in February, 2020, Chef’s Pencil crunched the numbers of Google searches for ethnic cuisines to determine the most popular ethnic cuisines in America. The two most popular ethnic cuisines were deemed to be Mexican and Chinese. Denizens of the East preferred Chinese cuisine while the West went for Mexican food. Google data showed that Mexican cuisine is the most popular ethnic cuisine in 27 states–including New Mexico. Unfortunately, the data didn’t distinguish between Mexican and New Mexican or even between Mexican and Tex Mex.
In reporting Google’s findings, KRQE interviewed several New Mexicans, some of whom were rather expressive about Google’s search results not recognizing New Mexican cuisine as a unique culinary offering. They need not be. Google’s search algorithm used rather shallow categorization to determine what constitutes ethnic foods. That algorithm, for example, also didn’t distinguish between various types of Chinese cuisine: Szechwan, Hunan, Cantonese, and six others.
The point remains, however, that outside the Land of Enchantment New Mexican cuisine is not widely recognized as a unique offering. Even some national culinary cognoscenti tend to consider it an offshoot of Mexican cuisine or worse, a derivative of Tex-Mex. To some degree, that’s understandable. Only within the past few years has New Mexico made a considerable effort to have its cuisine distinguished as unique. That challenge is exacerbated by several restaurants throughout our enchanted state serving New Mexican food, but labeling themselves as “Mexican.” Is there any wonder confusion abounds?
I didn’t expect to witness that confusion first-hand, especially not from native New Mexicans. Sadly, that’s exactly what happened when I invited several colleagues to join me for my inaugural visit to Federico’s Mexican Food shortly after its April, 2005 launch in Rio Rancho. One born-and-raised in Albuquerque colleague was dismayed not to see green chile on the menu. Another, a comrade from Clovis wondered why there were no sopaipillas on the menu. Still another, an amigo from Alcalde wondered why tacos were stuffed with so many different meats, not just ground beef.
I hadn’t expected to explain the distinct differences between the cuisines of Old and New Mexico, but after doing so was entrusted to order for my naive colleagues. Their only caveat was for me to order something “authentically” Mexican, something they hadn’t before tried. I must have done a good job because every once in a while, one of them would report back on their latest find at Federico’s. Federico’s earned their affection with authentic treasures from the northern Mexican states, available for dining-in or taking-out 24 hours a day.
The most noticeable difference and the one I thought for sure my colleagues would most lament is the absence of New Mexico’s favorite fruit and state vegetable, the ubiquitous red and green chile we love so much. Many of the entrees at Federico’s don’t offer much piquancy at all, relying instead on other ingredients to provide flavor. Chile not withstanding, my colleagues loved Federico’s prodigious portions, each burrito weighing in at a strapping full pound. The tortillas are engorged near the bursting point with quality and delicious ingredients.
Aside from the visual assault of Federico’s unnaturally bright (but certainly not offensive color pallet) walls the first thing that will hit you when you approach Federico’s is the aroma of meats and onions on the grill. It’s a pleasant precursor of things to come. The challenge will be picking from a wide and varied menu that, in addition to the aforementioned burritos (including a number of breakfast burritos), includes tortas, various combination plates, tostadas, tacos and tortas.
10 April 2020: My associate from Alcalde whose experiences with tacos had been limited to ground beef tacos, lettuce and chopped tomatoes on a hard-shelled corn tortilla, was wide-eyed and blown away upon receipt of two carne asada tacos. It’s what my Kim orders virtually every time we visit Federico’s. These tacos are engorged with grilled and chopped beef, guacamole and some of the very best pico de gallo you’ll find anywhere. Premier stuff! Two soft corn tortillas have their work cut out for them in trying to contain all the ingredients. My advice is to just let the delicious detritus spill onto the paper bowl and spoon it up later. The carne asada is nicely marinated with some morsels having a tinge of char.
10 April 2020: During that fateful first foray to Federico’s some fifteen years ago, I ordered a fish torta for my Duke City colleague, a sandwich fanatic in the order of Dagwood Bumstead. It was his first (but certainly not the last) torta. Federico’s fish torta is stuffed with hoki (a densely fleshed fish which holds up to grilling, baking or steaming and which has a mild, slightly sweet flavor that pairs well with sauces and vegetables), cabbage, tartar sauce and pico de gallo. Though several of Federico’s tortas have crossed my lips, this is my favorite of Federico’s offerings. In fact, it’s the only fish torta anywhere I’ve enjoyed.
10 April 2020: One item that wasn’t on Federico’s menu fifteen years ago, but which our server told us has been a huge hit is the carne asada fries which are made with the same terrific carne asada as is used on the tacos. French fries are the canvas upon which this masterpiece is built. Atop the fries you’ll find guacamole, sour cream and melted cheese. It’s a caloric overachiever’s dream, a sloppy, messy mound of deliciousness. We ordered it with the intent of saving most of it for breakfast, but three (or ten) sample bites later, we had devoured about half of it. The remainder was somewhat mushy, but still good.
10 April 2020: One dish that definitely holds up better than carne asada fries is steak fajitas (marinated steak, grilled onions, bell peppers, tomatoes and sliced avocados) served with rice. Because the marinade used on the steak has more time to sink in if you refrigerate the fajitas overnight, the steak is even more delicious when grilled the following day. Unlike fajitas at New Mexican restaurants, these weren’t served with sour cream, shredded cheese and pico de gallo and the flour tortillas wouldn’t hold muster in a New Mexican restaurant.
16 September 2020: When machaca was originally made, dried and spiced meat was rehydrated and cooked down again, a technique made necessary because of the difficulty of preserving fresh meat. When families got tired of eating dried meat (jerky), they made machaca. Today it’s more commonly made by slow-cooking meat in a spice mixture. Most often it’s shredded into tender tendrils and used for making tacos, burritos and tortas. Federico’s machaca torta (shredded beef, onion, tomato, bell pepper, egg and cheese) is constructed with mostly moist ingredients save for the egg. The egg doesn’t exactly bring ruination to an otherwise good torta, but it certainly makes it less delicious.
Federico’s is the quintessential purveyor of Mexican food from our southern neighbor’s northern states. It’s the type of restaurant that won over three converts fifteen years ago. Those converts continue to frequent this delightful restaurant along with denizens of the City of Vision.
Federico’s Mexican Food
1590 Deborah Road, S.E.
Rio Rancho, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 16 September 2020
# OF VISITS: 7
BEST BET: Fish Torta; Ham Torta; Shrimp Burrito, Rolled Tacos, Chile Relleno Burrito, Carne Asada Burrito, Chorizo Torta, Carne Asada Taco, Carne Asada Fries, Steak Fajitas, Machaca Torta