During his 2005 visit to Taos for the taping of the Food Network’s Food Nation program, über-celebrity chef Bobby Flay, likely the best known grill chef in the world, probably didn’t do as much to put Orlando’s New Mexican restaurant on the culinary map as you might think. Ditto for all the many first place awards hanging on the restaurant’s walls–“Best Mexican Food in Taos County” every year since 2005, best red chile, best green chile, and more than 25 other awards. Flay’s visit and the accolades on the wall are merely validation of what locals and visitors in the know have long known: Orlando’s is a “must visit” dining destination in Taos.
Located in El Prado, a “suburb” of Taos about two miles northwest of the world-famous Taos Plaza, Orlando’s is as colorful a restaurant as you’ll find in Northern New Mexico. Its marquee is that of a huarache-shod, mustachioed skeletal figure attired in a Mexican sombrero and serape. In his left hand, he holds a bottle of hot sauce with the label “Taos.” His bony right hand holds a skillet with a single flaming red chile, which does not–as some might surmise–denote the manner of his demise.
The skeletal figure has returned to this world for El Dia De Los Muertos, the Day of the Dead. During this Mexican holiday, the profusion of skeletons of all sizes performing day-to-day activities signifies the return to this world of the dead who remain who they were when they lived, doing what they did. For example, the skeletal figure on the marquee, would have been a Mexican cook in life. Therefore in death, he remains a Mexican cook. The marquee is typical of the fun and folly which emanates at every turn at Orlando’s.
Orlando’s is colorful all year round, but certainly more-so in the summer when nature lends a hand and Orlando’s is backdropped by incomparable cobalt blue skies graduating in depth of color the higher above the horizon you look. Climbing toward the sky are deciduous trees in various verdant hues complemented by multicolored hollyhocks. Large polychromatic umbrellas shade the metal grate tables in which diners enjoy an al-fresco repast with dishes even more colorful than the umbrellas. On some winter days, weather permitting, Orlando’s fires up a raised fire pit outdoors for patrons who might have to wait for a seat.
The restaurant itself is relatively small (perhaps 20 tables), essentially a cramped main dining room with what appears to be an adjourning closed-in patio. Red ristras hang from the east-facing window while on the west-facing window sit glasses and candles adorned with the skeletal image on the marquee. One wall includes more than two dozen framed “People’s Choice” awards celebrating the esteem in which Taos County residents hold Orlando’s. A wooden statue of San Pasqual, the patron saint of kitchens, sits on a shelf above the wait staff’s counter where affable owner Orlando Ortega oversees the operation when he’s not glad-handing with customers. Desserts are on display under glass in a unique glass cabinet.
Progressive Spanish (unlike any New Mexican music I’ve ever heard) is continuously piped in through speakers strategically placed throughout the restaurant. As colorful and interesting as the interior restaurant is, weather permitting, you absolutely have to dine out-of-doors under one of the restaurant’s colorful umbrellas where the shade will shield you from the heat of the day while allowing you to bask under the most gloriously blue skies anywhere.
Shortly after menus are brought to your table, your dining experience begins in a colorful and delicious manner. Orlando’s salsa, served with red, yellow and blue corn tortilla chips may be the most piquant item Orlando serves. It is also one of the most beautiful salsas you’ll ever see at any restaurant. Rich red tomatoes, pearlescent onions and verdant cilantro decorate the salsa dish. For a mere pittance more, order the trio of salsa, chips and guacamole and your table will be graced with an edible and mouth-watering table decoration.
The salsa and chips are no longer complimentary. In fact, at $3.50 an order, they’re the least expensive appetizer on the menu, but well worth the price. Other appetizers include nachos (with or without beef), papas Y chile (a bowl of beer-battered French fries smothered with red chile, green chile or chile caribe topped with Jack and Cheddar cheese and tomatoes) and a quesadilla. Save for the salsa and chips, the appetizers are priced comparably to entrees.
Shrimp is one of the most popular ingredients on the menu, found in three entrees. Baja style fish tacos filled with deep-fried cod provide another seafood option. Some of the very best entrees on the menu can certainly be considered unique, not your standard New Mexican fare. Bobby Flay happened upon one such entree–Orlando’s grilled carne adovada.
Orlando’s carne adovada plate features three grilled, quarter-inch thick marinated pork medallions topped with chile caribe and served with mouth-watering posole, pinto beans and a tortilla. What makes the carne adovada unconventional is that it isn’t shredded (desebrada) as it is in most New Mexican restaurants. What makes it special is the chile caribe, a chile preparation style practiced for hundreds of years in Northern New Mexico.
