Duran’s Central Pharmacy – Albuquerque, New Mexico
In an early episode of the Andy Griffith Show, while contemplating a job offer in South America, Andy tried to assuage his son Opie’s concerns about leaving Mayberry. Instead, he wound up confusing Opie by explaining that people in South America ate something called tortillas. Opie wondered aloud why anyone would eat spiders (tarantulas). Had Opie ever tasted the delicious, piping hot, just off the comal 10-inch buttered orbs at Duran’s Central Pharmacy, it’s unlikely he would ever confuse those grilled spheres with any arachnid.
That’s because Duran’s features some of the very best tortillas of any restaurant in New Mexico. These are not the flavorless, paper-thin, production-line, machine-fashioned orbs you find at some restaurants (can you say Frontier Restaurant). Duran’s tortillas are made to order on a real comal and shaped by skilled practitioners using a well-practiced rolling pin. It’s the way abuelitas in New Mexico have done it for generations, a time-honored tradition Duran’s honors–with one exception. No lard is used on these tortillas; they’re strictly vegetarian. You can tell and appreciate the difference. In its annual Food & Wine issue for 2012, Albuquerque The Magazine awarded Duran Central Pharmacy a Hot Plate Award signifying the selection of its hot-off-the-griddle tortillas as one of the “most interesting, special and tasty dishes around.” Considering the thousands of potential selections, to be singled out is quite an honor.
The tortillas are thick and have a pinto pony blend of char and white. While it may seem the wait staff brushes on butter in parsimonious amounts, you’re almost guaranteed to have some butter drip onto your clothing. These tortillas arrive at your table piping hot and absolutely delicious–a wonderful precursor to a great meal! Invariably you’ll want to take some home. Heat them on a griddle, slather on butter (or Kraft sandwich spread–trust me) and you’ve got a fantastically filling snack. Dorado Magazine which celebrates the rugged and eclectic spirit of the Four Corners, describes them as “thick and fluffy with the perfect blend of darkened char spots and bright white floury goodness.”
True to its name, Duran’s Central Pharmacy is an old-fashioned apothecary in which prescription medicines and over-the-counter drugs are dispensed. The dining area is nestled in the southern portion of the pharmacy and you absolutely have to navigate the aisles of the drug store to get there. For some, it’s a slow walk as they gawk at meticulously arranged shelves brimming with products you won’t find anywhere else. Although Duran’s Central Pharmacy has been around since the 1940s, it wasn’t until 1965 that Robert Ghattas, a trained pharmacist, and his family assumed ownership from Pete Duran. At the time, Duran’s operated as a pharmacy with a soda fountain where you could grab a sandwich and a “malted.” The Ghattas family decided to retain the name, but because soda fountains were no longer in vogue, they changed the restaurant concept to showcase New Mexican cuisine.
In addition to the typical prescription and nonprescription pharmaceuticals found at any drug store, you’ll also find groceries, greeting cards and under glass near the cash registers, a section of fine chocolates that you might want for dessert after your meal of great New Mexican food. On the dividing wall immediately before the restaurant is a section of books, mostly about New Mexico and by New Mexico authors. Some, like Pulitzer Award finalist River of Traps are absolute gems and must-reads for anyone who loves the Land of Enchantment. The pharmacy is also reputed to carry an excellent selection of perfumes, but perhaps no artificial fragrance compares to the aroma wafting from the kitchen.
The restaurant portion of Duran’s consists of a dozen tables, a small covered patio and a sit-down counter from which you can watch the industrious kitchen and wait staff (some members of whom provide service with a sweet sass) assiduously keeping up with the intense breakfast and lunch crowds. A banal comment such as “that was fast” might receive a response like, “I’m sorry. I’ll try to be slower next time.” I also overheard one waitress tell a frequent guest that if he wanted a drink, he could get one from the small fountain on the patio. How can you not love that?
Despite the unusual restaurant setting, Duran’s has long been regarded as one of the best New Mexican restaurants in the Albuquerque area and it’s been regarded as such since 1965 when New Mexican cuisine became featured fare. Within easy walking distance of Old Town and just a short drive from downtown, it is, to the detriment of some local area residents, no longer a well-guarded secret. With increasing frequency tourists have also discovered Duran’s–a more authentic (translation: not dumbed down for tourist tastes) and delicious alternative to Old Town Plaza restaurants.
Duran’s reputation is built on what has long been considered some of the best red and green chile anywhere in New Mexico. The red chile lacks the cumin influence so prevalent in the chile served in many misdirected New Mexican restaurants. The only amelioration to that chile (in addition to salt) is usually a touch of garlic. It’s a chile which has garnered many accolades over the years. In the Alibi’s annual “Best of Burque” restaurant poll for 2005, Duran’s Central Pharmacy earned accolades for serving the “best huevos rancheros” in Albuquerque. In 2006, it was the red chile which earned “Best of Burque” honors. In 2007, Alibi readers accorded “best of” honors to Duran’s chile relleno, red chile and enchiladas. In 2008, it was the huevos rancheros and red chile which took home top honors. Annual awards are nothing new for Duran’s.
The bowl of chile, perhaps the restaurant’s most popular entree, is a Chamber of Commerce exemplar of what this dish should be. It’s heart-warming New Mexico comfort food, especially warm and nurturing on the most bleak and dreary of days. You certainly can’t get that mother’s love level of comfort from a burger with fries. Though not strictly a green chile stew, it is certainly “stew-like,” a bowl of red or green chile with beans and seasoned ground beef. The green chile is neon green in color and about medium on the piquancy scale. The beans are perfectly prepared while the ground beef is seasoned well. It’s a concordant marriage of wonderful ingredients that envelop you in a cocoon of warmth and comfort.
