While the Spanish word “salita” may translate to “little parlor or living room,” that translation doesn’t fully describe the function of this room in the traditional New Mexican hacienda. Historically, the sala has been the room in which guests are warmly received and entertained, often as a prelude to a grand meal. In colonial times the sala was sparsely furnished with large-scale furniture that could accommodate numerous house guests. It was often the venue in which household celebrations were hosted.
Albuquerque’s La Salita restaurant embodies the spirit of the sala because diners are always made welcome and treated like valued friends, not paying customers. A lively wait staff knows regulars by name and can recite their culinary preferences, too. Many of those guests have been patronizing La Salita throughout its five decades of doing business in the far Northeast Heights. In the summer of 2015, La Salita celebrated its fiftieth year of serving the Duke City and there appears to be no surcease in sight. It remains remarkably consistent in its delivery of some of Albuquerque’s very favorite and most celebrated New Mexican cuisine. This beloved local treasure has been recognized by the New Mexico Tourism Department as one of New Mexico’s Culinary Treasures.
Inexplicably, the second instantiation of La Salita didn’t fare nearly as well. Launched in October, 2006 in Albuquerque’s burgeoning west side, it lasted fewer than two years at its second location. Although the new milieu had a greater seating capacity and more contemporary amenities, it never did feel like La Salita we knew and loved. Alas, on the basis of two visits to that defunct location, we let almost a decade pass before returning to the original restaurant. Fortunately Dee Cookie1, a very passionate reader (and fellow native New Mexican) made a very compelling case for me to give La Salita another chance, describing in vivid and mouth-watering detail the dishes she felt confident would win me over as they had her. Dee’s persuasiveness did indeed me over. She had me at chile rellenos (more on these luscious treats later).
While La Salita is moderately small with just about a dozen tables in each of two dining rooms, lines can be long during peak hours as patrons crowd the small waiting area or wait in their cars to be seated. Anticipation builds for what is one of Albuquerque’s most popular home-style New Mexican restaurants. Once seated, it takes scant moments to take in the restaurant’s homey, unpretentious ambiance. Most of your focus will be in studying the expansive menu or ogling the dishes being ferried to other tables, imbibing the siren-like call of the tantalizing aromas as they waft by.
19 December 2015: Complimentary salsa served with thin, oversized, lightly salted chips starts your La Salita dining experience. They’re delivered to your table shortly after you’re seated and are a wonderful antecedent to your meal, especially if you’ve come out of the cold. The salsa is served warm–as in just out of the stove warm, not necessarily piquant (though it has a pleasant bite). It has the Christmas appearance many great salsas share as rich, red tomatoes play host to chopped green chile (not jalapeños as is far too common in the chile capital of the world). We enjoyed the salsa so much we bought a bottle to take home. La Salita offers bottled versions of their red and green chile, too.
Several combination platters, such as the “enchilada delight” are a challenge for even the most rapacious appetites. The Grande Tomas combination plate provides the most options for diners who want to sample more than one entree. This prodigious platter is a calorie-laden, small buffet sized meal two might be able to share. One of each cheese enchilada, pork tamale, beef burrito and chile relleno arrive smothered in melted cheese and the chile (red, green or both) of your choice. Beans and rice are standard. On a separate plate, you’re treated to a well seasoned ground beef taco with mounds of shredded cheese.
19 December 2015: It’s easy to see why Dee is so enamored of La Salita’s chiles rellenos, a house specialty which earned a top five in the city ranking in Albuquerque The Magazine‘s “Best of the City” edition for 2015. This ranking begs the question “which chile relleno?” La Salita doesn’t offer just one version. The chile rellenos entree (which, as with all entrees, includes your choice of two sides: refried beans, whole beans, rice and papas as well as one sopaipilla) features two large chile rellenos stuffed with your choice of Cheddar cheese, Swiss cheese or avocado. Each relleno is hand-dipped in La Salita’s signature batter and fried until crisp and golden brown. The Hatch green chiles are meaty, but offer little resistance to your fork. When you puncture the chile, you’re rewarded with rich, unctuous cheese (or guacamole) that immediately validates why these rellenos are so highly regarded.
In 2015, Albuquerque The Magazine may have settled the question as to which of the three entree-sized chile rellenos reigns supreme in the Duke City. The Avocado Chile Rellenos were accorded a “Hot Plate” signifying its recognition as one of the “most interesting, special and tasty dishes around.” Perhaps even more interesting is another even more unique relleno dish. Called the Naked Rellenos, these beauties aren’t fried. Two whole green chiles are warmed through, stuffed with turkey and topped with melted Swiss cheese. Dee describes the turkey as “very rich tasting roasted turkey,” an enticing description which ensures I go naked (forgive the frightening visual) on my next visit.
