’s delight.” In either case, Mexicans are passionate about their antojitos which in every sense are a heart’s delight.
Barry Popik, food etymologist extraordinaire explains in his fabulous blog that the word “antojitos” has been cited in American newspapers since at least 1937. He credits Claudia Alarcon writing for Chefs.com for shedding more light on the topic of antojitos: “Perhaps the most difficult group of dishes to explain in all of Mexican cuisine, antojitos are best described as small dishes that are meant to be consumed informally, either from street vendors at lunchtime, in cantinas with drinks before dinner, or at home or in the street as late night snacks.”
In October, 2009, a new restaurant named Antojitos Lupe opened on the ill-fated corner of Camino del Pueblo and Avenida Bernalillo, a corner which has seen many restaurants come and go, all in short order. The site’s previous tenant was Charlie’s Burgers & Mexican Food which lasted less than a year in that location. Antojitos Lupe, it turns out, is the second instantiation of a popular and similarly named restaurant in the Duke City. Lupe’s Antojitos and Mexican food on Zuni Road has been pleasing palates in southeast Albuquerque since 2007. There are several other Mexican restaurants in that area, but Lupe’s has established a faithful following. One reason might just be Lupe herself. She is a delightful woman with a luminous smile and happy glow reserved almost exclusively for her Bernalillo restaurant. She rarely visits her Albuquerque restaurant, but has a trusted staff on whom she relies to provide high quality victuals and service.
In Bernalillo, Antojitos Lupe has no competition from other Mexican restaurants and in fact, only a half-dozen or so restaurants of any kind call the City of Coronado home. As in the original Lupe’s, the walls are an almost shockingly red watermelon color, a holdover from previous tenants at the site. Another holdover is a framed photograph of General Francisco “Pancho” Villa. Menu boards, posted over the order counter, include only a smattering of the items on the menu which is a veritable compendium of deliciousness from Central Mexico.
Contrary to the name on the marquee, the menu isn’t solely about appetizers. There are a number of breakfast, lunch and dinner entrees available. As you contemplate the menu, a complementary bowl of nearly luminescent neon green tomatillo based salsa (called salsa verde) and chips is brought to your table. The tomatillo salsa is only mildly piquant, but most definitely fresh tasting. More prevalent flavor sensations come from the tanginess of limes and the sharp, fresh flavor of cilantro. It’s a very good salsa, a bit on the watery side, but the chips are formidable enough to hold large quantities of it. The chips are thick, crisp and low in salt.
A rotating array of Aguas frescas (including Pina, Jamaica and Horchata) to slake your thirst are served in Styrofoam cups. If you wish to reduce your carbon footprint, try an ice cold bottle of Jarritos, the famous Mexican soda pops which come in nine delicious and colorful fruit flavors: Tamarind, Mandarin, Fruit Punch, Jamaica, Lime, Grapefruit, Guava, Pineapple and Strawberry. The horchata is cold and delicious with a flavor more than vaguely reminiscent of the milk left over after eating a bowl of children’s breakfast cereal. The pina (pineapple) is even better.
It wouldn’t be a true antojitos experience if you don’t partake of at least one preprandial treat. Perhaps the most intriguing are the Huaraches. No, not the Mexican sandals popular with the Bohemian set. Barry Popik explains that huaraches are “thick, oval-shaped corn tortillas, often topped with meat, cheese, beans, and cooked cactus leaves.” The name “huaraches” was either coined or popularized by a popular Mexico City restaurant named El Huarache Azteca.
The name fits. Huaraches are shaped roughly like a human foot, and just as a human foot needs covering, the thick corn tortilla needs toppings. Indented by hand so that it has “borders” to hold its component ingredients, one huarache at Antojitos Lupe is topped with ground beef, shredded lettuce, Mexican crema and queso fresco. The ground beef is well seasoned and best of all, it isn’t refried (fried once then reheated) as at some restaurants. Even if you don’t add a smidgeon of salsa, this is a surprisingly flavorful meal starter. Perhaps even better is a huarache topped with chorizo and potatoes. The chorizo is nicely seasoned and imbues everything it touches with flavor.
One entree highly recommended by the wait staff is the Bisteca Ranchera which at many Mexican restaurants is a supermodel thin slab of beef. At Antojitos Lupe, that slab is cut up into small pieces and based on how well the flavors meld together, is sauteed with tomatoes and onions. At least, this entree tastes as if it is all prepared together instead of the tomatoes and onions being added later.
