Cocina Azul – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Cocina Azul on Montgomery

Ever the lexicologist, my first inclination at seeing the mantra “panza llena, corazon contento” emblazoned on any restaurant’s menu is to ponder the veracity of the audacious claim that filling the belly can leave diners contented.  The venerable New Mexican dicho which translates from Spanish to “full belly, happy heart” was, after all, conceived at a time when food wasn’t nearly as plentiful as it is today.  Enchanting as it may be, New Mexico is a land which can be harsh and unforgiving as my forefathers found out when, for centuries, they eked out a meager subsistence from an austere terrain amidst the ravages of climatic extremes.

As the popularity of buffets serving humongous helpings of pitiful pabulum will attest, any restaurant can accomplish the “full belly” feat, but it takes something special to truly make the heart happy.   February, 2010 saw the launch of a New Mexican food restaurant which has been accompanying that feat since its opening.  Fittingly Cocina Azul, the “blue kitchen” not only uses the slogan “panza llena, corazon contento” on its menu, its exterior signage invites diners to “get your chile on.”

Chips and Salsa

The original Cocina Azul is located in the venerable building that for generations housed the aptly named Sunshine Market, a cornerstone of the neighborhood since it launched in 1925 until its closure  some three quarters of a century later.   From 2007-2009, the converted market on the southeast corner of Mountain Road and 12th Street was home to the Sunshine Cafe, a very highly regarded restaurant which retained some vestiges of the market–-a wooden door to the market’s meat locker, exposed roof trusses and other wood accents taken from the market.  Those vestiges are still visible with the Cocina Azul.

It didn’t take Cocina Azul long to earn significant popular and critical acclaim.  Guests quickly discerned the differentiators which single out the truly special restaurants from their competitors.  Perhaps first and foremost is the service which might be best described as familial.  Quite literally, Frank and Evelyn Barela, the affable owners and their staff, treat their guests as they would treat family members, exuding warmth and hospitality.  Secondly, the food is prepared from time-tested and traditional family recipes bolstered by contemporary nuances that give it upscale qualities.  Those recipes don’t call for dumbed-down chile.  This is chile natives like me respect as much for its flavor as for its piquancy.

Posole

Step into the bright and airy cafe and your eyes might train on a menu board above the counter prefacing the kitchen.  The menu board offers “self-service catering,” an interesting concept in that customers can saunter up to trays of New Mexican food favorites and load up on quart or gallon sized portions of carne adovada, red or green chile, beans, rice and chile con queso.  You can also purchase enchilada casseroles in small (5-7 people), medium (18-20 people) and large (35 people or more) sizes; and tamales in quantities of half-dozen or a dozen.

With the success of the Mountain Road location, it became inevitable that the Barela family would expand their restaurant enterprise.  Their first attempt at expansion was on Albuquerque’s burgeoning west side in a shopping center where restaurants turn over at a rapid pace.  Cocina Azul west was short lived at the location.  Downtown proved no more welcoming to Cocina Azul when its fast-casual concept called Azul Burrito Co. didn’t last very long, a casualty of traffic choking problems caused by construction.  Based on a heavy lunch crowd during our inaugural visit on 8 April 2016, the family’s most recent expansion venture, at the Granada Square restaurant space on Montgomery, appears poised to succeed where its predecessors did not.

Ribeye Steak Enchilada Plate with Whole Beans and Fideos

Faithful readers know my enmity for  misguided New Mexican restaurants which commit the mortal sin of adding cumin to chile.  In Frank Barela, I found a kindred spirit.  The amicable co-owner of Cocina Azul assured me you won’t find cumin anywhere near his kitchen, comparing cumin’s odoriferous qualities to smelly socks (my friend Bill Resnik would go a bit further and say “wet dog wearing smelly socks.”).  Barela appreciates the purity of chile, a fruit so perfect it needs no amelioration.  The chile at Cocina Azul is made from pureed whole pods, strained to a silky smoothness.

