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Monica’s El Portal – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Monica’s El Portal Restaurant on Rio Grande Blvd near Old Town

“It feels so true when I’m with you I’m free
A place I go that feels like home to me
It feels so true
It’s time well spent when I’m with you.”
~Feels Like Home (New Mexico True)

As we luxuriate over steamy mugs of freshly ground coffee on lazy Sunday mornings before church, my Kim and I tune in eagerly to New Mexico True, an invigorating half-hour of adventure and travel that feeds the soul and captures the imagination.  Hearts swelled with pride, we live vicariously through host Michael Newman as he treks throughout our breathtaking home state.  We don’t even change the channel during commercials.  Why would we?  The commercials depict even more of the Land of Enchantment.

Besides providing even more intriguing staycation ideas, some of the commercials feature a catchy little ditty called “Feels Like Home,” an upbeat song originally performed by an Albuquerque band called Richmond.  It’s a feel good, toe-tapping, sing-along-inspiring tune that pays tribute to New Mexico.  If you’re going to have an earworm stuck in your head, it may as well be one that recounts the extraordinary beauty of the Land of Enchantment.

Chips and Salsa

Inspired though we may be by New Mexico True, we can’t always drop what we’re doing to experience it at one of the state’s spectacular vistas.  Fortunately, New Mexico is a full sensory experience and we can still experience the “feels like home” sensation of our home state through the flavor and aroma of wondrous red and green chile served lovingly at  New Mexican restaurants.  Perhaps no restaurant in Albuquerque feels like home more than Monica’s El Portal on the fringes of Old Town.

Creating a “feels like home” ambiance is exactly what owner Monica Baca strives for. She thinks of her guests as extended family and indeed, many of them have enjoyed her traditional New Mexican home cooking for decades. Her youthful countenance belies the fact that she’s been cooking for more than three decades, starting when she was seventeen. She apprenticed under her mother who owned and operated an Old Town area institution fittingly called El Encanto. In 1983, a fire ripped through El Encanto, consuming the historical home. Three years later, the restaurant reopened as Monica’s El Portal. It’s been going strong ever since.

Blue Corn Enchiladas Christmas Style

Several treasured family keepsakes were salvaged from the conflagration and painstakingly restored to an original sheen.  Those include the old-fashioned stove on which Monica’s uncle used to cook chicharrones. That stove can be found in the restaurant’s foyer where it occupies a place of honor. Similarly, the main dining room showcases antique pressure cookers. Monica’s El Portal very much resembles a converted home, one in which cherished memories were built and shared by a loving family. There are a number of brightly lit dining rooms decorated with New Mexico style bric-a-brac and serviced by whirling ceiling fans.

As you peruse the expansive menu, a complimentary bowl of salsa and warm tortilla chips redolent with corn are brought to your table. The salsa (onions, cilantro, tomatoes) has a flavor reminiscent of pico de gallo in that it’s very fresh and flavorful. On a piquancy scale, it won’t register too high for New Mexicans, but tourists will probably run to the nearest horse trough for water. The warm chips are a very nice touch, one more restaurants should copy. The chips are crisp, formidable and low-in-salt.

Green Chile Stew

When you arrive at the section of the menu listing green chile stew, you’ll invariably do a double-take, questioning if you haven’t accidentally wandered into the child’s menu by mistake. That’s because the price listed for the green chile elixir of life is amazingly low. It’s so low you’ll probably figure on getting a thimble-sized portion. When the steaming bowl brimming with potatoes, green chile and ground beef arrives at your table, you’ll quickly arrive at the realization that this is a bowl meant to be shared. It’s also a bowl to be appreciated though just a bit more ground beef will balance the flavors more (there are a lot of potatoes).

When Watergate tapes were released in 1973, Presidential Assistant John Ehrlichman was overheard referring to the U.S. Attorney General as “the big enchilada.” After that, the term had its time in the limelight. Today when someone in Albuquerque mentions “the big enchilada,” they could well be talking about the enchilada plate at Monica’s El Portal. Available either stacked (my preference) or rolled, you have your choice of cheese, chicken, ground beef, carne adovada or shredded roast beef on yellow or blue corn tortillas, with or without an egg (or three) and of course, with red or green chile (or both). Both the red and green chile have a pleasant piquancy that plays especially well against the fresh corn flavor of the blue corn tortillas. Enchiladas are served with rice and beans, the latter of which you may dream about. These are refrieds the way you wish your mom had made them for you.

