CLOSED ON FRIDAY, JUNE 26, 2015: Crafted from fibrous materials removed from maguey cactus and fixed with leather bands, equipales furniture graces the sala of many a New Mexican home and certainly many more homes south of the border. Originally produced for the comfort of Aztec landlords and priests, equipales furniture has been around since before Columbus.
Even Montezuma, the nefarious ruler of Tenochtitlan, reputedly cherished a favorite equipale-type chair. It’s likely he sat on that chair while consuming a daily repast that may have included the traditional Aztec staples of the day: corn, chilies, beans, potatoes and other foods native to the Americas during his time. Legend has it that Montezuma’s daily constitution also included 50 golden goblets of thick, red dyed hot chocolate flavored with chili peppers.
Los Equipales, a fabulous Mexican fine dining restaurant patterned after some of the fine cosmopolitan restaurants of Mexico City, serves many of the staples with which the Aztec despot may have been intimately familiar, albeit prepared and served within the temperature controlled climes of an attractive, modern edifice. It opened in December, 2005.
Montezuma would have loved Los Equipales. You can bank on it! Well, almost literally. The commodious restaurant is situated on a building which once housed a branch of the Sunwest Bank. The overhangs under which cars would park to transact their drive-up banking seem startlingly out-of-place. Step into the restaurant, however, and you know instantly you’re in the lap of Mexican hospitality and luxury. You’ll be escorted to your table (which is adorned with a white tablecloth) where you’ll be seated on sturdy but surprisingly comfortable leather equipale chairs.
The artwork is eclectic, the most notable piece being a portrait of free-spirited Frida Kahlo and her trademark unibrow. The walls are painted in muted mariner’s colors–a foamy sea blue and the peachy pink color of coral. The dulcet tones of soothing Mexican music playing soft and low may, in the words of crooner Johnny Rivers, make the rest of the world seem so far away and small.
Fresh manjares del mar, seafood delicacies from the bounteous waters of coastal Mexico and traditional entrees from Old Mexico garnish the menu. The aromas wafting from the open kitchen are positively intoxicating, their genesis include the recipes of master chef Henrique Valdvinos who has plied his craft at many fine restaurants in his native Mexico. Valdvinos got the restaurant started off on the right foot.
During a tenure that lasted about a year, Chef Valdvinos was the restaurant’s most effusive ambassador, a peripatetic host and consummate emissary who often graced our table with a short visit to ensure all is to your liking. He is gone now, but left the restaurant in great hands with the Martinez family, the most visible member of which is Erika Price, a gracious hostess with a luminous smile. The wait staff is equally pleasant and professional, eager to answer your questions and offer their astute recommendations.
At Los Equipales, an emphasis on presentation is apparent, with everything from appetizers to entrees to desserts providing a visual appeal that will heighten your anticipation. Esthetically balanced textures, colors and portions speak volumes about the class which permeates this upscale Mexican restaurant.
A tantalizing troika of sensational salsas ($2.50) served with crisp, lightly salted chips makes an excellent introduction to a memorable meal. The most potent of the three is a rich, red arbol chili salsa which packs a piquant punch that will raise your endorphin levels while exciting your mouth. A flavorful, lime blessed green tomatillo salsa and a more traditional salsa ranchera (roasted tomatoes, roasted jalapenos) aren’t quite as incendiary, but are bursting with flavor.
Fromage fanatics (make that queso querientes or cheese lovers) will enjoy the queso fundido immensely. This is an unapologetically rich dish of melted Mexican cheese punctuated by house-made chorizo, a spicy porcine blend that tempers the queso’s richness. Mexico’s decadently delicious version of a cheese fondue is accompanied by fresh corn tortillas just off the griddle. One of the chefs likes his tortillas just a bit crispy and that’s the way he sends them out to guests, but that only seems to enhance the flavor of corn.
Dinner might also start off with an “amuse bouche,” a complementary palate pleasing bowl of arbol chili dusted ranch dip served with sliced jicama, cucumber and carrots. The freshness of the vegetables and the invigorating flavors of the dip are indicative of the little touches that make Los Equipales so unique and more than a “cut above.”
Another starter not to be missed is the restaurant’s outstanding ceviche, fresh fish marinated in lime juice, tomatoes, cilantro and vinegar. Even a “small” sized portion of this delicious raw fish catalyzed in the marinade of acidic juices is big enough to share. The restaurant’s well-designed Web site even explains the etymology of the word “ceviche,” conjecturing that the name may have come from the Quechua word “siwichi,” adding that another likely basis is the Spanish word “escabeche” (marinade) which itself is derived from an Arabic term.
At Los Equipales, the mariscos are in a class by themselves–better than at any of the long-standing mariscos restaurants in Albuquerque. Chef Valdvinos introduced us to the arroz marinero, a seafood medley of fresh shrimp, oysters, scallops, clams and fresh fish cooked with a flavorful rice not quite the consistency of risotto. The seafood is sweet and succulent, almost as if just plucked out of the sapphire waters of the Pacific. The oysters (on the half-shell) and the scallops are particularly sweet and delicious.
