Charlie’s Front Door – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

At this point you're 25 feet away from Charlie's back door.
At this point you’re 25 feet away from Charlie’s back door.

For almost four and a half decades, Charlie Elias, an avuncular septuagenarian with the energy of a teenager,  has greeted his customers and treated them like welcome guests at his eponymous Northeast Heights restaurant and bar. Charlie doesn’t always make it to work nowadays, but his son Jamie, who’s probably the same age today that Charlie was when I first discovered this long-time family favorite, is now the restaurant’s official ambassador, a smiling presence who meets and greets all patrons with the same homespun, genuine friendliness as his father.

Charlie was thirty-something when he launched his Front and Back Door operation in 1966.  That type of longevity is rare today and speaks volumes about the loyalty generations of patrons have for Charlie and his restaurant.  An elder statesman among the Duke City’s New Mexican restaurants, Charlie’s Front and Back Doors haven’t changed much over the years, offering the same menu and same friendly service diners have come to expect over the decades.  Newcomers still experience confusion as to the “Front” and “Back” door names, believing them to be the same restaurant, but with front and back door entrances.

Salsa, Con Queso and Guacamole, a wonderful trio...
Salsa, Con Queso and Guacamole, a wonderful trio…

Charlie’s Front Door’s windowless frontage faces Menaul in the Hoffmantown Shopping Center.  It’s a restaurant built around a rectangular bar, which until you figure out is sunken, gives the appearance of a very short bartender.  Charlie’s Back Door is a bar that serves food.  It is accessed from a covered walkway.  Operating hours are slightly different, but both share the same  kitchen and menu.  Another commonality seems to be the friendliness of the wait staff, a genial group that is on-the-spot with refills and answers to any questions you may have.

On a hot sunny day, there may be no more welcome respite from the sun’s blinding rays and scorching heat than Charlie’s. The minute you walk in, the temperature seems to drop 20 degrees thanks to the restaurant’s subdued lighting and heat mollifying cooling system with seemingly restorative powers. Charlie’s Back Door (the bar) is darker than Charlie’s Front Door.  The ambiance at both seems to honor the European Spanish traditions rather than the stereotypical New Mexican or Mexican trappings found in so many New Mexican restaurants.

A Charlie's favorite--sour cream enchiladas.
A Charlie’s favorite–sour cream enchiladas.

Charlie’s Front Door is renown for New Mexican comfort foods and authenticity. Nowhere else in town can you find quelites (lamb’s quarters, commonly referred to as wild spinach throughout Northern New Mexico), calabacitas (sautéed zucchini, onions and corn), fideos (a pasta dish with short spaghetti noodles and a mild tomato sauce) and even torta de huevo (fluffy eggs with chile, a traditional northern New Mexico Lenten season dish). These are dishes with which Charlie grew up in Santa Fe and still prepares the way his abuelita did.  These are dishes with which I grew up as well.

You might not call other items on the menu “traditional,” but they provide an interesting read with unique names such as Mexican banker (ham, turkey, cheese, Thousand Island dressing and green chile strips in a tortilla); Como Se Llama (literally “what’s your name,” a plate featuring Polish sausage and red or green chile); the Sheepherder Special (pastrami and green chile strips in a tortilla) and other equally interestingly named entrees.

The Kay’s Special, a flour tortilla enveloping carnitas and topped with melted white Cheddar cheese and green chile

Every meal at the Front Door should start off with the sensational trio of salsa, chile con queso and guacamole. The salsa has its basis in New Mexican red chile and although not especially piquant has a pleasant flavor. The guacamole is thick and rich, fashioned with fresh avocados at their optimum in ripeness. Alas, the con queso is fairly typical of the gloppy genre so prevalent in Duke City restaurants.  Perhaps with a more piquant chile, it would inherit  some personality.  The chips are low in salt, but are also very thin and tend to crumble at the “weight” of a Gil sized scoop of salsa, con queso or guacamole.

At least once in your culinary explorations around the Duke City, you’ve got to try Charlie’s carnitas, cubed and shredded fried pork seasoned to perfection and served with fried potatoes like grandma used to make (boiling potatoes before frying them). These carnitas are among the very best in the Duke City and can be ordered with or without chile.  One entree in which those carnitas are featured is Kay’s Special in which a homemade tortilla is engorged with carnitas and topped with a melting white cheese and green chile.  Alas, you might have to be a turophile (a connoisseur of cheese) to truly enjoy this entree.  The cheese is an excess of richness, so much gooey goodness it should be served with an angioplasty.

