Many similarities exist between writing beautiful lyrics for a memorable song and developing a great recipe for memorable food. Great lyrics involve putting together the right words so that they flow easily around a meaningful topic. Great recipes involve putting together the right ingredients so they coalesce into a delicious whole. There are no real rules to writing great lyrics or recipes, but not everybody can do it. You’ve got to have the right combination of talent, dedication and inspiration. Great lyrics and great recipes often require extensive trial and experimentation over a long period of time until they can’t be made any better.
Michael “Rey” is blessed with the rare ability to create both memorable lyrics and memorable recipes. A larger-than-life personality with a mellifluous voice, Michael always made the time to regale guests at Rey’s Place with the soul-touching, poignant and beautiful music he’s written. Some of those songs have reduced grown men to blubbering as my friends will attest after the first time they heard Frame by Frame. Michael’s lyrics resonate life–its vicissitudes and challenges–and they personify William Shakespeare’s astute observation that music is the food of love.
Although Michael has been a songwriter for a long time, it’s only recently that his songs have caught the attention of Nashville. Ask Michael how he turned the corner and he’ll credit Luz, his lovely wife and the love of his life. Luz is the inspiration for the love songs he’s written while reflecting on his life before meeting her helps him write the more heart-rending songs. When Michael talks about Luz his eyes light up, the very thought of her bringing immense joy to his heart.
Luz is also making Duke City diners joyous in her role as proprietor and chef at La Familiar Restaurant on Fourth Street. La Familiar has been serving Albuquerque for more than thirty years with a broad and diverse menu of Mexican, New Mexican and American favorites. Located in Martinez Town and directly across the street from the Mexican Consulate, La Familiar translates from Spanish to family, kin or relative. The name fits. Luz and her staff work very hard to make their guests feel welcome–like family.
More than ever before, La Familiar is about family. In September, 2013, Michael and Luz decided to consolidate their restaurant operations, merging Rey’s Place with La Familiar. You won’t see “Rey’s Place” or “Rey’s La Familiar” on the signage, but when you walk into the restaurant, you just might be greeted by the gregarious Michael. He might even escort you to your table, bring your menu and beverage and might also be persuaded to pull out his magical guitar and treat you to a song (ask to hear “How Long Will I Pay.”) Michael will probably not spend as much time in the kitchen as he did at Rey’s Place, but he’s confident guests will love Luz’s cooking as much as they did his. As with Rey’s Place, Michael is proud that La Familiar’s food is “from the pan, not the can.”
From the outside La Familiar is rather nondescript with rather plain signage and darkened windows which many east-facing businesses need on brutally hot summer days. Step inside and you’ll be transported back in time to a dining room which is much longer than it is wide. An old-fashioned counter with stools hearkens back to the days of the soda fountain. The west walls are festooned with paintings of megalithic Mayan or Toltec warrior statues. The walls on a second dining room are adorned with a stereotypical Mexican village scene, including burros and sombreros. It’s a comfortable milieu.
Open seven days a week for breakfast and lunch, La Familiar straddles that sometimes fine demarcation between Mexican and New Mexican food. The menu includes favorites from both cuisines as well as some which are uniquely Mexican and others which are predominantly New Mexican. It’s a menu which includes gorditas, enchiladas, tamales, huevos rancheros, chile rellenos, menudo, posole, Spanish rice, caldo de res, flautas, tortas, burritos, carne adovada and so much more. These are also the menu items served at Rey’s Place. Cumin is not used on any of the dishes.
23 June 2013: Among the Mexican items are aguas frescas (literally fresh waters), those very refreshing and cooling beverages made with water, sweetener and natural fruits. Kept in large plastic vats until served, aguas frescas will beat the heat better than almost any beverage other than water itself. La Familiar serves one of the best mango agua fresca in New Mexico. It’s served in a 32-ounce glass with plenty of finely crushed ice to keep it cold. You’ll need it if you order the salsa which is as incendiary as you’ll find in Albuquerque. This is a third degree burn salsa that speeds endorphins rushing to your brain, making it impossible to stop eating it. It’s a very good salsa served with crisp, lightly salted chips formidable enough for Gil-sized scoops.
