From the snow-capped mountains to the coral shores
You’re the only one my heart adores
You’ve only got three competitors
Tacos, enchiladas and beans
From the Mississippi to the Amazon
There’s not much we don’t agree upon
Wish we could get together on
Tacos, enchiladas and beans
Love ‘em, dozens of ‘em
I consume them by the score
And when I’m through, what do I do
I stamp and holler for more
You can have the fourth position on my list
Must admit your kisses would be missed
But how in the world could I exist
Without tacos, enchiladas and beans
In the dark ages when I was growing up in the high mountain community of Peñasco, the world wasn’t nearly as connected as it is today. My siblings and I thought we were deprived by being subjected to such unsophisticated foods as tacos, enchiladas and beans. We didn’t know any better. The three television stations (KOB, KOAT and KGGM) which piped seventeen hours of programming per day (7AM through 12AM) through our rooftop antenna into the static-prone black-and-white television in our den depicted only families who ate such elegant food as pot roast, fried chicken and mashed potatoes. When they weren’t eating these formal meals at the dining room table, television families were eating burgers from Vip’s Big Boy or A&W. While Peñasco kids were taking green chile on tortilla sandwiches to school in brown paper bags, the kids on television toted Wonder bread sandwiches in their Archies or Batman lunchboxes.
My mom often sang a little ditty extolling the virtues of tacos, enchiladas and beans. We assumed it was a song she made up in response to our whining about not having Wonder bread sandwiches like those kids on television. She finally told me her little ditty was actually a song recorded by legendary actress and singer Doris Day way back in 1944 when dinosaurs roamed the Earth. If rich, sophisticated actresses thought tacos, enchiladas and beans were pretty cool, my brothers, sisters and I finally decided we were eating pretty well, too.
The notion that the descendants of the Conquistadors who settled New Mexico had any sort of exclusivity in the preparation and appreciation for tacos, enchiladas and beans is admittedly pretty silly and naive. For generations, some of the very best New Mexican food throughout the Land of Enchantment has been served by families whose descendants fished the azure waters of the Aegean Sea and dined on a diet rich in olive oil, yogurt, feta cheese, lamb, herbs and vegetables. Greek restaurateurs have held such a prominent place in New Mexico’s culinary culture that they were honored in the 2006 edition of the New Mexico Blue Book.
In February, 2011, my friend Cheryl Jamison, the four-time James Beard award-winning author, delivered a scintillating presentation on some of New Mexico’s oldest and most iconic family-owned culinary treasures to a standing-room only crowd at the New Mexico History Museum Auditorium. Her lecture corroborated that Greek immigrants expanded their own culinary traditions by incorporating the foods of their adopted homeland into their restaurants. She outlined a number of restaurants owned by Greeks which prepare New Mexican food as delicious as it can be made and in the time-honored, traditional ways of which my own abuelitas would approve.
The intersection of Central Avenue and Atrisco Drive in Albuquerque was the genesis for one Greek family’s culinary journey, one which began in the 1940s. That’s where then recently widowed Sophia Mariol opened the Central Cafe to support her four children, all of whom developed a love of chile as prepared in the Atrisco neighborhood and who would go on to launch their own restaurants in Santa Fe. Son Jim Mariol founded Tia Sophia’s, a veritable institution in the historic Santa Fe Plaza area and claimant to having invented the breakfast burrito. Son Richard established the Horseman’s Cafe which proffers some of the most potent and piquant chile in New Mexico. Daughter Georgia Mariol launched Tomasita’s, another critically acclaimed and beloved Santa Fe fixture. Other family restaurants which have come and gone include the Mayflower Cafe, Richard’s Horseman’s Haven and Diego’s.
With the 2009 launch of the Atrisco Cafe and Bar, George Gundrey, a third-generation restaurateur proudly traces his restaurant’s lineage to the Atrisco neighborhood and his grandmother Sophia who operated the Central Cafe into the 1970s. George is Georgia’s son, but his pedigree goes beyond working in a family restaurant. As former director of the world-famous Santa Fe Farmers Market, he cultivated a wide network of local sources who today provide the organic produce and meats used in his restaurant. Quick to credit simple recipes, quality ingredients and friendly services as the hallmark of his family’s restaurants, Gundrey is a peripatetic presence at the Atrisco Cafe. With ambassadorial aplomb, he frequently checks up on his guests to ensure they are enjoying their dining experience.
The Atrisco Cafe & Bar is located on the south side of the DeVargas Center in the space previously occupied by Diego’s. Its exterior facade is neo-Southwestern with a terracotta stucco storefront and pink stag on the right flank of equally pink signage. Taos blue vigas provide a uniquely New Mexican pergola over the bar. Both booth and table seating are available in the restaurant which is wide, but not very deep. Seating is in fairly close proximity to neighboring tables. From the perspective that you get to see what others are ordering, that’s a big positive.