Carne Adovada Plate

For my Kim, it doesn’t feel like home if she doesn’t order carne adovada at every New Mexican restaurant we visit. Carne adovada may be the most comforting of New Mexico comfort food favorites. I can always tell how much she likes it by how much of it she shares with me. Two small spoonfuls means she liked Monica’s version quite a bit. From the smallish amount which crossed my lips, it’s easy to see why. Tender tendrils of wonderfully marinated pork will dance across your taste buds. Alas, as is the case with good carne adovada, there’s never enough.

Monica’s feels like home concept includes homemade tortillas made fresh.  That’s right–tortillas made on a comal, not prepared production line fashion by a machine. They’re thick and large with a picture-perfect pinto pony char.  Whether you slather on some butter or use them as “spoons,” you’ll taste the difference.  The sopaipillas are among the very best in the city and you don’t get just one.  With our two plates we were rewarded with six sopaipillas, four of which we took home.

Sopaipillas and Tortillas

In 1989, House Bill 406 declared the bizcochito the official state cookie of New Mexico, making the Land of Enchantment the first state in the union to designate an official state cookie. The decision to honor the bizcochito wasn’t nearly as contentious as deciding how to spell it with “bizcochito” and “biscochito” both having supporters among law-makers on both sides of the aisle. Eventually the Senate returned the signed bill with the spelling “bizcochito,” a Solomon-like decision among supporters.  Make a Solomon-like decision and order two or ten of these official gems. 

While other restaurants offering natillas as a dessert option may claim to prepare a cinnamony version, Monica’s puts them all to shame. These are the natillas to order if you love cinnamon a lot. The custard-like natillas are a bit on the thin side with abundant clumps, but from a flavor standpoint, they’re spot on, especially if you love, love, love cinnamon.

Biscochitos and Natillas

Monica’s El Portal Restaurant feels like home. It truly is New Mexico true!

Monica’s El Portal
321 Rio Grande Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 247-9625
Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 23 August 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
RATING: N/R
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salsa and Chips, Green Chile Stew, Blue Corn Enchiladas, Carne Adovada, Biscochitos, Natillas

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Gravy – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Gravy for Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner on Central Avenue in the East Downtown (EDO) District

“Gravy is the simplest, tastiest, most memory-laden dish I know how to make:
a little flour, salt and pepper, crispy bits of whatever meat anchored the meal,
a couple of cups of water or milk and slow stirring to break up lumps.”
~Dorothy Allison, American writer

Some would say that the discovery (invention?) of gravy is one of mankind’s crowning achievements.  Others would deride it as the work of the devil, likening gravy to a beguiling temptress which bends the will to its bidding.  Dolly Parton acknowledges that “every single diet I ever fell off of was because of potatoes and gravy of some sort.”   It’s no surprise that similar to many of the world’s best tasting foods, gravy is generally fattening.  Most commonly, it’s the byproduct of pan drippings and juices derived from cooking meat.

Some among us who consider gravy one of mankind’s most glorious achievements (even as it flows through our veins) may salivate involuntarily when turning onto Central Avenue and espying a large sign reading simply “Gravy” subtitled with the three events with which gravy goes so well: “breakfast, lunch, dinner.”  One of the most eagerly anticipated restaurant launches in recent memory, Gravy is the brainchild of the partnership which in 2011 opened Holy Cow, one of the city’s  most celebrated purveyors of burgers.

Chocolate-Cherry Shake

Gravy is located at the site of the former site of Milton’s, a long-time East Downtown institution.  Despite nearly two years and more than half a million spent in renovating the edifice,  architectural constraints make it nearly impossible not to hearken back to the days in which the facade housed a Denny’s Restaurant.  That’s not to say the renovation was like “putting lipstick on a pig.”  It’s just that there’s only so much you can do with a building originally constructed in 1964. 

What you can do, however, is place a premium on providing an attractive venue for guests.  It’s a venue which pays homage to previous tenants in a retro-modern diner fashion without a thematic regression to the 60s.  The exterior (which had probably been neglected for years) has a pristine appearance; even the river rock facade now has a polished look.  The interior received similar attention though the sound system’s bassy speakers have a one-note (boom, boom) cacophony that makes discourse at conversational tones a challenge.

