Cazuela’s Mexican Grill – Rio Rancho, New Mexico

Cazuela’s in Rio Rancho

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.

A Painting of a Cazuela in the Foyer

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.

One of Three Capacious Dining Rooms

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.

Cazuela’s Brewing Operation on Display in Another Dining Room

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.

One of the Most Tranquil Patios in the Area

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.

Chips and Salsa

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.

Guacamole with Camarones and Pulpo (Shrimp and Octopus)

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.

Beans, Rice, Sour Cream and Guacamole Served With Several Meals

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.

Chilaquiles, some of the very best in New Mexico
Chilaquiles, some of the very best in New Mexico

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.

A short stack of pancakes at Cazuela's doesn't mean a small stack
A short stack of pancakes at Cazuela’s doesn’t mean a small stack

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).

Taquitos with salsa and sour cream
Taquitos with salsa and sour cream

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.

Fajitas

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.

Tostadas de Ceviche

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.

Parillada de Carnitas

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

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.

Inside the Molcajete

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.

Camaron Creme De Hongos

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.

Sopaipillas with Cinnamon, Sugar and Honey

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
(505) 994-9364
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 4 September 2020
# OF VISITS: 7
RATING: 19
COST: $$
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

About Gil Garduno

Since 2008, the tagline on Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog has invited you to “Follow the Culinary Ruminations of New Mexico’s Sesquipedalian Sybarite.” To date, more than 1 million visitors have trusted (or at least visited) my recommendations on nearly 1,200 restaurant reviews. Please take a few minutes to tell me what you think. Whether you agree or disagree with me, I'd love to hear about it.

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15 Comments on “Cazuela’s Mexican Grill – Rio Rancho, New Mexico”

  1. Well said! I would love to dine and debate with you in person sometime … I rarely find people that share my passions.

    I will leave you with a quote from Bayless’ book Authentic Mexican:

    Small quantities of green bell peppers (pimiento/chile morrón [verde]) are in many markets, but to my knowledge they play no major role in traditional fare, save in the Yucatán (where they’re very corrugated, quite small and called chile dulce).

    Hasta pronto

    1. El Verdadero, you appear to be an individual of great sensitivity while seeking the definitive in the world of Mexican cuisine. Since you prefer to cloak yourself in a mask of anonymity and intrigue, we have no way of knowing what your credentials are relative to defining what is or is not eaten in the various regions of Mexico and / or if it’s “authentic” or not. You have cited only two sources: your personal beliefs and preferences and “Jeff Bayless” AKA Rick Bayless.

      I’ve always found it somewhat presumptuous, pretentious, and indeed, sometimes reckless, to make judgmental and narrow statements when it comes to defining a cuisine as varied as that of Mexico. It sounds like you have done some traveling there but as I often found on my nearly monthly visits to that country over several years, food in restaurants, markets, and festivals does not always mirror that which is served in the home. You’ve cited a single source versus the many other recognized food experts on Mexican cuisine. I would refer you to the work of not only Diana Kennedy but others such as Patricia Quintana, Karen Hursh Graber, Jeffrey Pilcher, Daniel Hoyer, and Gustavo Arellano, to name just a few.

      As an aside, I’d recommend that you take a look at a nation’s food production before stating a particular food is not utilized. I daresay that as a significant producer of bell peppers, it would be unlikely that they are not commonly used in Mexico. The sheer variety of peppers available in Mexico may well eclipse the bell pepper but it’s there. And so, too, is crema, documented by the many references that are out there.

      That brings us to the matter of individual – perhaps intractable – opinion which of course, we’re all entitled to, but we need to make an effort to not convert our opinions into fact or to an intolerance of the opinions of others. I’ve previously stated in this forum that restaurants are run by real people trying to make a living and one person’s taste may well be another person’s poison. Part of the fun on Gil’s Thrilling is the dialogue and exchange which is meant to research, educate, and discover – often in banter and good humor – without damage or insult. I hope you feel the same. 

