“No one who cooks, cooks alone. Even at her most solitary,
a cook in the kitchen is surrounded by generations of cooks past,
the advice and menus of cooks present, the wisdom of cookbook writers.”
~Laurie Colwin, Novelist
The notion of cooking alone is unthinkable to Ignacio and Brigette “BeBe” Lopez, proprietors of Papa Nacho’s. Since they launched their popular Mexican restaurant in 1995, the restaurant has embodied the aphorism “the family that cooks together, stays together.” Papa Nacho’s is and always has been a family affair, with daughters Gloria and Marcial practically having grown up in the kitchen. Now as their still spry and youthful parents are in their 60s and beginning to contemplate retirement, Gloria and Marcial are poised to someday assume the helm. As Gloria puts it, “it wouldn’t be a family restaurant if it wasn’t about family.”
More than most restaurants in Albuquerque which promote themselves as being “family owned and operated,” Papa Nachos lives it. Some of Gloria’s most cherished times are when she and her dad come in at four in the morning to begin the extensive preparatory work it takes to serve their patrons. At Papa Nachos, there are no short-cuts. Vegetables are hand-cut and all sauces are meticulously prepared. Pinto beans are simmered slowly for six hours. It’s time-consuming and it’s arduous, but it’s also a labor of love. You can taste it in the cooking.
Serving wonderful food and having friendly service isn’t always enough, however. Restaurateurs will tell you that the three critical elements to success are location, location and location. The dining public must be able to see you and be willing to get off the well-beaten path to where you are. Papa Nachos is situated in a timeworn strip mall on Louisiana between Paseo Del Norte and San Antonio. It is not clustered among other restaurants or near any other popular draw to the area, yet it has become a destination restaurant–one its guests specifically have in mind when they turn onto Louisiana. That speaks volumes about how wonderful the food and service are. It may also prove that great food trumps a not-so-good location.
Ironically, in 2008, Papa Nachos was almost responsible for forever changing the fabric of the neighborhood when the Food Network came calling. Diners, Drive-Ins and Dives, the popular series which showcases local mom-and-pop gems wanted to feature Papa Nachos in one of its segments. Because BeBe had just been diagnosed with breast cancer and the family’s focus was understandably on her health and recovery, the family declined to be featured. It’s unlikely the resultant fame and notoriety of being showcased to millions of Americans would have changed the down-to-earth, hominess of Papa Nachos.
Not surprisingly, Papa Nachos had a storybook beginning steeped in humility. The inspiration for the restaurant were the homemade burritos Ignacio would prepare for Bebe’s lunch–burritos so good that co-workers continually absconded with them. Undaunted, Bebe told them she’d make burritos for them if they paid for the ingredients. One thing led to another and before long she and Ignacio were selling burritos from an ice chest. Eventually they launched Papa Nachos on Fourth Street in 1995 and moved to its present location in 1998.
Determining what the restaurant should be called was a family decision. For some reason, it seems every Hispanic person christened Ignacio is nicknamed “Nacho” just as every Francisco or Frank becomes “Pancho.” In that Ignacio was the family patriarch, Papa Nachos just made sense. Papa Nacho’s menu has its roots in Mexico (particularly the coastal state of Sinaloa), but is also heavily influenced by the culinary traditions and flavors of California and of course, New Mexico.
At Papa Nachos, culinary traditions and flavors means cumin ameliorates the sauces and even the chicken is braised with it. Sensing that cumin is more an aversion than an allergy for us, the ever astute Gloria explained that cumin is used at the restaurant to build a flavor profile; cumin isn’t the flavor profile as it is at too many New Mexican and Mexican restaurants. She then brought us a tray loaded with nearly a dozen samples of every sauce and meat in which cumin is part and parcel. Though the cumin is discernible, its influence is very much in the background, lending support and not at all impinging on the flavor profile of any of the chiles used. It’s impossible to dislike any of Papa Nachos sauces.
It goes without saying that a restaurant named Papa Nachos would have an entree named Papa Nachos. That’s Papa Nachos’ Papa Nachos. How could that not bring a smile to your face? Available in half and full-sized portions (both prodigious), these nachos are meant to be shared. They’re absolutely terrific: homemade tortilla chips, beans, green-chile ground beef, cheese, lettuce, tomatoes, onions, jalapeños, sour cream, and guacamole in perfect proportion to each other. The crisp chips are formidable enough to scoop up sizable amounts of every other ingredient and don’t go limp neath the moistness of the ground beef and melted cheese. Not even the chips at the bottom are soggy.