Steak Frites

Where Gravy will shine most is with a diner menu that bespeaks of inventive and traditional diner foods, many prepared with a New Mexico twist while others offer a contemporary interpretation of classic dishes.  Diner foods generally translate to comfort foods such as meatloaf, chicken fried steak, fried chicken and beef stroganoff, all staples of Gravy. Salads range from the classic chopped salad to the lobster-avocado salad.  You can start your morning off with such eye-opening favorites as biscuits and gravy or opt instead for a breakfast pot pie.  Nine types of pancakes grace the breakfast menu.

13 December 2014: In the tradition of diners everywhere, milkshakes are prepared to order for kids of all ages.  These aren’t the milkshake machine variety shakes proffered at chain restaurants.  The chocolate-cherry shake, for example, is made with real ice cream, chunks of adult (dark) chocolate and a multitude of maraschino cherries, not some artificial cherry-flavored sweetener.  It’s served cold the way shakes used to be and should always be made.

Spinach, Artichoke and Feta Triangle with Cucumber-Mint Yogurt and Tomato-Olive Salsa

13 December 2014: One of the more contemporary menu items offered at some diners is steak frites. While some might decry steak frites as just a fancy name for steak and French fries, in France there are restaurants whose entire menu is comprised solely of this sacrosanct dish.  Gravy’s rendition is a marinated top sirloin topped with a maitre d’ butter served with hand-cut fries.  At medium-rare, the steak oozes beautiful pink juices.  The maitre d’ butter, a compound butter with parsley, adds a complex layer of flavors and a rich unctuous quality that enlivens the meat.  The fries are just a bit on the flaccid side and are prepared at just past the stage at which they’re golden hued. 

13 December 2014: Another entree unlikely to be found in an old-fashioned diner of yore is a spinach, artichoke and feta triangle served with a cool cucumber-mint yogurt and a tomato-olive salsa.  Not entirely unlike Greek spanokopita, this filo dough pastry is a winner, so good you can enjoy it on its own or with the delightful cucumber-mint yogurt and (or) tomato-olive salsa.  Luckily there’s enough of the cucumber-mint yogurt that you can use it in lieu of ketchup for the fries.  The tomato-olive salsa has a discernible bite whose genesis we weren’t able to determine. 

Pork Belly and Fried Green Tomatoes

13 December 2014: There’s a reason restaurant critics don’t typically review new restaurants until restaurateurs have had the opportunity to iron things out, a process that sometimes takes several weeks, if not months.   Virtually all restaurants experience “Murphy’s Law-esque” start-up issues that belie the countless hours of planning and preparation for a smooth launch.  We visited Gravy scant days after its opening and suffered through a number of issues that detracted from the enjoyment of our meal, however, the restaurant’s seasoned ownership makes it very likely these issues will be resolved in short order and Gravy will more than live up to the hype it’s received. 

22 August 2015: We waited nine months for a return visit and while the service issues we endured during our inaugural visit were largely resolved, we experienced mixed results with what we ordered, thoroughly enjoying a couple of items and sending two other items back.  There are never any guarantees that every item at every restaurant will appease every diner, but the items we sent back were praised highly on other online forums and frankly, aren’t that difficult to prepare well.

Breakfast Sandwich

22 August 2015: The Air Force sent Kim and I to Mississippi in 1987, the year in which Fannie Flagg’s memorable Fried Green Tomatoes at the Whistle Stop Cafe was published.  Fried green tomatoes are a Southern staple, as part of the culture as good manners.  Before we even read the book or watched the movie, we were  besotted by tangy fried slices of succulent fresh-from-the-garden green tomatoes.  Though restaurants throughout the fruited plain jumped on the fried green tomato bandwagon, only in the deep south have we enjoyed them.  Gravy’s rendition takes a contemporary approach to the sacrosanct fried green tomato, topping each slice with pimento cheese, chopped pork belly and tomato jam, negating the need for sauce of any type.  Though not quite “Southern,” these are very enjoyable.  The tomatoes are indeed green with nary a touch of mushy yellow or worse, red.  They’re fried lightly and pair well with the unique and clever toppings, especially the sweet tomato jam which nicely contrasts with the savory tartness of the green tomatoes.

