In an early episode of the Andy Griffith Show, while contemplating a job offer in South America, Andy tried to assuage his son Opie’s concerns about leaving Mayberry. Instead, he wound up confusing Opie by explaining that people in South America ate something called tortillas. Opie wondered aloud why anyone would eat spiders (tarantulas). Had Opie ever tasted the delicious, piping hot, just off the comal 16-inch buttered orbs at Duran’s Central Pharmacy, it’s unlikely he would ever confuse those grilled spheres with any arachnid.
That’s because Duran’s features some of the very best tortillas of any restaurant in New Mexico. These are not the flavorless, paper-thin, production-line, machine-fashioned orbs you find at some restaurants (can you say Frontier Restaurant). Duran’s tortillas are made to order on a real comal and shaped by a skilled practitioner using a well-practiced rolling pin. It’s the way abuelitas in New Mexico have done it for generations, a time-honored tradition Duran’s honors. You can tell and appreciate the difference. In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2012, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded Duran Central Pharmacy a Hot Plate Award signifying the selection of its hot-off-the-griddle tortillas as one of the “most interesting, special and tasty dishes around.” Considering the thousands of potential selections, to be singled out is quite an honor.
The tortillas are thick and have a pinto pony blend of char and white. While it may seem the wait staff brushes on butter in parsimonious amounts, you’re almost guaranteed to have some butter drip onto your clothing. These tortillas arrive at your table piping hot and absolutely delicious–a wonderful precursor to a great meal! Invariably you’ll want to take some home. Heat them on a griddle, slather on butter (or Kraft sandwich spread) and you’ve got a fantastically filling snack.
True to its name, Duran’s Central Pharmacy is an old-fashioned apothecary in which prescription medicines and over-the-counter drugs are dispensed. The dining area is nestled in the southern portion of the pharmacy and you absolutely have to navigate the aisles of the drug store to get there. For some, it’s a slow walk as they gawk at meticulously arranged shelves brimming with products you won’t find anywhere else.
In addition to the typical prescription and nonprescription pharmaceuticals found at any drug store, you’ll also find groceries, greeting cards and under glass near the cash registers, a section of fine chocolates that you might want for dessert after your meal of great New Mexican food. On the dividing wall immediately before the restaurant is a section of books, mostly about New Mexico and by New Mexico authors. Some, like Pulitzer Award finalist River of Traps are absolute gems and must-reads for anyone who loves the Land of Enchantment. The pharmacy is also reputed to carry an excellent selection of perfumes, but perhaps no artificial fragrance compares to the aroma wafting from the kitchen.
The restaurant portion of Duran’s consists of a dozen tables, a small covered patio and a sit-down counter from which you can watch the industrious kitchen and wait staff (some members of whom provide service with a sweet sass) assiduously keeping up with the intense breakfast and lunch crowds. A banal comment such as “that was fast” might receive a response like, “I’m sorry. I’ll try to be slower next time.” How can you not love that?
Despite the unusual restaurant setting, Duran’s has long been regarded as one of the best New Mexican restaurants in the Albuquerque area and it’s been regarded as such since 1942. Within easy walking distance of Old Town and just a short drive from downtown, it is, to the detriment of some local area residents, no longer a well-guarded secret. With increasing frequency tourists have also discovered Duran’s–a more authentic (translation: not dumbed down for tourist tastes) and delicious alternative to Old Town Plaza restaurants.
Duran’s reputation is built on what has long been considered some of the best red and green chile anywhere in New Mexico. The red chile lacks the cumin influence (corruption) so prevalent in the chile served in many misdirected New Mexican restaurants. The only ameliorant to that chile is usually a touch of garlic. Alas, during a visit in September, 2011, the flavor of both the red and green chile were completely dominated by garlic–enough to ward off a family of vampires. Worse, the garlic lacked freshness, tasting like garlic in a jar past its expiration date. Even worse, Murphy reared his ugly head as accompanying me during this visit were my friends Bill, Esther and Henry. All my bragging about the greatness that is Duran’s was as empty as a politician’s campaign promises.
Now, the chile has been great in the past. That has been validated many times. Our September, 2011 visit may have been an anomaly (perhaps the cook dropped a jar (or six) of garlic into the chile). In the Alibi’s annual “Best of Burque” restaurant poll for 2005, Duran’s Central Pharmacy earned accolades for serving the “best huevos rancheros” in Albuquerque. In 2006, it was the red chile which earned “Best of Burque” honors. In 2007, Alibi readers accorded “best of” honors to Duran’s chile relleno, red chile and enchiladas. In 2008, it was the huevos rancheros and red chile which took home top honors. Annual awards are nothing new for Duran’s.
