Pete’s Cafe – Belen, New Mexico

Pete’s Cafe in Belen

Located along the braided routes of the historic Camino Real (the Royal Road) which skirts the Rio Grande, Belen remains the hub for two major rail lines. To this day, an average of 70 trains travel through Belen every 24-hour period. In 1901, to capitalize on the railway traffic, the Fred Harvey Company built one of the sixteen Harvey Houses it would build in New Mexico. Belen’s Harvey House provided lunch and dining facilities in close proximity to the tracks. The Harvey House was bustling with railroad crews well into the twentieth century’s fourth decade and served as a social center for the community until its closure shortly after World War II ended.

Four years after the war to end all wars, Pete and Eligia Torres launched Pete’s Cafe across the street and acequia from the old Harvey House. Though neither had any restaurant experience, they delighted travelers and railway employees with their cafe–even though the Torres family didn’t begin serving New Mexican cuisine for about twenty years when local traffic surpassed train traffic.

Pete's portrait hangs over the fireplace in one of the restaurant's dining rooms
Pete’s portrait hangs over the fireplace in one of the restaurant’s dining rooms

With more than sixty years of serving the community of Belen, Pete’s continues to thrive because it operates under a simple philosophy: Not the best because it’s the oldest; it’s the oldest because it’s the best. For nearly six decades, Pete’s has held steadfast to three strong commitments, the first based on the belief that chile is basic to New Mexico. Pete’s celebrates the growing, harvesting and preparation of chile in the family home across generations. That chile is prevalent in the menu. Surprisingly, it’s not chile grown in the Belen area, but from a farm in Hatch which has been providing some of the very best chile in New Mexico for years.

The second commitment centers around authenticity. The chile Pete’s selects is prepared fresh daily. Great care is taken to ensure the use of fresh ingredients, proper cooking time and temperature and strict adherence to to time-tested recipes. The green chile, in particular, is better (by far) than any green chile served in the Duke City where green chile serves as mere plate decoration in some restaurants–it has minimal flavor and no piquancy.

The third and most important commitment is the striving to ensure consistency in the flavor of each and every meal served daily. Pete’s wants to provide their loyal patrons with the same delicious taste they have come to expect over the years.

Some of the very best chile con queso in New Mexico!
Some of the very best chile con queso in New Mexico!

My first visit to Pete’s Cafe was in 1979 when at a mere 30 years old it was already very well established as perhaps the most popular restaurant in Belen. Today, as the city’s oldest restaurant, it is practically venerated. Pete’s Cafe is a local institution! Over the years Pete’s has grown from a one-room diner with a capacity of forty to a sprawling restaurant that can accommodate 140 patrons in several tastefully decorated, art-filled dining rooms.

The front room includes exposed red brick with green foliage reaching skyward toward skylights that bring in New Mexico’s sun. A large dining room beyond the kitchen has a unique latilla ceiling while a north-facing room includes stained glass windows. Every dining room features either or both woven tapestries and framed paintings or prints. Just above the fireplace on an east-facing dining room is a framed picture of Pete Torres, who passed on to his eternal reward in 1977. Eligia’s photograph is at his right.

Salsa and Chips at Pete’s Cafe in Belen

Married four years when the restaurant opened in 1949, Eligia has remained a constant presence from the onset. She still comes to work every day and serves as the restaurant’s official chile tester, ensuring the consistency and authenticity that defines Pete’s commitments to their patrons. Eligia’s daughter Theresa Padilla and her husband Alfred work hand-in-hand with her.

Being restaurateurs is part and parcel of the Torres pedigree. Pete, Jr. and his wife Hortencia founded Teofilo’s restaurant in Los Lunas. Teofilo’s is situated in a yawning hacienda registered as a State Landmark. Eligia’s grandson Japhen Torres opened the Zia Cafe, a New Mexican restaurant in Chicago’s Lincoln Park area. All indications are that Chicagoans love Zia’s sopaipillas and salsa. They darned well should! After all, the Zia Cafe has a long and proud heritage defined by commitment to chile, authenticity and consistency.

Beneath all that garnish are some pretty wonderful enchiladas
Beneath all that garnish are some pretty wonderful enchiladas

Around Belen, locals recite one of the mottos for which Pete’s is known–Pete’s Cafe: beef or bean, red or green. New Mexicans know this is in reference to with what your burritos or sopaipillas are stuffed as well as how they are topped.