19 December 2015: My Kim, who can probably create a New Mexico Carne Adovada Trail all by herself (or maybe with my adovada adoring amigo Ruben) ranks La Salita’s version as among the very best in the state. As with all adovada greatness, its deliciousness comes from its simplicity. This carne adovada isn’t adulterated with a surfeit of spices (can you say Mexican oregano) which render acerbic what should be the most mellow of all New Mexican dishes. La Salita’s version is chile braised pork perfection, as swoon-worthy as any carne adovada not made at Mary & Tito’s.
19 December 2015: Perhaps the most amusing (in a tragic sort of way) news story to have graced New Mexico’s online, print and televised media in 2015 recounts the story of a troubled young man who broke into his estranged mother’s home and stole a pot of posole from her refrigerator. He would have saved himself a lot of time, effort and jail time had he visited La Salita for some of the very best posole you’ll find in Albuquerque. I considered absconding with an entire bowl, but my Kim kept it in close proximity. This bowl of sheer deliciousness is so good you might not want to share it. Alas, it’s a seasonal dish not available year-round.
Complementary sopaipillas, among the biggest in the city, complete your meal experience. If sopaipillas are too often described as cloud-like, La Salita’s sopaipillas would be cumulus clouds because they are not only sizable, but can sustain the barrages of honey (real honey, not that insipid honey-flavored syrup) to which New Mexico diners subject them. In 2013, La Salita’s superb sopaipillas were accorded a top five ranking from Albuquerque The Magazine’s readers. It’s hard to imagine sopaipillas any better.
If my rating of “22” seems rather low for La Salita, consider that until my most recent visit in December, 2015, it had been rated “15,” an anomaly remedied during a very enjoyable visit prompted by a very savvy reader. Thank you, Dee.
1950 Juan Tabo Blvd. N.E., Suite H,
Albuquerque, New Mexico
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 19 December 2015
# OF VISITS: 5
BEST BET: Sopaipillas, Grande Tomas platter, Carne Adovada Burrito, Posole, Chile Rellenos, Salsa and Chips
8 thoughts on “La Salita – Albuquerque, New Mexico”
I had my first La Salita experience tonight and it was outstanding. I had heard it was good years ago, when my boss’s wife recommended it… but she was a recent Ohio transplant and I didn’t take her recommendation very seriously. I tried to go there for dinner a few times since, but there was no parking and a line out the door every time, so I moved on.
Tonight we drove by their new location on Juan Tabo and saw that they had quite a few parking spaces, so we seized the opportunity and came on in. The chips and warm salsa were great, and once I finally decided what to order (combo #2 – enchilada, taco and tamale), that was fantastic as well. Even the sopaipillas were top-notch. Super service, too. I’ll definitely be back and spread the word to others who wouldn’t necessarily think of the Heights as a destination for great New Mexican food.
I’d be interested in your thoughts on the new location. (Go on the early side – by the time we left at 6:15, there was already a line.)
This is where to take the out of towners to show them real NEW Mexican food. Our family has been going there since the 80’s and I never miss the chance to violate whichever diet I am on with a carne adovada burrito, James’ Relleno or some classic (often overlooked and underestimated) tacos. I was very happy to see Gil went to this fav of mine!
They must have greatly improved things since you last were there. As a native New Mexican, I know chile, green and red. Last Friday I went there to check things out, after hearing raves from some Native New Mexicans I know and love.
My chile rellenos were piquant, as you call it. As a decent cook, I can tell a great deal about what went in and on those rellenos. The batter was perfect, not heavy, it was made to order and crisped up well with their quick fry.
They were magnificent, the meaty flesh of the Hatch Green chiles were definitely heated. I think they were Big Jim’s medium to hot. These were not bland whatsoever. Definite heat could be felt on the tongue, and continued to hold heat, a pleasant burn a on the tongue. Even more than just heat was the even more critical and more important aspect of a great chile pepper and that is the Umami, that deep rich flavor of a really good Hatch Green chile pepper. The closer we got to the stem, the hotter it got, as is true with all peppers.
