When we get together, native New Mexicans of my generation who grew up in the state’s mountainous regions sometimes reminisce about trudging a mile or more in feet-deep snow to get to school. We wonder how we survived the furious snowstorms which killed reception for weeks to all four (yeah, four) Albuquerque television stations in the dark, pre-historic days before color television (not to mention, cable), the Internet and iPhones.
Mostly, we trumpet the fact that we were weaned on chile–and not just any chile. We grew up eating the most gastronomic distress-inducing, tongue-searing, sweat-arousing chile possible–the type of chile which embodies the axiom that with some New Mexican food, pain is a flavor. Listen to us and we’ll have you believe that in comparison, the stuff served in most New Mexican restaurants today is as wimpy as ketchup and as piquant as spaghetti sauce.
Thankfully, the Internet has provided visual–albeit Photoshop image manipulated–evidence of the incendiary stuff on which we were weaned. A frequently forwarded image on many computers depicts a jar of Gerber Picante Sauce, but instead of the familiar cherubic baby with the tousled hair, pursed lips and smiling eyes, the red-faced baby on the manipulated image is in obvious and alarming distress.
The truth is, there are few remaining New Mexican restaurants which serve chile as piquant as our memories tell us it once was. In fact, most of the chile served today has just slightly more piquancy than the innocuous bell pepper which on the Scoville scale is the baseline for “no heat” (this makes it doubly funny to see tourists unable to handle our chile’s “heat”). Sometimes the red chile just sits there like some flour-thickened food coloring while the green chile would be green with envy of the heat generated by a Greek pepperoncini. Most restaurants acquire their chile from one of two distributors and seem, for the most part, to order and serve chile of the “mild” variety.
Expecting chile to be fairly tame in most restaurants, about the most we can hope for is chile with that unmistakable New Mexico sun-blessed flavor we’ve all come to love. New Mexican restaurants generally do a better job in the flavor department than in the province of piquancy. For the most part, green chile has a freshly roasted flavor while red chile can be velvety, earthy and rich. The operative terms here are “for the most part” and “can be.” With few exceptions (Mary & Tito’s and their amazing red chile come to mind), you never know what you’re going to get.
We frankly didn’t know quite what to expect from Quesada’s New Mexican Restaurant on San Mateo just north of Copper. When he told me about Quesada’s, Steve Goatley described it as “a great little New Mexican cuisine restaurant” with “great food.” He described the green chile as “being very tasty with a bit of a bite” and the carne adovada as “out of this world.” For me, the proof is in the eating.
Quesada’s is housed in a small converted home on San Mateo just north of Copper, the same edifice which was once home to the Mediterranean Cafe, a rarity in the Duke City in that it served Tunisian and Moroccan entrees. The restaurant has fewer than a dozen tables and the tables are of the two- to four-seat variety. You’ll have to put two or three tables together to accommodate a larger group. Fortunately the take-out traffic is robust because Quesada’s isn’t big enough to handle an overflow. Parking is also a bit of a challenge, but you should be fine if you figure out how to navigate behind the restaurant.
Quesada’s is a true old-fashioned mom-and-pop restaurant. It’s family-owned and operated by native New Mexicans. The chef-proprietor is from Carlsbad, not exactly known as a hotbed for hot (or good) chile. If the chile enhanced food at the restaurant is any example of the New Mexican food served in the gateway city to the world’s most accessible cave system, capsaicin craving foodies everywhere should descend upon Carlsbad like a colony of bats at a fruit-fly feast.
Before the menu is brought to your table, confusion might ensue as to whether Quesada’s is a New Mexican restaurant, a Mexican restaurant or a hybrid of the two. On a table by the wait staff station are large jars, one filled with watermelon agua fresca ( a standard at Mexican restaurants) and one with ice tea. A table tent lists such un-New Mexican specialties as hot and spicy barbecue ribs. The menu, however, is mostly New Mexican: burritos, quesadillas (not a diminutive of Quesada), burgers, enchiladas, tacos, stuffed sopaipillas, combination platters, tamales, chile rellenos, flautas and more. Everything–the salsa, aguas frescas, chile and more–is made from scratch from family recipes.
The salsa provided a precursor that we might be in for something special, something perfectly piquant and daringly delicious. Quesada’s salsa has the type of incendiary bite that impresses itself on your taste buds, titillating them with piquancy, heat and flavor. If Sadie’s Dining Room is the standard by which the Duke City’s hottest salsas are measured, Quesada’s may just set a new benchmark. It’s not only piquant; it’s very flavorful, a red-orange jalapeno and tomato based sauce of medium thickness and maximum flavor.