      1. Dear Becky,

        I also did a count of the relevant recipes in “The Essential Cuisines of Mexico” by Kennedy … if you’ll read the debate carefully, you’ll see that and the statistics I gleaned from it. I also did a similar count with one of Hoyer’s books “Culinary Mexico: Authentic Recipes and Traditions. In that book, there is basically ONE recipe that uses chile dulce as an essential ingredient i.e. not as a possible substitute … a recipe from the Yucatan. I have the books mentioned in the thread by Kennedy (I long ago lost my copy of The Cuisines of Mexico which I have spent literally months cooking from … so I know and respect Diana K also), by Bayless and by Hoyer in electronic form and so I can easily do the searches and give the statistics.

        I’ll just note as a final point, that so far I’m the only in this comment thread that has given ANY statistics/evidence/or proof of what they are opining. If you feel that Bayless is not a sufficient authority on the use of bell peppers in Mexican cuisine, I doubt that you would be impressed by my experiences and observations in that country.

        Respectfully,

        EV

        PS: This whole thing is somewhat silly really … looking at Mexican food authorities to argue about a restaurant that is clearly … well let’s just say that it’s not at the level of Sazón in Santa Fe for example.

  2. I usually look askance at Mexican food places that have/use/sell/try to get me to eat:

    1) Sour Cream

    2) Bell Peppers

    3) Lettuce Salads let aloneserved with Ranch/Hawaiian/Blue Cheese or other dressings

    4) Things served in molcajetes (or comales for that matter) … they’re just kitchen implements. It’s as if they want to imply they are using a mortar and pestle to grind and pound their salsas and spices when we know good and well, they aren’t.

    5) A parrillada de carnitas …. that just makes me shudder.

    Sorry for the negativity. I’m sure it’s a a great place. They have several CAPACIOUS dining rooms after all. What more could one desire in a Mexican restaurant? I’ll have to give it a try.

    1. When we’re quick to dismiss sour cream and bell peppers as inauthentic ingredients on Mexican cuisine, we’re painting Mexican cuisine with a very broad brush. As with the cuisine of all great culinary cultures, there are vast regional variances in how foods are prepared. Sour cream (or more likely Mexican crema) and bell peppers are widely used on many recipes published by Diana Kennedy, the doyenne of Mexican cuisine.

      Diana also notes that “Molcajetes can be used as a serving dish or heated to a high temperature and then used to cook food.” There’s no doubt she’s personally witnessed the use of a molcajete for both purposes and probably even traced its usage across the millennia.

      Parrillada is very popular throughout Latin America. Cazuela’s version includes a triumvirate of porcine products: pork carnitas, bacon and chorizo. How can that possibly be bad?

      Try Cazuela’s and let me know what you think.

      1. In Spanish there is an expression, “marrear la perdiz” (lit: to make the partridge dizzy, but meaning saying much that is true but in a misleading way). I think, maybe not intentionally, you are marreando la perdiz.

        It is indeed true, that “crema espesa” and “crema agria” is used in many of the cuisines of Mexico. But except for a few special dishes here and there it’s really not that common. Where the use of sour cream comes from in a Mexican restaurant in the USA is in a large part (I think) from American tastes that have been trained for it by its heavy use for example in California Mexican Food and of course Taco Bell. Especially when it is put on the side as a condiment, that is very unusual in Mexico.

        You cite Diana Kennedy for the use of bell peppers (chile dulce). Again, yes in a very very few traditional Mexican dishes it might be used but again it’s extremely rare. Since you cite Diana I will cite Jeff Bayless and in his landmark book “Authentic Mexican” there is not one single recipe with bell peppers.

        Carnitas, are usually pork shoulder boiled in lard. The thought of them on a parrilla appeared to me to be ridiculous. Maybe, they must really meant “small pieces of meat” (carnitas) cooked on a grill. In that case, my bad.

        Whether you find the use of a molcajete as a serving platter to be tacky or not, I’ll just say, “Para los gustos, son los colores”. And as I said, I would be willing to try the restaurant, but from your description, I personally would not go in with a lot of hope.

        1. That’s twice this week my credibility has been called to question. I’m not trying to mislead anyone nor am I trying to run for political office!