Sopaipillas--big and fluffy clouds of deliciousness!
Sopaipillas–big and fluffy clouds of deliciousness!

Best in the city is an honor you might  accord to the sour cream enchiladas served with  turkey and melted white Cheddar cheese. The green chile and sour cream combination will perform a synchronized ballet on your taste buds and even though the portion is huge and oh-so-rich, you just won’t be able to stop eating these enchanting enchiladas.  Credit Charlie’s with using melted white cheese, a rarity in a city in which New Mexican restaurants top just about everything with a  boring yellow Cheddar.  Charlie’s is one of the few restaurants in town which uses turkey on its enchiladas.  Frankly it’s a welcome change.  The turkey is shredded, delicious and not that hermetically sealed cold cut turkey you might find in a refrigerated deli.  The chile has a nice level of piquancy that doesn’t necessarily come across until you reheat the leftovers.

When asked by New Mexico Magazine to write a “breakfast, lunch and dinner” article showcasing turkey for its November, 2010 issue, there was no doubt Charlie’s sour cream enchiladas would be one of the three meals I’d write about.  These enchiladas are no turkey.  In its annual food and wine issue for 2011, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded these enchiladas a “Hot Plate Award,” the magazine’s highest honor signifying appetizers, dishes, desserts and drinks “that we can’t live without.”

Charlie’s green chile stew is also a rarity in that it is replete with chunks of tender, pork.  At some New Mexican restaurants in the Duke City, Sherlock Holmes wouldn’t be able to find more than a hint of pork.  The green chile is only piquant enough to let you know it’s there, but not so hot it will moisten your brow or singe your tongue.  It’s a flavorful chile served hot, making it a perfect elixir for cool weather.

Green chile stew with a tortilla

At Charlie’s most entrees are accompanied by fluffy sopaipillas just begging for honey.  Alas, they must be poor beggars because it’s honey-flavored syrup that’s delivered instead. Order the off-the-comal hot tortillas and you get thick, substantial orbs spotted like a charred pinto pony, not the waifishly thin tortillas with which other restaurants insult their patrons. The tortillas have a homemade taste.

The fideos are another comfort food favorite that brings back memories of huddling around the dinner table during heavy winter snowfalls.  Unlike spaghetti which is seasoned (sometimes heavily) with oregano and garlic, this New Mexican vermicelli noodle dish is lightly seasoned and light on the tomato sauce, too.

Fideos, a New Mexican version of spaghetti?

Until Albuquerque banned smoking at restaurants, Charlie’s wonderful food competed with cigarette smoke for the olfactory attention of patrons. Thankfully now diners can enjoy that food without inhaling the choking blue haze.

Charlie’s Front Door
8224 Menaul, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 31 July 2010
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salsa, Carnitas, Sour Cream Enchiladas, Sopaipillas, Fideos, Quelites, Green Chile Stew

13 thoughts on “Charlie’s Front Door – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

  1. Went there with my parents on so many weekends growing up, I remember the waitress asking my parents for a neighborhood recommendation in Albuquerque – but we were driving up every weekend from Pojoaque! To this day I try to make Pizza Charlie’s, and I’ve made good ones, but they’ve never been quite the same. If anyone can point me in the direction of a recipe for it, or for the sour cream enchiladas, it’d definitely make my holidays complete!

  2. My wife is from Albuquerque and every holiday season when we flew into town right up until they closed, we stopped there before going to my mother-in-law’s house to pick up cheese enchilada plates with red and green sauce. The absolute best dish I’ve ever had in New Mexico! We did this for fifteen years but I was crushed when they closed. I also was upset when the old Los Quates closed too but Charlie’s was an institution to me when I came into town. I believe Jamie has something going on at the golf club near Sandia park but where might the nest place be in town to go for red and green on cheese enchilada, AND sopapillas? I might be way too late on this blog for an answer but I’m hoping. Thanks!

    1. Hello Robert

      There are numerous restaurants across the Duke City that serve terrific enchiladas and sopaipillas, but none of them prepare enchiladas as Charlie’s did. Not even close. Charlie’s version was uniquely wonderful–from the white cheese to the sour cream to using turkey instead of beef.

      That said, you can find terrific enchiladas at such domiciles of deliciousness as Mary & Tito’s (with the red chile, of course), Pana’s Cafe, La Salita, Papa Felipe’s and so many other great restaurants.