The Mexican state of Oaxaca is known as the “Land of Seven Moles,”–moles which can be found in such colors as red, green, black, brown and yellow. Moles are an intricate sauce made by grinding and toasting chiles, seeds, spices and sundry ingredients. Though they appear to be rather simple, moles are, in fact, highly complex and unique, no two cooks preparing it the same way. While some New Mexicans won’t “deign” to eat mole, others find it a surprising alternative or even supplement to their beloved chile.One of the most common ways to have mole is over chicken and at Antojitos Lupe, “over” is an understatement. A full chicken leg and thigh are thoroughly covered in mole. In fact, the entree looks as if it chocolate has been applied by trowel, so densely covered is the poultry. This is a messy entree guaranteed to require several napkins and copious finger-licking.
Among the most intriguing items on the menu are three molcajete dishes. A molcajete is essentially a seasoned stone mortar meticulously carved out of a single rock of vesicular basalt by a skilled artisan. Not only are they esthetic, they are highly functional, used for crushing and grinding spices and as serving vessels. That’s how Antojitos Lupe uses them. The minute you place your order for one of the molcajete dishes, the round, three-legged mortar goes into the oven before your meal is prepared. Your entire meal will be served in the cavity of the molcajete which retains heat for the entire duration of your meal. This is “too hot to handle” heat that keeps your meal steaming hot for as long as half an hour. The Molcajete Lupe is the house specialty, a spectacular melange of Mexican favorites: carne asada–thinly sliced grilled beef flank steak; pollo asado–grilled chicken; carne al pastor–marinated pork; queso fresco–a creamy, soft white cheese that tastes like a mild feta; nopalitos–verdant strips of nopal (prickly pear pads) cooked with onions; and finally, homemade corn tortillas.
Individually, each item on this entree is quite good, but as a collective, the entire dish is fabulous. The juices from the sauteed onions and nopalitos coalesce with the al pastor to penetrate the chicken and beef, imbuing them with a surprisingly delicious flavor and a moist texture. The corn tortillas make excellent tacos, engorged with a little bit of everything on the molcajete plus the side of beans and rice that comes with this entree. The other two molcajete dishes are a chicken-based Molcajete Pollo dish and a meat based Molcajete Asada.
The caldo de res, a hearty beef and vegetable soup, is a meal in itself. Served in a bowl equal in size to the swimming pool sized bowls used for Vietnamese pho, it’s big enough to share–not that you would want to. To compare caldo de res with some Vietnamese soups wouldn’t be much of a stretch. Both have restorative properties and are especially wonderful in cold weather. Both are elixirs for whatever ails you, offering the comfort only a mother can match. Both are flavored with marrow from bones. Lupe’s caldo de res is made with bone-in beef shanks boiled for hours until tender. Mixed in are chunks of zucchini, carrots, chopped cabbage and mini corn on the cobs. It’s the beef broth which will absolutely delight you. You’ll relish each spoonful, maybe even disposing of the spoon to slurp it up right from the bowl.
When we first discovered Antojitos Lupe, dessert options abounded, but the only way you’d have room for any is if you asked for a to-go box (some entrees, such as the Molcajete dishes, actually taste even better the next day). Dessert options included flan, arroz con leche (a sweet rice with milk dish) and bionicos. The very word “bionico” is intriguing. For those of my generation, it conjures images of the Six Million Dollar Man, a television show chronicling the adventures of an astronaut “rebuilt” with “bionic” implants that enhance his strength, speed and vision
Bionicos are so-named because they impart quick energy. Lupe explains that bionicos are very popular for breakfast in parts of Mexico, not only because of their quick energy but because of their healthful qualities. They are constructed of fresh, hand-cut fruits–strawberries, cantaloupe, papaya, pineapple, banana, apples–topped with granola, coconut, unsweetened yogurt and just a bit of syrup for sweetness. Unlike some granola-based breakfast dishes, bionicos aren’t cloying in their sweetness; instead, the fruits impart their naturally fresh flavors–natural tanginess, sweetness, juiciness and tartness. The dessert is easily large enough for two to share.
Alas Antojitos Lupe no longer offers desserts. As wonderful as the sumptuous sweets were, they weren’t moving very quickly and have been removed from the menu. I kept the two previous paragraphs and the photograph on the review to remind patrons of what they’re missing. Perhaps they’ll inspire a grass roots effort to bring them back (or at least the bionicos).
The lofty menu at Antojitos Lupe means future visits are inevitable. Good cooking, attentive service and reasonable prices means there’ll be plenty of company at Bernalillo’s newest and only Mexican restaurant. Then there’s Lupe herself, a perpetually smiling woman with the energy to multi-task as hostess, waitress, cashier and cook. She’s sweeter than any of the desserts formerly offered at the restaurant.
180 East Highway 550
Bernalillo, New Mexico
1ST VISIT: 17 October 2009
LATEST VISIT: 27 July 2012
# OF VISITS: 6
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Chicken Mole, Huaraches, Tomatillo Salsa, Bisteca Ranchera, Molcajete Lupe, Molcajete Asada, Bionicos