22 August 2015: In 2014, I spent a week in Charleston, South Carolina, a city widely regarded as one of America’s culinary treasures.  At the James Beard award-winning Hominy Grill, I had the tremendous pleasure of partaking of the Charleston Nasty Biscuit, a beauteous behemoth in which sausage gravy is slathered on a mile-high biscuit bisected by a Southern-fried (in a skillet) chicken breast topped with shredded Cheddar cheese.  It’s one of the very best sandwiches these lips have ever enjoyed.  Gravy’s breakfast sandwich takes the term “nasty” as in awesomely big to another level.  It should come standard with an angioplasty.  Messily nestled within a UFO-sized biscuit are a fried chicken thigh topped with bacon, a fried egg and as much gravy as the Rio Grande has water.  On paper it sounds deliciously decadent, an indulgence not for the faint of heart.  Alas, the gravy lacked personality (a cardinal sin in a restaurant named Gravy) and would have benefited greatly from sausage.  The chicken was tough, rather heavily breaded and lacked seasoning.  We tried our darnedest to enjoy this beast of a biscuit sandwich, but couldn’t get past its shortfalls.

Pineapple Upside Down Pancake

22 August 2015:  The Gravy menu features a number of unique pancake offerings heretofore unseen in these parts.  The triumvirate, called “The Pancake Flight” includes a red velvet pancake, a cinnamon roll pancake and a pineapple upside down pancake.  Each is about the size of a manhole cover and unless you’re a lineman for the UNM Lobos is easily large enough to share.  The pineapple upside down pancake is terrific with tangy pineapple chunks providing a tangy contrast to the pancakes (which would have benefited from real maple syrup).

Gravy is a bit of an anomaly to us. The dishes it does well, it does very well, but shortcomings in other dishes are rather glaring. It’ll take time and a few more visits to find the sweet spot, a complete meal in which our enjoyment crosses several dishes.

Gravy
725 Central, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 242-4299
LATEST VISIT: 22 August 2015
1st VISIT: 13 December 2014
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 17
COST: $$
BEST BET: Steak Frittes; Chocolate-Cherry Shake; Caramelized Banana Shake; Spinach, Artichoke and Feta Triangle; Pork Belly and Fried Green Tomatoes;

Gravy on Urbanspoon

Sandia Chile Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Sandia Chile Grill, Smokehouse and Microbrewery

If perspiration is (as the proverbial “they” have declared) the mother of invention, Mickey and Clinton Coker may just be two of the most glistening guys in the Duke City. Since 2004, the Cokers have “reinvented” their restaurant four times. If you’re thinking, they’re just try, try, trying again until they get it right, you couldn’t be more wrong. Mickey Coker, the entrepreneur behind the four make-overs, started with a culinary concept that was so wildly successful, it prompted almost immediate growth. His second effort, a brick-and-mortar operation, also achieved significant acclaim. Some might have considered the third Coker transition strictly a sideline…until it started garnering one award after the other. The fourth step in the evolution of the Sandia Grill may be the most revolutionary of all.

For Mickey Coker, the route to entrepreneur was inauspicious. He got his start selling New Mexican food at a gas station-convenience store. Yes, the very notion of a gas station-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.  Now mention New Mexican food and gas station in the same sentence and the likely image would make all the sophomoric six-year-olds among us giggle, the notion of “gas” not having anything to do with petroleum.  Despite these stereotypes, Coker had the confidence in his New Mexico food products to launch his business in 2004, ensconced within the confines of a convenience store-gas station in the Winner’s Circle gas station at Harper and Barstow. A second location, on Montgomery just east of I-25, followed shortly thereafter.

Once strictly a New Mexican Restaurant, Now Showcasing Barbecue and New Mexican Food

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-the-premises 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 many 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.

Pulled Pork Sandwich with Twice Baked Potatoes and Calabasitas

At the restaurant, the staff had the room to operate and customers had comfortable seating in which to enjoy New Mexican food favorites. Though much of the restaurant’s business remained carry-out, it was nice to have had an alternative when you wanted it. As at the service station, burritos dominated the menu: breakfast burritos, steak burritos, steak and chicken burritos, chicken burritos, pork burritos and even veggie burritos. Some burritos were named for professional wrestlers (Ultimate Warrior, Undertaker, Junkyard Dog, Mankind and the Macho Man). There were also burritos named for Mexican western characters: El Matidor (sic), Bandito, Caballero and El Jeffe. The menu also included stuffed sopaipillas, enchiladas, tamales, rellenos and tacos–the New Mexican food essentials which couldn’t be prepared at the gas station sites.