In its June, 2010 edition, New Mexico Magazine celebrated New Mexico’s Best Eats, eight of the best dishes served in restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment. Two versions of each dish–a down-home version and uptown version were selected. The magazine accorded the honor of New Mexico’s very best down-home green chile stew to the Duran’s Central Pharmacy. It’s a well-deserved honor few would dispute. I wrote the article about that stew which required lots of research on my part; it was a delicious assignment.
Daily specials include a stuffed sopaipilla platter on Wednesdays and Fridays and on Thursdays carne adovada, some of the very best in the city. The award-winning orange-red chile used on other entrees is ameliorated with aromatic Mexican oregano and chile pequin, a fiery, dried red chile used judiciously. The chile is made from ground chile pods, not from powder. That chile covers bite sized cubes of porcine perfection so tender and delicious they will make your taste buds smile. My great and dearly departed friend Ruben Hendrickson, a devotee of carne adovada nonpareil, ranks Duran’s version on par with the adovada at Mary & Tito’s.
The carne adovada is served with pinto beans, boiled potatoes (perhaps the only item on the menu that’s unremarkable) and a simple lettuce and tomato salad with French dressing. The only thing wrong with this platter (besides the papas) is that it’s not all carne adovada, as in the entire plate covered with it. Fortunately you can purchase a pint of this phenomenal adovada to take home and if you don’t want to wait until the next Thursday, carne adovada is also available for breakfast on Saturdays.
25 July 2017: A 2013 Huffington Post article entitled “25 Food Things Only A New Mexican Would Understand” describes New Mexican cuisine as living “somewhere between traditional Mexican food and Tex Mex food, in a place where there is a lot more cheese.” Hmm, more cheese? Does that mean there’s more cheese in New Mexican food than in its Mexican and Tex Mex counterparts? That certainly isn’t the case should you order the blue corn cheese enchilada plate (three blue corn cheese enchiladas, green and (or) red chile, beans and onions) from Duran’s Central Pharmacy. The cheese is discernible, but it’s certainly not a dominant element. It’s a team player, not a star. There is no star in this enchilada plate. Rather it’s a combination of several elements working very well together to create an exemplar of enchilada excellence.
It’s well-known local lore that in 1975 Bill Gates and Paul Allen created a partnership called Micro-soft which would grow into one of the largest U.S. corporations and place them among the world’s richest people. For its first three years of operation, Micro-soft would be headquartered in the Duke City. What isn’t as well known is that Allen would return frequently to the Duke City to get a fix of Duran’s comfort foods. According to Forbes, “his go-to order was the Hatch green chili enchilada, a tamale with red chili sauce, a flour tortilla on the side.” It’s an order in which many of us still find comfort.
25 July 2017: Aficionados will tell you the best burgers have a perfect meat to bun to ingredients ratio. Similarly, tamales should have an optimum pork to masa to chile ratio. Not all burgers achieve the desired ratio. Neither do tamales. At Duran’s, you get as close as possible to the perfect ratio, a balance of ingredients that coalesce int a delicious whole. The pork tamale plate features two generously stuffed tamales topped with Duran’s famous red chile with beans on the side. The pork is glorious: tender tendrils of finely shredded porcine perfection. The chile, of course, is legendary. This is a delicious dish.
22 January 2020: The “special of the day” on Wednesdays and Fridays is yet another classic New Mexico dish, perhaps made better than at any New Mexican restaurant in the city. Stuffed sopaipillas (two sopaipillas with beans, cheese and your choice of red and (or) green chile) are the perfect dish to showcase the versatility and diversity of Duran’s red and green chile. It’s a dish best served “Christmas” style with both red and green chile. Just as red chile shines on the tamale plate, green chile is the star of this dish. It’s some of the best green chile you’ll have anywhere with a nice balance of piquancy and roasted goodness. As with all great green chile, it makes love to your nostrils before announcing its heat on your tongue.
25 July 2017: Lest I forget, Duran’s salsa and chips rarely receive the rants and raves they deserve. Quite simply, the salsa is some of the very best in the city. It has the freshness of just made salsa, not salsa made three or even two hours ago. The salsa, made with chopped tomatoes, cilantro, onion and green chile is thick and chunky so it doesn’t run off your chips. It’s by far the most piquant item on the menu, on par with the incendiary heat of Sadie’s salsa. That salsa, as well as green and red chile, is available for purchase on Duran’s Web site.
Duran’s is a neighborhood institution in which neighbors congregate to catch up and enjoy a belly pleasing meal. That neighborhood expanded to the Northeast Heights in 2006 with the launch of Duran’s Station at 4201 Menaul, N.E. Duran’s Station is situated in the former Fire Station #8 and is owned by Marcel Ghattas, scion of Robert (the founder) and Mona (the current owner of Duran’s Central Pharmacy). It retains some vestiges of its days as a fire station, including the original alarm bell. The engine bay was converted into the dining room while the bunkhouse is now the kitchen. Duran’s Station includes all of your favorite Pharmacy favorites. Similarities don’t stop with the menu. The restaurant also includes an exposed prep kitchen and a comal for making those addictive tortillas (there may be none better in Albuquerque). Best of all, it stays open for dinner.
If you just can’t get enough of Duran’s fabulous chile, the Slate Street Cafe just north of Lomas in the downtown district, offers it as well. Red chile runs in the family. Slate Street Cafe is owned by Myra Ghattas, Mona and Marcel’s sister. Every New Mexican restaurant should have chile this good, preferably with the best tortillas in Albuquerque, too.
Duran’s Central Pharmacy
1815 Central, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 22 January 2020
# OF VISITS: 13
BEST BET: Buttered Tortillas, Carne Adovada, Salsa and Chips, Green Chile, Blue Corn Cheese Enchiladas, Pork Tamales, Stuffed Sopaipillas