Much as I like and respect Bob of the Village of Los Ranchos (BOTVOLR), the most prolific commentator on Gil’s Thrilling…naming this blog for him has never been a consideration. Like Bill Richardson, the former governor of the great state of New Mexico, most of us would like to see our names immortalized on the side of a building, newspaper article or in my case, a thrilling (and filling) food blog. Call it ego or self-aggrandizement, it’s just human nature to want our names recognized, preferably in large print and not for some act of ignominy. That’s what makes the story of Georgia Maryol and Tomasita Leyba so compelling.
That Georgia would name her new restaurant venture for her long-time friend and chef speaks volumes about both of them. Their stories–Georgia’s and Tomasita’s—are chronicled on Tomasita’s website, told far better than this blogger is capable, but here’s just an example of a very unique and wonderful relationship: In the early 70s when the opportunity to lease the historic former terminus of the “Chile Line” in Santa Fe’s Railyard presented itself, Georgia jumped at the chance. Nay-sayers, both press and public, predicted gloom and doom. Concerned that she’d made a mistake and would lose the customers and reputation she had cultivated at her small cafe over the years, Georgia asked her Tomasita, her chef, for advice. Tomasita’s response, “tell ’em all to go to hell. Let’s move!”
Tomasita’s has been serving the City Different for nearly half a century and is widely regarded as one of the city’s premier dining destinations, an exemplar of Northern New Mexican cuisine. Though Georgia retired from day-to-day operations in 2001 and Tomasita is preparing her heavenly recipes for saints and angels, remaining family-owned and family-operated has ensured continuity and excellence. So has recipes handed down for generations using the highest-quality ingredients available procured from local farmers and producers. For decades, denizens of the Duke City have been known to make the 60-something mile pilgrimage to Santa Fe just to dine at Tomasita’s. Care to guess where they’re celebrating Tomasita’s presence in the Duke City?
On a crisp autumn day in 2017, Tomasita’s launched its Albuquerque satellite in the edifice which previously housed Texas Land and Cattle, a middling chain. The make-over of the 7,500 square-foot space is remarkable. It’s got all the trappings of a New Mexican restaurant. In many ways, Tomasita’s is like a welcoming oasis in a parched wasteland, one of few locally owned restaurants along the Pan American Freeway which parallels I-25. While success for other New Mexican restaurants launching in the area has been fleeting, Tomasita’s has the pedigree, authenticity and recipes to make Duke City habitues of its Santa Fe sibling very happy and to cultivate enthusiastic new devotees.
Not since Chevy Chase, Martin Short and Steve Martin has there been a trio as colorful as the Tres Amigos (salsa, guacamole and chips) starter at Tomasita’s. The name, however, is a bit deceptive. We had assumed tres amigos meant the triumvirate of salsa, guacamole and con queso. Alas, the third in the troika is not con queso, but chips. No ordinary chips are these. They’re white corn chips from La Mexicana in Albuquerque and they’re large, crisp, lightly salted and have a pronounced corn flavor. Still, we missed the con queso. The salsa and guacamole are very good, especially the rich, creamy guacamole. All too often when you order guacamole, you’re served a bowl of smashed avocados seasoned with salt and maybe pepper. At Tomasita’s, the guacamole tastes both of citrus and chile. It’s got a pleasant piquancy–not as much heat as the pureed salsa, but a nice departure from most guac.
Perhaps the most mangled name among all New Mexican dishes is rellenos. Restaurant guests and television talking heads—shamefully even here in New Mexico—butcher pronunciation of the double-l. Even if they know the double-l is pronounced like a “y,” they still come out with such garbled gobbledygook as “ray-ya-no” or “rel-yay-lo-no.” Though locals find these malapropisms funny (unless uttered by anchors or reporters who should know better), chile rellenos are no laughing matter—especially at Tomasita’s where they’re widely regarded as some of the best in the state.
Constructed with a roasted and peeled Hatch green chile about six inches long stuffed with Monterey Jack, the chiles are lightly sheathed in a bread crumb batter before being fried evenly throughout. A blanket of melting shredded cheese and your choice of chile is spread on top. It’s a beautiful sight—and even better taste. Puncture the crispy batter with your fork and you’ll find an easy cut—literally no stringy chile strands with which you have to wrestle. For a complementary contrast, have your relleno topped with red chile, a best of both worlds proposition that’s absolutely delicious. As with all hot dishes at Tomasita’s, hot means hot. You probably shouldn’t try handling your plate or diving into your entrée until it’s cooled down just a bit. (Good luck with finding the patience to wait.)