The carne adovada has a smoky grilled taste inherited after only two minutes per side on a pre-heated grill. On high, the pork medallions cook quickly and remain moist. Chile caribe is a concentrated chile made from dried red chile pods, blended and processed to a smooth consistency. It’s a staple in Northern New Mexican homes and some restaurants, but perhaps nowhere as thoroughly integrated into the menu as at Orlando’s. During his visit, Bobby Flay learned and published on Food TV’s Web site, Orlando Ortega’s secrets for some of the best (albeit unconventional) carne adovada in New Mexico.
Even though Orlando’s chile caribe isn’t necessarily overly piquant, the menu does disavow responsibility for chile which might be too hot (a necessary warning for tourists (and my sister in Phoenix) who can’t stomach anything more piquant than Chef Boyardee tomato sauce). If anything, the chile caribe might be too good. It is highly flavorful, mildly piquant and absolutely delicious–a concentration of the wonderful flavors we love in chile.
The carne adovada plate is served with pinto beans and posole, both of which are quie good (even though the posole has more than a hint of cumin). If I have one complaint about these terrific standards, it’s that we weren’t provided with a spoon. A fork just doesn’t cut it when you want to consume the bean “juice” and you’ll want to finish off every trace of these perfectly prepared whole pintos. Both beans and posole are also lightly salted, a real plus considering other restaurants’ beans and posole could stand some desalinization.
Rarely, if ever do I compliment the traditional garnish which decorates many New Mexican platters, but Orlando’s tomato and lettuce garnish warrants accolades. The tomatoes are at the peak of their edible lives, a rich red color that complements the shredded lettuce which also seems to be preternaturally green. This garnish is not of the “molting” variety some restaurants shamefully present to their diners.
There’s a reason “Los Colores” (the colors) is Orlando’s most popular entree. This entree–comprised of three rolled blue corn enchiladas: one chicken with green chile,one beef with red chile and one cheese with chile caribe–is absolutely terrific, among the very best enchiladas you’ll find anywhere. Invariably the three chiles end up mixing with each other, but that’s not a bad thing since they’re all quite good, albeit only just above mild on a piquancy scale.
The beef in the beef enchilada is shredded, not ground beef as Taco Bell caliber restaurants use. The ground beef is marinated and well-seasoned so that its deliciousness is independent of the red chile atop it. That red chile is a dark red, characteristic of excellent chile which hasn’t been adulterated by a profusion of corn starch or other thickening agents. It’s a pure, delicious and wonderful chile, the way it should be prepared.
The green chile is perhaps the least piquant of the three, but it has a sweet, smoky flavor you’ll enjoy greatly. The chicken is shredded and moist, mostly white meat. The blue corn tortillas are a welcome treat and they’re perfectly prepared–easy to cut into with your fork and not greasy in the least. I’ve had this entree in each of our three visits to Orlando’s and have yet to remember to ask for a fried egg atop, so mesmerized have I been by the vibrant colors and even more exciting flavors of an excellent enchiladas entree.
The shredded beef on the enchiladas is so good, you’ll want more of it. Sate your fix with a couple of a la carte blue corn tacos which are overstuffed with shredded beef then topped with cheese, lettuce, tomatoes and red onions accompanied by a bowl of salsa. These tacos are the antithesis of every greasy, ground beef taco you’ve ever had with a profusion of freshness and moistness you’ll enjoy.
Several dessert options are available (if you somehow have room), including biscochitos, the official state cookie of New Mexico. In keeping with its convention-defying nature, Orlando’s serves a dark- or white-chocolate dipped biscochito. The dark chocolate and the anise/cinnamon cookie go very well together.
An even more unconventional dessert is Orlando’s frozen avocado pie. My Filipino friend Fred Guzman has long told me of the delicious dessert potential of avocados and I’ve long enjoyed avocado shakes at Vietnamese restaurants, but an avocado pie is something my well-practiced palate had heretofore not tried. It had me at first bite. Not quite frozen as its name implies, the Graham cracker crusted pie is imbued with the taste complements of fresh avocado and lime. This pie is not quite as lip-puckering as key lime pie or as rich as guacamole, but seems to inherit the best qualities of both. This is a must have dessert!
Orlando’s also serves an all-natural root beer bottled in Carrizozo, New Mexico called “Way 2 Cool Root Beer.” Like the restaurant, the root beer is too cool.
Orlando’s Northern New Mexican Cafe
1114 Paseo del Pueblo Norte
LATEST VISIT: 15 August 2012
# OF VISITS: 4
BEST BET: Tres Colores Enchiladas, Grilled Carne Adobada, Shredded Beef Tacos, Frozen Avocado Pie, Biscochitos, Salsa and Chips