Shortly after you’re seated, a basket of crisp chips and a small porcelain ramekin of fiery salsa make it to your table. The salsa is a rich red jalapeno based salsa with a bite to it. A re-serving of salsa is complementary. After that there’s a small charge. Even better than the salsa is Pete’s chile con queso which I rate up there with the con queso at El Bruno’s in Cuba. Pete’s con queso is made from a blend of Cheddar and Velveeta cheeses, jalapenos and other ingredients, some of which we were unable to discern, perhaps even caramelized onions. In any case, it is quite good!

Carne adovada with potatoes
Carne adovada with potatoes

The menu includes all the New Mexican favorites, but what distinguishes them from other restaurants is the red and green chile, both of which have an earthy, fresh flavor and plenty of heat. Unlike at lesser New Mexican restaurants, Pete’s red chile isn’t overwhelmed by thickening agents such as corn starch. It’s pure, unadulterated red chile that impresses itself on your taste buds and memory. The green chile is perhaps even more piquant.

Enchiladas are one of the entrees in which the true measure of a chile is revealed. Pete’s blue corn tortilla enchiladas, rolled and stuffed with beef then topped with a fried egg let that chile sing. No one single ingredient dominates this entree though the red chile is definitely the star. The enchilada dinner plate is served with beans you’ll want to take home with you. The great news is that you can–Pete’s sells bags of locally grown beans. The only detractor from an otherwise outstanding enchilada dinner is the lettuce and tomato garnish piled atop the enchiladas. I’ve had smaller dinner salads.

Two crisp tacos
Two crisp tacos

Still another entree in which the measure of a great red chile can be taken is carne adovada. Pete’s rendition ranks up there with the carne adovada at Perea’s Tijuana Bar in Corrales, Mary & Tito’s in Albuquerque and at La Choza in Santa Fe as the best we’ve had. There’s porcine perfection in Pete’s carne adovada. Each cube is fork tender and melt-in-your-mouth delicious. Unlike some carne adovada, it retains its moistness and every single cube seems to be from the very best part of the pork roast. This is the stuff of legend!

Stuffed sopaipillas are yet another specialty at Pete’s.  The stuffed sopaipilla plate–two stuffed sopaipillas engorged with your choice of fillings (beans, beef, etc.) and topped with red or green chile (or both)–is big enough to share, but you probably won’t want to.  This is a dish you’ll want to savor slowly as it showcases the wondrous chile which is slathered on generously.  It bears repeating that the green chile is some of the very best in the state.  It’s got those qualities which will remind you that chile is a fruit with just a hint of sweetness amidst the piquancy.  The red chile is incendiary.

Bean stuffed sopaipillas Christmas style with Spanish rice

Another worthy platform for the chile is huevos rancheros which are not just for breakfast any more.  At Pete’s, the huevos rancheros start with corn tortillas topped with eggs, ground beef, cheese and of course, two eggs prepared the way you want them.  These are traditional New Mexican style huevos rancheros the way they’ve been prepared for generations.  Huevos rancheros, by the way, have in recent years become a national craze, albeit often served with nouveau ingredients New Mexicans might find wholly inauthentic.

The menu has a line-up of a la carte items as well as dinner combinations and dinner plates. All combination plates and enchilada dinners include two sopaipillas. Pete’s sopaipillas have earned the reputation as the very best in Valencia county. That’s a contention with which you’ll agree. They’re light, flaky, puffy and wonderful.

Huevos Rancheros with wondrous green chile

A la carte tacos are a bargain at under two dollars a piece for generously stuffed shells bursting at the seams with beans and beef. Once you get past the garnish, there’s much deliciousness there.

There’s a lot of deliciousness in Pete’s desserts, too. Sweet-tooth offerings include the house specialty, a coconut cream or pineapple cream pie, both under two dollars a slice.  There’s also walnut and carrot cake, Italian cream cake, Pete’s famous Adobe pie (Oreo cookie crust filled with coffee ice cream), ice cream, natillas and flan.

Coconut cream pie (left) and natillas

Natillas have been prepared in New Mexico for hundreds of years and Pete’s has the recipe down pat. Pete’s natillas are creamy and waist-expanding rich.  The coconut cream pie is easily two inches thick courtesy of a fluffy meringue which has just a hint of caramelization.  The coconut portion is Gilligan’s Island worthy.  It’s rich, creamy and not overly sweet.

