“At school, whenever I heard the word matanza, hog butchering,
My face warmed up with joy and my heart beat a happy sound.
It was a heavenly time for me.
Images of sizzling chicharrones, crisp, meaty cracklings and
Fresh, oven-baked morcillas, made my mouth water.”
~Hoe, Heaven and Hell by Dr. Nasario Garcia
For young boys growing up in rural New Mexico in the 60s, one of the rites of passage signifying our transition from childhood to young adulthood was being asked to participate in the matanza. As one in a succession of life’s progressions, working a matanza was an even more important milestone than being allowed to order the “Teen Burger” instead of the “Mama Burger” at A&W. Among other things, it meant adults now trusted us not to get in the way, to follow orders to the letter and perhaps more importantly, not to shed tears for the “guest of honor” we helped raise from suckling piglet to fatted hog.
It would be disingenuous of me to say I ever got over the gory sights and smells of slaughtering what were essentially pets we’d nurtured just for that purpose. Fortunately those memories don’t haunt me as much as my heart is warmed by the wonderful memories of time spent with family. A matanza is so much more than a rite of massage. It is a time-honored tradition, a festive occasion in which friends and family gather together to celebrate the changeover from harvest season to winter’s early arrival. It’s a way of life. Reading Dr. Nasario Garcia’s inspiring tome Hoe, Heaven, and Hell: My Boyhood in Rural New Mexico rekindled so many wonderful experiences of growing up in Peñasco and being around matanzas since about the age of six.
When it was announced that a new restaurant to be called the Matanza New Mexico Local Craft Beer Kitchen was to launch in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill district, those memories flooded back. Despite the beer hall-kitchen appellation, I entertained faint hopes that it would be some sort of pantheon of porcine perfection, a memory-inducing milieu that would recall the matanzas of my youth. As more information trickled down, it was obvious the true spirit an tradition of the matanza would not be relived at this Matanza.
Instead, the Albuquerque Journal‘s pansophical retail reporter Jessica Dyer divulged that Matanza would feature “progressive New Mexican food” with a menu showcasing such contemporary interpretations as “blue corn duck tamales, tacos stuffed with ground Kobe beef and blue cheese crumbles, or even kale-and-wild-mushroom blue corn enchiladas.” Moreover, she revealed, Matanza would spotlight only New Mexico beers (more than 100 on tap) and wines. Hmm, that doesn’t sound like any matanza in which I participated though enough beer and wine might evoke a familial spirit in some crowds.
Matanza is located in a cavernous 5,500 square-foot edifice which previously housed a retail boutique. Situated on the corner of Central and Wellesley, it has the advantage of being at the heart of heavily trafficked Nob Hill and the challenge of providing close proximity parking. Matanza is the brainchild of restaurant impresario and chef Peter Gianopoulos whose footprint in the Duke City dining scene includes Q Burger in the downtime district and the UNM area’s Brickyard Dive. His restaurants tend to be avant-garde and fun with food guests really seem to enjoy.
To hard-line traditionalists, the terms “contemporary” and “progressive” are often seen as pejoratives. Some view restaurants taking such approaches as stabbing at tradition. Others argue that not every cuisine needs to evolve and New Mexican food especially is perfect just the way it is. Call it the “anti Santa Fe argument,” a reference to the progressive Southwest fusion cuisine movement of the 1990s that made it fashionable to meld New Mexican ingredients, particularly chile, with other cuisines.
Matanza is a perfect restaurant for those of us who respect tradition, but don’t consider it blasphemous to try something new and different. My own grandparents might not recognize the melange of heretofore untried ingredient combinations, but they were open enough to have tried them and would probably have found many of them not just acceptable, but delicious. My millennial nieces, on the other hand, would welcome (if they noticed them at all) the innovations, especially if they looked good on a selfie.
