Ruben’s Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Ruben's Grill on Candelaria
Ruben’s Grill on Candelaria

During the Mexican Revolution of 1910, many women joined the army both in response to the tremendous need for their service, but also to accompany their husbands, many of whom were conscripted into service.

Traveling with the revolutionary armies, it was often the role of women to forage for food and cook meals. As much as possible, the women who followed the armies tried to provide a homey meal experience complete with tablecloth, decorative plates and vases for flowers.

As soldaderas, their contributions to the Mexican Revolutionary were not limited to “traditional” roles of the time–serving as caregivers and as cooks. Many women distinguished themselves on the battlefield and are today remembered in such songs as La Adelita.

It was a bit of a disappointment not to see any of these women celebrated on the sunflower colored walls of Ruben’s Grill, a popular Northeast Heights Mexican restaurant whose walls are adorned with black and white posters of the heroes of the Mexican Revolution.

My favorite of the lot is a “Wanted” poster issued in 1916 by the Columbus, New Mexico chief of police who offered a $5,000 reward for the capture of Francisco “Panco” Villa.

History will recall that the only time a foreign army has invaded the United States was when Villa and his men stormed the city of Columbus. While the price on Villa’s head was substantial for the time, his raiders–Candelario Cervantes, Pablo Lopez, Francisco Beltran and Martin Lopez–warranted only a $1,000 reward.

Salsa and chips
Salsa and chips

One wall of Ruben’s Grill is festooned with a single unadorned Mexican sombrero, the kind worn by Mexican Revolutionary War hero Emiliano Zapata. Hung on another is an flamboyant velvet sombrero embellished with brightly colored patterns.

I don’t know whether or not the sombreros are intentionally meant to recall the class warfare that helped incite the Revolution.

What I do know is that Ruben’s Grill serves the type of food ordinary Mexican citizens would eat. For the most part it’s simple food as it might be prepared in the cocina of any campesino. That means no exorbitant ingredients or exotic spices. This is authentic food, too simple to be called cuisine.

The salsa, for example, is redolent only with the fragrance of Mexican oregano, jalapeno and smoked tomatoes. It is somewhat watery, only mild on the piquancy scale and has a slightly sweet pronouncement, but it’s a terrific salsa, the kind for which you return to Mexican restaurants. It deserves better than the chips which accompany it.

The chips are housemade, low in salt and crispy. They’re served warm and would have been delicious were it not for the fact that during our inaugural two visits, they were fried in old oil. Hopefully this is an anomaly, one of those Murphy’s Law things that everything goes right until you visit a restaurant.

Ceviche
Ceviche

As a gastronome, it’s easy to point out a restaurant’s blemishes–the glass is half empty approach. Ruben’s Grill is the type of restaurant you love warts and all. The many things it does well outweigh the few things about which complaints are usually rendered.

What complaints you might hear are likely going to be directed at the slow pace at which food orders are delivered. Ruben’s Grill is situated in a Lilliputian facility with very few tables and it’s heavily trafficked.

During peak times every table is likely to be occupied, so it’s not uncommon to see long lines of patrons lining up to place their orders to-go. Perhaps because of space constraints, the restaurant also seemed woefully understaffed during my two visits–a cashier who doubles as a waitress and a cook attending the grill. You may have to wait for your order to be fulfilled, but this is food worth waiting for.

One of the things worth waiting for is ceviche, a ship’s bounty of shrimp and fish “cooked” in citrus juice and served with chopped white onions, tomato, cilantro and avocado.

I always marvel at landlocked Mexican restaurants who serve ceviche that tastes fresh. Ruben’s ceviche has that taste. The shrimp don’t necessarily have the snap of just-caught shrimp, but they’re not exactly flaccid either. Best of all, their inherent sweetness still comes out despite being catalyzed in citrus juices. The other ingredients are similarly fresh tasting and delicious.

Tacos ala carte: asada, carnitas and pastor
Tacos ala carte: asada, carnitas and pastor

The menu includes many traditional Mexican favorites for breakfast, lunch and dinner. Dinner plates are served with beans, rice and tortillas and you can have a cup of soup for less than a dollar more. An entire page is dedicated to mariscos (seafood).

A popular option at any time are the tacos ala carte, hard or soft tacos with a variety of meat fillings: chicken, shredded beef, carne asada, carnitas, al pastor and chicharron.

Fresh ingredients–meats, white onion, cilantro and a hot sauce–are stuffed into soft corn tortillas, two per taco to prevent disintegration on account of the moistness of the ingredients.

These are excellent tacos, particularly the al pastor, the famous “shepherd” style pork tacos sometimes cooked slowly on a vertical rotisserie. Ruben’s marinade renders the tacos deliciously savory with a subtle hint of sweetness. The hot sauce then contributes a piquant touch.

