Based on interviews conducted with Hollywood luminaries who’ve starred in movies or television shows shot in New Mexico, you might think our state either doesn’t have a symbol of hospitality or that symbol is something as poorly representative of the Land of Enchantment as crack (Josh Brolin), tire stores (Jonathan Banks), shirtless drivers (Seth McFarlane), Walmart (Jessica Alba) or loudness (Tommy Lee Jones). With all the tax breaks and enticements afforded film production companies, shouldn’t its most visible beneficiaries at least have something nice to say about New Mexico?
While New Mexico doesn’t have an official (as in legislatively decreed) symbol of hospitality, most of us recognize a ristra hanging on a doorway as an invitation to visitors, ergo a symbol of hospitality. It’s as much a symbol of hospitality as the pineapple is in Hawaii and the fleur de lis is in Louisiana. Moreover, the ristra has come to represent the state of New Mexico, maybe not quite as much as the Zia sun, but to a large extent. Now, if you want your texts to reflect New Mexico hospitality, download an app called “New Mexico Emojis” for your iPhone or iPad. Among the emojis you can add to your texts is one depicting a bright red ristra.
In Spanish, “ristra” actually means string. “Chile ristra” then translates into “a string of chiles.” While the chile ristra has utilitarian roots (chiles being strung together by their stems and hung on walls to dry in the sun), it’s possible decorative ristras fashioned from ceramic, fabric, plastic, and plaster mold are almost as common as actual chile ristras. Traditionalists appreciate the decorative qualities of the chile ristra, but ultimately will use them as they’ve been used for generations–for cooking and eating.
Because of the esteem with which the chile ristra is held throughout New Mexico, the expectations for a restaurant calling itself Las Ristras are high. That name brings with it the promise of hospitality and good food showcasing chile. Las Ristras opened its doors in August, 2015 at the site which scant weeks earlier was home to The Spot. The restaurant was the brainchild of Corrales resident Ginger Hunter, a fourth generation Corralenia who in 2015 was awarded a Civic Recognition Award in recognition of “acts of compassion and kindness.” Doesn’t that just bode of hospitality?
At its onset, the featured fare at Las Ristras was New Mexican cuisine—most of the “usual suspects” with a few creative touches added for good measure. Las Ristras made an impact on my friend Larry McGoldrick, the professor with the perspicacious palate who gave it the “McGoldrick stamp of approval: “What I like about Las Ristras is that it is not a clone of the many dozens of cookie-cutter NM restaurants. The food is homemade and I feel like I’m eating (and conversing) in Ginger’s kitchen. This is simple food lovingly prepared.” Alas, not everyone shared the same opinion with Yelp and Zomato critics casting dissenting opinions.
By year’s end, ownership of Las Ristras had transitioned to Chef Jude Sanchez, a Corrales native (and Cibola graduate) who had returned home after cutting a wide swath across some of the best kitchens in Chicago and New York (including one which earned a Michelin star). Sadly, Jude passed away on 5 March 2018. We had the great pleasure of having spent just a little time with him, but came away very impressed with his effusive outlook and high aspirations for Las Ristras. To that end, he’s expanded the restaurant’s menu from mostly New Mexican fare to one now showcasing chophouse favorites the likes of which he enjoyed during his time in Chicago. Because Jude’s story is so interesting and inspiring, it’s retold at the tail end of this review.
You’ll certainly appreciate the multifarious menu, a surprisingly ambitious bill of fare that is actually several menus in one. There’s the Steak House Menu which is subtitled “Chef Inspired Dishes.” This is where carnivores of all persuasions will gravitate. Then there’s the New Mexican Favorites page which lives up to its name. The third menu, called “From the Grill” includes such inviting offerings as green chile meatloaf, fajitas and the Corrales Tortilla Burger. A breakfast menu includes both New Mexican and American wake-you-up items. Drive past Las Ristras and invariably you’ll see a slate board inviting you to try the latest du jour offering.
