Here’s an interesting bit of Jeopardy level trivia which you might contemplate the next time you dine at this Rio Rancho spot: In the Spanish golden age, a “cazuela” was the gallery located above the tavern in the back wall of a theater–the area in which women were segregated. Today “cazuela” is a Mexican word for casserole meal. Cazuela’s restaurant is a friendly, family-owned operation, which in 2007 saw significant change, precipitated in part by a motorist crashing through the diminutive dwelling which had been the restaurant’s home for several years. That original site was a tiny, time-worn building imbued with charm and warmth that belied its Lilliputian size.
Cazuela’s new location is an expansive edifice which once housed Rio Rancho’s Sports Corral. The Corral’s batting cages are still part of the property, but gone are other facets of the long-time sports complex. Owner Francisco Saenz practically gutted the building, investing significant capital in completely transforming it into a classy restaurant. The new location allows the Saenz family to expand their menu, extend hours of business and even cater large events. It’s got a banqueting facility that will accommodate large crowds. It’s got one of the most capacious and tranquil patios in the metropolitan area with a burbling water fountain that offers a relaxing cadence while you dine.
As with all successful restaurants, Cazuela’s has evolved and grown beyond just physical space. An expansive menu befitting larger accommodations has been added. Mariscos became part of the menu in 2009. In 2012, the restaurant added a brewery and tap room showcasing several award-winning adult libations (and a pretty good Root Beer, too). In 2015, Cazuela’s added a stone oven in which pizzas were made with scratch-made dough infused with New Mexico honey. Alas, during our visit in September, 2020, we were informed that the pizza just wasn’t selling well enough to justify keeping it on the menu.
Enter through the north-facing door and you’ll see why the restaurant is named Cazuela’s. A large painting of a casserole dish hangs prominently. There are several Mexican paintings hanging on the restaurant’s walls, all framed in the unique style of Old Mexico. An arched doorway takes you from the front dining room to a more expansive dining room. Several half-moon shaped arches throughout the restaurant give you visibility to a beautiful venue that facilitates tranquil and relaxing dining.
The dining rooms are bright and airy with plenty of room to spread out. Ceiling fans allow for air to circulate and help drown out the sound of the televisions in each dining room. Both table and booth seating are comfortable. The two most important thing about Cazuela’s didn’t change with its move to a larger facility. The first would be service. Cazuela’s wait staff is among the most attentive in town (especially the beautiful Mari). It’s a knowledgeable wait staff whose recommendations you can trust. From the moment you’re greeted until the minute you leave, the wait staff will make you feel like a welcome guest. They check up on you frequently without being intrusive and they anticipate when you need a refill.
4 September 2020: The second is the food. Sure, the menu expanded, but that’s just more of the same delicious food residents of the City of Vision have come to love. It’s fresh, flavorful and almost all made on the premises. That starts with the chips and salsa. The chips are made from deep-fried corn tortillas. These are some of the best chips in town–thick and redolent with the flavor of corn. Your first order of chips and salsa is complementary and subsequent orders cost a pittance. The salsa is delicious. It’s a bit on the thin side, but makes up for that with a smoky and mildly piquant flavor invigorated with cilantro, tomato and jalapeno. If you can taste freshness in a salsa, this might be what it tastes like.
4 September 2020: It’s oft been said that good is the enemy of great. Good is the quality I ascribe to almost all guacamole we order at restaurants and make at home. Guacamole is just good–solid, tasty, predictable, maybe even boring. You always know what to expect when you order it–that it’ll be good, nothing else. Let’s face it, guacamole isn’t one of those condiments that will probably never inspire foodgasms. We did a double-take in seeing Guacamole De Camaron Y Pulpo (fresh guacamole with shrimp and octopus) on Cazuela’s appetizer menu. Could this be the antithesis of the solid and good guacamole? Could the adjective “great” finally be ascribed to guacamole. At the very least, this guacamole borders on greatness. The one element that would have crossed the border would have been pulpo (octopus). Because of shipping issues, there was no pulpo available. Still, this guacamole truly got us excited about the previously unrealized potential of guacamole greatness.
31 March 2010: Cazuela’s serves breakfast all day long with a menu which includes traditional Mexican favorites such as chilaquiles, pancakes, eggs and bacon as well as New Mexico’s ubiquitous breakfast burritos. The chilaquiles are terrific, some of the very best in New Mexico in large part because they’re made with those fabulous Cazuela’s chips. This dish is simplicity itself–deep-fried tortilla chips smothered in green chile and cheese then topped with a fried egg. The green chile is of medium piquancy and imbues the chips with both a softening quality and a memorable flavor. The runniness of the yolk makes it even better.
31 March 2010: You might not expect a Mexican grill to excel at pancakes, but Cazuela’s would give any pancake house a run for their money. Whether you order a full-sized portion or a short stack (two pancakes), you’re in for a treat. The pancakes are nearly the circumference of the plate and are served with syrup tinged with more than a discernible hint of vanilla. They’re served steaming hot so the butter melts easily.
18 January 2008: Taquitos with salsa and sour cream are another not-to-be-missed option. Cazuela’s taquitos aren’t rolled up cigar-tight as you might find them in Española (which I’ve long contended makes the best taquitos in the state). Corn tortillas are engorged with a beef and bean amalgam then deep-fried. Served in orders of four, they’re sizable enough to share (not that you might want to, they’re so good).
