A traditional corrido from the Mexican coastal state of Veracruz recounts the story of a smiling woman with magic hands. The kitchen is the world of Maria Chuchena and the intoxicating aromas and incomparable flavors she concocts in that world are utterly unforgettable. With her cooking, Maria fills the world with surprises. If corridos have sequels and characters in folk songs bear offspring, Maria Chuchena’s progeny might well be Antonio Matus, chef and owner of the eponymous Antonio’s: A Taste of Mexico in Taos, New Mexico. Like the corrido, Antonio is from Veracruz and like Maria Chuchena, the kitchen is his world. It is where he has been filling Taos with utterly unforgettable surprises for more than a decade.
After working in several dining establishments in the Taos area, Antonio launched his self-titled restaurant at the historic El Torreon Hacienda in El Prado, just north of Taos. The hacienda which dates back to 1847 sits on acreage given to the Valdez family by the famous and infamous Padre Antonio José Martínez, the ecclesiastical leader of northern New Mexico whose unique style of Catholicism was in direct opposition to Archbishop Lamy, the French archbishop who reorganized the Catholic Church in the Southwest.
In 2005, Antonio’s relocated to a modest, but very charming and stylish Norteno adobe hacienda in Ranchos de Taos. Its intimate and welcoming milieu accommodated about 40 patrons in the main dining room with additional seating at the bar. Naturally distressed dark wood floors, muted yellow viga ceilings and burnt orange walls hosting folkloric murals created a memorable ambience though it was Antonio’s food which made the most lasting impression.
Antonio’s, the restaurant was to close in 2007, but Antonio, the popular chef, opened Rellenos Cafe by Antonio just southeast of the Taos Plaza. In a maze of tiny rooms, the restaurant focused on less expensive fare including take-away offerings and even free delivery service to businesses on or near the plaza. Rellenos Cafe wasn’t large enough to contain the flavors that needed to express themselves under Antonio’s skilled hands. In the spring of 2009, Antonio’s reopened, this time in a historical building on Guadalupe Plaza reputed to have housed the town’s original brothel. Stories abound about tunnels under the plaza that led from the jail to this den of iniquity. The tunnels were rumored to have been used by local lawmen to come and go unseen.
Characteristic of Antonio’s previous restaurants, his new venue is a beautiful shrine to his cuisine. A bright, airy courtyard befitting the cool Taos evenings complements a bright and expansive restaurant with multiple dining rooms. The color palette is muted with walls showcasing the evocative art of Taos artist Charles Collins. His oil paintings tend to be profoundly spiritual and have a sense of timelessness and peace. Next door is Nuestra Senora de Guadalupe, a relatively new church (circa 1961) by New Mexico Catholic church standards. The peals of church bells resonate as if to call parishioners to mass. The timbre of their tintinnabulation seems just part of the character and ambience at the restaurant.
Ambience not withstanding, it’s Antonio’s cuisine which is the biggest draw to his restaurant. His menu strikes a balance between contemporary and traditional, exotic and local. The genesis for many of his dishes is his native Veracruz, a region influenced by the convergence of cultures and the warm coastal waters of the Mexican Gulf. The menu also features fare from the Puebla area, considered Mexico’s “cradle of corn.”
When Antonio introduced one of the dishes for which Puebla is best known, he had no idea the dish would become his restaurant’s most popular entree. Although traditionally a Christmas dish, Antonio enjoyed it year round as a child growing up in Mexico and surmised perhaps his loyal patrons might enjoy it as well. Today, his Chile Relleno en Nogada is so popular his restaurant often sells out well before closing time–much to the chagrin of hungry patrons.
You haven’t had a chile relleno unless you’ve had Antonio’s; it’s wholly unlike any chile relleno you’ve ever experienced. Antonio engorges a poblano pepper with pork, apples, pears, tomato, onion, garlic and raisins then seasons the unlikely amalgam with such spices as cinnamon, nutmeg and ginger. He then smothers the entire concoction with a walnut brandy cream sauce and serves the beauteous entree with rice and beans.
It may sound like a dessert offering, but it isn’t. Unlike the fusion of sweet and savory tastes in many Asian dishes, there is a clear demarcation between tastes. There is also tremendous synergy as this sweet and savory combination works very well together. Its aroma is like cinnamon-blessed apple pie and there are hints of fruit in every mouthful, but there’s also the flavor of delicious pork. Every morsel is like an orgiastic competition within your taste buds with all 10,000 of them coming out the winner.