While many people seem to consider Los Lunas and Belen solely as “bedroom communities” for wage-earners in Albuquerque, they should also consider them as dining destinations.  With restaurants on par or better than can be found in the Duke City–restaurants such as Pete’s Cafe in Belen and Benny’s Mexican Kitchen in Los Lunas–Valencia County is on the culinary map.

Pete’s Cafe
105 N. 1st Street
Belen, New Mexico
(505) 864-4811
LATEST VISIT: 1 April 2011
1st VISIT:  27 October 2007
COST: $$
BEST BET: Enchiladas, Carne Adovada, Tacos, Natillas, Sopaipillas, Tortillas, Bean Stuffed Sopaipillas, Huevos Ranchero, Coconut Cream Pie

14 thoughts on “Pete’s Cafe – Belen, New Mexico

  1. Yo Tom…
    Per your eluded connection with RailRunner Tourism and the endeavors of the Torres:
    Lest I be ill informed, I believe the owners of Pete’s and Luna Mansion are “interrelated”, which is no Biggy, but enchances my getting on to this:
    But first & Upfront: I’m a Curmudgeon re The RailRobber per its history of poor planning, e.g. lack of pre-planning surveys, e.g. who’d ride and for how much max; parking lot space needed at the Los Ranchos/Journal Center stop (still overflowing) and impact on business & residents; no sensitivity to quelling increased train whistling preceeding a half dozen crossings in peopled-neighborhoods, e.g. in ABQ where we afford the Silvery Minnow better care; the 20+ millions of annual subsidizing by taxpayers for Billy to thus give state employees a pay raise by a 1/2 off their transportation costs to work in SF etc. I wont even get into the lack of civility, despite this being the Wild West, of not having large Tumbleweeds, at the least, at train stops to accommadate folks who may suffer a half dozen medical conditions (doesn’t anyone see the TV commercials???) resulting in Urinary Urgency, let alone as applies to urgenies arising in pregnant women who may also be trying to explain to kids the choo choo’s toilet is late per a car wreck, suicide attempt, engineer forgetting the key, signal malfunction, yada yada. (Whoa the crude image…photo op to go Viral….this must give tourists of a white haired lil old lady squatting between two cars!!!)
    Be that as it may…LOL…I queried with the announcement of the repurchase of Luna Mansion, if LM could arrange for a van/car whereby they could pick up Romantics from a ‘RailRunner Supper Car’ coming down from ABQ or even further north to transport them to and fro the restaurant versus having to trod along the gutter from the station to the restaurant in heat/rain/cold/snow/etc. In other words, in early eve, diners could board the RR with their wine or Margarita filled Bota bags…akin to what Pilar might have furnished Robert Jordan and Maria with in the mountains of Spain in Hemingway’s ‘For Whom the Bell Tolls’…to enjoy a time of catch up with the affairs of home/work/etc. in their family lives or just snuggling while lolling down to LM. Alas, someone told me liability costs would be prohibitive for this 5 minute spin.

    Thus this challenge: perhaps Y’all could review that again? Maybe start out with a Fri/Sat once a month to see if interest could be generated. What a great convenience/joy it might even be to so many Q-Tips who used to enjoy LM back in, e.g. the ’70s! Say, even with the RT cost of a fare, it might be cheaper (let alone become The Fab-in-Thing-to-Do) for Folks from Fanta Se to boogey on down to enjoy LM or some dining options being synergized in ABQ!!!????
    Lastly, nothing personal meant re the RR…unless of course Y’all were involved initially…LOL! Best of Luck and

  2. Pete’s Cafe is such an institution and the family so committed to producing only the finest meals that it is the lunch stop on our Belen self guided Rail Runner tours and the dinner stop on our guided tours that begin in Los Lunas with lunch at the Luna Mansion (also owned by the family)and then come down to the Belen Harvey House with stops along the way in Tome. The Torres family has made a commitment to producing the best food to be found in Valencia County. Long live the green.