Another lunch menu standard featuring grilled shrimp are the Camarones al Tequila, seven shrimp bathed in a rich and creamy tequila sauce. The shrimp are sweet and delicious, a hallmark of seafood at Los Equipales, but that sauce places it in the rarified class of sublime. Erika confirms that the recipe for the tequila sauce comes from her mother who was certainly inspired to genius with this magnificent sauce. Shrimp has never been bathed in a more succulent sauce. You’ll be asking for tortillas so you can sop up every last bit of that sauce.
Enchiladas de camaron (shrimp enchiladas) started as a special of the day, but they were so popular that they are now standard lunch menu fare. I’ve had seafood enchiladas all over America, but none nearly as wonderful as those served at Los Equipales. What makes them so special is the sweetness of the shrimp which is perfectly complemented by a lightly spiced chili sauce and two excellent melting cheeses, the Cheddar-like queso de Chihuahua and queso Asadero which is somewhat similar to Monterrey Jack cheese.
Perhaps the restaurant’s most decadent, certainly its most expensive at $65 (as of July, 2010), celebration of seafood is in the parrillada de mariscos for two. Parrillada, a Spanish word for mixed grill, is a coastal Mexican specialty that has caught on north of the border. Few restaurants do it nearly as well as Los Equipales where this bounteous treasure includes two lobster tails, twelve mussels, twelve shrimp, twelve clams, two oysters and two scallops grilled and served over the restaurant’s sensational tomato-garlic sauce.
Two large platters are delivered to your table, showcasing an artistic array of seafood arranged in an oblong fashion, the centerpiece being the lobster tail. The lobster meat is succulent and sweet imbued a nice hint of the roasting process. and perhaps, a sheen of butter. Alas, there may not be even six ounces per tail of this delicious decapod. The garlic sauce emphasizes the sweet qualities of the seafood, not the oft sharp flavor of garlic some disdain. It’s a terrific tomatoey sauce which seems to bring out the best in the seafood, every morsel of which is delicious.
Land-lovers will lust over some of the restaurant’s meat entrees. The carnitas de puerco, marinated chunks of deep-fried pork tenders are drizzled with a tomatillo sauce and served with buttery guacamole. The pork has the tenderness of lamb kebab as you might find served at a fine Persian restaurant. It is on par with the best carnitas you’ll find anywhere in New Mexico. Also quite wonderful is the carne a la Tampiquena, skirt steak strips grilled and marinated to perfection.
In 2006, Los Equipales began a celebration of the diverse cuisine of Mexico’s various regions by offering specialties unique to those regions for two week periods. Today, specialty dishes from each of Mexico’s 31 states are featured periodically to keep the menu fresh and interesting. Frequent visitors never know what to expect and leave themselves in the Martinez family’s capable hands to introduce something they’ve never had before. I’ve often argued that Mexican food can’t be pigeonholed because of its tremendous diversity. Los Equipales proves it every day.
Pictured above are tortas de tinga, a specialty of the Hidalgo region. This beautiful dish begins with simple boiled and shredded chicken which is prepared in a broth of aromatic spices then sautéed with chorizo, chopped potatoes, onions, roasted and peeled tomatoes, chipotle chiles, vinegar and other herbal spices. Topped with fresh ranchero cheese, this is outstanding entree teases your taste buds with savory, sweet and piquant tastes.
An absolute “must-have” postre (dessert) at Los Equipales, if you have room, is the signature tres leches cake, as rich and moist as you’ll find anywhere. As you slice through it with your fork, its juices practically ooze with delicious goodness. The tres leches cake is house-made as are all the desserts featured in this Mexican restaurant nonpareil.
If Los Equipales remains consistent with its formula of impeccable hospitality and generous portions of delicious food, it might soon be regarded as possibly the very best Mexican restaurant in the city. It was accorded Best Mexican honors in the Alibi’s annual Best of Burque’s Restaurants awards in 2007 ending El Norteno’s multi-year dominance in the category.
Alas, innovation and success don’t always keep a restaurant in the public’s mind–especially when a restaurant is off the well-beaten, well-eaten path. The American dining public–and I include myself here–can be a fickle lot. We tend to gravitate toward the new kids on the block, the newcomers anointed by critics as the next great thing in town. Our previous favorites seem to lose their sheen and we take a “been there, done that” attitude to yesterday’s pretty new faces. The end result is that many of those former favorites wind up closing and we’re left wondering what went wrong.
During a visit in July, 2010, we found Los Equipales surprisingly and sadly lacking in the true life’s blood of a restaurant–paying guests. It’s often said that the American public has a very short memory and being obfuscated from heavily trafficked Central Avenue, there aren’t visual cues to trigger the memories of the outstanding meals you may have had at Los Equipales. Here’s hoping this review will trigger some of those memories and you’ll return to this fantastic restaurant before it’s too late. Thank you to Jim Millington (feedback below) for triggering my memories.
4500 Silver, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 11 July 2010
# OF VISITS: 7
BEST BET: Ceviche, Carnitas De Puerco, Arroz Marinero, Enchiladas de Camaron, Parrillada de Mariscos, Queso Fundido, Salsa and Chips, Tes Leches Cake, Horchata, Limonada