The term sopaipilla probably comes from the Arabic word xopaipa which means “bread soaked in oil” in Arabic. Xopaipias originated in Muslim Spain way back in the fifth to eight century. Sopaipillas–the way New Mexicans know and love them–weren’t “invented” until about 200 years ago. Over time, sopaipillas haven’t needed refinement or improvement as other foods often require. Instead, restaurants such as Tomasita’s have figured out how to maximize their potential as a vehicle for other ingredients. Tomasita’s isn’t content with the de rigueur New Mexican restaurant offering of sopaipillas stuffed with ground beef and beans then smothered with cheese and your choice of chile. Tomasita’s offers sopaipillas stuffed with roast beef, ground beef, chicken, carne adovada, roast leg of lamb, refried beans, whole beans and a “veggie especial” with grilled mushrooms, onions, peppers, squash with cheese. Sure you can have a beef and bean combo, but at Tomasita’s you have real choices.
Unlike the famed traveler of Robert Frost’s poem who struggled with which of only two roads to take, diners at Tomasita’s aspiring to enjoy a stuffed sopaipilla or burrito have so many more choices, it boggles the mind. Both burritos and sopaipillas available to be stuffed with any of the aforementioned choices. Let me make it easy for you. Trying others is the reason return visits exist. For a unique treat, however, I recommend the sopaipilla stuffed with roast leg of lamb topped with both red and green chile. The lamb is sliced as thinly as the lamb-beef amalgam on a gyro, but it’s chewier and there’s nary a hint of the gaminess for which lamb is often lambasted. There’s also nothing else inside the sopaipilla–just layers of luscious lamb. It’s topped with shredded Monterey Jack cheese and your favorite chile(s). The green chile is superb! It’s got a pleasant piquancy and positively radiates the flavor complexities of green chile, especially its fruitiness. You’ll easily discern that it’s been roasted very well then simmered for hours. The red chile is also rich and complex with the unadulterated earthiness of great red chile. This is Christmas the way it should be celebrated in New Mexico’s cocinas.
When slathered with copious amounts of honey, a sopaipilla is perhaps just a little more “healthy” than a Krispy Kreme donut burger. While most New Mexicans wouldn’t eat such a burger even on a dare, we love our sopaipillas—and not just because they’re believe to have originated in Albuquerque as a variant of Native American frybread. We love them because of their versatility as the canvas upon which we can create savory or sweet deliciousness. We love them tearing into them right out of the fryer when scalding wisps of steam waft upwards into our eagerly awaiting nostrils. We love creating little doughy pockets into which we can deposit sweet, thick honey. Speaking of which…
Honey is one of the many reasons Tomasita’s sopaipillas are in rarefied air, among the very best in the Land of Enchantment. The sopaipillas are pillowy and fluffy exemplars of deliciousness, fried to a golden-hued perfection so that exterior walls don’t sluff off and interior walls are soft and moist. With or without honey, every bite is swoon-worthy…but you’ll want the honey. Tomasita’s uses real honey, not the honey-flavored syrup so many New Mexican restaurants pass off as honey. Tomasita’s honey comes from B’s New Mexico Honey Farm, a producer of raw, naturally organic honey for over 25 years. It’s pure, natural…the real stuff and it makes a difference. There’s a squeeze bottle with this liquid gold in every table. Delivered with the sopaipillas is a sweet-savory honey batter at an easily spreadable degree of meltedness. It’s also quite good.
Normally sopaipillas with honey are all New Mexicans need for dessert, but when piñon cheesecake is available, not even praying to Saint Charles Borromeo, the patron saint of obesity and dieting can keep you away from it (not that anyone would want to resist it). The cheesecake is delicate, rich and creamy with the tanginess of a great cream cheese. An amber sheen of caramel and a dollop of housemade whipped cream top the cheesecake like a canopy of snow atop a mountain range. Punctuating the caramel blanket is a sprinkling of piñon with its subtle hints of pine freshness. This is a magnificent cheesecake, the antithesis of those waxy, cloying pretenders.
Happy guests are the hallmark of Tomasita’s in Santa Fe and now in Albuquerque. The feisty lady for whom this family restaurant is named would be happy with the continuity and success of the restaurant she helped make famous.
4949 Pan American Freeway, N.E
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 3 October 2018
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Stuffed Sopaipilla with Roast Leg of Lamb, Chiles Rellenos, Sopaipillas, Piñon Cheesecake