That purity is discernible in the wondrous salsa, a plastic molcajete brimming with a piquant blend of chile rojo, tomatoes, onions, garlic, oregano and cilantro.  It’s an eye-opening, mouth-watering salsa with a nice bite.  The salsa is served with  a generous heaping of crispy white and blue corn tortilla chips sturdy enough to hold Gil-sized portions of salsa.  These may be the very best restaurant chips of any New Mexican restaurant in Albuquerque.  They’re lightly salted and heavy on corn flavor.  A green salsa, a surprising rarity in New Mexican restaurants, is also available.   It’s at least as good as the red salsa and perhaps slightly more piquant.

Carne Adovada Relleno Plate

10 April 2016: During our inaugural visit to Cocina Azul’s Montgomery location, we experienced a number of issues which detracted from our enjoyment of what we expected would be a very good meal.  First, we ordered the “bottomless” salsa, expecting to have it replenished faithfully at least twice.  Alas, no sooner had the salsa arrived at our table than our server ferried over our bowl of posole and within only a few enjoyable bites of the posole, our entrees arrived.  We would much have preferred a well-paced meal with a more lengthy interval between “courses.”  The kitchen’s heavy hand with salt was the restaurant’s second transgression.  A carne adovada relleno plate (doesn’t that sound fabulous) was so salty we had to send it back.  Other items were only slightly less salty.  Future visits will determine if these issues were, as we suspect, anomalous.

10 April 2016:  During our visits to the Mountain Road location, we concluded Cocina Azul’s posole just might be the best in the city.  For one thing, it looked and tasted like posole and not  Southern hominy (yes, there is a difference).  The  posole  (nixtamilized corn kernels slaked in lime water sans husk) was of a perfect consistency, swimming in a large bowl of red chile and tender chunks of pork.   This was New Mexican comfort food at its finest, one of those dishes that truly can make your heart happy.  At the Montgomery location we didn’t feel the same level of love and comfort.  The culprit (wouldn’t you know it) was posole in need of desalinization.

Whole Beans and Fideos

10 April 2016: One of the most wonderful things about enchiladas is their versatility.  You don’t always have to have yellow corn tortillas when blue corn tortillas are available.  You don’t have to stuff them with ground or shredded beef.; you can engorge them with virtually any protein or vegetable (calabasitas are a great option) you desire.  Similarly, you’re free to choose the cheese and the chile (red, green or both) you want.  A fried egg or two or three–that’s no problem.  Cocina Azul offers several options to make your enchiladas more enchanting.  

The ribeye steak enchiladas (three flat corn tortillas, marinated select ribeye steak, filled with a Cheddar and Monterey Jack blend, melted and smothered with your choice of Frank Sr.’s red or green chile) is an excellent option.  The ribeye is cut into small pieces about the size into which your mom may have cut your steak.  It’s a high quality ribeye with no gristle or fat and it may leave you wondering why more restaurants don’t offer ribeye for your enchiladas.

Two Ala Carte Beef Tacos

10 April 2016:  Unlike at so many other New Mexican restaurants, Cocina Azul doesn’t limit the sides that come with your entrees to the de rigueur rice and beans.  Items on the “Platos de Nuevo Mexico” section of the menu include your choice of two sides including whole beans, fideos, calabasitas, rice and more.  The whole beans are an exemplar of how New Mexico’s “other” official state vegetable should be prepared.  For a unique treat, ask for the fideos, an unassuming short, thin and slightly curved pasta served in a tomato sauce.  Fideos have been served in Spain since the 13th century. 

10 April 2016:  After the crushing disappointment of sending back the carne adovada relleno plate, my Kim opted for two ala carte tacos constructed on soft flour tortillas and stuffed with seasoned ground beef, chopped tomatoes, fresh lettuce and a shredded Cheddar cheese blend.  These tacos are a perfect repository for the restaurant’s wonderful salsa.  The soft tortillas are soft and pliable with just enough thickness to hold in all the ingredients.  If you’re still of the mind that tacos should be prepared in hard shells, these will make a convert out of you.

Sopaipillas

The sopaipillas will have that “corazon contento” effect on you, too.  Not quite the size of a deflated football, they’re the perfect way to end a great meal.  Best of all, these golden treats are served with real clover honey, not that inferior honey-flavored syrup far too many restaurants use. Clover honey is honey that has been harvested from bees that have gathered nectar mostly from clover.  It’s not overly sweet, but this golden-hued ambrosia is just sweet enough for some of the very best sopaipillas in the Duke City.

