“Well, there’s not a taco big enough for a man like me
That’s why I order two or three
Let me give you a tip, just try a nacho chip
It’s really good with bean dip.”
~Weird Al Yankovic – Taco Grande
Philosophers and scholars have long pondered just what Rodin’s The Thinker was thinking about. Okay, some people were probably wondering why he was naked, but mostly we wondered what deep philosophical ruminations occupied his mind. Theories abound. Was he contemplating the meaning of life? Musing about what is truth? I have my own theory. I believe The Thinker was wondering why the heck anyone would eat at Taco Bell when there are so many better options–especially in New Mexico. From the look of utter perplexity on his face, he had to be wondering why around half the population of the United States visits a Taco Bell once every eleven days.
It would be easy to make this essay an indictment against American culture for “heading for the border” but wouldn’t it be a better tact to lavish praises on Albuquerque’s phenomenal independent taquerias, several of which have been recently reviewed on Gil’s Thrilling… That’s what The Thinker would have done. Then he would have dressed in his taco eating finery and headed to Dia De Los Takos or to El Cotorro or to any of an increasing number of terrific taquerias across the Duke City. Albuquerque’s taco culture may not yet rival that of our neighbors in Texas–at least in terms of numbers–but for sheer deliciousness and inventiveness, I’d stack our tacos up against those of any city!
My confidence in Albuquerque’s burgeoning taco culture was bolstered by our inaugural visit to Don Choche Tacos Y Cerveza. Don Choche isn’t a new kid in the block. It’s been around for eleven years, but only recently (March, 2019) did it transition from mobile food kitchen (that’s food truck to you, Bob) to a brick-and-mortar operation. Don Choche’s new home on North 4th should be familiar to those of you who frequented Fresh Bistro where Chef Jon Young once plied his formidable skills. In addition to being a traditional sit-down restaurant, the location has an expansive dog-friendly patio under the shade of stately deciduous trees.
Those of you conversant in Spanish might recognize that “Choche” is slang for “Jorge” just as “Nacho” is slang for Ignacio and “Pancho” is slang for Francisco. Choche, in this case, is Jorge Samaniego, the affable owner who operates Don Choche with his family and a very accommodating and attentive staff. The mobile food kitchen will continue to prowl the mean streets of Albuquerque while the restaurant opens early for breakfast and remains open late into the evening.
Though “tacos y cerveza” sounds rather limited, the restaurant’s menu is actually quite expansive. Unlike some of the inventive fusion taco restaurants in Albuquerque, Don Choche holds true to Mexican taco traditions. That means corn tortillas and tacos served with cilantro, onions, radish and limes (lettuce, tomato and cheese are optional). Possibilities abound. You can order your tacos with your choice of asada (beef), tripitas (tripe), red chile brisket, fish (fried cod), ham and cheese, chile relleno, chicharron en salsa, verde (pork grinds), barbacoa (shredded beef), green chile brisket, carnitas (pork), carne adovada, shrimp, bean and cheese or chicken. Those very same options can also be used to construct huge (twelve-inch tortillas) burritos, tortas, quesadillas, handmade gorditas and even nachos.
That’s not all. The menu also offers huge asada fries, flautas, tostadas, asada and brisket burgers and molcajetes by the pound. Breakfast burritos and breakfast plates give you another reason to get up early while dinner plates offer multi-item options sure to please. Don Choche’s burgers aren’t just a conventional all beef patty creation. One of the giant burgers comes with “a huge pile of asada on top” while the other is adorned with “a load of green chile brisket.” That’s meat upon meat, sure to please all of us with a carnivorous bent. Oh, there’s a dessert menu, too and it’s as tempting as the entrees.
27 July 2019: You’ll want to start with a trip or eight to the fresh salsa bar where an endorphin-generating treasure trove of salsas may prove addictive. We didn’t find a dud among the six we tried–green chile, chile de arbol, tomatillo, pico de gallo, chile piquin and chipotle–and had to replenish our basket of red and yellow chips twice. Every one of the salsas bites back with the vengeance of high Scoville unit potency, especially the chile de árbol (literally tree chile). Even the chipotle and tomatillo salsas, both tempered with sour cream, were pleasantly piquant.
27 July 2019: Not knowing what to expect in terms of portion size, we ordered a quesadilla (two ten-inch tortillas with your choice of filling, cilantro, onion, salsa, crema and cheese) as an appetizer. Our choice of meat was the intriguing green chile brisket. It wasn’t the most aesthetically-pleasing quesadilla we’ve ever had, but for sheer delight and deliciousness, few quesadillas even come close. To put it mildly, the green chile brisket is spectacular–tender tendrils of shredded brisket infused with a smoky green chile of medium piquancy. My Kim enjoyed hers with crema while my choice was the chipotle salsa.