  3. Sad to hear, but maybe it was time? And I wondered for the last 5 years…sharp decline in diners at various times, decline in wait staff quality, even food not as good. But Charlie’s will remain in my memory as the first place I fell in love with good chile – my first time in ’98. In its prime, there was no better Mexican food in Abq or NM – and I’ve been to many good and a few so-so statewide. (blew away El Pinto, Tomasitas, Frank & Lupe’s…or others that remain nameless)

    Your comments about going on a hot day, and the feel of their cool AC in the dim lighting, spot-on!

  4. I am bummed. Was working on a house on Utah behind Charlie’s and going there for lunch and could not find it. A company I worked for used them for a lunch meeting carry out source. They had a fantastic combo plate. Mark special.

  5. I am very sad to hear this news. I remember my mom taking me to the back door for Shepherder’s Special as a little girl. Over the years Chatlie’s was a regular family place to meet. We had our rehearsal dinner there the night before our wedding. We moved to England after we were married but every single time we came home our first and last hi day meal with all the family was at Charlie’s. I can count on 2 hands the number of last times I met family and friends fir the last time…. At Charlie’s. Our children, 2 daughters, born in England, couldn’t wait to go see Charlie and Jamie and eat whatever special meal they dreamed up for the girls. They’ll be utterly gutted to hear this news. Joqoque was my all time favourite. The little bottles of margarita on ice were frozen in time the dark dining room with the wall lit from behind will always be in my memory along with the lovely waitress that year after year decade after decade always asked “are onions ok?” Will die with me. Thanks for a lifetime of memories Charlie. Xx

  6. I guess everybody read this morning’s Journal. After only 50-years Charlie’s Front Door’s last day will be Sunday. The Back Door is already closed & Charlie has retired at the tender age of 81. I said that I would probably be back in less than 35-years this time but it seems that I won’t make it.

  7. We hadn’t been to Charlie’s for many years–maybe 20 or more. Tried the Front Door but they closed at 2pm and sent to the Back Door saying they both served the same menu. The salsa that came with the chips and salsa was quite insipid, couldn’t really taste anything but the tomatoes. For a place that says it serves native New Mexican foods we were surprised to see Polish sausages and pastrami in some of the dishes. My S.O. and I both opted for their Sheepherder Special–pastrami, Swiss cheese and green chili in a flour tortilla with a side of posole. They offered us two different mustards both of which were not very good. My S.O. remarked “What are we doing in a place where even the condiments are no good.” We ate the posole which was not very good. I make much better. We took the rest home where we had descent mustard. The green chili had no real flavor and was not at all piquant. Overall, bad food and indifferent service. We won’t be back.

  8. We dropped by tonight for the first time I had been there since the late ’70’s. I won’t pretend that it is even close to the best place in the world but it beats the hell out of Los Cuates,El Pinto, Weck’s and Garcia’s combined. I had the Native New Mexican Enchiladas (blue corn) Christmas tree and the Child Bride had Tamales Christmas tree (she learned a brand new word) with free margaritas. Everything was ok. Service was good. I will probably return in less than 35-years assuming that I continue to breath but probably not often. I think the Child Bride liked it more than I did but 82.3% of her meal is available for breakfast tomorrow. The bill for a pig out was only 20 bucks + tip.

  9. Gill,

    your next visit to Charlie’s, please report on the margaritas. I have not had the opportunity to go there for many years, but the rocks margaritas were spectacular, smooth as silk, and served in a cute little carafe nested in ice, with the frosty, salted glass on the side. You’ll need to bring a designated driver.

  10. My friends and I used to eat here at least once a week. They usually have a Sunday special of Huevos Rancheros….It was a huge plate at a bargain price….Their food reminds me of northern NM growing up.,…..Yum.

  11. I grew up in Hoffman and loved going to this place for the food and ambiance (grew up in the 60’s and all bar’s were dark and had leatherette seating). I moved away in HS but returned a few years back. The same great food but got to say the people working there could care less. It had it’s regulars around the bar that squinted when the door opened and the sunlight hit them in the eyes like all bar fly’s do. It might have been one part hunger and two parts nostalgia but I loved it and would go back regularly if I still lived there. Taco Sal was the other place to go but when I went there it just didn’t live up to the memories.
    It’s a neighborhood hole in the wall and a step back in time.

  12. Are you kidding me!!! Charlie’s is digustingly bad. If this is how you review a restaurant then I’m afraid that I will have to discount your reviews as a whole.

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