The lunch and dinner menu is replete with Northern New Mexico favorites…and not just enchiladas, tacos and beans. House specials include Central Cafe Meat Loaf “Albuquerque style” featuring New Mexico raised beef, jalapeño mashed potatoes and the vegetable of the day. Then there’s Yia Yia (a Greek term for grandmother) Sophia’s Greek Salad, one of the few menu items showcasing Greek food. Burgers, salads and a few items sans chile are also available as is an enviable dessert menu that includes banana cream pie and natillas. Breakfast is served Saturday and Sunday from 8AM through 1PM.
A taste bud awakening way to start your meal as you contemplate the rest of the menu is with Tres Amigos, the tasty triumvirate of guacamole, salsa and chips. The guacamole is unctuous–avocados ripened to a buttery perfection, fresh onions and tomatoes, a bit of garlic and salt. The salsa melds rich, red tomatoes, finely chopped onions, and fiery jalapeños in competition for the rapt attention of your taste buds. The salsa is of medium piquancy, just hot enough to get your attention, but not enough to singe them. Make it Quatro Amigos and enjoy a mug of steaming coffee with the salsa. The hot coffee accentuates the piquancy of the salsa.
Biscuits are among several breakfast must-haves. These are biscuits the way they should be made–light and flaky yet moist. Any Southern cook would be proud to serve these. Although we weren’t offered jam with these cloud-soft gems, the red and green chile we sopped up with them more than made up for the absence of any jam.
What prompted my inaugural (and very long overdue) visit to Atrisco Cafe & Bar was a delicious discussion with Cheryl Jamison and Kate Manchester, the brilliant publisher of Edible Santa Fe. While compiling the 2011 edition of the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, we quite naturally got to talking about many of the Land of Enchantment’s culinary treasures and some of our favorite New Mexican specialties. Kate practically had me drooling with her description of Atrisco’s Roast Leg of Lamb Burrito which showcases locally grown leg of lamb from Talus Wind Ranch (near Galisteo), roasted to perfection and thinly sliced.
Quite simply, this is one of the very best burritos I have ever had anywhere! The thinly sliced lamb is tender and delicious with nary a hint of the gaminess for which lamb is often lambasted. There is nothing else wrapped in the flour tortilla–just layers of luscious lamb. The burrito is topped with shredded cheese and your choice of red or green chile (or both). Because New Mexico is both a red and a green state, it’s only fitting to have both topping your burrito. The green chile is superb! It’s not especially piquant, but it positively radiates the flavor complexities of green chile, especially its fruitiness. It’s a chile with qualities of both having been roasted very well then being simmered for hours. The red chile is also rich and complex with quite a bit more piquancy than the green chile. This is Christmas the way it should be celebrated in New Mexico’s cocinas.
Shortly after the 2009 launch of the New Mexico Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail, Cheryl Jamison was asked by Serious Eats to put together a list of Santa Fe’s very best green chile cheeseburgers. Number three on the list she and husband Bill compiled was the burger at the Atrisco Cafe. Made with grass-fed beef raised in the Land of Enchantment, it’s prepared to your exacting specifications and is served with lettuce, onion and tomato on the side as well as your choice of American, Swiss or Cheddar cheese. The molten cheese drapes over the too mild green chile. Though my burger was perfectly prepared at medium with plenty of pink in the middle, the sesame seed topped wheat bread buns were overly toasted and desiccated and that chile was conspicuous only by its lack of bite.
The carne adovada and eggs breakfast entree more than made up for what may well be an uncharacteristically off day for the burger meister. Save for our skies and sunsets, few things in New Mexico are as spectacular as a plate brimming with two eggs cooked any style with carne adovada covered with cheese served with Spanish rice and a tortilla. Few things are quite as delicious as the carne adovada at Atrisco. The adovada is tender tendrils of moist, delicious pork simmered with terrific red chile. Spoon it up with your tortillas and you’ve got a New Mexico style bite-size sandwich.
That we liked the Atrisco Cafe & Bar is no surprise. What surprised us most is that we enjoyed it more than we have other restaurants founded by Yia Yia Sophia’s descendants. An even bigger surprise is just how good the roast leg of lamb burrito is.
Atrisco Cafe & Bar
193 Paseo de Peralta
Santa Fe, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 10 April 2011
# of VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Roasted Leg of Lamb Burrito, Carne Adovada and Eggs, Green Chile Cheeseburger, House-made Biscuits, Tres Amigos (Guacamole, Salsa and Chips)