“Is there a sound on Earth as joyous as the pat-pat-pat from a Salvadoran kitchen,
the gentle rhythm of a cook slapping together a pupusa that just happens to be yours?”
Pulitzer Prize-Winning Restaurant Critic
Los Angeles Times
Somewhere amid the bottlenecked tangle of highways, byways, freeways, parkways, roadways and expressways (boy, is that a misnomer) that make up Los Angeles there is well-trod mile many consider sacred. The Los Angeles Times calls it the “pupusa mile.” Housed in this approximately 5,280-foot-long stretch just beyond Koreatown is a congregation of Salvadoran restaurants so revered that “walking the pupusa mile is considered a foodie rite of passage.” Foodies were late-comers to the pupusa mile. Salvadorans, who constitute the second largest foreign-born group in Los Angeles with about 68,000 households, have been making pupusa pilgrimages for generations.
Chef Nestor Lopez, scion of Salvadoran immigrants, grew up in Los Angeles and was largely raised on the foods of his ancestral homeland. When he matriculated at the prestigious Le Cordon Bleu culinary school, he didn’t intend or expect to someday launch a restaurant showcasing Salvadoran cuisine. His culinary arts focus was on fine dining. After graduating from Le Cordon Bleu, he plied his talents for a short time at The Grill on The Alley, a five-star restaurant in Hollywood. His next stint was as a chef at Alex’s Gourmet Catering where he gleaned an appreciation for mobile dining.
Alex’s dispatched Nestor to the Land of Enchantment where he catered for large production films and such television hits as “Breaking Bad.” In the Duke City, he envisioned opportunity and potential not available to him in Los Angeles. While serving as kitchen manager at Zinc Wine Bar & Bistro, Nestor decided to start his own business. Instead of utilizing his classical training in the fine-dining arena, he decided to introduce Albuquerque to Salvadoran cuisine the way his mother Noemi prepared it intermingled with his own unique interpretations.
Nestor’s initial entrepreneurial venture was in the burgeoning mobile food kitchen (that’s food truck to you, Bob) domain. He christened his Lilliputian motorized conveyance “Gobble This,” a term with two meanings. One, of course, is the act of eating something. The other is the sound a turkey makes. Both definitions are apropos. Among the most popular dishes consumed at his food truck was a turkey sandwich alternatively known as “El Chumpe” or “Pan Con Pavo.” The former translates from Spanish to “the turkey” while the latter translates to “bread with turkey.” By any name, it’s a fabulous sandwich (more later).
The resounding popularity of his food truck convinced Nestor that he could translate that success into a brick-and-mortar operation. In March, 2018, a scant three years after deploying his food truck, he launched Gobble This in an Old Town space on San Felipe previously occupied by a Greek deli and long before that, as a brothel. The restaurant’s exterior is awash in color reminiscent of New Mexico’s sun and sky—yellow gourd walls with Taos blue pillars. Interior walls are more muted, but festooned with colorful art. Uneven red brick flooring lends to the vintage charm as do Salvadoran touches Nestor will proudly point out.
For the most part, Nestor is a one-man operation—host, server, cashier and chef–though he’s got a phalanx of friends he can count on to stop by and offer a hand when needed. One job he doesn’t hold is that of greeter. That job (which doubles as a delightful low-tech “alarm” system) is the bailiwick of two very enthusiastic fur babies named Luna and Marley. They’ll announce your presence with mirthful barking (there’s no sneaking into Gobble This). No one helps with the cooking. That’s entirely Nestor’s domain…and even when busy in the kitchen, he manages to remain a peripatetic presence at his restaurant. My Kim described him as “the perfect host, a gregarious gentleman with an easy smile for everyone.”
Befitting the small space, the menu is relatively limited while offering tremendous variety and more importantly, great flavors. First on the menu is the aforementioned El Chumpe Sandwich. You would be forgiven if you didn’t venture any further on the menu, so temptingly is that sandwich described. Three street tacos served in quantities of three follow suit (order one of each) Then there’s the pastelitos de carne plate which also come in a portion size of three. Repeat visits will be required to try all eight pupusas on the menu. They come two per order and are served with curtido, salsa de tomate, crema and yucca. While the menu lists only four sides, Nestor frequently comes up with very intriguing specials of the day.
27 January 2019: As is seemingly de rigueur at so many restaurants across the Land of Enchantment, you’ll probably start your Gobble This experience with chips and salsa (housemade tortilla chips served with fresh housemade salsa and fresh guacamole). This particular salsa is more akin to a pico de gallo, a fiery “rooster’s beak” made from chopped tomatoes, onions, cilantro, jalapeno (or perhaps Serrano chiles) and lime. Unless you’re from New Mexico, it’ll probably water your eyes. The creamy guacamole blends the silky smoothness of avocado at the peak of freshness with a slight tang from chile. Both the pico and the guac are superb precursors to a great meal.
25 January 2019: There’s a tendency among Duke City restaurants to christen their turkey sandwiches “Albuquerque Turkey.” Any restaurant deigning to serve packaged turkey slices certainly deserves the ignominy of the derogatory use of the term “turkey.” Don’t count Nestor’s turkey sandwich in that crowd. He roasts every turkey from which he constructs the El Chumpe sandwich (Salvadoran pulled turkey in a tomato mole, sliced cucumber and radish, slaw, mango-pineapple-habanero salsa and watercress on a toasted bolillo). The tomato mole isn’t slathered on after the turkey is roasted. The turkey is actually roasted in the mole, a smoky, complex and delicious elixir with absolutely no chocolate. Nestor’s mole includes pumpkin seeds, sesame seeds, peanuts, chile rioja, chile negro and achiote.
