El Norteño – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

El Norteño's Second Albuquerque Location: On Montgomery and Wyoming
El Norteño On Montgomery and Wyoming

No Mexican restaurant in Albuquerque has a pedigree that approaches that of El Norteño, a venerable elder statesperson in the Duke City’s burgeoning and constantly evolving Mexican restaurant scene. El Norteño has been pleasing local diners for more than a quarter of a century as evinced by its perennial selection as the city’s “Best Mexican” restaurant. Respondents to the Alibi’s annual “best of” poll accorded El Norteño that coveted accolade against increasingly more formidable competition every year for seven consecutive years.

Launched in 1986 by Leo and Martha Nuñez, El Norteño is an Albuquerque institution, a Mexican restaurant which can’t be pigeonholed for serving the cuisine of one Mexican state or another. That’s because El Norteño offers traditional Mexican specialties while staying true to the Land of Enchantment, using only peppers grown in New Mexico. In 1993, Monica Manoochehri and her husband Kamran took over the restaurant, maintaining the exceptional standards established by her parents.

A trio of salsas
Three salsas and chips at El Norteno

As consistently excellent as it has been, El Norteño became one of those restaurants even its most loyal patrons may have begun to take for granted. We all knew it was in a class by itself with incomparable cuisine; warm, friendly service and a homey ambiance in which all guests felt welcome. We thought it would always be there, but in July, 2008, an early morning conflagration caused extensive damage to this treasure which at the time of the fire was situated at 6416 Zuni, S.E.. With its closure, a little piece of all of us was tragically, seemingly irreplacaebly gone.

In December, 2008, El Norteño reopened at 1431 Wyoming, N.E., (just north of Constitution) the former site of Cafe Miche, one of the city’s very best French restaurants. Cafe Miche’s elegant French appointments were replaced by more colorful, thematically Mexican trappings including the art of Diego Rivera and other Mexican artists. Just as in its former home, El Norteño treats all diners like welcome guests. Just as in its former home, Monica performed culinary magic as only she can.

Queso Fundido with Chorizo
Queso Fundido with Chorizo

As elegant as its new digs were, frequent guests will tell you they just didn’t seem as welcoming and warm as the original, more humble and more homey Zuni location generations had come to love. Even Monica will tell you she felt much more comfortable in her original restaurant home than in the more spacious, more ostentatious strip mall setting her restaurant occupied.

In November, 2012 Monica launched a second instantiation of El Norteño on Wyoming and Montgomery just a few miles north of its Wyoming and Constitution location which closed when its lease elapsed. The restaurant is situated in the corner space once occupied by Yen Ching, a popular Chinese eatery coincidentally also consumed by fire. Monica’s new restaurant includes an expansive banqueting room (which hosted Friends of Gil III) and a panaderia in which such popular Mexican and New Mexican pastries as biscochitos, empanadas, conchas and even sopaipillas will be available for dessert or take-home.

Tostadas de Ceviche
Tostadas de Ceviche

While El Norteño holds a firm grasp on the hearts and appetites of Duke City diners, it’s not just locals who traverse to this family-owned and operated gem. As an unabashed ambassador for New Mexico’s restaurants, I’m often surprised that Land of Enchantment residents don’t always grasp just how highly regarded our restaurants are across the country. Restaurants such as El Norteño paved the way for the pantheon of restaurant gems which have recently earned acclaim from the Food Network.

In the year 2000, Michael and Jane Stern conceived Roadfood.com as a Web site devoted to finding the most memorable local eateries along the highways and back roads of America. One of their favorites for years has been El Norteño which they visit during their frequent sojourns to the Land of Enchantment. In rating El Norteño’s horchata among the very best in the country for their terrific tome, 500 Things To Eat Before It’s Too Late, the Sterns called El Norteño “Albuquerque’s home of meals that are true Mex, not Tex-Mex or New Mex.”