4 November 2017: Five appetizers and three “in the bowl” starters (posole, green chile stew and chile with beans) may not seem like many, but you’ll be hard-pressed to make a decision as to which to order. Luckily while you’re perusing the menus, a bowl of fresh salsa and chips is ferried over to your table. It may inspire you (as it did us) to order a Mexican inspired starter–the baked queso fresco topped with chorizo. Described as “a fresh slice of queso fresco baked and topped with sauteed chorizo served with chimi chips,” it’s presented beautifully. More importantly it’s flavored beautifully. The chorizo has a pleasant piquancy that permeates the entire dish with the queso fresco slice serving as a nice foil, maybe even palate-cleanser. Since my Kim found the chorizo a bit too piquant for her Chicago palate, it was only fair that I let her have both slices of the melted queso. We suspect that what the menu described as “chimi chips” may have been the three sopes-like fried dough circles on which everything else is piled. In any case, it was the canvas on which a masterpiece was created.
4 November 2017: Ever since a rib was taken from Adam’s body and fashioned into the first woman, both men and women (exempting vegetarians and vegans, of course) have craved ribs. Whether spare ribs, baby backs, rib tips or St. Louis cut ribs, they’re beloved by many, but don’t always offer many surprises. Chef Sanchez’s half rack of green chile rubbed ribs (fire-roasted baby back ribs with a Corrales green chile rub and sweet jalapeño sauce) surprised us. Most surprising is just how balanced and complementary the Corrales green chile and jalapeño sauce were. If you ever thought “never the twain shall meet,” you’ll be won over by just how much flavor can be extricated from that combination. The ribs themselves aren’t quite fall-off-the-bone tender, but then the best ribs aren’t. They have a little bit of give, indicative that they’re not overdone as those fall-off-the-bone ribs tend to be. These are competition worthy ribs which would fare well at Rio Rancho’s Pork & Brew.
4 November 2017: For my Chicago born-and-bred Kim, meat and potatoes have been a lifelong dietary staple, so you just have to know that she spent most of her time perusing the Steak House Menu. Not that she got very far even on that page. Mostly she contemplated at length the very first item on the menu, a beefy behemoth called “The Bad Boy.” Picture a sixteen to eighteen ounce bone-in ribeye, it’s described on the men as the “James Dean of the menu,” “so good, it’s bad.” That’s bad in a good way. At medium rare, this beauteous slab of beef has picturesque grill marks that preface flowing juices and a rich, beefy flavor with nice marbling throughout and after all, fat is where a lot of the distinctive flavor of beef comes from. In some places, ribeye is sold as “beauty steak.” The two-inch-thick Bad Boy certainly fits the bill. Steak House menu items are served with a terrific dinner salad drizzled with a creamy avocado ranch dressing. You also have your choice of sides: smoked Gouda green chile potatoes, pancetta vegetables or cilantro lime rice. Go for the former.
20 May 2018: During our first visit to Las Ristras two months after Chef Sanchez’s untimely passing, we expected a pall of gloom. Instead, our server related that the staff celebrates his life. His recipes are still prepared and his customer orientation values are still practiced. There’s no better way to honor a very well respected and liked chef who left us too soon. Service was terrific with our Dude being the talk of the restaurant. Several servers came out to the patio to meet our debonair dachshund. Our beverages were quick to be replenished and we were well accommodated with a couple substitutions (Gouda green chile potatoes instead of garlic mashed potatoes, fruit instead of papas). His staff would have made Chef Sanchez proud.
On a leisurely Sunday, we decided to enjoy our appetizer—emanating from the “From The Garden” section of the menu—before ordering our entrees. It’s not very often we enjoy an appetizer so much it changes our thinking about what entrees to have. La Ristra’s fajita salad did precisely that. Described on the menu as “all the great taste of traditional fajitas in a new, fresh, crisp way,” this salad is constructed with bell peppers, onions, cheese, sour cream, corn tortilla strips and your choice of beef or chicken all topped with house avocado ranch dressing. The only thing missing is flour tortillas. My Kim loved this salad so much, she ordered…(wait for it)…fajitas as her entrée.