23 June 2013: The menu features several quesadillas including one we’ve seen only in Mexican restaurants. The Quesadilla Sincronizada derives its name from the synchronization of two tortillas engulfing their contents to become one. The contents on this quesadilla include breakfast favorites such as chorizo, bacon and ham, a porcine triumvirate that goes so well together with melted cheese. The chorizo with its sweet notes is especially notable in that it’s not greasy as some chorizo tends to be. La Familiar’s Quesadilla Sincronizada is an outstanding version of a tortilla sandwich.
23 June 2013: Offering a variety of breakfast burritos as well as burritos stuffed with a number of ingredients, you’ll find yourself hard-pressed to select from so many choices when you’re in a burrito mood. For the intrepid diner, an offal (not awful) choice is a burrito stuffed with lengua (beef tongue). Lengua is a high calorie indulgence with most if its calories coming from fat. If the notion of getting some tongue offends or scares you, fear not. It is a very tender and very tasty meat. Best of all, La Familiar’s red and green chile are terrific, both with a discernible level of piquancy and with excellent flavor.
23 June 2013: Carne adovada is another specialty of the house. The tender tendrils of shredded pork marinated in a wondrous red chile are so good, they make grown men swoon. My Kim, who will order carne adovada on her inaugural visit to any New Mexican restaurant, ranks La Familiar’s carne adovada with the adovada served at Rey’s Place. That’s pretty rarefied air. She orders her carne adovada with two eggs fried over easy. There’s something almost sensual about the runny yoke melding with the savory-piquant carne adovada.
6 October 2013: Diners who wake up famished will appreciate the chuleta asada (grilled pork chop) plate which includes papas fritas (French fries), rice, beans, avocado, grilled onions and two eggs. It’s a lot of food, easily enough to feed two big eaters or one University of New Mexico Lobo offensive lineman. The pork chop is a bit on the thin side at about eight ounces, but it’s perfectly prepared and quite tasty. The refried beans are topped with shredded yellow and white Cheddar. The rice is fluffy and delicate and the eggs prepared to your exacting specifications.
Picadillo is a Spanish and Latin American specialty not often found in Albuquerque restaurants. It’s a dish prepared differently across the Latin American nations which prepare it and even within a country in which it’s offered, it varies almost from family to family. That’s why we weren’t surprised that the picadillo entree served at La Familiar is very dissimilar to the picadillo offered at Papa Nachos. The word picadillo itself is derived from “picar”, meaning “to mince” (but which also has a somewhat vulgar double meaning).
6 October 2013: The picadillo at La Familiar is Mexican comfort food at its finest. It arrives at your table steaming so you may have to wait a few minutes before you can taste it. As with some of the very best in comfort foods, it’s a relatively simple stew made with fairly common ingredients: cubed grilled beef, sliced potatoes, white onions, garlic, chile and tomatoes. La Familiar’s version is more piquant than some picadillos we’ve had, truly living up to the other meaning of the word “picar;” that being “to prick.” In addition to biting back, this picadillo is as warm and nurturing as any Mexican caldo or stew.
6 October 2013: Mexico’s answer to the ubiquitous American sandwich is the torta, a behemoth on a bolillo bun which can be overstuffed with ingredients of your choosing. La Familiar offers seven different tortas: jamon y queso (ham and cheese), desebrada (shredded beef), barbacoa (tender, slow-cooked beef), carnitas (roasted beef cut into small pieces), lengua (tongue), milanesa (thinly sliced fried beef), fajitas, asada (grilled beef) and pollo (chicken).
It takes two hands to handle the carne asada torta and even with my nine-inch hand span, the torta proved a challenge to hold. In addition to carne asada, this sandwich is engorged with cheese, tomatoes, green chile, lettuce and guacamole. The soft and crumbly bolillo bread absorbs the moistness and flavors of the sandwich and somehow manages to hold them all in. The carne asada, grilled beef cut into small pieces, is plentiful and delicious. Served with French fries, it’s a sandwich will defeat any appetite.
If you’ve got a special occasion coming up, La Familiar provides on- or off-site catering almost everywhere in Albuquerque. Carry-out is also a popular option. There’s a reason La Familiar has retained an excellent reputation for more than three decades and it starts with Luz Molinar about whom her beloved husband Michael “Rey” is probably writing another song right now.
Rey’s La Familiar Restaurant
1611 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 6 October 2013
1st VISIT: 23 June 2013
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Agua Fresca de Mango, Carne Adovada, Burrito de Lengua, Quesadilla Sincronizada, Pancakes, Torta de Carne Asada, Picadillo, Chuleta Asada