Carne Asada
Carne Asada

When Chile Pepper magazine published a “best of zest” feature, a mainstay for years was El Norteño which the magazine rated as one of the very best Mexican restaurants in the country. According to Kamran, his wife’s restaurant was even named “best authentic Mexican restaurant in America” in 1999 by no less than Gourmet Magazine.

Both the culinary unadventurous and the “epicurious” diners will find something to their liking at El Norteño. Until 2005, El Norteno offered a daily lunch buffet, a repast for the rapacious, but not necessarily adventurous, diner. The lunch buffet offered pretty standard fare prepared exceptionally well–some of the best beans in the city, terrific rice, lively enchiladas and the most tender carne adovada imaginable–as well as some departures into the realm of culinary audacity such as menudo and chipotle sauced chicken.

Some of the best horchata in America
Some of the best horchata in America

True epicureans, however, will always order off the menu because we recognize that El Norteño is probably the one restaurant in Albuquerque where the distinction between the cuisines of New Mexico and Old Mexico is most discernible. You can get enchiladas, burritos and tacos anywhere. Give us barbacoa (meat from a cow’s cheek), lengua (tongue), cabrito (young goat) and nopalitos (nopal leaves).

El Norteño is most appreciated by discerning diners who understand and crave authentic Mexican food as it would be prepared at the region in which it originated. Unlike many other Mexican restaurants in the city, El Norteño doesn’t specialize in the cuisine of solely one of Mexico’s diverse regions; it celebrates Mexican cuisine from throughout the many states of Mexico. Authenticity is certainly a hallmark at El Norteño!

Cabrito al Horno Estilo Birria
Cabrito al Horno Estilo Birria

The charming Monica is the heart and soul of the restaurant, managing the kitchen, yet seemingly always finding time to check in on her guests. The charming and beauteous Monica is a real treat to converse with. She is personable, intelligent and possesses a smile that will light up a room. The wait staff reflects her customer orientation and is generally on-the-spot and friendly. Dining at El Norteño is always a treat!

The salsas are also a treat. A guacamole based salsa ameliorated with jalapeño is only mildly piquant but rich in the buttery smooth flavor of well-ripened avocados. El Norteño also specializes in a couple of salsas rarely seen in New Mexico, but common in the state of Puebla. They’re peanut-based salsas, including the salsa de cacahuates con Guajillo, a peanut salsa with chile Guajillo. None of the peanut salsas are as cloying as the peanut sauces so prevalent in Thai foods.

Tamales at El Norteno
Tamales at El Norteno

El Norteño’s appetizer selection includes many standard favorites such as queso fundido served in various ways, but it also offers a fairly unique starter you don’t often find in Albuquerque–ensalada de nopalitos, a refreshing salad made from tender nopal (a member of the cactus family sometimes referred to as a prickly pear) simmered in vinaigrette and served with tomato, onion, minced chiles and corn tortillas. It has a tangy flavor that salad savants will love.

6 January 2013: Not on the appetizer menu, but on the mariscos (Mexican seafood) menu, is another excellent starter, tostadas de ceviche. In all good ceviche, the briny-savory flavors of seafood should never be obfuscated by citrus juices or by the chopped tomato-cilantro-jalapeño-onion accompaniment. In other words, shrimp and fish should taste like shrimp and fish and not a seafood and lime Popsicle. El Norteño accomplishes this very well, but also gives you several limes to add more citrus if you so desire.

Monica and Leo, the heart and soul of El Norteno. The tres leches cake in Monica's hands is destined for our table.
Monica and Kamran, the owners of El Norteño

Where El Norteño truly excels is in the art of preparing porcine perfection. Every pork-based entree is unbelievably tender (thanks in part to an overnight marinade in a mixture of lemon juice and olive oil) and uniquely delicious:

  • 8 August 2009: Utilizing ancient Mayan techniques, El Norteño prepares the very best Cochinita Pibil we’ve ever had. Citrus and spice marinated shredded pork is wrapped in banana leaves and steamed until tender. The pork literally melts in your mouth, imparting with it as it goes, a lively aftertaste of complementary spices and citrus juices that may elicit tears of joy.