    Tom Greer, Rail Runner Tourism and the Hub City Brewing Co. Belen

  3. Hey,

    I haven’t been back since 1988 but am travelling through in the next three months. Presently live in southern California after decades in N.Y. My parent’s and I moved into the so called estates on the east side of Belen and the Rio Grande… back in 1974 after my tour in the jungle for our illustrious government. BUT…. PETE’S was a mostly daily event for me…. just loved the green chili sause and the sopapillas were grand… still can’t find them out here in socal… but hope reins supreme… by the way, my dad and I were the local “Feds” in the region for many years…. loved God’s country and to this day wonder why i’m not still sitting in that window seat watching the trains go by….

  4. Hey, Ken, it’s your cousin, Debbie, Roy’s daughter! My husband and I took a little bypass down to Belen a few years ago and ate here. It was great! We were looking for the “White Way Cafe”, as I remember it called. The folks loved it so. Also there was a restaurant on the main street run by dad’s best friend’s dad, a Japanese guy, but I can’t remember the name of it. I was given free rein to wander this town as a kid, and I spent plenty of time watching the trains, even rode them a couple times. So many stories, about all the Atkinson boys working on the Santa Fe railroad! Weirdly, there are a zillion Atkinsons in Brownsville Tx, and I have always wondered if they were “second families” of Pap or the boys, all Hispanic! But this restaurant was great, makes me hungry looking at the photos! Debbie

    1. Looking for graduating class of 1970 from belen nm.
      Debra my mother use to have the whiteway cafe. At that time it was on the right side of hwy but since then moved across hwy.
      I remember christine nelson, james grice, danny houston, esther chavez, jeannie castillo, ida , yolonda,

      1. Kay, did you find these classmates? I lived in Belen and would have graduated in 1970 but moved away, I remember Christine Nelson, James Grice, and Danny Houston, and I remember your name. I used to have lunch at Pete’s Cafe all the time. I’ve never had a taco that good since!

  5. Thank you for turning me on to Pete’s! I read this post this morning, linked out of your Luna Mansion post, and decided I HAD to have lunch there today. So very, very glad I did. I got the #2 combination plate (enchilada, taco, chile relleno) and wow, everything was fantastic. Their salsa is some of the best I’ve ever had, and the relleno was thin-battered, crispy, with a great queso inside. The taco had the cheese melted (a peeve of mine is when they just throw cold cheese on top) and was stuffed with deliciously seasoned beef and plenty of it. Both red and green are deep and flavorful. The sopapillas were light, fluffy golden puffs of heaven… All of this delivered by a delightful server named Donna, who seems so happy to be there serving all this delicious New Mexican fare. So very worth the drive. Thanks again!

  6. I was born and raised in Belen, and I’ve probably been to Pete’s Cafe more times then I can count. I remember sitting in the back room, hoping to get a seat close to the windows so that I could watch the trains go by. I would count the cars on the train with my mother and brothers. My favorite dish was the beef stuffed sopapilla and I was in love with their flan, tapioca pudding and sopapilla drizzled with honey. I was in heaven. Living 2,500 miles away today makes me yearn for the good old days.

  7. I was taught how to make red chile sauce by a former colleague (a native of Chimayo): red chile powder, lard or oil, and a bit of flour to hold it together. No cornstarch, never never never.

  8. Gil,

    Only comment I have regarding your blog on Pete’s Cafe in Belen is that all of that lettuce and tomato garnish you basically called a small salad is the way we’ve always eaten our enchiladas. It’s all part of the total enchilada taste and experience.


  9. Ken,

    You are thinking of Gil’s Bakery which WAS at the corner of Main Street and Reinkin. Gil’s Bakery has been closed for some time now. If you do visit Belen be sure to stop by Pete’s Cafe, it is one of the very best NM style restaurants in NM.

  10. I was surfing some of the old places from my youth and entered Gil’s Cafe, Belen, New Mexico.

    My grandparents (Milburn and Pearl Atkinson) as well as my father (Milburn Jr) both lived the their lives in Belen.

    Is your restaurant formerly Gil’s Cafe that used to be in downtown Belen next to the dime store, it was on the corner, I believe. They had the most terrific enchilladas (New Mexico style).

    My sister and I are planning to take a trip to New Mexico in the fall and will have to make sure we visit your restaurant. Sounds like it is close to the train station; I used to visit the train yard when I was a little boy, most of my family worked for the Santa Fe Railroad.

    Will appreciate any reply and look forward to visiting your restaurant for some real New Mexican food!

    Best regards,

    Ken Atkinson

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