In its April, 2009 edition Saveur magazine feted “12 restaurants that matter,” profiling a dozen restaurants that “represent the best of dining in America today.” Although that title may at first browse sound a bit condescending, the premise of the article was that restaurants are special places. “Everybody has to eat, but going out to eat is a choice.”
Americans certainly exercise that freedom of choice with their wallets and purses. According to the National Restaurant Association, forty-five percent of adults surveyed indicate restaurants are an integral part of their lifestyle and one in three say they’re not eating out as often as they would like. The Association reports that nearly half of Americans’ food budget in 2009 will be spent in restaurants, accounting for a total economic impact of $1.5 trillion. New Mexico’s restaurants are forecast to post the fourth highest restaurant sales growth in the country during 2009 with a 3.3 percent increase (amounting to $2.7 billion).
Given her choice, fellow gastronome Barbara Trembath will choose, like me, to spend much of her disposable income at mom-and-pop restaurants. With tastes very similar to mine, she often eschews the “anointed” restaurants everyone visits and combs through off-the-beaten-path neighborhoods for culinary finds. Among other restaurants’ she’s introduced me to are the humble and homey Hua Chang and a little place I have yet to review which serves “the best damn cupcakes on the planet…little, tiny, deceptive mouthfuls of sugary happiness.”
When Barbara told me about a hidden restaurant in Bernalillo I “really have to try,” her credibility with me meant bumping several other restaurants on my list and setting off to the City of Coronado for La Bamba Grill. Located on North Camino del Pueblo less than half a mile north of heavily trafficked Highway 550, La Bamba Grill is easy to miss. It’s situated in a fairly nondescript edifice which formerly housed a paleteria among other short-lived businesses. Its signage is relatively austere, hand-lettered with none of the flash and panache many restaurants seem to need to draw diners in.
Beneath the restaurant’s name is the sub-title “traditional Mexican food,” a point reenforced on the menu: “our dishes consist of only the best recipes of traditional Mexican cuisine infused with the authentic ingredients of Mexico.” These points of emphasis regarding tradition are evident in the authenticity of dishes coming from a highly skilled and well practiced kitchen. The restaurant is owned by Flor De Aquino, an effervescent lady whose roots are in the tradition-rich Chiapas-Veracruz region.
La Bamba Grill is a much more attractive restaurant than its predecessors. It took several months of work painting, laying down tile and finding homey touches to make guests feel welcome. In one instance they may have done too good a job with the homey touches. Displayed on a baker’s rack type of shelf are several handmade and hand-painted dolls fashioned primarily of corn husks. Garlic cloves serve as the dolls’ heads while garlic stems are tied into braids. The dolls have been literally flying off the shelves courtesy of diners who just have to have them.
Traditional desayuno (breakfast) offerings include huevos con machaca (scrambled eggs with shredded beef), chilaquiles (fried strips of corn tortillas smothered with red or green salsa), platanos fritos (fried plantains), entomatadas con jamon (four folded, fried tortillas with ham inside topped with green or red salsa) and menudo (soup made from beef tripe). It’s refreshing to start a morning off with delicious choices beyond the ubiquitous breakfast burrito. Not only are La Bamba’s desayuno entrees authentic, they’re intriguing and according to Barbara, a big hit with her family.
Surprises continue onto the almuerzo (lunch) menu. They include mole enchiladas, stuffed corn sopaipillas, and tacos, but not the perfunctory tacos served at most Mexican restaurants. We’re talking tacos de Barbacoa, tacos al Pastor, and tacos de Cochinita Pibil. Four come per order or you can mix-and-match as we did (pictured below).
You’re not seated long before a basket of fresh, crispy chips and salsa are brought to your table. The salsa is freshly made and has the type of piquancy you need when you’re having a hard time getting started in the morning. Its piquancy has its basis in jalapeños. Other ingredients include garlic, salt, pepper and the fresh, vibrant taste of white onion and cilantro. The salsa is served in a plastic molcajete and is so good you’ll probably polish off two bowlfuls.
A triumvirate of terrific tacos are what Barbara’s family had during their inaugural visit and she recommended them highly. Our mix-and-match order consisted of two tacos de cochinita pibil, one taco al pastor and one taco de Barbacoa. All are stuffed generously onto fresh, pliable and warm corn tortillas. Sides of lime slices and a plastic tubful of white onions and cilantro accompany the tacos.
Cochinita pibil is a traditional (there’s that word again) slow-roasted pork dish from Yucatan. Marinated in strongly acidic citrus juices, the pork acquires an addictive taste and is tenderized by the high acidity of the marinade. At La Bamba, these tacos are served with pickled red onions and a green habanero salsa that may bring tears to your eyes if you use it too liberally. My standard for cochinita pibil nonpareil in Albuquerque is El Norteño, but La Bamba’s version is a very good alternative.
