When writer Jeffrey Steingarten was named food critic for Vogue in 1998, he made it his quest to overcome any distaste he may have had for certain foods. Chief among the foods he disliked were kimchi, lard, Greek cuisine, and blue food. Over time, he overcame his aversion toward all those foods, save for those with a bluish hue. His reasoning, “I‘m fairly sure that God meant the color blue mainly for food that has gone bad.” It could then be argued that his best-selling tome The Man Who Ate Everything is somewhat of a misnomer. Steingarten, whom you might recognize as a frequent judge on the Food Network’s Iron Chef America competition, is a very discriminating diner, but by strict definition not an omnivore (given that the term is defined as “an animal or person who eats everything”).
Because Gil’s Thrilling… contains reviews for an impressive number of the Duke City’s restaurants, my friend Carlos calls me “The Man Who Has Eaten Everywhere” (save, of course, for chain restaurants I avoid like the dreaded “reply all” email option). In truth, there are dozens, if not hundreds, of restaurants in the metropolitan area heretofore not darkened by my shadow. Consider the maddening pace at which new restaurants open almost every week. Then there are holes-in-the-wall where you might think no one has boldly gone before (not even intrepid Yelpers) considering how little is known about them. There are also well-known gems which, for whatever reason, have not been on my radar. Among the latter is Juanita’s Comida Mexicana.
Serving Duke City diners since Y2K, Juanita’s might be considered both a hole-in-the-wall and a well-known gem. Sure it’s ensconced on heavily trafficked 4th Street, but it’s easy to miss. Unlike the Red Ball Café and the Barelas Coffee House, its neighbors in the Barelas neighborhood, Juanita’s has a fairly small storefront and its signage is rather weatherworn and faded. A small, homey storefront is befitting the Lilliputian size of this cafe. There are perhaps twelve tables in relatively close proximity to each other. From the vantage point I had during my inaugural visit, I was able to watch two workers peeling green chile for the day. Mind you, this was in November, more than a month removed from peak chile roasting season. Most of us have peeled, bagged and frozen our green chile by now. The fact that the inimitable aroma of fresh chile reached and appeased my nostrils bespoke of its freshness.
Juanita’s is named for Juanita Muñoz who is originally from Namiquipa, Chihuahua, Mexico, almost directly south of New Mexico’s boot heel. Her comida Mexicana is inspired by the ranches around her hometown though many New Mexicans will be reminded of the foods lovingly prepared by their own abuelitas. More than most Mexican restaurants in the Duke City, Juanita’s exemplifies the similarities between Mexican and New Mexican cuisine. Juanita is a peripatetic presence at the restaurant, taking orders, minding the register, refilling beverages and greeting her customers. She is a whirling dervish, an indefatigable bundle of energy who seems to love what she does.
The specialty of the house is carnitas which are served with guacamole, pico de gallo, beans and a tortilla. Tortas (carnitas, chicken, ham and carne asada) have their own section on the menu. So do breakfast, breakfast burritos, lunch plates, burrito plates and a surprising number of burger choices. There’s a daily special for every day of the week. It’s a very inviting menu even if chile is misspelled (“chili”) throughout. Aguas Frescas, Jarritos soft drinks and other beverages are available to wash down your meal as is a good cup of coffee which will go very well with your meal.
A complimentary plastic molcajete of salsa and basket of chips is ferried to your table shortly after you’ve taken your seat. As at so many Mexican and New Mexican restaurants, the salsa is probably the most piquant item on the menu. It’s a jalapeño-based salsa whose heat is intensified by coffee. The chips are thick, crisp and low in salt, perfect for scooping though that’s advisable only if you believe pain is a flavor and you like pain.
Wednesday’s special on the day of my inaugural visit surprised me so much I just had to order it. How often, after all, do you see a Navajo taco on any menu? It’s constructed much in the same manner as other so-called “Indian tacos”–a large, flat sopaipilla fashioned into a bowl stuffed with whole pinto beans, shredded queso chopped tomatoes, green chile and lots of shredded lettuce topped by a dollop of sour cream. The pinto beans are special, perhaps the equal of the “best in Burque” beans at Papa Nacho’s. Though they’re vegetarian, they magically manage to have an almost “made with lard” flavor so comforting for those of us who grew up with mothers who prepared beans that way. If only the green chile had more than mild (on any scale) piquancy, the Navajo taco would have been a tremendous dish.
Juanita’s Comida Mexicana is a find. My only regret is that I didn’t find it sooner in my quest to be “the man who ate everywhere” in the Duke City.
Juanita’s Comida Mexicana
910 4th Street, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 14 November 2018
# OF VISITS: 1
COST: $ – $$
BEST BET: Navajo Taco, Chips and Salsa