“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)
For years, as we luxuriated over steamy mugs of freshly ground coffee on lazy Sunday mornings before church, my Kim and I tuned in eagerly to New Mexico True Television, an invigorating half-hour of adventure and travel that fed the soul and captured the imagination. Hearts swelled with pride, we lived vicariously through host Michael Newman as he treked throughout our breathtaking home state. We didn’t even change the channel during commercials. Why would we? The commercials depicted even more of the Land of Enchantment.
Besides providing even more intriguing staycation ideas, some of the commercials featured 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. Sadly, the New Mexico Tourism Department stopped funding New Mexico True Television in 2017 and though full episodes are still available on YouTube, it’s just not the same.
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.
23 August 2015: 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 housemade warm chips are a very nice touch, one more restaurants should copy. The chips are crisp, formidable and low-in-salt.
23 August 2015: 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).
23 August 2015: 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.
21 July 2019: 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. Carne adovada is available also for breakfast where it shares space on the plate with eggs and papitas. There aren’t many breakfasts in town as good.
21 July 2019: Nor are there better deals at any New Mexican restaurant than “Dinners” at Monica’s El Portal. Each dinner is served with beans, rice two sopaipillas and red and (or) green chile. Should you finish it all, your concluding remarks won’t be about how much you ate, but about how delicious your dinner was. Some of the dinners are pretty versatile. Fajitas, for example, are available as a burrito..and anything with which a burrito can be stuffed is available as a stuffed sopaipilla, too.
The chicharron and bean burrito served Christmas style is one of the very best in the city, a log-sized behemoth stuffed like…er, Chicharron, the pet piglet owned by YouTube sensation “Lynette LaBurquena.” Indeed, with every bite you’ll enjoy a bite of crispy, salty, delicious chicharron along with some of the best refried beans anywhere. Try it “Christmas” style–with red and green chile–so you can enjoy the nuanced qualities of the best chile in the world (despite what Colorado’s governor says). Both are equally piquant and absolutely delicious, my favorite being the sweet red. Fluffy Spanish rice and refried beans on the side were at least partially covered in chile as many great foods are.
21 July 2019: 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 as mentioned in my paragraph about Monica’s dinners, you don’t get just one. With our two plates we were rewarded with six sopaipillas, four of which we took home.
23 August 2015: 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.
21 July 2019: 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…and if you ask nicely, your server may even bring you a cinnamon shaker for you to add even more.
21 July 2019: There are five items listed on the Dessert menu: vanilla ice cream, biscochitos, a side of natillas, a pint of natillas and a chocolate empanada. You read that right! A chocolate empanada isn’t something you see that often in New Mexican restaurants. And no, they’re not at all like the Hostess chocolate turnovers you may have had as a kid. These are handmade empanadas served hot so that when you puncture them with your fork, molten chocolate seeps out. Two scoops of chocolate-drizzled vanilla ice cream will quell the heat while three dollops of whipped cream provide a textural contrast.
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
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 21 July 2019
1st VISIT: 23 August 2015
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Salsa and Chips, Green Chile Stew, Blue Corn Enchiladas, Carne Adovada, Biscochitos, Natillas