I was a strapping lad of fifteen when hired as a “box boy” at a country store in Peñasco. Now, being a box boy at a small village country store is to being a bagger at Smith’s or Albertson’s in Albuquerque what the red chile at Mary & Tito’s is to McCormick’s chili seasoning mix. The former is so much more than the latter. For one thing, my duties included bailing hay, rounding up cattle, stacking lumber, loading cement, operating a forklift and every once in a while actually bagging or boxing groceries. The job kept me in great physical condition for football season.
“Eloy,” my fellow “box boy” was a crusty curmudgeon sixty-some years old who didn’t always take direction well and expended more energy getting out of work than actually doing it. Every morning when our boss, a lovely and gracious woman, gave us our marching orders, he would respond “si patrona” (“yes boss.”) after each order. On busy days those orders came with the rapid fire cadence of an auctioneer. Eloy’s responded just as quickly, “si patrona, si patrona, si patrona.” Occasionally he sneaked in in a “si cabrona” (the literal term means female goat, but is more often used in a profane and insulting manner) amidst all the “si patronas.” She either never noticed it or was too ladylike to acknowledge it.
Even though we have a very egalitarian marriage and tend to complete household chores together, my Kim does maintain a “honey do” list of “manly” chores I’m better equipped to perform. Every once in a while when she recites the litany of chores my procrastination has allowed to stack up, I revert to Eloy-like responses. As she rattles them off, my acknowledgement is “si patrona” peppered by an occasional and very affectionate “si cabrona” (she’s heard and loves the story). It’s the response I utter when she kiddingly suggests dinner at the Olive Garden or any other restaurant of that ilk.
When, however, she suggested we try a brand new restaurant named El Patron, the only fitting response was “si patrona.” As a name for a Mexican restaurant “El Patron” is a very popular choice with dozens of non-affiliated, non-chain restaurants by that name throughout the United States. The Albuquerque rendition is an independent restaurant as well, owned by Albuquerque impresarios Nick Kapnison and Jimmy Daskalos. Launched April 5th, 2012, El Patron is located at 10551 Montgomery, N.E., an area increasingly populated by commodious restaurant edifices. At 11,689 square feet, El Patron may be the largest.
If the names of owners Nick Kapnison and Jimmy Daskalos sound familiar, it’s because this dynamic duo has owned a triumvirate of highly regarded restaurants in the Duke City. Yanni’s Mediterranean has been proffering some of the city’s best Greek cuisine since 1995 while the eponymous Nick & Jimmy’s has earned a loyal following since launching in 2009. The entrepreneurial duo has also had a hand in other enterprises throughout Albuquerque, not all of them restaurants.
If the address (10551 Montgomery, N.E.) also sounds familiar, it’s because Duke City diners on Albuquerque’s Northeast Heights visited that location to get their Garduño’s fix for nearly two and a half decades. The sprawling structure and its parking lot encompass nearly two full acres. Only El Pinto at 18,000 square feet eclipses El Patron for sheer size among the city’s New Mexican restaurants while Sadie’s Dining Room seating capacity of 375 is in the same ballpark. As you approach El Patron from the downward sloping east, it looks like a cross between a rambling hacienda and a citadel.
Step into the restaurant and it looks even more expansive than it does from the outside, if that’s possible. Even the foyer is capacious. The bar itself is larger than many restaurants. The main dining room is bathed in glorious New Mexico sunlight courtesy of strategically placed skylights. Perched on a ledge overlooking the dining room is a mannequin-like mariachi trio. Appropriately the music reverberating from the restaurant’s sound system is a “desfile de exitos,” compilation of corridos, rancheras and cumbias from some of Mexico’s most illustrious artists: Vicente Fernandez, Antonio Aguilar, Jose Alfredo Jimenez, Lola Beltran and more.
Though the restaurant had been open scarcely more than a week when we first visited, service was generally first-rate, usually indicative of a very professional and seasoned wait staff and management. Most, if not all, restaurants have start-up problems, but those problems can be mitigated by ownership which has seen and done it all. El Patron operates as well as a finely tuned requinto. The wait staff is courteous and on-the-spot with drink refills. If anything, the wait staff was even better two years later when we visited for a second time. That’s usually a sign of a well-managed restaurant which wants guests to return.
The menu, though not a compendium of New Mexican and Mexican favorites, is quite extensive and it offers some relatively unique dishes. It also includes a disclaimer about the chile not being for the faint of heart (or something to that effect). The only menu item with cumin (about one part per million we were assured) is the Spanish rice. Most of the entrees come with your choice of two sides: calabasitas, papitas, whole beans, refried beans, black beans, Spanish rice and more.
Shortly after you’re seated, a basket of chips and a bowl of salsa are delivered to your table. They’ll also be replenished faithfully because it’s a two-bowl minimum quality salsa. The salsa isn’t especially piquant, but it has a fresh and lively flavor. What bite it does have comes from jalapeños. The chips are relatively thin, but crispy and not in dire need of desalinization as many restaurant chips seem to be.