18 January 2008: Other staples of the expanded menu include daily specials, gorditas (considered the specialty of the house), tacos, burritos, enchiladas, combination plates and handmade tamales and tortillas. Visitors expecting New Mexico style cooking (and especially New Mexican chile) will be in for a pleasant surprise. This is old Mexico in all its culinary glory. You might also be surprised by the restaurant’s rendition of gorditas (which mean fatties). Typically thick, deep-fried tortillas stuffed similarly to pita bread, Cazuela’s version actually has its ingredients piled on top. These gorditas start with handmade corn tortillas topped with shredded cheese, fresh tomatoes, lettuce and melted butter then smothered with red and (or) green chile. Beef, chicken or carnitas (braised pork cut into small cubes) can also be added.
26 December 2015: In 2009, Cazuela’s added more than a page’s worth of mariscos to the menu including ceviche which you can order as an appetizer or as a plate with rice and beans. The tostadas de ceviche are available with either camarones (shrimp) or pescado (fish) marinated in citrus juices then piled atop a crisp taco shell with red onion, tomato and avocado slices. Cazuela’s does something other Mexican restaurants don’t do. It provides a small plastic cup of jalapeño juice infused with lime so you can add even more citrus flavor as well as a piquant kick to your tostadas. It’s something other restaurants should duplicate because the mix of tangy citrus and piquant jalapeños is terrific.
4 September 2020: When on the menu at the previous location, parrillada lived up to its billing as a “special of the day,” becoming one of my very favorite Mexican entrees on the Cazuela’s menu. No matter where you travel in Latin America, you’ll find grilled meat (carne asada) on the menu. Restaurants called parrillas specialize in grilled meats and sometimes grill seafood (mariscos) and poultry as well. Only a few restaurants in the Albuquerque area offer parrillada.
Cazuela’s offers two parrilladas plates. The Nortena is made with carne asada, sizzling bacon, bell peppers, onions, chorizo and white cheese. The Carnitas Parrillada substitutes cubed pork for the carne asada. Served in one or two person portions, parrillada is served in a cast iron plate which seems to retain its heat throughout the meal. While heavily laden with ingredients for which angioplasties should come on the side, this is an excellent dish. The parrilladas plates are served with beans, rice, guacamole, sour cream and corn or flour tortillas. Some diners make tacos out of the grilled ingredients; others use their forks to stab mouthfuls of grilled goodness. Any way you eat it, parrillada is delicious.
4 September 2020: If you’re a fan of grilled meats, Cazuela’s has two additional options to consider: molcajete de carne and molcajete de pollo. A molcajete is essentially a seasoned stone mortar meticulously carved out of a single rock of vesicular basalt by a skilled artisan. Not only are they aesthetic, they are highly functional, used for crushing and grinding spices and as serving vessels. As serving vessels is how Cazuela’s uses them. Your entire meal will be served in the cavity of the molcajete which retains heat for the entire duration of your meal. This is “too hot to handle” heat that keeps your meal steaming hot for as long as half an hour.
The molcajete de carne features grilled top sirloin steak and shrimp with onions, bell peppers and mushrooms topped with melted mozzarella cheese. Similar to an order of fajitas, this entree is served with Spanish rice, beans, sour cream, guacamole and flour or corn tortillas. As good as the top sirloin is, my Kim’s favorite element is the grilled onions which are sweet and pearlescent. The melted mozzarella lends an element of saltiness while the succulent shrimp serves as a nice foil for the beef. Molcajete dishes were popularized in the Duke City area by Antojitos Lupe. Cazuela’s version is a worthy contrast.
26 December 2015: The Especialidades Marisco (Seafood Specials) section of the menu is brimming with netfuls of fresh, succulent seafood featuring pescado (fish), camarones (shrimp) and pulpo (octopus) entrees. Although seafood isn’t widely thought of as “rich,” with the right sauce, seafood can be made as rich and calorific as virtually any meal. The camarones crema de hongos (whole grilled shrimp in a cream sauce with mushrooms) is one of those almost too rich to finish dishes so good you’ll soldier on despite the sensation of being sated. There’s a wonderful contrast between the earthy, fleshy fungi and the sweet, succulent shrimp you’ll find addictive. This dish is served with a simple salad and your choice of Ranch or Italian dressings.
4 September 2020: Dessert options include sopaipillas, fried ice cream and tres leches cake. Your server will ask if you want your tres leches cake topped with a drizzle of chocolate or with fresh strawberries. In either case, it’s a delicious and unfailingly fresh cake that you’ll enjoy. The sopaipillas, three per order, are sprinkled generously with cinnamon and sugar. You can ask for honey (the real stuff, not honey-flavored syrup) on the side, but we found the cinnamon and sugar were good enough.
There are many things about Cazuela’s you’ll enjoy. It’s a hometown favorite Rio Rancho residents can’t get enough of. It’s on Sara Road directly across from Intel’s RR4 complex, but even though it’s not on the well-beaten path, it’s a destination restaurant to which you’ll return if you give it one visit.
Cazuela’s Mexican Grill
4051 Sara Road, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 4 September 2020
# OF VISITS: 7
BEST BET: Parrillada (Carnitas), Chile con Queso, Taquitos with Salsa & Sour Cream, Gorditas, Chilaquiles, Tostadas de Ceviche, Pancakes, Camarones Crema de Hongos, Molcajete de Carne, Guacamole with shrimp and squid