In 1540 while searching for the fabled seven Cities of Gold, Francisco Vasquez de Coronado camped with his soldiers near the ancient Pueblo of Kuaua on the western banks of the Rio Grande where the city of Bernalillo exists today. Coronado never did locate the mythical Cities, finding instead a thriving agricultural village inhabited since 1300.
Only the partially reconstructed ruins of Kuaua (a Tiwa word for “evergreen”) remain today, but the “City of Coronado” still celebrates the Spanish explorer whose legacy has been somewhat tarnished by revisionist history.
The conquistador’s namesake restaurant is situated just south of the ruins in a sprawling 5,000 square foot complex sitting on three acres overlooking the Rio Grande. For ambience, you can’t beat the spectacular Rio Grande riverside vistas, especially on a crisp autumn evening when the moon is coming up over the Sandias. It’s one of the most spectacular vantage points in the entire state for luminous lunar gazing.
Weather permitting, diners can take advantage of the spectacular vistas by dining al fresco under a canopy of stars where they can breathe in New Mexico’s salubrious night air. The exterior patio is a popular venue for parties and golfers alike. From two tee boxes replete with synthetic turf, golfers can test their driving skills, the target a well-maintained green a couple hundred yards away just in front of the towering cottonwoods on the banks of the Rio Grande.
The name on the restaurant’s marquee “Coronado Grill” is subtitled with “New Mexican Cuisine, Steak and Seafood,” the promise of a versatile menu. The restaurant’s interior is bright and welcoming, courtesy of large picture windows with unobstructed views of the Sandias and the cottonwoods prefacing the Rio Grande. A hearth helps keep the main dining room warm in the winter. The work of local artists festoons one wall.
Alas, ambience isn’t always enough as we found out when a change in ownership diminished the quality of cuisine we had previously experienced at the Coronado Grill. In 2007, the original owners returned to their restaurant and in addition to traditional New Mexican entrees crafted from family recipes and fresh seafood, they added an upstairs sushi bar called Rice N Roll.
Rice N Roll, closed by year’s end, offered a glimpse of a unique to New Mexico “east meets west” dining concept. The piquant bite of capsaicin imbued salsa and the earthy hot mustard-like heat of wasabi in one restaurant–it just made sense, especially if you were craving both New Mexican and Japanese cuisine, but not one over the other.
Today the upstairs area previously occupied by the sushi bar is home to Bernalillo’s first hookah lounge where you can choose from an assortment of shishas, tobaccos combined with fruit and molasses or honey. The upstairs area is also a popular venue for parties. It also hosts several local clubs and groups.
The menu is as versatile as promised on the marquee. Appetizers include New Mexico’s ubiquitous salsa and chips as well as some unique offerings you may not expect. One of those is a plate of sliders, three miniature burgers served with curly fries. Another is carne adovada egg rolls, a starter we had heretofore seen only at Papa Felipe’s where this unique Southwest meets East starter is called the Botana Crispeante.
The lunch and dinner menu also includes a few surprises including Bosque Rainbow Trout which is pan-fried with garlic, capers, mushrooms and white wine. Native New Mexicans who have fished the cold mountain streams generally like their trout prepared simply over a campfire, but this versatile fish with a thin crimson strip running lengthwise along its body, is a worthy canvass for what may seem to be disparate ingredients. Rainbow trout, though very bony, has a light, pinkish (not quite salmon-like) flesh and very little “fishiness” in its flavor. The Coronado Grill’s rendition is quite good.
Also on the lunch and dinner menu are liver, bacon & onions, an entree some people love and others disdain. A number of sandwiches are also available including the very popular BLAT (bacon, lettuce, avocado and tomato). Creativity isn’t lost on the desserts which showcase brownies imbued with the incomparable taste of green chile (more on this dessert below) and something called the Ice Cream Adobe Pie: pecan brittle with chocolate and vanilla ice cream layered between chocolate cake topped with butterscotch.
Because both the red and green chile are made from a base of chicken stock, vegetarian options are sans chile. Vegetarian entrees include a veggie sandwich and some New Mexican entrees made without chile (akin to a New Mexico day without sunshine).
New Mexico state fair attendees say you can’t beat Coronado Restaurant’s salsa which earned both first place and People’s Choice awards in 2001 and 2002. The salsa is indeed good, with lots of cilantro, jalapeno and green onion to give it some heat (about medium on the piquancy scale) and flavorful bite. It’s served with crispy red, yellow and blue corn tortilla chips. Your first bowl of salsa is complementary but subsequent bowls will cost you $2.00.