25 October 2015: The trepidatious at heart might want to start with something at least vaguely familiar, something they can find at many New Mexican restaurants. The Trifecta is that familiar starter, a triumvirate of New Mexican appetizer favorites: house guacamole, roasted green chile salsa and queso blanco. If that sounds pretty blasé for a supposedly leading edge restaurant, you’ll quickly note that the Trifecta is served with a variety of tostadas (chips) and chicharrones. Though the salsa and queso somewhat obfuscate the salty-fatty flavor of the chicharrones, the smooth, buttery guacamole pairs well with them. Only the salsa has much of a bite.
25 October 2015: In a New Mexico meets Italy twist that works surprisingly well, Matanza offers a Fideo Carbonara entree that may have you doing a double take. Instead of pasta made from thin noodles (usually vermicelli or angel hair pasta), this dish is made with a thicker, longer pasta (probably spaghetti) and served in a concave bowl with Ponderosa-Cabernet braised pork belly with red chile, snap peas, toasted pinon, fresh basil and aged Parmesan. As with its Italian counterpart, this is a sinfully rich dish that has the added benefit of red chile’s delightful heat. Considering the liberties taken with one of my favorite traditional Italian dishes, it made a very good impression on me.
27 January 2016: For the entirety of the eighteen years I worked for a Fortune 50 company whose corporate values include “risk-taking,” I was never asked to organize a team outing that included a restaurant meal. For many of my colleagues, venturing outside the Chili’s, Applebee’s, Olive Garden comfort zone was apparently too much of a risk. That’s not the case at the University of New Mexico where my new colleagues enjoy venturing away from the “usual suspects” and experiencing new culinary adventures. When asked to organize a retirement dinner for a beloved colleague, my choice was Matanza, a restaurant none of them had visited. Murphy’s Law reared its ugly head the minute we walked in when our server greeted us with news that the venting system wasn’t functioning and we’d be limited to ensaladas (salads), horno flat breads and some appetizers. Not to be deterred, our intrepid group made the best of a potentially bad situation and merrily ordered dishes we otherwise would have skipped over in favor of entrees.
For several of us, that meant horno flat breads, a lovosh-like thin pizza. Matanza offers five flat breads, each named for a different area of the city: The Nob Hill, The Old Town, The Valley, The West Side and The Heights. Whether or not the flat breads are intended to represent the personality of the areas they represent can be debated. What’s not up for debate is that they’re delicious. My choice was The Valley (crispy pork belly, chiffonade pear, candied Las Cruces pecans, poppy seed-dressed micro cilantro and goat cheese) which I ordered not because of any particular affinity for that part of town, but for the interplay of flavors. The chiffonade pear and candied pecans, for example, provided a sweet contrast to the slightly sour and wonderfully pungent goat cheese. The crispy pork belly provided the smokiness and flavor of thick bacon.
25 February 2016: Because their inaugural experience at Matanza had been so enjoyable, the team asked me to organize another event a few weeks later at “our table.” It surprised me to see how familiar some of them had become with the menu, the result of several visits (five by Louella and Chuck) on their own. With a full menu available to us, we cut a wide swathe through entrees theretofore untried. Three of us planned to compare notes on the blue corn duck tamales. Alas, Mr. Murphy determined to dampen my experience. When asked about my entrée, my tongue-in-cheek response was “this is the worse blue corn duck tamale I’ve ever had.” That’s because our server delivered black and blue label tacos (Kobe beef, melty bleu cheese crumbles, crispy onion strings and housemade New Mexico-style hot sauce) instead of the coveted tamale. Rather than send them back, I sought to enjoy them though when you’ve got your heart set on duck tamales, it wasn’t easy. There are several enjoyable elements to the tacos, but the Kobe beef wasn’t one of them. Kobe beef makes a great steak, but may be a bit too oleaginous for tacos.