27 July 2019: Knowing we’d most certainly be taking much of our entree home, we shared a carne adovada molcajete (one-pound of homemade carne adovada served with twelve corn tortillas, cilantro, onions, salsa and a bowl of beans. A molcajete is essentially a seasoned stone mortar meticulously carved out of a single rock of vesicular basalt by a skilled artisan. Not only are they esthetic, they are highly functional, used for crushing and grinding spices and as serving vessels. That’s how Don Choche uses them. Our molcajete was brimming with carne adovada, shredded pork marinated in chile piquin. While most New Mexican carne adovada is relatively mild in terms of piquancy, this one bites like an angry wasp. We overfilled the fresh corn tortillas with the adovada, crafting terrific tacos. The accompanying beans and rice are both quite good, especially the refried beans which are much more soupy than refrieds tend to be.
24 May 2020: English poet Lord Byron once stated that he felt himself “grow savage” when he ate meat. He had no qualms about declaring meat superior to vegetables as he did in writing about Don Juan: “Although his anatomical construction bears vegetables, in a grumbling way, Your laboring people think beyond all question, beef, veal, and mutton better for digestion.” Your own savage inclinations might just surface when Don Choche’s brisket burger (beef patty, avocado, green chile, cheese and “a load of green chile brisket”) is delivered to your table. This meat-on-meat behemoth will sooth the most savage breast and defeat the most avaricious of appetites. The green chile brisket has smoky properties very similar to your favorite low-and-slow barbecued brisket. Tender tendrils of brisket punctuated by pleasantly piquant green chile make this one of the best burgers in the city. You’ll have to open wide (like Food Network glitterati Guy Fieri) to take a bite, but that’s just part of the savage experience.
24 May 2020: Attired in our personal protective equipment visit and practicing social distancing, we ran into Rafael Alvarez, who along with his two sons owns the fabulous paleteria Pop Fizz. Rafael was positively effusive about the tacos al pastor at Don Choche’s, joking that they’re his “cheat meal” for the week. Even the most faithful among us (and maybe even a few vegetarians) would cheat on our diets with tacos al pastor this good. As with some of the best tacos al pastor you’ll find in the Land of Montezuma, the tortillas are dipped in chile, imbuing them with a pleasant piquancy that complements their deep corn flavor. Chopped cilantro, bits of wonderfully caramelized pineapple and onion are the only other fillings on this taco. The rest is all al pastor which means pineapple marinated pork grilled to perfection. There’s truly something magical about the interplay of sweet pineapple marinated pork and chile marinated tortillas.
24 May 2020: For some reason, tostadas are quite often referred to as “cheap eats” or “sophomore food.” Some people even call them “cheap and easy,” not usually a complimentary term. These open-faced, toasted corn tortilla treasures topped with sundry ingredients should elicit nothing but compliments. Made well, they should be lavished with praise. Made by Don Choche’s, they should have ballads composed and legends told. Quite simply, the tostadas at Don Choche’s are the best we’ve had in New Mexico, better even than those we make at home. Credit the green chile brisket for much of that. My Kim had a rather denuded tostada, topped with brisket, cilantro and onion while your friendly neighborhood blogger enjoyed mine with all the fixings (lettuce, sour cream, chopped tomatoes and shredded cheese). The brisket elevates every ingredient with which it is paired and these are in rarefied air indeed.
27 July 2019: There are several desserts on the menu–chocoflan, cherry or pineapple empanadas, cheesecake, churros, sopaipillas and honey and Kim’s favorite, pastel tres leches. Made with three types of milk (hence the name)–evaporated milk, sweetened condensed milk, and whole milk–this light and spongy cake is an absolute joy. Don Choche’s version is more lightly frosted than other versions we’ve ha in New Mexico, but a generous dollop of housemade whipped cream more than makes up for it. It goes without saying this cake is very moist and creamy. It’s also outstanding.
You’ll do a double-take when you read the cost of the desserts. As of this writing, they’re three dollars a piece. Don’t dare tell your server what a bargain that is or you risk inspiring a price hike. I expected one pineapple empanada for my dessert, not three…and these aren’t small empanadas either. They’re not stuffed quite as generously as we would have liked nor are they as cloying as American turnovers tend to be, but they’re very good.
Recently when my friend Desiree Aguilar admitted to having eaten at Chipotle, I pleaded with her, “please tell me you don’t eat at Taco Bell, too.” She looked at me as if I’d asked if she enjoyed dining at a swine trough. “No! I do not eat at Taco Bell,” she said rather emphatically. We tease Desiree a lot about millennial tastes and preferences even though she’s a rather adventurous diner. She would certainly enjoy Don Choche. So will you!
Don Choche Tacos Y Cerveza
7319 4th Street, N.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 24 May 2020
1st VISIT: 27 July 2019
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Green Chile Brisket Quesadilla, Carne Adovada Molcajete, Tres Leches Cake, Empanadas de Pina, Chips and Salsa, Brisket Burger, Carnitas Burrito, Tacos Al Pastor