Nestor beams with pride as he recalls the many times he and his dad enjoyed an El Chumpe, particularly during the holidays. This is a sandwich for all seasons and occasions, one that will make carnivores grateful they’re not vegetarians. The turkey is hand-pulled into tender tendrils of sublime succulence and there’s plenty of it between a soft on the inside, crusty exterior bolillo canvas. Thinly sliced cucumber brings to mind banh mi while the zesty radish is a good substitute for onions (which sadly a lot of people don’t like). The mango-pineapple-habanero salsa lends sweet and floral notes which counterbalance the savory acidity of the mole. My efforts to describe other elements are enfeebled by wanton desire for another El Chumpe. It’s simply outstanding!
27 January 2019: I started this review by quoting Jonathan Gold, the only food critic to ever win a Pulitzer Prize, as he waxed poetic about the gentle rhythm of a cook slapping together a pupusa. From where we sat, we were unable to hear Nestor’s well-practiced hands as they deftly and melodically slapped together the pupusas destined for our table. We did, however, catch a whiff or two of the baked corn masa disc as it acquired a pinto pony speckling from the griddle. The effect was the same, a perfervid eagerness to dig into the Salvadoran snack roughly four-inches round. Though they resemble fat flour tortillas, pupusas are made with no baking powder and little (if any) salt.
The menu invites you to “choose your fillings,” a task that sounds simple, but which invariably invites deliberation. Make it easier on yourself by just randomly picking one (or six). You can’t go wrong with any of them. In two visits, we enjoyed pupusas filled with black bean, green chile and cheese; black beans, cheese and chicharrones and carnitas, green chile, black bean and cheese. While all were superb, our favorite may have been the pupusa with chicharrones (wonderfully seasoned shredded pork). Pupusas are served with curtido (a pickled cabbage slaw with a flavor reminiscent of an amped up coleslaw), salsa de tomato, crema and yucca. Any way you have them, you’ll wonder how you’ve lived so long without pupusas this good.
27 January 2019: In its Fall Food and Wine Issue for 2016, Albuquerque The Magazine (ATM) crunched the numbers and told us that in 2015, Americans ate more than 4.5 billion tacos (so it wasn’t just me). That’s more than 490,000 miles of tacos or roughly the equivalent of circling the globe nineteen times. In its “Taco the Town” feature, ATM indicated Albuquerque has “nearly 170 restaurants that create and serve some of the tastiest tacos of every ilk–from New Mexican to gourmet; seafood to veggie.” The Magazine sampled and presented several examples of the city’s “unique, unusual, and undeniably savory taco types.”
Among the tacos showcased is the Pavo (diced cucumber and radish, mango-pineapple-habanero salsa), one of three street tacos on the menu. The Pavo is constructed with the same mole-infused pulled turkey from which the El Chumpe sandwich is made. Where the differences between sandwich and taco are most pronounced is in the bolillo’s ability to better contain its contents. As with the sandwich, the taco is overfilled—literally spilling out beyond the two soft corn tortillas. Unless you can open your mouth as wide as Guy Fieri, you’ll probably have to eat about half the turkey with a fork before you can enjoy it as a handheld taco. The Pavo is aa candidate for best taco in the city honors.
25 January 2019: Spanish-speaking New Mexicans probably grew up believing “pasteles” are “pastries,” usually fruit-filled pies. The first time I encountered “pastelitos” on a Salvadoran menu, I had to wonder if like England and the United States, New Mexico and El Salvador are two places divided by a common language. Salvadoran pastelitos aren’t little pies. They’re empanadas, meat and vegetable-filled turnovers. They’re also delicious—crispy and delectable flattened football-shaped turnovers served atop a banana leaf with salsa and crema on the side.
25 January 2019: Gobble This has a very limited dessert menu. One of the most interesting features ripe plantains fried so that they caramelize around the edges and their sweetness is more concentrated. These “tostones” are topped with Neapolitan ice cream (chocolate, strawberry and vanilla) and drizzled with dulce de leche and red chile agave. It’s a memorable dessert (ironically one whose name I don’t remember).
Sadly, many locals have a “been there, done that” attitude about Old Town…and despite the best efforts of BOTVOLR and the Albuquerque Visitors Bureau, modern-day tourists sometimes tend to share that sentiment. Gobble This and its affable proprietor give you two more reasons to visit Old Town. Maybe quite often.
308 San Felipe Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 27 January 2019
1st VISIT: 25 January 2019
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Pavo Con Pan Sandwich, Pan Con Puerco Sandwich, L.A. Burqueño Taco, Carne Asada Taco; Black Bean, Green Chile and Cheese Pupusa; Chicharron, Black Bean and Cheese Pupusa; Chips, Salsa and Guacamole; Tostones, Neapolitan Ice Cream, Dulce De Leche;
2 thoughts on “Gobble This – Albuquerque, New Mexico”
Gil, I was going to ask you if you had read Jonathan Gold. I read him in the LA Weekly when I lived in LA in the 80s. Later, I moved on from LA and Jonathan moved on to the LA Times. I think my favorite quote by Jonathan is this: “When we’re hungry, everything tastes good, hunger is the best spice.”
“Hunger is the best spice.” Let that sink in. He had great compassion for the hard-working immigrants in the LA basin and the magnificent crumpled family recipes they had stuffed in their back pockets when they arrived.
“Hunger is the best spice.” I raise a plate of pupusa, to you Jonathan.
When it comes to food criticism, there was Jonathan Gold then there was everybody else. He was a unique personality and raconteur with a gift for always using the best words for every situation.
Thanks for sharing one of his many quotable quotes. It was my favorite, too.