Also quite traditional in Mexico are tacos de Barbacoa (not to be mistaken with Barbacoa de cabeza which is made with cow’s head slow-roasted). Barbacoa might be loosely translated as a form of Mexican barbecue. La Bamba’s version of Barbacoa features barbecued beef with onions, cilantro and a tomatillo salsa. They’re quite good.
The tacos al pastor are also almost completely traditional save for the fact that the pork isn’t cooked on a vertical spit the way tacos al pastor are made in Mexico. La Bamba’s tacos are made with grilled marinated pork served with tangy pineapple, cilantro, onions and tomatillo salsa. The pork is succulent with a subtle marinade that accentuates its natural flavors.
In my humble estimation, New Mexicans (especially those of us from the north) don’t give Mole the respect it deserves. Maybe it’s because so many of us grew up believing it was a poor substitute for our red chile. My appreciation for the complexities and subtleties of a great Mole have grown substantially over the years as I’ve been introduced to some of it’s delicious variations in restaurants from Puebla, Mexico to Chicago, Illinois to Santa Fe, New Mexico.
Mole is a thick, rich, sweet and fragrant chocolate-tinged sauce made with different types of chile (some recipes calling for as many as ten varieties), fried bread, spices and as many as thirty other ingredients. Preparation is a time-consuming, labor intensive process which is why it is usually made in large batches. Most Mexican women have their own recipe passed down over the generations. If you’ve had good Mole, you’ll always remember it.
La Bamba’s Mole is memorable! Four corn tortillas are engorged with ground beef then smothered in mole and topped with onions and a Mexican powdered cheese much like parmesan. The only thing which could have made it better is shredded beef instead of ground beef, but that’s a nit. This is the type of Mole which brings a smile of satisfaction to your lips and a yearning to have it again soon.
Perhaps the epitome of Mexican comfort food is found in Caldo de Res, a bowl of beef ribs, corn on the cob, boiled potatoes and assorted vegetables in a flavorful beef broth. There’s absolutely nothing fancy about caldo de res. It’s basically a beef soup with very few, if any, spices. It relies on an almost superfluity of beef and vegetables for flavor. La Bamba’s version reminded me of the type of caldo a family in Mexico might have at home. My friend Ruben compared La Bamba’s rendition to what he grew up with in south Texas. That’s high praise indeed.
What my adovada adoring amigo and I didn’t like was the carne adovada. Ruben, whose holy grail quest to find the best carne adovada in the world has taken us to some premier pantheons of porcine preparation, has become as sensitized to the olfactory offensive odor and malevolent taste of cumin as I am. Even though we were assured only a small amount of cumin was used, one part per million of cumin is enough to ruin adovada in my mind. That’s a shame here because the pork used in this restaurant is as tender as a Perry Como love song.
Fortunately there are copious cumin free entrees on the menu such as the entomatadas con jamon, four folded tortillas with ham inside topped with green or red salsa served with beans and topped with a parmesan-like Mexican cheese. In the parlance of Mexican entrees, the “en” prefix followed by an ingredient such as “tomata” and suffixed with “adas” represent tortillas that have been sauced with the ingredient between the prefix and suffix (for example “en-chil-adas” means the tortilla is sauced with chile). Entomatadas are sauced with a tomato sauce quite different from Italian tomato sauces–sweeter and diffferently spiced.
The entomatadas are delicious (“muy rico” our waitress exclaimed when we ordered them) and the accompanying beans are very well seasoned. A side ramekin of salsa habanera was provided so we could pick our own level of piquancy (or in this case pain, which is a flavor in New Mexico). The salsa habanera was fiercely tempered and merciless. It started off innocuously then began a slow, endorphin-releasing and pleasurable pain.
The dessert menu includes only two items: natillas (pictured below) and flan. The natillas, served cold, are light and creamy, not nearly as sweet as many natillas in the Albuquerque area. Instead of raisins, the natillas are made with golden colored sultanas which are slightly sweeter than normal raisins. The cinnamon is also sparsely applied which allows the custard to be showcased.
La Bamba’s beverage offerings include horchata and agua de sandia as well as Mexican Coke a Cola and Jaritos soft drinks.
There are many things about La Bamba Grill that might remind you of Mexico in all its culinary traditions. It’s the type of restaurant that really matters because it’s family owned and operated, simple and unadorned, authentic and traditional. It’s the type of restaurant you should choose to visit soon.
La Bamba Grill
213 North Camino del Pueblo
Bernalillo, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 7 April 2009
1st VISIT: 22 March 2009
# OF VISITS: 2
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Caldo de Res, Mole Enchiladas, Tacos Al Pastor, Tacos de Barbacoa, Tacos de Cochinita Pibil, Horchata