As Steve Goatley told me, the carne adovada is indeed “out of this world.” It’s the type of carne adovada my friend and frequent dining companion Ruben, an adovada adoring, carne connoisseur loves most (to find out how much, check out the amusing anecdote he relates in the feedback section below). Unlike the salsa, the carne adovada doesn’t bite back. The emphasis isn’t on piquancy, but on succulently tender pork marinated in a well-seasoned red chile. For breakfast, it is served with two eggs and cubed, golden brown papitas. If there’s one thing wrong with this carne adovada, it’s that there isn’t more of it. A double-sized portion might not be enough to sate you; it’s good enough to make you weak at the knees.
Insofar as the chile, a worthy canvass for New Mexico’s favorite fruit and official state vegetable is Quesada’s enchilada plate–two or three white corn tortillas served rolled (flat upon request), topped with red or green chile (or Christmas style), cheese and that ubiquitous tomato and lettuce garnish so many people discard. The chile is attention grabbing. In its green chile hue, it has the tongue-tingling bite and roasted flavor of my youthful memories. It also has a hint of sweetness that all members of the nightshade family seem to have, albeit not always discernible. The red chile is not quite as piquant, but it’s even more flavorful–sweet and complex with a hint of earthiness. Unlike the chile at Sadie’s which is more piquant than it is flavorful, the chile at Quesada’s is delicious first then piquant. Ask for your enchilada plate to be topped by an egg for an additional flavor ameliorant, not that the chile needs any help.
Enchiladas are available in seemingly every variety but tofu. There are cheese, ground beef, chicken, carne adovada and roast beef enchiladas available which you can mix and match in quantities of two or three. The enchilada plate is served with the de rigueur beans and rice. The beans are mashed and good. The rice has a bit of a bite which places it in unique company considering most Spanish rice in New Mexican restaurants is bland and uninspired.
Quesada’s is one of only a few New Mexican restaurants offering buñuelos, a Mexican dessert made from fried dough. In taste and texture, buñuelos resemble sopaipillas, but are flattened like Navajo tacos (which are also on the menu). They are sprinkled with cinnamon sugar and are a good way to mollify any heat remaining on your taste buds and tongue. Also quite good is the watermelon agua fresca, as refreshing and delicious a fresh water as we’ve had in New Mexico without the cloying quality of aguas frescas made by vendors.
Some readers of this blog have figured out that one way to gauge how much I like a restaurant is how soon after my first visit I make my first return visit. After my first visit, I started craving Quesada’s carne adovada literally as we were driving away. Alas, a scheduled lunch with my friend Ruben four days later was not to be due to my inattention (a woeful tale of my ineptitude is wonderfully related by Ruben in the feedback section below). It wasn’t a total loss as Ruben loved the adovada…and made sure to tell me how much.
My second visit to Quesada’s finally occurred five days after my inaugural visit when I introduced two other friends, Mike Muller and Bill Resnik to the chile that had so captivated me. Carne adovada quesadillas were my choice. A flour tortilla grilled crisp and folded over with melted cheese and generously engorged with carne adovada, it was melt-in-your-mouth good, one of the best quesadillas I’ve had in the Duke City. The carne is the color of a magnificent sunset, the result of being marinated for hours in chile so good I could drink a vat of it. The chile used on the carne adovada isn’t nearly as piquant as the chile served on other entrees. In fact, it’s not a piquant chile, but it is so utterly delicious that you’ll fall in love with it.
The red chile at Quesada’s is so good, in fact, that the best way to have what would otherwise be a green chile cheeseburger is Christmas style–with both red and green chile. The beef patty exceeds the circumference of the bun, spilling over by at least a half-inch. Lettuce and tomato are the sole toppings but squeeze bottles of mustard and ketchup are also brought to your table so you can apply as much as you’d like. The red chile is easily the star, so good that the best way to have this burger is smothered with the stuff. Come to think of it, the French fries would be better smothered in the red chile, too.
Most of the highest heralded green chile cheeseburgers in New Mexico don’t seem to be prepared in New Mexican food restaurants. That’s not to say those restaurants who excel in enchiladas and boast of the best burritos can’t make a great green chile cheeseburger; it’s just that they’re not as renown for the most popular burger in the Land of Enchantment as they are for other entrees. Quesada’s burger is good, but honestly, its other New Mexican food entrees are so much better that I’ll leave green chile cheeseburgers to purveyors who have perfected them. Similarly I won’t order red chile at the restaurants who specialize in the green chile cheeseburger. Red chile is what Quesada’s is for.
Not only does Quesada’s trigger memories of the chile of my youth, it elicited the promise of new memories at what promises to be one of my favorite New Mexican restaurants.
Quesada’s New Mexican Restaurant
513 San Mateo, N.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 14 August 2009
1st VISIT: 26 June 2009
# OF VISITS: 3
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Carne Adovada, Enchiladas, Aguas Frescas