  • Monturas are a specialty at El Norteño. From all appearances, this appears to be a very simple dish–medallions of pork topped with melted Monterrey Jack cheese and a rich, flavorful green chile–but appearances can be deceiving. You can masticate this pork with your gums; that’s how tender it is. It is one of the very best pork chop-like dishes in the city.
  • If pork chops are what you crave, the Guisado Norteño will assuage your cravings. Two hearty pork chops are topped with a wild tomato sauce that enlivens them with flavor. Need I say the pork is unbelievably tender.
Cochinito Pibil, the very best in New Mexico
Cochinito Pibil, the very best in New Mexico

It also goes without saying that the carne adovada is exceptionally tender and delicious (even though it includes a modicum of cumin) as is the al pastor which derives its flavor from as many as 13 different spices. I could rhapsodize for several pages on how wonderful the pork is, but that would be an injustice to the other terrific items on the menu which aren’t pork based. Pork isn’t the sole treasure at El Norteño where it’s quite possible there is no ordinary entree. Every dish is extraordinary or better, if possible.

6 January 2013: The cabrito (meat from very young, milk fed kids between 4 and 8 weeks of age) al Horno Estilo Birria (a style of Mexican barbecue) is absolutely wonderful, some of the best non-barbecued cabrito I’ve had in the past 25 years (maybe even better than the cabrito at Santa Fe’s fabled Los Potrillos). Oven roasted, marinated in chile and its own juices then served shredded, it oozes the pungent flavors of a classic Mexican entree. The cabrito is served with a pico de gallo and corn tortillas, perfect for crafting scrumptious tacos.

Chicken Mole with Beans and Rice

7August 2014: The best mole recipes tend to be very closely guarded. Monica will concede that the mole served at El Norteño includes seeds, chocolate, nuts and chilies and while they combine to form a greater whole, they’re not always discernible as individual ingredients. Mole is so rich and complex that each bite is an adventure in flavor and though chilies are part and parcel of mole, piquancy is rarely a prominent feature. El Norteño’s mole is smooth and creamy with a very slight hint of chocolate flavor. It permeates the shredded chicken, imbuing it with a delicious richness. The shredded cheese tempers the sweetness and provides a welcome contrast.

7August 2014: Some New Mexican and Mexican restaurants make a big deal out of their presentation of fajitas, parading them from the kitchen with a vapor trail which would make jet aircraft envious. The procession resembles a phalanx of models walking the runway with tortillas, shredded cheeses, sour cream and pico de gallo plated separately. At El Norteño, there isn’t much fanfare in the presentation of the fajitas. In fact, these fajitas are simplicity itself: grilled skirt steak, onions, green peppers and pico de gallo share a plate with beans and rice. Only the tortillas are served separately. The grilled steak is moist, tender and seasoned nicely, a perfect complement to the grilled onions and green peppers.

Fajitas with Beans and Rice

7 August 2014: Dessert at El Norteño is a heavenly experience. The pastel de tres leches is unique in that the cake itself is cut up into small cubes which swim in a huge goblet filled with three types of rich, sweet milks then is dolloped with sweet cream and strawberries. It is sinfully decadent and delicious. Sweet and tangy flavors also combine like a concordant concert in your mouth in a dessert of frescas con crema (sweet strawberries blended with cream).

6 January 2013: The glass pastry case at the Montgomery location is so enticing, I’d like one in my man cave–provided it’s stocked with the luscious pastries at El Norteño. The biscochitos, the official cookie of the state of New Mexico, are wonderful with an abundance of anise and cinnamon flavor on perfect shortbread cookies. Three varieties of empanada fillings–apple, crema and cherry–are available as are a number of other Mexican pastries. When Monica launches her panaderia, expect even more deliciousness from the oven.