It’s not all Mexican restaurants which can excel in both meat-based entrees and mariscos though many restaurants offer both. Aside from the aforementioned ceviche, Ruben’s mariscos menu includes several camarones (shrimp) plates, seafood soups and two seafood cocktails served cold–the Campechana (shrimp, octopus and scallops) and the Coctel de Camaron (shrimp).

Camarones al Mjojo de Ajo (Shrimp in Garlic Sauce)
Camarones al Mjojo de Ajo (Shrimp in Garlic Sauce)

Don’t hesitate to order the camarones al mojo de ajo, shrimp in garlic sauce, a terrific entree prepared as well or better than at restaurants specializing solely in mariscos.

If you’ve ever hesitated to order this entree fearing garlic’s tendency to overpower some dishes, you need not worry. The shrimp are seasoned magnificently in a buttery, garlicky seasoning that brings out the natural sweetness of the shrimp, not the strong flavor of the garlic.

The shrimp have just a bit of snap which signifies their freshness and are served in a bed of sweet, sautéed onions. Despite the garlic and onion, this is not a breath-wrecking, reeking out of your pores entree. It’s one of the better camarones dishes in the Duke City.

Escorting the camarones are delectable refried beans topped with melted Cheddar and small-grained rice. The beans are terrific and the rice, while somewhat desiccated, is salvageable if you mix it with the beans and scoop it up with “Mexican spoons” (corn tortillas).

Ruben’s Grill even entertains a departure into American foods, serving both a hamburger and a bacon burger, both of which can be ordered with cheese. Daily breakfast specials include traditional American breakfast dishes up to and including French toast and pancakes.

Breakfast special
Breakfast special

Breakfast special number three sounds as if it could come from one of the chain breakfast purveyors–two eggs, ham and your choice of pancakes or French toast.

This special is quite good save for the pancakes which are almost rubbery (at least during the visit in which we had them). Usually this is a function of the type of flour used or the way it’s treated. I surmise the pancake mix wasn’t stirred enough.

Beverages to wash down your meal include the usual fountain drinks plus cerveza and wine by the glass, orange juice, hot chocolate, coffee and hot tea. Forego those and try one of the aguas frescas–horchata, lemonade or tamarindo.

The horchata is as sweet as the leftover milk from a bowl of Captain Crunch, but it’s served cold and easily assuages any thirst.

Ruben’s is ensconced in a timeworn strip mall and is situated in the long time home of long gone Bugsy’s Subs.

Ruben’s Grill
9708 Candelaria, N.E.
Albuquerque, NM
294-1900

LATEST VISIT: 19 April 2008
# OF VISITS: 2
RATING: 19
COST: $$
BEST BET: Salsa, Camarones al Mojo de Ajo, Ceviche, Tacos Ala Carte (Asada, Carnitas, Pastor), Horchata

About Gil Garduno

Since 2008, the tagline on Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog has invited you to “Follow the Culinary Ruminations of New Mexico’s Sesquipedalian Sybarite.” To date, nearly 1 million visitors have trusted (or at least visited) my recommendations on nearly 1,100 restaurant reviews. Please take a few minutes to tell me what you think. Whether you agree or disagree with me, I'd love to hear about it.

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9 Comments on “Ruben’s Grill – Albuquerque, New Mexico”

  1. U nay sayers just don’t get it. This is fabulous food @ a ridiculous low price. Real home cooking. Best kept secret in ABQ.

  2. We tried Ruben’s for the first time today for lunch. We ordered chips and salsa, a combination plate, camarones al la diabla and iced tea. The iced tea was weak and did not taste right. We sent it back and got diet Pepsi. The Pepsi lacked sufficient carbonation–how do you mess up diet Pepsi? Since they fry their own chips it was awhile before they arrived. We both agree with Gil. The salsa deserved better chips than those they served with it. Three or four of those in our basket were pretty good. The rest were dripping with grease. It ran off them in drops when they were held on end. We asked if their chips were always this greasy and were told “We fry our own.” Fine. But why were a few OK and the rest essentially inedible? We sent the chips back too. To their credit, we were not charged for the items we sent back.

    Since we are not fans of Spanish rice we asked them to hold the rice and give us extra refritos. The refritos did not seem to be fried or mashed at all, They were a bit watery. On the combination plate we asked for green chili on the relleno and red on the enchilada. They both came smothered in what we guess was red chili sauce. It was really lacking in flavor so it was hard to tell apart from the color. The relleno was good—flavorful and stuffed with a lot of cheese. But it deserved a good green chili sauce with it.

    The camarones al la diabla had a sauce that was mildly piquant but apart from that had very little flavor. It was watery with bits of red chili floating in it. I never had so many onions in this sauce before.

    The prices at Ruben’s were fairly low but so was the quality of the food. The service was not so hot either. We won’t be back. You can get much better food elsewhere—El Norteno, Cocina Azul, Papa Felipes—for only a little bit more. We won’t be back.

