All too often faulty premises are based on a lack of information or experience. Take for example, British author Simon Majumdar, a recurring judge on the Food Network’s Next Iron Chef competition who once declared “given how abysmal Mexican food is in London, I always thought that it was a cuisine made up of remains from the back of the fridge.” It wasn’t until Majumdar experienced tacos de tripa at a restaurant in Guadalajara, Mexico that he achieved an epiphany and fell in love with Mexican food. He called it a meal that changed his life.
Similarly, many of my colleagues from Arizona perceived Mexican food as lacking personality–a misconception borne from their culinary experiences with Phoenix area Mexican food. When business travel brought them to Albuquerque, we exposed them to New Mexican and Mexican food the way it’s done in the Land of Enchantment. It was love at first taste. The addictive properties of capsaicin-blessed New Mexico chile ensnared their affections and haven’t let them go to this date. The very favorite restaurant of many of them became Garduño’s of Mexico.
Over the years, Garduño’s has become the favorite of many of its guests—New Mexicans and visitors alike. When the familiar Garduño’s of Mexico jingle declared “nobody serves up Mexico like Garduno’s,” it wasn’t rhapsodizing solely about the restaurant’s culinary fare. From the day Garduño’s first launched in 1981—fittingly on the intersection of Fourth and Garduño Streets—it became a popular draw, as much for its lively and fun ambiance as for the generous portions of Mexican and New Mexican favorites–all washed down, of course, with one of the cantina’s popular margaritas crafted with premium tequilas.
Despite the name on the marquee, Garduño’s has always straddled the fine line between New Mexican and Mexican food, serving both cuisines on a menu that reads like a compendium of local favorites. Detractors (and there aren’t nearly as many of them as there are devotees) decried Garduño’s as a “tourist trap” and questioned its authenticity. The latter point of contention is likely because they weren’t familiar with the vast diversity of culinary offerings throughout Mexico’s 31 states and one Federal District.
At the height of its popularity, there were six Garduño’s locations in the Land of Enchantment alone, served by more than 500 employees. Garduño’s had a presence in nearly every section of the Duke City including a capacious presence in Albuquerque’s Sunport where departing locals often stopped for their last fix of New Mexican food before leaving the Duke City. Those bound for the Phoenix and Las Vegas areas could find a Garduño’s there, too. There were even conversations with developers about expanding the Garduño’s enterprise to such potential sites as Disney World.
In 2010, three of the five Garduño’s restaurants closed, including the original Garduño’s on Fourth Street. Only the Winrock and Cottonwood locations remained in operation, both under a new ownership group which assumed the helm at the local empire in 2011. From outward appearances, the new ownership group seems to know better than to tamper with a tried and proven formula that made Garduño’s the highest volume Mexican restaurant across the fruited plain and a local favorite which earned several awards and accolades from both the New Mexico Restaurant Association and various Peoples’ Choice mediums.
The expansive menu includes many popular favorites. Alas, the one major change made by the new ownership group is that both red and green chile based entrees are now prepared with cumin. This obviously goes to show the name Garduño can be associated with the use of cumin (long-time readers of this blog have been exposed ad infinitum to my diatribes about the use of that foul demon spice on chile). Fortunately the menu also includes several items made without chile. It’s solely those items we order.
Garduño’s remains a sensory experience (some might say sensory bombardment) that involves all five of your senses. It is one of the most visually stimulating and interesting milieus in which to dine with eye-catching features in front, in back and even above you. From the moment you walk in, you’ll be enveloped by the aroma of Mexican food being prepared on the premises. The ambiance can be raucous, but that’s because the venue inspires guests to have a good time and enjoy themselves.
Rich, red salsa is complimentary. It’s a jalapeño-based, fire-roasted salsa with a pleasant piquancy New Mexicans can handle easily, but which might have tourists sputtering and reaching for water. The salsa has a nice viscosity for scooping up large qualities of salsa on each chip. Thankfully the triangular-shaped chips are formidable enough to hold up against Gil-sized scoops. Before cumin was added to the salsa, we would easily go through three ramekins of salsa before and with our meal.
15 April 2021: Pre-Covid there were twelve appetizers on the menu in addition to ensaladas y sopas (salads and soups). With Bernalillo county mired in the restaurant restriction status of “high risk,” we encountered a very abbreviated menu during our visit. The appetizer menu had exactly half the number of items listed as it did before the pandemic. We probably would have selected the shrimp and avocado cocktail (Mexican white shrimp, avocado, lime, cucumbers, pico de gallo, and cocktail sauce) regardless. The fresh shrimp (an oxymoron for shrimp the size of these) had a firm, crisp texture when you bite into them with the ripe avocado providing a nice textural contrast. Unlike some incendiary cocktail sauce we’ve had, the Garduño’s version is rather mild and has a sweet, “doctored” ketcupy flavor. It worked well with this cocktail.
15 April 2021: With cumin-infused entrees limiting my choices, shrimp tacos (grilled shrimp on corn tortillas with Monterey cheese, pico de gallo, shredded cabbage sliced avocado) seemed to be a safe, if unexciting, option. Available in hard- or soft-shell corn tortillas as well as flour tortillas, these shrimp tacos could be (in my humble opinion) made better with a couple of changes. First, one of the ingredients in the pico de gallo is finely chopped jalapeño, just incendiary enough to be a dominant flavor in a dish where the shrimp should be the star. Second, shredded cabbage may be fine texturally, but it lends nothing to the flavor of the tacos. Many restaurants are creating delicious slaws using shredded cabbage in creative ways.
15 April 2021: One entree for which Garduño’s has long been popular is fajitas, which can be constructed from your choice of steak, chicken, shrimp or a unique garden-fresh vegetarian specialty with your choice of flour or corn tortillas. All eyes will train on your server ferrying these fajitas to your table. More specifically, all eyes and ears will follow the trail of sizzling, aromatic smokiness. The fajitas are served with sizzling onions, tomatoes, red and green peppers, shredded cheese and sides of guacamole and pico de gallo. All fajitas can be ordered in half-pound or full-pound sizes. A half-pound will sate even the most prolific of appetites. The steak is of very high quality and is prepared perfectly for a flour tortilla repository.
Sopaipillas are another long-time staple of Garduño’s. Few New Mexican restaurants do sopaipillas like Garduño’s. The sopaipillas are large golden, deep-fried deliciousness served fresh and hot. Don’t wait to break open a sopaipilla and cut off a piece while it’s still hot. The sensation of steamy puffs wafting upwards is an experience not to be missed. The sopaipillas beckon for the cooling effect of sweet honey to be drizzled onto them. Unfortunately, the restaurant serves a honey-flavored syrup, a poor pretender that just doesn’t cut it.
Whether Garduño’s ever reclaims its once lofty position among the Land of Enchantment’s New Mexican restaurant scene remains to be seen. One thing is for certain, it will remain the favorite restaurant of many of its guests, including my former colleagues from Arizona.
DISCLAIMER: I’m frequently asked if I’m related to the Garduño family which owned and operated their eponymous restaurant for more than three decades. Perhaps generations ago our families descended from the same lineage, but our family trees diverged a long time ago. Even if we were related, I wouldn’t accept special food or treatment.
LATEST VISIT: 15 April 2021
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Sopaipillas, Fajitas, Chips and Salsa, Tacos Al Pastor