Biscochitos and Cherry Empanadas from the Pastry Case
Biscochitos and Cherry Empanadas from the Pastry Case

Mexican restaurants come and go in Albuquerque. El Norteño has staying power because it continues to deliver great value, terrific service and fantastic food to its loyal patrons.

El Norteno
1431 Wyoming, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico

LATEST VISIT: 7 August 2014
COST: $$
BEST BET: Cochinita pibil, Queso Fundido con Chorizo, Tostadas De Ceviche, Horchata, Tres Leches, Guisado Norteño, Cabrito al Horno Estilo Birria, Fajitas, Chicken Mole, Bischochitos, Empanadas

El Norteño on Urbanspoon

El Norteño
4410 Wyoming Blvd, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 508-4372
LATEST VISIT: 6 January 2013
COST: $$
BEST BET: Tostadas de Ceviche, Chips and Salsa, Queso Fundido with Chorizo, Cabrito al Horno Estilo Birria, Horchata

El Norteño on Urbanspoon

24 thoughts on “El Norteño – Albuquerque, New Mexico (CLOSED)

    1. Does anyone know what happened? The closing seemed rather sudden; I was there for lunch the last Wednesday in June, and everything seemed normal. When I went back on the 5th, it was closed. I hope Monica and her family are ok.

  1. Gil, you need to explain why you only have one sister “who can stomach spicy chile” and why the aforementioned sister would bypass the word “piquant” for “spicy.” You need to start preaching to your Choir.

    1. I’m blessed to have three wonderful sisters. You’ve read my baby sister Anita’s comments on my San Diego and La Jolla reviews. Anita is the intrepid bon vivant with sophisticated tastes who will try anything. Middle sister Dolores has been exiled to Texas where being subjected to Tex-Mex has heightened her appreciation for New Mexican chile. She may not use Gil approved food terms, but she can handle her chile. Our other sister Jean does the “drive by” with the mildest of salsa. Where most of us would scoop up as much salsa as a chip will hold, Jean coughs and sputters and her eyes water in the mere proximity of chile. Ironically, her husband is from Hatch.

      1. I hate to say it Gil but I would not put any of the places you reviewed in La Jolla or San Diego on the list of places requiring someone to be intrepid or willing to “try anything.” Bon vivant, yes. Most of us, even the Child Bride are happy to scarf down such things.

  2. I don’t think Mom had ever had queso fundido until our trip to San Antonio in 2010 so we can’t blame her for not including that in her repertoire of yummy dishes growing up.

    ~ Your sister (the one who can stomach spicy chile)

  3. Thank you, Monica, for a wonderful tenth year anniversary luncheon for our Edgewood School Belles (former EES teachers) last month! The food was great and your staff was so helpful with our special touches for the celebration in your party room! We’ll be back!

  4. Durng several recent meals at El Norteno the pastry case has always been bare. So no empanadas or biscochitos–a shame because both were wonderful. Monica says its too hot to bake in the kitchen. On one recent visit my S.O. opted for the green chili stew. It was dreadful. There was so much grease in it that it was impossible to pass on the taste of the other ingredients.

  5. This is one jewel that not enough people know about. They maintain high standards and serve natural foods without junk additives and it shows in the look and taste. I hope more people find it so we don’t lose a rare, high quality restaurant.

  6. We went by last night (a Tuesday) and had our usual wonderful meal but only one other couple was there. It has been so on our last several visits. I am beginning to suspect (based on my observations at El Norteno, Los Equipales, Rubens Grill and a few others) that the people of Albuquerque really don’t like Mexican food beyond Tacos. There seems to be a core number of us who love it and more and more restaurants dividing up the same business while New Mexican and TexMex places generally do ok.

    I even noticed the same thing at Tamayo in Denver Saturday and it has just about the best upscale location imaginable.