  3. We just came back from another wonderful low cost lunch at Ruben’s and am heartbroken to report that another of my favorite places is in real trouble.

    I doubt that my extolling the virtues of places like this does much good but I can always hope.

    I have always considered Rubens to be the less elegant, much lower cost version of Los Eqipales with really good Camarones, seafood and meatball soups, ceviche, and tacos. Ruben also has some New Mexican food such as burritos but everything else was so good that I never tried these things even though most people seem to order them. I think most just have little clue what Mexican food is.

    Business was so bad that a few weeks ago Ruben gave up his beer and wine license and this killed his evening business. It is easy to find on Candalaria just east of Eubank. Please keep one of my favorite lunch spots open.

    By the way Gil, the first foreign invasion of the United States was when the Canadians fighting as British Empire troops burned Washington DC in 1812 and had lunch in the White house. They pulled out when a surprise hurricane hit. Weather forecasting left even more to be desired then than it does now. A few days later the shelled Fort McHenry giving us the Star Spangled Banner and were defeated trying to invade Baltimore.

  4. Im glad you both like the food here, but I will never eat there again. As for my misspelling and errors maybe if you were having major stomach cramps you would have misspellings yourself Mr. Perfect!!! Also, compaired to the food we had McDonalds was a good choice for my friend I did not eat McDonalds so see who is jumping to conclusions without reading the article right Mr. Baker.

    I’m sure the restaurant owner is a nice fellow and maybe other food tastes better there, but after my experience it would be difficult for me to go back for second helpings.

  5. I also have to jump vigorously to the defense of Ruben’s…in fact, I would’ve rated them in my own book quite a bit higher even than Gil did.

    I lived in ABQ from 03 until mid-07 (and am dying to live in the Duke City again), and Ruben’s in time became one of my wife’s and I favorite restaurants. Just a quaint little “mom n’ pop” type of Mexican place that serves amazing and authentic northern Mexican comida.

    Ruben is a tremendous cook and he’s also quite courteous. I have taken to having a casual lunch there even solo, enjoying some great carnitas tacos or tacos al pastor, chugging down an ice cold Tecate, and listening to the Mexican futbol on TV.

    Highest recommendation: The gorditas. A favorite for the El Paso region, gorditas are a little harder to find on some ABQ area menus, but Ruben’s has them and they are so, so good. Fried and hot on the outside, bursting with goodness on the inside.

    Ruben’s also has outstanding (aforementioned) carnitas and tacos al pastor, great enchiladas, very good mariscos plates, etc.

    I have dined at Ruben’s 20+ times and have never had a bad meal. The food is cheap, and the folks are nice.

  6. I was just flabbergasted at the slam from the commentor above, but upon seeing later in her comments (including misspellings and grammatical errors – “appology”?), that her standard was McDonald’s, it put things in context. My wife and I eat there very often, usually for the terrific camarones plates – never left disappointed. I bring out of town guests there regularly for a taste of authenticity outside the “fancy” restaurants. The wait staff have been uniformly upbeat and hard-working, and attentive. It’s a family run, no frills business to be sure – often Ruben’s kids will fill in as wait staff. Ruben always takes time from the grill to greet us and share a few comments. It’s one of our favorites, and will continue so.

  7. Jumping to Ruben’s defense! We have had lunch there 20 or 30 times in the past couple of years & it is one of the few Mexican restaurants that I genuinely love (others being Antonio’s in Taos & Los Equipales). Obviously this places me in a distinct minority among readers of this blog. I have never ordered, nor would I ever order, a burrito or enchiladas here but the soft shell tacos pastor, the ceviche, the skinny little steak and the quesadillas are wonderful.

    The waitress there at lunch is hard working and absolutely charming. She does run a little behind but the place is too small to fit another in. Ruben is friendly & a great cook.

  8. You must have been on crack when you wrote this review. My experience was not even close to this. The only thing good was the chips and salsa. I ordered chips and salsa and the Enchilada plate with egg, guac, and sour cream, and my friend ordered a burrito. Both of us ordered with green and red chili. The food service was slow and the wait staff was rude. We asked for seperate bills which did not happen, and she grabbed the bill without even one appology. The green and red chili was the worst I have ever eaten in my life. The chili was so watered down it was all over the place and very bland and all the food was salty!!!!! This is the only review in my life that I have ever written, and wanted to warn everybody DO NOT EAT HERE EVER. I was going to leave a tip, but i decided the service and food was not even worth the 3 dollars I was going to leave. My toilet was very happy to see me when i got home, diahrea is all that I got out of this experience, and my friend did not eat all her food she left half of her burrito on the plate, and asked if I could take her to McDonalds across the street for a fish sandwich which she said was the best fish sandwhich she ever ate considering were we just ate I can see why she said that. TERRIBLE!!!!!

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