For almost four and a half decades, Charlie Elias, an avuncular septuagenarian with the energy of a teenager, has greeted his customers and treated them like welcome guests at his eponymous Northeast Heights restaurant and bar. Charlie doesn’t always make it to work nowadays, but his son Jamie, who’s probably the same age today that Charlie was when I first discovered this long-time family favorite, is now the restaurant’s official ambassador, a smiling presence who meets and greets all patrons with the same homespun, genuine friendliness as his father.
Charlie was thirty-something when he launched his Front and Back Door operation in 1966. That type of longevity is rare today and speaks volumes about the loyalty generations of patrons have for Charlie and his restaurant. An elder statesman among the Duke City’s New Mexican restaurants, Charlie’s Front and Back Doors haven’t changed much over the years, offering the same menu and same friendly service diners have come to expect over the decades. Newcomers still experience confusion as to the “Front” and “Back” door names, believing them to be the same restaurant, but with front and back door entrances.
Charlie’s Front Door’s windowless frontage faces Menaul in the Hoffmantown Shopping Center. It’s a restaurant built around a rectangular bar, which until you figure out is sunken, gives the appearance of a very short bartender. Charlie’s Back Door is a bar that serves food. It is accessed from a covered walkway. Operating hours are slightly different, but both share the same kitchen and menu. Another commonality seems to be the friendliness of the wait staff, a genial group that is on-the-spot with refills and answers to any questions you may have.
On a hot sunny day, there may be no more welcome respite from the sun’s blinding rays and scorching heat than Charlie’s. The minute you walk in, the temperature seems to drop 20 degrees thanks to the restaurant’s subdued lighting and heat mollifying cooling system with seemingly restorative powers. Charlie’s Back Door (the bar) is darker than Charlie’s Front Door. The ambiance at both seems to honor the European Spanish traditions rather than the stereotypical New Mexican or Mexican trappings found in so many New Mexican restaurants.
Charlie’s Front Door is renown for New Mexican comfort foods and authenticity. Nowhere else in town can you find quelites (lamb’s quarters, commonly referred to as wild spinach throughout Northern New Mexico), calabacitas (sautéed zucchini, onions and corn), fideos (a pasta dish with short spaghetti noodles and a mild tomato sauce) and even torta de huevo (fluffy eggs with chile, a traditional northern New Mexico Lenten season dish). These are dishes with which Charlie grew up in Santa Fe and still prepares the way his abuelita did. These are dishes with which I grew up as well.
You might not call other items on the menu “traditional,” but they provide an interesting read with unique names such as Mexican banker (ham, turkey, cheese, Thousand Island dressing and green chile strips in a tortilla); Como Se Llama (literally “what’s your name,” a plate featuring Polish sausage and red or green chile); the Sheepherder Special (pastrami and green chile strips in a tortilla) and other equally interestingly named entrees.
Every meal at the Front Door should start off with the sensational trio of salsa, chile con queso and guacamole. The salsa has its basis in New Mexican red chile and although not especially piquant has a pleasant flavor. The guacamole is thick and rich, fashioned with fresh avocados at their optimum in ripeness. Alas, the con queso is fairly typical of the gloppy genre so prevalent in Duke City restaurants. Perhaps with a more piquant chile, it would inherit some personality. The chips are low in salt, but are also very thin and tend to crumble at the “weight” of a Gil sized scoop of salsa, con queso or guacamole.
At least once in your culinary explorations around the Duke City, you’ve got to try Charlie’s carnitas, cubed and shredded fried pork seasoned to perfection and served with fried potatoes like grandma used to make (boiling potatoes before frying them). These carnitas are among the very best in the Duke City and can be ordered with or without chile. One entree in which those carnitas are featured is Kay’s Special in which a homemade tortilla is engorged with carnitas and topped with a melting white cheese and green chile. Alas, you might have to be a turophile (a connoisseur of cheese) to truly enjoy this entree. The cheese is an excess of richness, so much gooey goodness it should be served with an angioplasty.
Best in the city is an honor you might accord to the sour cream enchiladas served with turkey and melted white Cheddar cheese. The green chile and sour cream combination will perform a synchronized ballet on your taste buds and even though the portion is huge and oh-so-rich, you just won’t be able to stop eating these enchanting enchiladas. Credit Charlie’s with using melted white cheese, a rarity in a city in which New Mexican restaurants top just about everything with a boring yellow Cheddar. Charlie’s is one of the few restaurants in town which uses turkey on its enchiladas. Frankly it’s a welcome change. The turkey is shredded, delicious and not that hermetically sealed cold cut turkey you might find in a refrigerated deli. The chile has a nice level of piquancy that doesn’t necessarily come across until you reheat the leftovers.
When asked by New Mexico Magazine to write a “breakfast, lunch and dinner” article showcasing turkey for its November, 2010 issue, there was no doubt Charlie’s sour cream enchiladas would be one of the three meals I’d write about. These enchiladas are no turkey. In its annual food and wine issue for 2011, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded these enchiladas a “Hot Plate Award,” the magazine’s highest honor signifying appetizers, dishes, desserts and drinks “that we can’t live without.”
Charlie’s green chile stew is also a rarity in that it is replete with chunks of tender, pork. At some New Mexican restaurants in the Duke City, Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t be able to find more than a hint of pork. The green chile is only piquant enough to let you know it’s there, but not so hot it will moisten your brow or singe your tongue. It’s a flavorful chile served hot, making it a perfect elixir for cool weather.
At Charlie’s most entrees are accompanied by fluffy sopaipillas just begging for honey. Alas, they must be poor beggars because it’s honey-flavored syrup that’s delivered instead. Order the off-the-comal hot tortillas and you get thick, substantial orbs spotted like a charred pinto pony, not the waifishly thin tortillas with which other restaurants insult their patrons. The tortillas have a homemade taste.
The fideos are another comfort food favorite that brings back memories of huddling around the dinner table during heavy winter snowfalls. Unlike spaghetti which is seasoned (sometimes heavily) with oregano and garlic, this New Mexican vermicelli noodle dish is lightly seasoned and light on the tomato sauce, too.
Until Albuquerque banned smoking at restaurants, Charlie’s wonderful food competed with cigarette smoke for the olfactory attention of patrons. Thankfully now diners can enjoy that food without inhaling the choking blue haze.
Charlie’s Front Door
8224 Menaul, N.E.
LATEST VISIT: 31 July 2010
# OF VISITS: 7
BEST BET: Salsa, Carnitas, Sour Cream Enchiladas, Sopaipillas, Fideos, Quelites, Green Chile Stew