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
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LATEST VISIT: 19 December 2015
# OF VISITS: 5
BEST BET: Sopaipillas, Grande Tomas platter, Carne Adovada Burrito, Posole, Chile Rellenos, Salsa and Chips