Con queso is even more expensive at more than $6 a bowl, but it just might be worth it. Coronado’s con queso includes both red and green bell peppers as well as jalapeno. If you’re used to the gloppy con queso made with processed cheese, you’ll love the Coronado Grill’s rendition. It’s some of the very best con queso in New Mexico.
The aforementioned carne adovada egg rolls are not only intriguing, they’re quite good. Four halved egg rolls are absolutely engorged with a flavorful carne adovada and cheese amalgam. As you consider what it is you’re eating and its relative uniqueness, you’ll smile at how well the concept is executed. These flavorful egg rolls are served with a housemade chipotle dip and enough chopped tomatoes and lettuce garnish to construct a small salad. Ask your server for a side of the restaurant’s delicious housemade Ranch dressing and you can have that salad. Ever the experimenter, I’m curious as to how those egg rolls would taste with a Chinese sweet and sour sauce.
In addition to a soup of the day offering, the Coronado Grill features a green chile stew which should warm both the cockles of your heart and your belly. The tomato based green chile stew includes carrots, potatoes and other vegetables, but it might take Coronado’s advance scout teams to find more than two or three pieces of pork in the entire stew. It’s a good green chile stew which, with more pork, might achieve rarified status as some of the very best in the area. A thin flour tortilla is served with the green chile stew.
A “pick three of four” combination plate options give diners the opportunity to sample more than one item from the restaurant’s New Mexican fare. The options featured are a chile relleno, taco, tamale and enchilada with your choice of red or (and) green chile. Each item is well seasoned and tasty, albeit lacking in bite. Neither the red or green chile provide much bite and for those of us who consider pain a flavor, that lack of piquancy is almost akin to lack of flavor. I say almost because the New Mexican food at the Coronado Grill is generally satisfying and delicious even without chile that bites back.
For slightly less filling fare than the combination plate, an excellent option are the large stuffed sopaipillas. That’s what they’re called on the menu and that’s how they come served–with an emphasis on large. That comes from being overstuffed with beans and cheese and if you’re willing to pay three dollars more, your choice of beef, chicken or carne adovada. There’s nothing quite as comforting as the first time your fork penetrates into the doughy envelope which houses pure deliciousness which waft upwards toward your eagerly awaiting nostrils.
As shown above, the stuffed sopaipillas are available Christmas style (red and green chile) and unlike some New Mexican restaurants, the garnish doesn’t cover the entire plate. The puffed pillow of beloved fried bread known as the sopaipilla is believed to have been invented in Albuquerque more than two centuries ago. Sopaipillas are a good thing made great when stuffed with New Mexican goodness. Few restaurants serve them as well as the Coronado Grill.
As with other plates, the stuffed sopaipillas are served with your choice of two of the following: beans, papitas and calabasitas. The calabasitas, a colorful and fresh medley of squash, corn and onions are a must-have. No matter what the season, the Coronado Grill’s rendition has the taste of summer freshness. The papitas, potatoes fried to perfection, are cut into bite-sized cubes and are crisp on the outside and soft and delicate on the inside exactly as they should be. The pinto beans are also quite good.
Enchiladas may be the quintessential New Mexican dish and the Coronado Grill’s version are quite good. Order them “Christmas style” (with both red and green chile) and with a fried egg on top to get them the way most New Mexicans like them. The enchiladas are rolled corn tortillas stuffed with cheese and your choice of beef, chicken or carne adovada.
Another popular entree is the carne adovada, cubes of pork marinated in chile. The pork is cut into bite-sized pieces and is as tender as a bird’s heart. Melted yellow and white cheeses also top Coronado’s version which blessedly is made without cumin. As with other New Mexican entrees, portion sizes are generous. Great carne adovada is melt-in-your-mouth tender and leaves a craving only a future visit will quell. It’s a testament to the Coronado Grill’s carne adovada is that it’s the entree we’ve had most often when we visit this riverside restaurant.
Dessert options include something uniquely New Mexican–brownies imbued with the incomparable taste of green chile. You don’t as much taste the green chile as you feel it in the back of your throat, not that it’s particularly piquant. The brownies are served atop a bed of blackberries and sprinkled with sugar. It’s a great way to end a nice meal.
Had the great explorer for whom this restaurant is named visited the Coronado Grill for lunch or dinner, he might have stopped his quest right then and there. It’s a welcoming milieu with terrific views and very good New Mexican food.
870 Highway 44
LATEST VISIT 5 December 2009
# OF VISITS: 10
BEST BET: Salsa & Chips, Con Queso, Stuffed Sopaipilla, Carne Adovada, Enchiladas, Carne Adovada Egg Rolls