10 April 2018: In her wonderful tome Sandwiches That You Will Like, my dear friend Becky Mercuri explains that Route 66 in Texas was often called the Chicken Fried Steak Highway.  With her usual poetic flair, she elaborated:  “As splendid and noble as barbecue and Tex-Mex are, both pale before that Great God of Beef dish, chicken-fried steak.”  As regular readers of this blog know, my friend Bruce “Sr Plata” frequently worships at altars where that Great God of Beef is prepared.  In the past several years, we’ve explored the highways and byways around the Duke City in search of the best chicken fried steak to be found.

Chicken Fried Steak and Eggs

Blazing our own New Mexico Chicken Fried Steak Trail, our trek took us to Cocina Azul where a reputedly excellent chicken fried steak is to be found.  Available on the breakfast menu (served all day), it’s large enough to feed a small family (or one Sr Plata):  two eggs prepared the way you want them, hash browns and a half-pound Angus beef steak pounded and batter dipped, fried to a golden brown and smothered with Frank Sr.’s creamy green chile chicken gravy sauce, or Frank Sr.’s regular green or red chile, served with toast, sopaipilla or tortilla.  Sr Plata’s assessment: “This is a top five chicken fried steak.”  It’s thicker than any other we could remember, but is still fork-tender with a crispy exterior giving way easily to its tender interior.  The green chile chicken gravy sauce has a nice bite and is flecked with tendrils of chicken.

10 April 2018:  As Evelyn’s Homemade Pancakes (a full stack of fluffy, delectable pancakes served with butter and syrup on the side) approached our table, we caught a faint whiff of vanilla.  To our minds, vanilla is wholly unnecessary and makes an already sweet dish nearly cloying.  That’s too bad because the three golden orbs are light, fluffy and beautiful.  Rather than vanilla, my preference would have been pancakes in which either cheese or bacon was embedded.

Full Stack of Pancakes

Cocina Azul is one of those rare restaurants which pays attention to the small details, the difference-makers understood by all businesses (such as its predecessor on the premises, the Sunshine Market) striving for longevity.  Our first two experiences at this sterling restaurant convinced me that the issues we experienced on our third visit were an anomaly.  We’ll certainly be back.  Cocina Azul is widely regarded one of Albuquerque’s best New Mexican restaurants and should continue being so provided it continues to create panzas llenas and corazones contentos.

Cocina Azul
1134 Mountain Road, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 503-8009
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 10 April 2018
1st VISIT:  25 November 2010
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 18
COST: $$
BEST BET: Posole, Creamy Green Chile Chicken Soup, Steak Tacos, Salsa and Chips, Guacamole, Chile Verde Con Queso, Frank Sr. Super Combo Plate, Fideos, Whole Beans, Ribeye Steak Enchilada Plate, Chicken Fried Steak, Pancakes

Cocina Azúl Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

22 comments

  • Rich Talley

    Gil,

    I forgot to mention that the link you have for Cocina Azul’s website, http://cocinaazul.biz, doesn’t work.

    The correct one is now http://www.cocinaazul.com

    • Thank you for keeping me honest, Rich. I’ve updated the link.

      Gil

      • What?!?!

        I told you the website link was hosed back on 11/24/15! I see where I stand now…you just ignore my posts like everyone else…:-)

        BTW for those of you who don’t know me, I’m joking. Too bad tone isn’t a special font or something.

      • In that case you're forgiven!!!!

        That penance will just about do it :-). BTW, I’m married to a Penasco girl, so she has it worse than you!

  • Rich Talley

    Travis and I ate there for the first time last week. We both had the ribeye enchiladas xmas style and it was first rate. And it’s nice to see a number of local craft beers on draft. I had a Marble Double White and it complemented the enchiladas quite well. And kudos to them for offering other sides besides Spanish Rice.

    But what is it with restaurants and websites? Well into the twenty-first century and a lot of restaurants still don’t have one. So you have to poke around sites like Yelp or Zomato and hope somebody has uploaded a picture of the menu. Or if they do have a website, it hasn’t been optimized for mobile devices so I’m zooming and trying to read information meant to be read on a regular computer monitor. Or they hide their hours away in some obscure corner of the site.