15 April 2012: Among the appetizers are red chile ribs, an item Casa de Benavidez popularized many years ago and which few New Mexican restaurants prepare well. At El Patron, the chile ribs are fall-off-the-bone tender and slathered in a sauce that’s more barbecue sauce (sweet and somewhat sticky) than chile (only a hint and without much piquancy). There are four ribs to an order and you’ll polish them off quickly, perhaps even gnaw at the bone to make sure you capture all the tender tendrils of the baby backs.
6 June 2014: If there’s one savory dish that evokes images of beaches and summertime, it’s ceviche. El Patron’s version is created from very fresh seafood, citrus juices which pack a lip-pursing punch and other ingredients which give it a surprisingly refreshing flavor profile. White fish and shrimp shrimp are marinated with lemon-lime, tomato juice, tequila, jalapeño, avocado, diced tomatoes and a touch of cilantro all served in a cocktail goblet. Saltine crackers are provided, but the seafood goes best by itself or with chips. El Patron’s ceviche is a bit more expensive than ceviche served in most Duke City New Mexican restaurants, but it’s also some of the best, most “summery” in town.
15 April 2012: The carne adovada is similarly tender though the kitchen staff’s heavy-handedness with Mexican oregano renders the dish just a bit acerbic. A fried egg on top mitigates the adovada’s acerbic qualities somewhat. If your experiences are that many restaurants serve chintzy portions of carne adovada, you’ll be well pleased with the generous serving at El Patron. Two side dishes which complement the adovada are the papitas and calabasitas. The papitas are thinly sliced and heavily salted. The calabasitas are perfectly prepared, neither too soft and chewy nor overly hard and crunchy.
15 April 2012: The menu offers several combination platters including perhaps the most comprehensive combo platter of any New Mexican restaurant in the Duke City. Picture if you will, a cheese enchilada, a chile relleno, a tamale, a taco, carne adovada and two sides. It’s a veritable family feast. Several items are notable, especially the tamale which has a pronounced corn masa flavor and an abundance of tender tendrils of shredded pork. The hard-shell taco (with your choice of shredded or ground beef) is also quite good, the beef far more prominent than lettuce and tomato. As for the heat promised on the menu, neither the red or green chile delivers (unless you’re used to getting your salsa from New York City.)
6 July 2014: One of the most colorful entrees on the menu is the blue corn enchiladas served Christmas style (red and green chile) with a fried egg on top and beans and Spanish rice on the side. El Patron gives you the option of having your enchiladas served either stacked or flat (my preference). Chicken or ground beef will cost you a bit extra. Sweeter and more delicious than their yellow corn counterparts, the blue corn tortillas are a perfect canvas for cheese and ground beef topped with chile and a fried egg. The ground beef is nicely seasoned and not overly salty. The pinto beans are terrific as is the Spanish rice. Alas, a side of papitas yielded some of the saltiest cubed tubers imaginable. Our server replaced them without hesitation.
6 July 2014: El Patron lets you have fajitas your way, offering your choice of chicken, beef, shrimp or a combination of any two. You can also request veggie fajitas. Heck, the grilled onions are so sweet, juicy and delicious, we might be tempted to order grilled onion fajitas next time. The grilled meats and shrimp are marinated in El Patron’s “special sauce” then are grilled with onions and bell peppers and served with pinto beans, Spanish rice, pico de gallo, guacamole, sour cream and flour tortillas. The chicken and beef are tender, nicely seasoned and delicious, but it’s those sweet onions that really stand out.
Sopaipillas are served with the honey flavored syrup most restaurants offer, but your server will accommodate your request for real honey if you ask. It makes a difference. The sopaipillas aren’t pillowy puffy, but they’re thick and billow with wisps of steam when you cut into them to deposit the sweet honey. The dessert menu also includes a number of postprandial treats made in-house.
6 July 2014: The blueberry bread pudding is a dense brick of sweet, moist and near cloying goodness served steaming hot. If just a pinch of salt is added to this bread pudding to offset the sweetness, it’s not easily discernible. This is one sweet bread pudding, emphasis on sweet. The natillas, a cinnamon-rich custard dish, are also sweet, but a generous dusting of cinnamon provides an excellent foil.
There will be critics and detractors who will denounce El Patron as a parody of its predecessor (El Bruno, which replaced the Garduño’s on Fourth Street faces the same criticisms), but mostly there will be contented guests who will return for generous portions of good food served in an inviting milieu by friendly attendants.
El Patron Restaurant & Cantina
10551 Montgomery Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 6 July 2014
1st VISIT: 15 April 2012
# of VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Combination Plate, Carne Adovada, Red Chile Ribs, Sopaipillas with honey, Salsa and Chips, Ceviche, Blue Corn Enchiladas, Fajitas, Blueberry Bread Pudding, Natillas