  7. Recently had a couple f great meals at El Norteno but was disappointed that the pastry case was bare. Monica is between bakers so no empanandas, etc.

    1. Hey JohnL, If you long for Mexican pastry, try El Dorado Bakery at the t-bone of Gibson and Broadway. Check out Gil’s review of El Dorado. It’s great stuff!

  8. Thank you for setting me straight, Auram. Your mom was pretty busy when we visited the Montgomery restaurant yesterday so we didn’t get to ask her if you’re now doing the cooking at the Constitution location. It’s nice to see that no matter where El Norteño moves, the cooking is consistently excellent.

  9. Wow!!!!! You guys are great! My mother is Monica and you guys are the best! Just fyi, my Dads name is Kamran not Leopoldo, that’s my grandfather. I really appreciate all the good stuff you guys are saying!! Always let us at El Norteno know what you like, and we will try to keep the food as yummy as we can!!!

  10. We just had lunch at El Norteno’s new restaurant at 4410 Wyoming Suite N where the Yen Ching used to be. As always the food was terrific. We had the cochinito pibil and al pastor tacos; both wonderful. Jim, the new menu is more compact in layout-what used to take 3 lines in now on one, but not sure there are fewer dishes. Monica as always was a delight. Their plans to open a panaderia next door were delayed when the oven was delivered with broken doors. Can’t wait to see what delights that will bring.

  11. Since we were eating our way across New Orleans in great excess we missed the opening of El Norteno’s new location at Wyoming and Montgomery but dashed by last night. Monica did a great job of decorating the new location as a clean spacious change from the Yen Ching. The menu seems a little shorter than it used to be (maybe my imagination) but it still had my favorite, Huachinango a La Veracruzana and it seemed even better than before. Monica even gave us raspberry empanadas from their pastry cabinet which I had never noticed before. For now both locations are open.

  12. I said in my previous post that El Norteno’s new location would open on August 15 and everybody should go by. I am certain that my usual failure to generate a crowd was in effect but, just in case, don’t bring your bibs and drop in. I went by today after dropping the Child Bride off for her dental appointment and it obviously was not ready. A call produced a new estimate of the 1st to 15th of September. Balloons will be there.

  13. I just to point out what everyone has probably deduced for themselves. The Zuni location will not reopen but they will open a second location at the former site of Yen Ching, 4410 Wyoming, N.E. Monica is shooting for August 15. Everybody should be there at opening time to cheer them on.

  14. Finally after all these years we dropped in a couple of weeks ago. I had always ignorantly assumed that El Norteno was just another New Mexican Restaurant. I was very, very wrong and returned two days later. To date we have ordered the Tacos de Nopales, Cabrito al Norno Estilo Birria Tacos, Guisado Norteño and the child Bride’s customary Carnes Asada. We will be back over and over. I especially loved the Cabrito and can now save the drive to Santa Fe.

  15. Tried the Wyoming location. My brother insisted we go there on his birthday because he liked it so much, wellllll…
    I’m just not a big fan of authentic Mexican cuisine (sorry!). I found the food rather bland (even the salsa which my brother raved about). New Mexican in the other hand has a heavy Indian influence (Navajo I believe), and the New Mexico chile is the ingredient that sets NEW Mexican food head and shoulders above Mexican food. I opt to go across Wyoming Blvd to Eloy’s New Mexican restaurant (which for some odd reason is PACKED every day at lunch.)

  16. I just called the Zuni location to see if they were open yet. (We had noticed that the construction fence was gone). A woman’s voice said “not quite — three weeks”.

  17. It seems worth noting that the Zuni, S.E. location is temporarily closed due to a fire. El Norteno is now located on Wyoming N.E, near Constitution N.E., in the space where Le Cafe Miche used to be.

    I was told at the restaurant last night that The Zuni location will reopen after repairs and that the new location will also remain.

    The food is still outstanding at the new location.

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