    For the longest time Giovanni’s Pizza & Subs had all their information behind an Adobe Flash interface so it was inaccessible on my iPhone. They finally fixed that, many months after I first pointed that out to them.

    So before Trav & I went, I wanted to glance at the Cocina Azul menu. I was on cellular data and it was taking so long for the lunch & dinner menu to load that I just cancelled it and went anyway. When I had a chance to check out the site on my home computer, I discovered why. They are offering their menu as an 11.1MB pdf file! What a way to eat into my data plan. And it’s a menu without prices! I don’t understand the reasoning behind that. Do they think they are going to hide their prices from the competition or something?

    • BOTVOLR

      Yo Rich, I agree with your disappointment/head scratching RE restaurants not listing prices. Previously, I presumed it was a snooty thing….kinda like if you have to ask the MPG of a Lamborghini, ya might not be able to afford it. Alas, e.g. Morton’s appears to want it be known for how much it values what it offers…http://www.mortons.com/houstongalleria/menus/dinner-menu.pdf By another token, their listing prices might be considered a politeness to Jane/Juan Q Public as it avoids embarrassing some Folks sitting down and having to leave due to budgetary concerns. Lo, the angst a Gal might experience taking her date to Prom! Alas, while price may increase the odds of quality, it does not always insure it.
      – Coincidentally, I ate with several friends at Cafe Azul’s 12th/Mt. venue just this past Saturday (like the “ambiance” more than Montgomery). Caution: not an empty table at 6:30 pm and staff hustled pretty well. Extra delicious per flavor of their green as well as red salsa with nice heat; good chips. While not advertising as a “Tapas” place, one could make an interesting meal with their Sides. Had Fideos, which I always mispronounce as Fi dee os instead of Fi day os. Interestingly, it was like a tasty (small) serving of spaghetti in a saucer as Gil pictured above. Elsewise, in an iconic restaurant in Big Vegas, Gil also pictured Fideos http://tinyurl.com/je2q9sh , but as a contrasting creation whereby I had made the assessment and Commented that it was Lipton Noodle soup with Hunt’s ketchup. So, do these versions help explain further the difference between Mexican and New Mexican cuisine? While both are yummy, I prefer Lindo’s given I’ve “always” enjoyed Fideos since a kid way before Hispanic dishes made their way to Massachusetts!

  • john baldwin

    Just a warning about the Montgomery site…no matter what the web site lists as its opening time, it actually doesn’t open until 9. Before we knew this, we arranged to meet some friends at 8:30. We did not wait around.

  • Shawne

    You’re not kidding about the posole! It’s a masterpiece.

  • Another very good meal at CA

    The wife and I hadn’t been to Cocina Azul in a while, so we decided to go last night. The Steak Taco Plate is very good as usual. They have changed things up somewhat. They offer more choices for sides (can you say posole? – Yummy), and they now offer your choice of “shell”, you can have hard corn, soft corn, or soft gordita. They come with Salsa Rojo, Salsa Verde, and Guacamole. I chose buttery white rice (MMMMM) and posole as my sides, my wife went with rice and calabacitas. All sides were very good, I especially love the buttery white rice. But the rib-eye and sweet carmelized onions are still the star.

    As I was particularly hungry last night, I indulged in a side of chile relleno. OMG, I absolutely loved the relleno! A bit on the piquant side (perfect for me, others maybe not so much). The melted cheese was just so…delicious seems too ordinary a word, but we’ll go with that. I just may have to go with a relleno plate next time, or try the carne adovada enchiladas. I saw them bring a plate of carne adovada enchiladas out last night, and it looked magical…

    Service was exceptional – it was not busy, so our waitress was on top of it and very friendly.

    BTW, Gil, you need to update your link to the restaurant’s web page. It is a .com now.

  • Pingback: Cocina Azúl | Larry's Albuquerque Food Musings

  • Yes, the Coors location is closed because (as my charming server told me last night) many of the employees didn’t want to travel that far :-). Strange, because I live in Corrales and think nothing of driving to 12th & Mountain for some of the best New Mexican food in town.

    The carne adovada is exemplary. So is the red. So is the service.