20 May 2018: The fajitas, available with your choice of beef, chicken or shrimp are much more conventional though presented with less flair than at some New Mexican restaurants. That is, they didn’t arrive at our table on a sizzling hot iron skillet with aromatic steam trailing behind. Otherwise, every expected element is there. The marinated grilled beef is more tender than most skirt steak and who can complain about that. A tangle of sweet, caramelized onions and a finely chopped pico de gallo along with the requisite cheese and sour cream were all in good proportion to the beef. The flour tortillas were thick orbs of pinto pony charred deliciousness. We filled them to capacity as we enjoyed every bite of Kim’s fajitas.
20 May 2018: Wild game–elk, quail, wild boar and Chilean trout –is featured on the Chef’s Seasonal menu for Spring, 2018. Tempting as these are, the ten-ounce, bone-in chile-honey glazed pork ribeye beckoned loudest. When the menu describes its pork ribeye as “bone-in” it just might be two bones as was the case with the one delivered to our table. Prepared with nary a hint of pink, the pork ribeye is porcine perfection. The chile-honey glaze has the sweetness of honey with the piquancy of chile in balanced proportion to each other. The ribeye is tender and absolutely delicious. Instead of the “sauteed seasonal vegetables” being code for the seemingly de rigueur vegetable medley of peas and carrots, the accompanying vegetables were sauteed onions, asparagus and mushrooms. Now these are vegetables I can eat all the time.
4 NOVEMBER 2017: OUR VISIT WITH CHEF JUDE SANCHEZ: To say Chef Sanchez came a long way is an understatement. Unlike many chef luminaries who aspire from a very young age to pursue the culinary arts, he had no such designs. Fate—and a famous New Mexico chef—intervened. After committing a teenage indiscretion, Chef Sanchez found himself in front of a judge about to impose a sentence of community service. Chef Jim White, then at the helm of Corrales institution La Casa Vieja, convinced the judge to let the young rapscallion perform his community service at his restaurant. The rest, as the proverbial “they,” say is history.
Initially, Chef Sanchez was assigned to what the military terms as “kitchen police,” or “KP,” a punishment calling for washing and drying mountains of soiled dishes. When the repentant teen proved himself adept at following instructions and performing quality work, Chef White taught him how to cut and peel vegetables, the next tasking to which he was assigned. Laboring in the fast-paced kitchen environment went from judicially imposed community service to a career path Chef Sanchez wanted very much to pursue. After his stint at La Casa Vieja, he made it his life’s quest to learn as much as he could about the vast diversity of culinary arenas, hence his sojourn to Chicago and New York.
The domain of some chefs is solely the kitchen where they toil in relative anonymity and rarely mingle with the dining public. Other chefs glad-hand diners and let others actually prepare meals for their guests. Not so with Chef Sanchez who not only made it a point to check up on his guests, he prepared meals. When we met him, he was toting heavy boxes of locally grown produce for use at Las Ristras, but the prospect of spending time with our debonair dachshund Dude lured him toward our table under a porch at the back of the restaurant. Chef Sanchez was an outgoing gentleman with an easy smile and ebullient passion for his restaurant. He loved his pit bull terrier like many of us love our children. How can you not appreciate a chef like that? Godspeed Jude!
Ristras is part New Mexican, part steak house and a one-hundred percent destination restaurant.
Los Ristras Restaurant
4940 Corrales Road, N.E., Suite 400
Corrales, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 20 May 2018
1st VISIT: 4 November 2017
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Chips and Salsa, The Bad Boy, Green Chile Rubbed Ribs, Fajita Salad, Fajitas, Baked Queso Fresco, Dinner Salad, Chips and Salsa