Matanza West (CLOSED)
In September, 2017, Matanza launched its second restaurant, this one on the burgeoning west side. Located in the space which previously housed Vernon’s Open Door and before that the Stumbling Steer and even Quarters, Matanza West has nearly twice the space as its elder sibling with 10,000-square-feet and a capacity of some 300 guests, not including a sprawling patio. In addition to 100 local craft beers, wines and other drinks, an expansive kitchen allows for a menu twice the size as its predecessor. You’re bound to find a thing or ten you’ll like. After you’ve perused the soups and salads, you’ll come across a menu called Matanza Smokehouse. This section of the menu is described as “Matanza’s secret spice rubbed pecan wood smoked or slow roasted all natural cruelty-free meats. Served with fresh flour tortillas, Matanza barbecue sauce and choice of two sides. Add Caesar Limon or soup or cup of soup…”
15 October 2017: Among the appetizers available only at Matanza West is the Big Dipper, an Ursa Major-sized platter large enough to feed a family of four. Picture green chile spinach and artichoke fondue; white bean and Chimayo chile hummus; Spanish olive, caper and piñon tapenade all served with homemade pita chips and flatbread. Though the pita chips and flatbread are tailor-made for scooping, we would have preferred soft pita bread on which we could spread the three dips. We would also have preferred chile with more bite, especially on the fondue. The tapenade was our favorite of the three dips, a flavorful melange of ingredients which work so well together, especially the sharp, tangy capers and woodsy piñon.
15 October 2017: My adovada adoring Kim, a purist about her favorite New Mexican dishes, was not very happy with the creative liberties took with a dish showcasing a quadrumvirate of items. In Matanza’s defense, a plate named The Matanza Experience didn’t promise traditional New Mexican authenticity. Instead of carne adovada, the plate offered pulled pork adovada. There’s a big difference, the latter being more akin to a barbecue entree (and indeed, a smoky barbecue sauce is provided). The plate also included smoked ribs, pork belly and chicharrones, none prepared as you’d find them in a New Mexican matanza. That doesn’t make them bad, just different. Viva la differencia. The pecan-smoked ribs have a caramelized bark and very endearing sweet-smoky-piquant notes. The crispy pork belly and its smoky, bacony properties are noteworthy. The four items are served with “artisan” tortillas: flimsy, floppy, waifishly thin tortillas with little substance. Two sides are also served with this dish. Make one of them calabasitas, some of the very best in town.
15 October 2017: The Matanza menu includes “Soups Del Corazon,” soups from the heart, six exemplars of why soup is a comfort food favorite. We had only one, but will return for other such as the calabasitas bisque and lamb posole with Hatch green chile and Mexican oregano. If the cream of peppercorn elk and wild mushroom soup is any indication, Matanza’s soups are enchanting elixirs for whatever ails you. Quite simply, it’s one of the very best mushroom soups we’ve ever had–comparable to the one we make at home (don’t tell my Kim). Its depth of flavors is well balanced between the earthy wild mushrooms and their rich umami qualities and the clean, healthful flavor of elk seasoned not too assertively with peppercorn. A cup of this sumptuous soup isn’t sufficient. A pho-sized bowl would be perfect.
15 October 2017: Hoping lightning would strike twice, I ordered the High Desert Fried Steak (country-fried sirloin, elk and mushroom cream gravy, red chile Cheddar mashed taters and braised greens). Alas, no good deed goes unpunished. The elk and mushroom cream gravy, while quite good, isn’t as memorable as the peppercorn elk and wild mushroom soup. It’s a hearty, thick gravy served hot and it covers the entire steak which itself is fork-tender and flavorful. It’s also as big as a western saddle so you’ll be taking some home. Ask for a side of the gravy for your mashed potatoes which otherwise lean toward the dry side. The braised greens are terrific.
Matanza, the restaurant, may become a tradition in much the way matanzas have been part and parcel of life in New Mexico for generations.
Matanza New Mexico Local Craft Beer Kitchen
3225 Central Avenue, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 15 February 2016
1st VISIT: 25 October 2015
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: The Trifecta, Fideo Carbonara, Matanza Adovada, The Valley (Flatbread), Black & Blue Label Tacos, Calabasitas