          Bell peppers are native to Mexico, Central America, and Northern South America. Indigenous peoples throughout these regions used the bell pepper extensively in their cooking. It’s still in wide use in Mexico, whose cuisine is as varied and diverse as that of any nation. Daniel Hoyer’s authoritative book “Mayan Cuisine: Recipes from the Yucatan Region” is replete with recipes calling for bell pepper. I can quote dozens of other sources (certainly with more credibility on the subject than I) which tout the use of bell pepper in Mexican cooking.

          I’ve met (albeit briefly) Rick Bayless a couple of times and have the utmost respect for what he’s done for Mexican cuisine, but as Wikipedia (and other sources) note, he “specializes in traditional Mexican cuisine with modern interpretations.” When it comes to traditional (no deviation) interpretation of Mexican cuisine, Bayless takes a backseat to Diana Kennedy. Further, Bayless has written a number of books on Mexican cusine which include numerous recipes listing bell pepper as an ingredient.

          Insofar as crema, there are also dozens of sources which would refute your claim that it’s not that common in Mexican cooking in the Land of Montezuma. I will agree that it’s not often “put on the side as a condiment” (probably a concession to Tex-Mex cooking), but crema is widely used in both savory and sweet dishes. Unlike the bell pepper which is native to Mexico, crema “migrated” to North America and was probably introduced in Mexican cooking by the French.

          As you surmise, the “carnitas” used on the parrillada does refer to small pieces of meat cooked on a grill.

          The one Mexican restaurant in New Mexico I would most encourage you to try is La Guelaguetza, a Oaxacan restaurant which I consider the very best Mexican restaurant to ever grace the Land of Enchantment. You might even find a dish or two there with bell pepper or crema.

          More importantly, I’m very impressed by your use of Spanish dichos, the nuggets of wisdom nuestros antepasados passed down.

          1. Querido Gil,

            We’ll just have to agree to disagree. I have a copy of Diane Kennedy’s “The Essential Cuisines of Mexico”. There are literally on the order of 200 recipes and variations in the book. Bell peppers are mentioned 8 times … total. In three of the instances they are suggested as substitutes for a traditional Mexican chile. In the other cases, they are in new recipes being created by Mexican cooks (which is great … innovation is the key to preserving an art). The use of bell peppers came about I think in the 70’s when Tex-Mex cooks started the fajitas craze (a lamentable innovation). Now even in New Mexico most restaurants have fajitas … of course always served with bell peppers. Most of the time they are not even grilled over an open fire (parrilladas as in the traditional carne asadas of the north) but rather just fried in skillets (or heaven help me on a comal).

            I can give similar statistics for the use of crema agria …. but again you can say 8 instances out of hundred recipes are “widespread” and I’ll say it’s seldom. Who is right?

            I think rarely can you expect a restaurant to be excellent across a wide variety of cuisines, can you? If they have dishes from Texas, from California, from New Mexico, from Oaxaca, from Mérida, etc etc … what you have is a dog’s breakfast of choices that very seldom will exhibit the complexity possible of the individual parts. Of course a very few great cooks can always transcend and make the exception. Perhaps the restaurant you’ve reviewed in the article is one of them. I would be very interested to try the Oaxacan restaurant. I’ve spent quite a bit of time in that state. One of the great cuisines of Mexico or anywhere for that matter.

            I admire your honesty and your willingness to debate me on a subject that we are obviously both passionate about on YOUR OWN BLOG. I think that speaks to an admirable intellectual honesty on your part.

            Saludos …

            1. And I admire your ability and willingness to debate without resorting to rancor and name-calling. There is such a pervasive lack of civility throughout society and especially the blogosphere where people are emboldened by their perceived anonymity to be mean-spirited. It’s not enough to disagree with someone else’s opinion or choice, dissenters on both sides of an opinion seem to have a base need to resort to derisive pejoratives. Discourse on any topic, but particularly politics, is fruitless when neither party can concede any merit whatsoever about the opposing viewpoint. Thank you for a spirited and mature discussion and for sharing your passion. Someday we’ll have to debate over a bowl of mole (which sometimes includes bell pepper).

      2. Old school and real Mexican food don’t require sour cream never has never will. That’s just a condiment that was added but never authentic

  3. I love the new Cazuelas. When they moved the food seemed lighter on the grease department and the taste even better. They also upped the ambiance.

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