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 microbrewery on the premises–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 began featuring several gluten-free items (nachos, green chile chicken stew, chicken quesadillas, chicken enchiladas, steak tacos and more).

House Sauces: Hot (with Habanero), Tangy (Mustard-Based) and Sweet

The Cokers determined that an even more natural accompaniment to award-winning adult libations than New Mexican food is barbecue. Yes, barbecue! Though their New Mexican dishes were beloved by the masses who frequented the Sandia Chile Grill, the Cokers are not ones to stay still. They transitioned to a smokehouse concept in March, 2014, positioning a smoker near the Wyoming entrance to the shopping center. Aficionados of Sandia’s New Mexican food weren’t left in the cold, however. The new menu also includes several popular New Mexican food favorites (burritos, enchiladas, stuffed sopaipillas, quesadillas, huevos rancheros and a green chile chicken bowl ) prepared with smoked meats instead of the more conventional meats used on New Mexican food.

Because the concept of transitioning from a New Mexican restaurant to a smokehouse may seem radical, you’re probably wondering if this is a haphazardly undertaken venture. In truth, the Cokers have had a smoker for more than a decade. That’s plenty of time to master low-and-slow smoke manipulation on meats. Brimming with confidence from the great reception their barbecue has received, the Cokers have plans for a larger smoker with a much greater capacity. The barbecue menu is replete with the essentials: pulled pork, smoked chicken, brisket, St. Louis ribs and street tacos. You can purchase them in increments ranging from a quarter-pound through ten pounds. You can also partake of a sandwich meal with two sides for a ridiculously low price. Three sauces–a tangy sauce similar to what you’d find in the Carolinas, a spicy sauce redolent with Habanero and a sweet sauce–are available though because it’s good barbecue, they’re wholly unnecessary.

Brisket Enchiladas

29 June 2015: The pulled pork sandwich features a hoagie type bun brimming with tender tendrils of pulled pork. It’s good to go as is though you might want to experiment with the three sauces to see if one suits your taste. The spicy Habanero-based sauce provides a “slow burn,” a deceptive “sneak up on you” burn that may water your eyes if you apply too much of the sauce. If you’re from New Mexico, you can handle it. Make one of the two sides the calabasitas. These aren’t your run-of-the-mill calabasitas. They’re prepared al dente and paired with a green chile as incendiary as the Habanero sauce. Another excellent side is the twice-baked potatoes which have a smooth, creamy texture and are punctuated with sour cream.

3 July 2015: The pairing of New Mexican food and barbecue is a match made in New Mexico and that’s about as close to heaven as there is on Earth.  One of the most surprisingly natural couplings is smoked brisket with “Christmas” style enchiladas, available in quantities of one, two or three.  Atop tortillas redolent with corn are heaping helpings of smoked brisket, shredded Cheddar, lettuce and the red and green chile with which Duke City diners fell in love when the Ultimate Warrior was on the menu.  The chile has a pleasant piquancy that doesn’t obfuscate the smokiness of the brisket.  Brisket enchiladas are a surprisingly good way to enjoy the best of two flavor combinations.

St. Louis Ribs with Macaroni and Cheese and Calabasitas

16 August 2015:  In the Duke City area, barbecue restaurants tend to favor baby back ribs over St. Louis ribs even though the St. Louis ribs are more substantial and meaty. So, what’s the difference? St. Louis ribs are actually spareribs that have been trimmed down, removing what is commonly known as the rib tips.  St. Louis ribs come from the belly section of the pig, near where the sacrosanct bacon can be found.  As their name suggests baby back ribs come from the back side of the pig, near where the loin is.  The St. Louis ribs at the Sandia Chile Grill aren’t quite as thick, meaty and substantial as other ribs of the kind we’ve had, but the meat they do have includes the caramelized “bark” barbecue aficionados love.  This is meaty magnificence at its best.

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. They also showcase some of the best adult libations and barbecue in town.

Sandia Chile Grill
7120 Wyoming Blvd, N.E.,
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 798-1970
Web Site

LATEST VISIT: 16 August 2015
1st VISIT:  18 August 2007
# OF VISITS: 4
RATING: 21
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Pulled Pork Sandwich, Calabasitas, Twice Baked Potatoes, Brisket Enchiladas, St. Louis Ribs, Macaroni and Cheese

Sandia Chile Grill on Urbanspoon