Maybe it was an odd batch, but I tried every variety they had, I really heard and read good things about this wonderful find. Loved that they have been here for 50 years, as a family run New Mexico business and a family member is in on every aspect, such as stuffing these wonderful peppers each and every morning. Anyhows… I wanted to try them all and I did. Partly to give my assessment to my Godmother, who is one of the best Native New Mexican cooks I know. She tried the classic version stuffed with cheddar, topped with the green chile sauce, also was piquant, as you call it. She also loved it, btw.
I particularly loved the unique versions, such as the relleno stuffed with avocado, topped with the Swiss version of their sauces. It was lovely. The naked rellenos, were equally unique. I chose to try the classic of this unique stuffed chile pepper, stuffed freshly everyday… these are quite special. Loved it stuffed with the very rich tasting roasted turkey. (can’t wait to try their turkey and green chile soup, which I am sure my mom will really love, as I was raised with a green chile chicken soup, pretty much my whole life, every week… we called it New Mexico Jewish Soul Food 🙂 ) Again, I chose to top this nekkid version with the swiss version of their sauce, because that is what Eduardo invented. I wanted to see what his vision was. Try it, I think you might change your mind about the piquantness.
Also, the red chile sauce you lamented about, was a surprise to me as well. I always check that particular sauce with the classic, flat enchilada, with their best cheddar, topped with some onion. You can really taste what went into the dish that way. I ordered a 3 layer, and it held up well. This was wonderful, again, there was piquant’ness. Not too much, but it was there. And it was not corn starchy, at all! As a decent cook, trust me, things have seemed to have changed from your assessment here. This was indeed a rich red sauce, with tastes of sun dried Chimayo chile peppers, to me. I could be wrong, but I will be back and interviewing the owners, their buyers and their chefs and cooks, to find out what the truth is here. I am a serious lover of New Mexico cooking.
I was so happy to find this place! Most places now are buying their rellenos frozen now and just topping them with their sauce and more cheese. It is rare to find a place that makes them from scratch anymore. Though not unheard of, just harder to find the care and attention it takes to make these beauties. Hope you go back with an open mind, maybe things have changed? I hope things have improved from when you wrote this. Let me know, k?
Thank you, Dee. That is a magnificent review! Inspired by your words, I’ll be visiting La Salita very soon.
There’s an implied caveat-emptor (buyer beware) implied with every review on my blog. In many cases, it may be years between visits to a restaurant and in the interim, many things (new chef, new owner, new menu, etc.) can change. I look forward to enjoying those chile rellenos you mentioned.
I totally agree. I am passionate about food. And I realize that any place can have a bad night or day. Or just a bad ingredient can make all the difference. Sometimes you don’t know that your tomato is just not as sweet as the others in the crate. You can not possibly taste every pepper, in that bushel. Having roasted many a bag of great Hatch Green and yes… Red peppers, I can see that a few bland ones may have jumped into the fray.
(btw, there is nothing like roasting those Hatch Red chile peppers, vine ripened, catch them before they get dried… I wish more restaurants realized how that increases the sweetness of the pepper, sweet and hot, all in one pepper. Chile is serious business to me! But alas, I digress…)
I always give the benefit of the doubt, bad days happen. I usually will try a place 3 times, and if all 3 times are bad, then I know it is not just a fluke. But something may just be rotten in Denmark, as they say.
But my 3 day rule allows for bad days, for a break up or heart break of some sort, some problem that may affect the chef’s skill for that day. Your heart and soul go into a dish, imo. All sorts of things can affect it. And of course the wait staff is also critical. The folks here were so amazing, I am so glad you are going to go back and try everything once again.
That many natives can’t all be wrong. And just for the fact that those rellenos are made from scratch each and everyday, with a family member always having a hand in every aspect… I gots to say, that is special. They are not just delegating everything to someone they have hired. I love that, in fact.
La Salita makes my absolute favorite beef enchiladas in the world. The green chile is consistently warm and the cheese on the rice and beans allows me to savor every bite of this meal! It has been consistent for over 20 years!
Great sized platters- won’t go hungry.
Excellent tasting ground beef and shredded beef (wed special) and not too greasy sopas- including dessert sopas.
Good place for out of towners to not get killed by “chile heat”, as the only “hot” item is the salsa and that is just a “ting” of heat.
There is also a lack of seasoning in the beans and rice.
Service is fast and okay. However, don’t give any recommendations to the staff as they don’t take too kindly to suggestions at all.
Our family loves La Salita, they have the best chile relleno and shredded beef burrito (on Wednesdays only) and we get the tamales every Christmas!