Because Mexico spans several climatic zones and a diverse topography, its cuisine varies from region to region. As such, it’s grossly unfair to stereotype Mexican food. It’s true that until recent years, most of the Mexican restaurants in the Albuquerque’s area featured the cuisine of the border state of Chihuahua, Mexico, typified by menus offering refried beans, enchiladas, chiles rellenos and the like. The past decade or so, however, has seen the influx of Mexican restaurants serving mariscos, the surprisingly fresh cuisine of the Mexican states bordering its coastal waters.
The 2008 introduction of Dahlia’s Central Mexican Cuisine in Rio Rancho was therefore intriguing. My hopes were that Central Mexican cuisine might mean the cuisine of Oaxaca and Puebla, two regions renown for moles. Alas, the family who owns Dahlia’s is from Guadalajara, the largest city in the state of Jalisco which borders the Pacific ocean and is not, as the restaurant’s name might imply, centered geographically in the nation of Mexico. A common misperception might be that the menu would then include, if not specialize, in mariscos, the incomparable seafood prepared so well in the Mexican states bordering the Pacific.
Mariscos do indeed have a prominent place on the menu, but so do several house specialties not commonly found in other Albuquerque area Mexican restaurants. It isn’t, as we found out quickly, necessarily any regional cuisine or specialty that makes Dahlia’s Central Mexican Cuisine a special restaurant. What makes it special is the operating principles by which this family owned restaurant operates.
Those principles center around preparing healthy and delicious meals for their customers with the use of all-natural ingredients such as grain-fed, hormone-low meats. Many meals featuring meats are prepared by using marinades of limes, grapefruits and oranges to kill off enzymes. The restaurant prides itself on not using trans-fat oils on any of its meals, all of which are prepared fresh on a daily basis. That includes the seafood which is prepared using wine butter and self-ground spices for flavor.
In no way does all natural mean dietary and bland. Dahlia’s family has been in the restaurant business for more than a decade and is well-versed in pleasing hungry patrons. The recipes used have been passed on from generation to generation and are intended not only to nourish the body, but to please the palate. If you want a variation to something on the menu, accommodating cooks will prepare your meal to your exacting specifications.
Also prepared fresh daily are the blue, red and yellow tortilla chips made on the premises from white corn. The chips are made throughout the day and are kept crisp and fresh on a dual warmer. They are served with a fiery salsa which is complementary. It is a delicious salsa, the type of which you will devour two bowlfuls of before your entrees are brought to your table. Fresh onion, cilantro, garlic and jalapeño are its constituent ingredients, but deep flavor is its byproduct. The chips are crisp, thin and low in salt.
To wash down the salsa and chips, Dahlia’s offers traditional horchata and offered sandia (watermelon) until the vendor proved unreliable. That’s too bad. It actually tasted like natural watermelon not like an overly sweetened fruit punch.
The menu features several appetizers fairly typical of Mexican restaurants in the Albuquerque area. Opt instead for a cup or bowl of albondigas, a light and delicious Mexican comfort soup with hearty vegetable chunks and meatballs. Instead of several rice-filled meatballs, Dahlias cup-sized rendition includes only one meatball, but it’s a large meatball, the type of which you might find served with spaghetti.
The vegetables–celery, carrots, tomatoes, red and green peppers–are cooked to perfection and the broth is lightly salted. There is a lot of flavor emanating from a steamy cupful–even with the slight whiff of cumin, a spice I’m not particularly fond of.
From among the house specialties, you’ll find several not commonly found in Albuquerque area restaurants including banderillas. The term banderillas itself is quite interesting. In Spain and Mexico, bandilleras are the barbed metal tipped spikes that bullfighters drive into the bull’s shoulders to subdue them before the kill. In Spain, bandilleras are the most common form of tapas. Essentially, this tapa consists of skewering sundry ingredients on a toothpick.
Fortunately, the banderillas at Dahlia’s are gruesome only to vegetarians and the word is an offshoot of bandera, or flag. In fact, the menu calls banderillas “our patriotic dish, likely because some of the ingredients are the same colors (red, green and white) as the Mexican flag and because the skewer can be equated to the flagpole.
Seafood lovers will salute the camarones (shrimp) or scallops banderillas which are served with grilled bell peppers. onion, tomato and smothered with sauteed mushrooms on a bed of rice. This is a dish warranting a salute or two. For one thing, Dahlia’s uses real scallops, not the imitation scallops some restaurants serve. Prepared in wine butter, the scallops are a perfect blend of sweet and savory flavors that coalesce beautifully. The vegetables are all grilled to absolute perfection. The sauteed mushrooms impart their fungi flavor onto the rice, making it moist and flavorful.
Carnivorous cravings will be sated by meat or chicken banderillas. A skewer of tender and flavorful meat banderillas is pictured below literally covered by fresh vegetables, a grilled pineapple slice and fresh guacamole. Each meaty chunk is roughly an inch cubed and grilled to the peak of flavor. Honestly, the meat on these skewers is as flavorful as some of the best steak in Duke City area steakhouses.
Another Dahlia’s specialty not frequently found in Duke City area Mexican restaurant are Enchiladas Suizas. Many of us don’t think “melting pot” when considering the nation of Mexico, but the truth is, Mexico is a multi-cultural country. Any dish in Mexico labeled “Suiza” can be attributed to the country’s Swiss immigrants, many of whom gravitated to the dairy country where they produced cheeses, yogurt and a unique version of creme fraiche called crema Mexicana.
Enchiladas Suizas are among the richest and most delicate in Mexico. Dahlia’s version features rolled enchiladas topped with a green cream-based sauce topped with avocado and sour cream and imbued with the distinctive hint of lime. These enchiladas are not piquant in the least, but they are very flavorful and delicious. They are served with rice and beans.
Still another mouth-watering entree involves camarones (shrimp) wrapped in bacon and served with a cheesy rice, a grilled pineapple slice and a tangy, smoky barbecue sauce. The shrimp is kissed with the flame of a well seasoned grill and has a faint smokiness. The bacon is fried just enough so that it wraps completely around the shrimp. The barbecue sauce is a surprising complement to the sweetness of the shrimp.
Guadalajara, the second most populous municipality in Mexico, has much in common with Rio Rancho. Both are situated at an altitude just above one mile. Guadalajara is known as Mexico’s “silicon valley” in recognition of its strong electronic industry. It is considered Mexico’s high-tech capital on account of its leadership in software and informatics development. Rio Rancho, as many New Mexicans know, is situated on the “silicon mesa” along the middle Rio Grade valley.
Dahlia’s Central Mexican Cuisine
2003 Southern Blvd., Suite 116
Rio Rancho, NM
LATEST VISIT: 14 February 2009
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Enchiladas Suiza, Banderillas, Salsa and Chips, Aguas Frescas, Camarones