The bowl of chile, perhaps the restaurant’s most popular entree, is a Chamber of Commerce exemplar of what this dish should be. It’s heart-warming New Mexico comfort food, especially warm and nurturing on the most bleak and dreary of days. You certainly can’t get that mother’s love level of comfort from a burger with fries. Though not strictly a green chile stew, it is certainly “stew-like,” a bowl of red or green chile with beans and seasoned ground beef. The green chile is neon green in color and about medium on the piquancy scale. The beans are perfectly prepared while the ground beef is seasoned well. It’s a concordant marriage of wonderful ingredients that envelop you in a cocoon of warmth and comfort.
In its June, 2010 edition, New Mexico Magazine celebrated New Mexico’s Best Eats, eight of the best dishes served in restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment. Two versions of each dish–a down-home version and uptown version were selected. The magazine accorded the honor as state’s very best down-home green chile stew to the Duran’s Central Pharmacy. It’s a well-deserved honor few would dispute. I wrote the article about that stew which required lots of research on my part; it was a delicious assignment.
Daily specials include a stuffed sopaipilla platter on Wednesdays and Fridays and on Thursdays carne adovada, some of the very best in the city. The award-winning orange-red chile used on other entrees is ameliorated with aromatic Mexican oregano and chile pequin, a fiery, dried red chile used judiciously (something which should be practiced with the garlic). The chile is made from ground chile pods, not from powder. That chile covers bite sized cubes of porcine perfection so tender and delicious they will make your taste buds smile. My good friend Ruben, a devotee of carne adovada nonpareil, ranks Duran’s rendition on par with the adovada at Mary & Tito’s.
The carne adovada is served with pinto beans, boiled potatoes (perhaps the only item on the menu that’s unremarkable) and a simple lettuce and tomato salad with French dressing. The only thing wrong with this platter (besides the papas) is that it’s not all carne adovada, as in the entire plate covered with it. Fortunately you can purchase a pint of this phenomenal adovada to take home and if you don’t want to wait until the next Thursday, carne adovada is also available for breakfast on Saturdays.
Lest I forget, Duran’s salsa and chips rarely receive the rants and raves they deserve. Quite simply, the salsa is some of the very best in the city. It has the freshness of just made salsa, not salsa made three or even two hours ago. The salsa, made with chopped tomatoes, cilantro, onion and green chile is thick and chunky so it doesn’t run off your chips.
During that ill-fated September, 2011, three of us ordered blueberry pie for dessert–partially in hopes it would take away the persistent garlic aftertaste. The consensus was that the blueberry flavored filling came out of a can. Flavored filling is the operative term here because none of us tasted an actual blueberry (at least it didn’t have a garlicky flavor). The crust was flaky and buttery, worthy of better filling. Duran’s also offers apple pie as well as empanadas.
Duran’s is a neighborhood institution in which neighbors congregate to catch up and enjoy a belly pleasing meal. That neighborhood expanded to the Northeast Heights in 2006 with the launch of Duran’s Station at 4201 Menaul, N.E. Duran’s Station is situated in the former Fire Station #8 and is owned by Marcel Ghattas. It retains some vestiges of its days as a fire station, including the original alarm bell. The engine bay was converted into the dining room while the bunkhouse is now the kitchen.
Duran’s Station includes all of your favorite Pharmacy favorites. Similarities don’t stop with the menu. The restaurant also includes an exposed prep kitchen and a comal for making those addictive tortillas (there may be none better in Albuquerque). Best of all, it stays open for dinner.
If you just can’t get enough of Duran’s fabulous chile, the Slate Street Cafe just north of Lomas in the downtown district, offers it as well. Red chile runs in the family. Slate Street Cafe is owned by Myra Ghattas, Marcel’s sister. Their father Robert Ghattas has owned the Duran Central Pharmacy for more than a quarter century.
In the corporate world, any previous years’ accomplishments–significant though they may be–are not a consideration during employee reviews. Managers take a “what have you done for me lately” attitude toward employee reviews. That’s the stance I take when reviewing and rating restaurants. Reviews are based on a snapshot in time, the experience on the latest visit. Duran’s has shown me greatness many times in the past, but not so in my last visit. My rating dropped precipitously–from 23 (signifying my recognition of it being one of New Mexico’s best) to 18. Here’s hoping it will reclaim its rightful spot in my heart and in my ratings during future visits.
Duran’s Central Pharmacy
1815 Central, N.W.
LATEST VISIT: 1 September 2011
# OF VISITS: 10
BEST BET: Buttered Tortillas, Carne Adovada, Salsa and Chips, Green Chile