The three-page menu includes such house specialties as Barbacoa de Borrego, a marinated and roasted leg of lamb; Cochinita Pibil, pork marinated in achiote and citrus juices then roasted; Elk Fajitas served with all the works; and Seafood Paella. A page is also dedicated to appetizers, soups and salads, all of which are beautifully described.
One of Antonio’s most popular appetizers is Guacamole which is prepared table-side from a wheeled cart and is served with salsa and chips. Sure, you’ve had guacamole all over New Mexico and after a while, most of it has a familiar sameness (maybe even boringness). Antonio’s guacamole is unique and not just because of the entertainment value of watching someone prepare it for you. Avocados are mashed at the peak moment of deliciousness then mixed with tomatoes, cilantro, jalapenos (essentially a pico de gallo) and lime. You’re welcome to request the level of piquancy you want in your guacamole, an invitation for chileheads like me to turn it up a notch.
The salsa is a beautiful, rich red with just a hint of a piquant bite and the hint of smoky chipotle. Chips are low in salt and formidable enough to scoop up Gil-sized portions of salsa. The salsa isn’t watery so it doesn’t run off the chips and onto your lap.
Chips are also served with another popular appetizer, Mahi Mahi Ceviche. In Hawaiian, Mahi Mahi translates to “strong-strong,” but is more commonly known as Dolphinfish (even though the fish isn’t related to the dolphin) or Dorado. Its flesh is firm and has a sweet flavor with little of the characteristic “fishy” flavor of some aquatic foods. It’s an exceptionally delicious fish, especially when served in flavor combinations of sweet and tangy.
Antonio’s Mahi Mahi Ceviche is not only delicious, it is beautiful courtesy of chopped tomatoes, cilantro, and avocado. The citrus infusion makes the combination sing, but if lip-pursing seafood starts to get to be a bit much, you can cut the taste with an accompanying chipotle dressing that’s got bite and flavor.
Carne Asada a la Tampiquena is so prominent in Mexican restaurants that it’s become passé. At Antonio’s, we discovered the most tender Tampiquena style grilled beef tenderloin steak we’ve ever had in New Mexico. Marinated in spices and lime, it also had absolutely no fat or sinew, giving it a “melt in your mouth” quality. As Barbara Streisand might say, “it’s like butter.”
It’s only fitting that Antonio’s would excel at another Yucatan specialty, Cochinita pibil, a traditional slow-roasted pork dish in which an entire suckling pig is marinated in a strongly acidic citrus juice, colored with annato seed ( a derivative of achiote) then wrapped in banana leaf for roasting. Unwrapping the banana leaf is similar to unwrapping a tamale or even a Christmas gift. Enveloped by the banana leaf is some of the most tender and juicy pork you can find.
The banana leaves, although completely inedible, are used for slow, moist cooking of tough (or tender as in the case of cochinita pibil) meats as well as for quicker steaming, baking or grilling of delicate ingredients such as chicken and fish. Used while still fresh and green, they lend a very moist quality to any food prepared in them and also imbue foods with a delicious herbal flavor. The marriage of citrus tanginess and herbal freshness is heavenly.
Entrees are served with pinto beans, rice and just a bit of pico de gallo. The pinto beans are perfectly prepared, but the rice is fairly unremarkable.
Flan is an Antonio’s dessert specialty, but other post-prandial options are available. One of the best is a chipotle infused chocolate cake served with a rich vanilla bean ice cream. The cake is as light and moist as flourless cakes with a brown sheen of rich frosting and just an intimation of chipotle. The cold lushness of the ice cream added a dimension of teeth-chattering cold to the warm cake.
Having visited the more intimate and warm Antonio’s restaurant in Ranchos de Taos nearly three years before dining at the louder, more festive Antonio’s near the Taos Plaza, our preference would be for the former. Antonio’s is a lively restaurant with tremendous appeal for crowds, but we found it just a bit loud. Service is not quite as personable and attentive as we remembered from our inaugural visit, but the food was still first-rate—and the chile relleno en nogada is worth a visit in and of itself.
Maria Chuchena would be proud!
Antonio’s: A Taste of Mexico
1379 Paseo Del Pueblo Sur
Taos, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 30 May 2009
1st VISIT: 29 September 2006
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Guacamole, Salsa and Chips, Carne Asada a la Tampiquena, Chile Relleno en Nogada, Mahi Mahi Ceviche