While the great state of New Mexico has two official state vegetables, only one of them (chile) seems to inspire respect bordering on reverence. The other, the magnificent pinto bean, is more often the subject of sophomoric humor. Perhaps if the deriding diners were introduced to better prepared pinto beans, they would give them the respect due these high protein gems. If those scatological skeptics were introduced to pinto beans at Papa Nachos, they’d quickly become addicted. These are not soupy, just off the stove pintos nor are they the often dreaded and desiccated refried beans. At Papa Nachos, a plate of beans simmers every day and when an order is placed that includes beans, a portion of those beans is refried in vegetable oil and chiles. The result is beans as good (if not better) than what your abuelita served.
New Mexican comfort food, especially during frosty fall and winter days, always seems to include a hearty and hot green chile stew. Papa Nacho has an interesting take on green chile stew. It’s called Picadillo and it’s similar in composition and taste to what surely has to be New Mexico’s official state stew. Think diced lean steak, cubed potatoes, bell peppers, onions, cilantro and green chile and you have the makings of a great green chile stew. The big difference here is that the entire concoction is served in a plate and not on a bowl. No matter how it’s served, it would be a peccadillo not to share the Picadillo with someone you love. It is as filling and comforting as any green chile stew you’ll find in the Duke City.
Papa Nacho’s menu brags about “more burritos than you can shake your maracas at,” but since there are only seven burritos on the menu, the slogan must have more to do with the size of these behemoths. Each burrito weighs in easily at close to one pound. The flour tortilla is hard-pressed to hold in all those ingredients though if it falls apart, eating them with a fork or spoon would be just fine. The Machaca Burrito is one such treasure. Papa Nacho’s version of Machaca is fresh, spicy shredded beef sautéed with cilantro, bell peppers, jalapenos, onions, tomatoes and the restaurant’s own special blend of spices. The beef is enrobed in a fresh, warm tortilla along with beans and cheese.
Frequent diners can tell you exactly what specials will be available on any day of the week in which Papa Nachos is open. When the weather is cold, the Friday special means albondigas, a traditional Mexican soup featuring spicy meatballs offset by the fresh flavors of vegetables and herbs. Bruce, a long-time friend of this blog, named Papa Nachos albondigas as one of the best dishes in the Duke City, a dish he looks forward to every winter. When the weather warms up, the albondigas are replaced as the Friday special by tostadas de ceviche in which diced shrimp marinated in citrus juices are placed atop a crisp tostada along with cilantro, tomato and cucumber. It is as delicious as its component ingredients are beautiful together. Papa Nacho’s version isn’t quite as “citrusy” as at other Mexican restaurants, but that just allows the shrimp’s natural briny taste to shine.
There have been times in my past in which my near addiction to quesadillas nearly warranted a twelve-step recovery program. Today when those urges strike, it’s far more rewarding to succumb to them. The shrimp quesadilla at Papa Nachos is so good, recidivism is a certainty. They’ve dominated my waking thoughts since having consumed them. A large tortilla speckled the color of a pinto pony is engorged with shrimp, melted white cheese, onions and cilantro. The shrimp is fresh and delicious. Introduce just a bit of salsa and the element of piquancy enhances the flavor profile of an addictive quesadilla.
If the shrimp quesadillas can be considered “surf” indulge yourself with a “turf” entree, a carne asada taco plate as good as you’ll find in Albuquerque. The beauty of these tacos is simplicity. Your choice of flour or corn tortillas are absolutely engorged with carne asada cut into small pieces and topped with white onions and cilantro. That’s it. Nothing else! Papa Nachos’ tacos are the antithesis of those “salad” tacos in which annoying hard-shelled tacos are stuffed with lettuce and just a bit of mystery meat. The platter includes only two tacos, but they’re stuffed with more carne than you’ll find in a half dozen tacos at those pseudo Mexican chains. Beans, those glorious and delicious beans, and rice accompany the tacos.
Homemade chips and a fiery roasted tomato chile are the perfect antecedent to any meal at Papa Nacho’s. The salsa has bite and is easily the equivalent of Sadie’s salsa in terms of its piquant kick.
After each visit, I kick myself for not visiting Papa Nachos more frequently. It’s a wonderful family restaurant owned and operated by a wonderful family. For them it’s not enough that no one leaves Papa Nachos hungry; their goal is that all guests leave happy.
7648 Louisiana, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 16 April 2013
# OF VISITS: 6
BEST BET: Salsa and Chips, Machaca Burrito, Tostados de Ceviche, Picadillo, Papa Nachos, Shrimp Quesadilla, Carne Asada Tacos