  • Bruce

    My wife went to Cocina Azul (Coors Location) this afternoon and found they were closed.
    A sign said “sorry for the inconvenience… please visit our location on Mountain”.
    This is sad news for the west side.
    Nicky V’s seems to be the only restaurant in this strip mall with some longevity.
    The location has been a death sentence for all others.

  • John L

    Went to Cocina Azul for about the tenth time this weekend. The food was great as usual. Not too long ago they changed the menu. The old one had more choices. I liked it better. Service has never been their high point but on this last visit on a Saturday afternoon around 4pm it was quite bad. They were not very busy –perhaps 4–5 tables of patrons. The tacos did not come with the combination paltes. When the tacos arrived about 5 minutes latter we asked if the sopapillas were on the way. We were half way through our combination plates before they brought any sopapllas–then they brought only one. After another 10–15 minutes the other showed up. They need to be more attentive.

  • Nate D

    Barbara…it’s a second location.

  • Barbara

    Not sure if they are relocating or simply opening up a second location on Coors, at the former Blue Cactus Grill, near Nicky V.’s. …. anyone know?

  • Barbara

    Although the food is still good, a major slight on the part of the new owners. If you are going to increase menu prices, increase them on the menu rather than on the bill. An overall increase in prices is fine, but notification of this AFTER you eat seems not only bad business practice, but possibly illegal.

  • whochacha

    Fine establishments such as Cocina Azul don’t need your business Shanel. Can’t wait for your kid to grow up so we can have another snide uptight person such as yourself walking the globe. The girl you are slandering is a nice person and has been my waitress many times. I eat at the Blue Kitchen at least once a week and the main reason to go there is the Carne Adovada, Calabacitas, and Papas. If you haven’t had the Carne Adovada you haven’t been to the Blue Kitchen. This is New Mexico folks if you want Amish cuisine i can recommend a tasty place in the middle of nowhere in Oklahoma where you will be assured no one will get their tits out.

  • shanel

    my server was the one with the ear pearcings all over with brown hair. she should not work there. i go alot and she is always rude . she needs to clean up how she goes to work also cover her chest . i dont know her boss and if i did i would tell him or her to let her go . i dont like how she treated me and my family . my 7 year old son told me ” mommy that ladys boobies are gonna fall out ” i will not be going back if my child has to see a nasty womans breast . you need to get a new sever to replace her at once. you have lost my bussnies……

  • Azul Steak Taco Plate - WOW!!!

    I’ve been meaning to leave a comment for Cocina Azul, but haven’t gotten around to it. The wife and I have been there 3 times. All 3 times, the service was great, but the FOOD!!! OMG, the food is incredible. Well, I say the food, but really all I’ve tried is the Azul Steak Taco Plate. I keep telling myself to try something else, but why deny myself the experience of this dish?!?! On our first visit, I sampled the wife’s Creamy Green Chile Chicken soup, and it was very delicious as well. However, since that first visit, we BOTH get the AST Plate because it is that good! The rice is perfection, but the tender rib-eye and carmelized onions explode in your mouth with happiness.

    I may try something new the next time we visit, but how come everytime I think of Cocina Azul all I can picture is the AST Plate? Kind of like getting a song stuck in your head…you have to sing the song (or eat the tacos) to be able to get on with life.

  • Flavorcounts

    This great little family-run place justifies your praise. Our visit on a Sunday night (Dec. 12) was a genuine treat. As fans of
    Mexican cusine (transplants now in our 11th year of New Mexico residence, we remain unthrilled by the ubiquitous “New Mexico cuisine” produced by most such eateries around the state, which seems to be marked by a desire to make the food as fiery as possible, thus obliterating taste in favor of heat, and piling on the cheese so you can’t readily identify what might be in that chili-drowned pile on your plate. Cocina Azul, however, does justice to the tradition of great Mexican cookery. It’s flavor, not heat, that rules here. The heat’s there where appropriate, the subtleties of Mexican flavoring are there as well. And, with a nearly full house on hand, happily munching on the goodies issuing from the kitchen, we are happy to report that the service provided by the two friendly young women on duty that night was excellent. No mistakes, no long waits, no miscues. We’ll be back on a regular basis.

  • waxrtist

    Love it! Best red chile in town right now.

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