Of the five variations of twins that occur commonly throughout the world, the most common fraternal (non-identical) occurrence is male-female twins which transpire in about 40% of all twins born. Fraternal twins may share up to 50% of their genes and generally are no more similar or dissimilar than any other two siblings. Although technically not twins because they were “born” four years apart, the Duke City’s most famous twins are the Los Cuates restaurants (cuates being the Spanish word for twins), named for Antoinette and Marcus, the fraternal male-female twins of founder Frank R. Barela, an inspiration for all of us who started at the bottom and worked our way up.
Barela got his start in the restaurant business in 1971 as a busboy at Silvano’s, a legendary Duke City purveyor of New Mexican food. In 1985, he bought Silviano’s and renamed it Los Cuates after his newborn children. In 1989, he took over another Albuquerque landmark of the era, Cocina De Carlos Mexican Restaurant, across the street from his first eatery. Because of the two restaurant’s twin-like proximity, he also named it Los Cuates…not Los Cuates I and Los Cuates II, just Los Cuates.
From the very beginning, Los Cuates has been one of the most popular New Mexican restaurants in the city. In its halcyon days, diners lined up before opening while late-comers waited for a table to come open. The restaurant’s logo of a little boy and girl twins astride a burro has been, for years, a very familiar landmark to Albuquerque diners who certify their love of the diner’s food on the Alibi’s annual “best of” poll. One category Los Cuates has practically owned since the inception of the poll is best chips and salsa.
The salsa is indeed unique–wholly unlike the traditional New Mexican salsa of tomatoes, onions, garlic and either green chile or jalapenos. Los Cuates salsa is based on ancho chiles (known as chile pasilla in the Michoacan area and in California), an aromatic, brownish red chile that smells somewhat like prunes and has a mild, rich and almost sweet taste with just a hint of residual bitterness. It’s an “either you love it or you don’t” type of salsa with plenty of fans and detractors. Count me among those who love the uniqueness of this pre-prandial treat though I don’t quite love it as much in its bottled state–in part because the ingredient list reads like it belongs in a chemistry lab.
A basket of chips and a small plastic bowl with the dark red salsa is placed on your table shortly after you’re seated. The complementary sweet and piquant salsa is satiny smooth, not at all chunky like most restaurants serve. It’s not the most piquant salsa in Albuquerque, but definitely leaves a pleasant, capsaicin-kissed impression on your tongue and taste buds. The chips are unfailingly crisp and faithfully replenished.
In Albuquerque, a New Mexican restaurant won’t survive on its salsa alone, no matter how storied that salsa may be. Fortunately Los Cuates’ menu is replete with traditional favorites prepared from recipes passed on through generations. When your entree arrives at your table, it’s steaming hot with no evidence of pre-made, pre-heated dryness that’s become all too common in other restaurants. There’s a freshness to everything at Los Cuates.
One of the entrees Los Cuates does exceptionally well is enchiladas (beef, chicken or cheese) crafted with blue corn tortillas. These aren’t your gloppy, boring enchiladas. Not only are the beef and chicken seasoned well and absolutely delicious on their own, the accompanying red or green chile lends a rich savoriness. The chile isn’t the sinus-clearing, eye-watering stuff I like, but at least the chile is discernible in its flavor profile and not corn-starchy. During a visit to the Los Cuates on Albuquerque’s Northwest side, I happened upon a special of the day that included a trio of enchiladas–carne adovada, chicken and ground beef. They were quite good.
Anything with chicken is a good bet at Los Cuates. That includes the stuffed sopaipillas. Deep pockets are formed in pillow-like sopaipillas then those pockets are generously engorged with flavorful and moist chicken which is then topped with melted cheddar cheese and your choice of red or green chile. The chicken is so fresh and moist, it’s reminiscent of stewed chicken. A platter includes refried beans and rice. Portions are enormous.
Many entrees include complementary sopaipillas which arrive at your table steamy warm. Intrepid diners risk burning their fingers and the roof of their mouths so they can attack these puffy pillows of goodness with honey. There’s no need for dessert when you’ve got these gems though Los Cuates does a nice job with natillas, the smooth, sweet custard dish.
Note: While walking the La Luz Trail in July, 2002, Frank Barella collapsed and died of a heart attack at age 50. His restaurant was placed in a trust for several months until purchased by two well-established Duke City restaurateurs–Larry Gutierrez of Little Anita’s and George Daskalos of Milly’s Restaurant. The new ownership vowed “everything would stay the same–recipes and staff. Shortly after this changing of the guard, a few long-time Los Cuates staffers launched their own restaurant, Mis Amigos which has since closed.
There are some who say Los Cuates just isn’t the same restaurant it once was–and in fact, in 2005, the twins became triplets with the launch of yet a third restaurant. The third in the Los Cuates line (8700 Menaul Blvd, N.E.) opened in 2005 at the former site of the city’s only Godfather’s Pizza restaurant. Five years later, the original Los Cuates at 5016 Lomas, N.E., closed, eventually to be replaced by Silvano’s, a full-circle turn few would have expected.
2011 was a year of major expansion for Los Cuates which launched a Santa Fe restaurant in May within the confines of the Lodge of Santa Fe Hotel. In November, Los Cuates found a home within the Albuquerque International Airport. Located immediately before the security checkpoint, the Sunport’s Los Cuates makes it possible for your first meal when you land or your last meal before you take off to be New Mexican food. Cheryl Jamison, one of America’s most lauded food authors and a frequent flying bon-vivant praised the restaurant on her Tasting NM blog. Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos, who has enjoyed the huevos rancheros at the Sunport Los Cuates also sees it as a boon to travelers.
In January, 2012, Los Cuates expaned to Albuquerque’s sprawling far Northwest side within one mile of Corrales and two miles of Rio Rancho. Situated in the nearly 8,000 square-foot edifice which previously housed Copeland’s on the West side’s “restaurant row,” it is the most ostentatious of all the Los Cuates restaurants. Whether the twins, now quintuplets, will continue to expand remains to be seen. The restaurant’s popularity shows no sign of decline in its popularity and remains a formidable and favorite presence for New Mexican food.
4901 Lomas, N.E.
LATEST VISIT: 25 January 2012
# OF VISITS: 9
BEST BET: Salsa & Chips, Sopaipillas, Stuffed Sopaipillas (chicken), Blue Corn Enchiladas (chicken), Carnitas