“It feels so true when I’m with you I’m free
A place I go that feels like home to me
It feels so true
It’s time well spent when I’m with you.”
~Feels Like Home (New Mexico True)
As we luxuriate over steamy mugs of freshly ground coffee on lazy Sunday mornings before church, my Kim and I tune in eagerly to New Mexico True, an invigorating half-hour of adventure and travel that feeds the soul and captures the imagination. Hearts swelled with pride, we live vicariously through host Michael Newman as he treks throughout our breathtaking home state. We don’t even change the channel during commercials. Why would we? The commercials depict even more of the Land of Enchantment.
Besides providing even more intriguing staycation ideas, some of the commercials feature a catchy little ditty called “Feels Like Home,” an upbeat song originally performed by an Albuquerque band called Richmond. It’s a feel good, toe-tapping, sing-along-inspiring tune that pays tribute to New Mexico. If you’re going to have an earworm stuck in your head, it may as well be one that recounts the extraordinary beauty of the Land of Enchantment.
Inspired though we may be by New Mexico True, we can’t always drop what we’re doing to experience it at one of the state’s spectacular vistas. Fortunately, New Mexico is a full sensory experience and we can still experience the “feels like home” sensation of our home state through the flavor and aroma of wondrous red and green chile served lovingly at New Mexican restaurants. Perhaps no restaurant in Albuquerque feels like home more than Monica’s El Portal on the fringes of Old Town.
Creating a “feels like home” ambiance is exactly what owner Monica Baca strives for. She thinks of her guests as extended family and indeed, many of them have enjoyed her traditional New Mexican home cooking for decades. Her youthful countenance belies the fact that she’s been cooking for more than three decades, starting when she was seventeen. She apprenticed under her mother who owned and operated an Old Town area institution fittingly called El Encanto. In 1983, a fire ripped through El Encanto, consuming the historical home. Three years later, the restaurant reopened as Monica’s El Portal. It’s been going strong ever since.
Several treasured family keepsakes were salvaged from the conflagration and painstakingly restored to an original sheen. Those include the old-fashioned stove on which Monica’s uncle used to cook chicharrones. That stove can be found in the restaurant’s foyer where it occupies a place of honor. Similarly, the main dining room showcases antique pressure cookers. Monica’s El Portal very much resembles a converted home, one in which cherished memories were built and shared by a loving family. There are a number of brightly lit dining rooms decorated with New Mexico style bric-a-brac and serviced by whirling ceiling fans.
As you peruse the expansive menu, a complimentary bowl of salsa and warm tortilla chips redolent with corn are brought to your table. The salsa (onions, cilantro, tomatoes) has a flavor reminiscent of pico de gallo in that it’s very fresh and flavorful. On a piquancy scale, it won’t register too high for New Mexicans, but tourists will probably run to the nearest horse trough for water. The warm chips are a very nice touch, one more restaurants should copy. The chips are crisp, formidable and low-in-salt.
When you arrive at the section of the menu listing green chile stew, you’ll invariably do a double-take, questioning if you haven’t accidentally wandered into the child’s menu by mistake. That’s because the price listed for the green chile elixir of life is amazingly low. It’s so low you’ll probably figure on getting a thimble-sized portion. When the steaming bowl brimming with potatoes, green chile and ground beef arrives at your table, you’ll quickly arrive at the realization that this is a bowl meant to be shared. It’s also a bowl to be appreciated though just a bit more ground beef will balance the flavors more (there are a lot of potatoes).
When Watergate tapes were released in 1973, Presidential Assistant John Ehrlichman was overheard referring to the U.S. Attorney General as “the big enchilada.” After that, the term had its time in the limelight. Today when someone in Albuquerque mentions “the big enchilada,” they could well be talking about the enchilada plate at Monica’s El Portal. Available either stacked (my preference) or rolled, you have your choice of cheese, chicken, ground beef, carne adovada or shredded roast beef on yellow or blue corn tortillas, with or without an egg (or three) and of course, with red or green chile (or both). Both the red and green chile have a pleasant piquancy that plays especially well against the fresh corn flavor of the blue corn tortillas. Enchiladas are served with rice and beans, the latter of which you may dream about. These are refrieds the way you wish your mom had made them for you.
For my Kim, it doesn’t feel like home if she doesn’t order carne adovada at every New Mexican restaurant we visit. Carne adovada may be the most comforting of New Mexico comfort food favorites. I can always tell how much she likes it by how much of it she shares with me. Two small spoonfuls means she liked Monica’s version quite a bit. From the smallish amount which crossed my lips, it’s easy to see why. Tender tendrils of wonderfully marinated pork will dance across your taste buds. Alas, as is the case with good carne adovada, there’s never enough.
Monica’s feels like home concept includes homemade tortillas made fresh. That’s right–tortillas made on a comal, not prepared production line fashion by a machine. They’re thick and large with a picture-perfect pinto pony char. Whether you slather on some butter or use them as “spoons,” you’ll taste the difference. The sopaipillas are among the very best in the city and you don’t get just one. With our two plates we were rewarded with six sopaipillas, four of which we took home.
In 1989, House Bill 406 declared the bizcochito the official state cookie of New Mexico, making the Land of Enchantment the first state in the union to designate an official state cookie. The decision to honor the bizcochito wasn’t nearly as contentious as deciding how to spell it with “bizcochito” and “biscochito” both having supporters among law-makers on both sides of the aisle. Eventually the Senate returned the signed bill with the spelling “bizcochito,” a Solomon-like decision among supporters. Make a Solomon-like decision and order two or ten of these official gems.
While other restaurants offering natillas as a dessert option may claim to prepare a cinnamony version, Monica’s puts them all to shame. These are the natillas to order if you love cinnamon a lot. The custard-like natillas are a bit on the thin side with abundant clumps, but from a flavor standpoint, they’re spot on, especially if you love, love, love cinnamon.
Monica’s El Portal Restaurant feels like home. It truly is New Mexico true!
Monica’s El Portal
321 Rio Grande Blvd, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 23 August 2015
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Salsa and Chips, Green Chile Stew, Blue Corn Enchiladas, Carne Adovada, Biscochitos, Natillas