In the millennium year, after years of planning and lobbying, the dream was finally realized of a haven dedicated to the preservation, promotion, and advancement of Hispanic culture, arts, and humanities. In 2000, the National Hispanic Cultural Center (NHCC), launched along the Camino Real in the Albuquerque’s historic Barelas neighborhood. The Center is an architectural anomaly in a largely adobe-hued area. Its unique structures include a renovated hacienda-style school, a stylized Mayan pyramid with interior elements modeled on Romanesque architecture and a torreon (tower) housing a 4,000 square foot concave fresco depicting over 3,000 years of Hispanic history.
Ironically the complex chartered to preserve, protect and promote Hispanic culture had to displace several families, thereby disenfranchising some of the very families who embody Albuquerque’s Hispanic culture. One resident–the late Adela Martinez–stared down bureaucrats and made them blink, refusing to move. The forty-million dollar Cultural Center had to be redesigned to accommodate her family in the home she moved into in the 1920s. Today, her family’s two small houses stand out, not like a sore thumb, but as a testament to the courage of one 80-year old Hispanic woman whose treasured memories were worth much more than the monetary treasures government offered.
Since November, 2000, the converted Barelas Elementary School on the sprawling NHCC complex has served as the home of La Fonda Del Bosque, a stylish 280-seat restaurant. La Fonda, which translates from Spanish to “The Inn” almost immediately garnered recognition. Within three years of its launch, Hispanic magazine named it one of the 50 best Hispanic restaurants in the United States for two consecutive years (2003 and 2004). It was also named one of Gourmet Magazine’s “Best Kept Secrets.” A higher compliment is that many locals have loved its many instantiations, too.
Over the years, a number of catering, restaurant management companies and restaurateurs looking to expand have tried their hand at running La Fonda Del Bosque. Chef Stephani Margum, who assumed the helm in November, 2017 hopes to stem the tide of short-lived occupants. She’s created an eye-opening menu of Latin comfort foods prepared from locally sourced ingredients. Though she’s been cooking professionally for more than four decades—her first stint when she was only fifteen years old–Stefani is a very youthful and energetic chef. She has to be because she also owns and operates City Treats Catering and Parties.
Originally from San Francisco. Stefani received her classical training in her hometown before cutting her teeth at Café Americain, one of the city by the bay’s finest restaurants. She moved to Albuquerque in 1989 to pursue her dream of opening her own restaurant. To get the lay of the Duke City’s culinary landscape, she first worked at such paragons of fine dining as the Rancher’s Club and the Artichoke Café. In 1992 with the launch of City Grill and Wine Bar in the downtown area she realized her dream. Though that venture didn’t have the longevity she desired, La Fonda Del Bosque just might.
Of course credentials and experience alone don’t a great chef make. As the Jewish proverb says, “you never soar so high as when you stoop down to help a child or an animal.” When she espied us sitting on the capacious porch with The Dude, our debonair dachshund, she ferried a dish of cold water over to him. Stefani is a bona fide dog lover though her lap dogs tend to be a bit bigger than our Dude. She favors mastiffs, the lumbering, laid-back breed Alfred, Lord Tennyson wrote about.
La Fonda Del Bosque’s dining room is one of the most spectacular milieus in which to dine, a showcase of traditional and contemporary New Mexican design. Distressed wood floors, vigas, embossed tin light fixtures, cushioned bancos and a kiva fireplace command your attention, but the venue’s cynosure might be the tiled bar with its blue backdrop. On the opposite wall, a panel painting divided into four sections depicts verdant life on the bosque. It’s hard to believe this striking space once served as an elementary school.
Though it’s relatively limited, La Fonda’s menu is pretty spectacular, too. There’s something for everyone to love starting with the two appetizers: Chinese BBQ duck quesadillas and guacamole with a trio of salsas. Soups and salads are served with the housemade sage bread (it’s outstanding) and come with your choice of Balsamic, ranch, chipotle ranch or miso Thai dressings, also made on the premises. There are two sandwiches on the menu, both served with your choice of green salad, housemade fries or housemade potato chips. Six entrees offer variety for both carnivores and vegetarians. For dessert, you’ve got a choice of churros of the day or a Mexican chocolate brownie.
The Global Quesadilla Company of St. Louis, Missouri trademarked the term “ducking felicious” or you might have read that tongue-tripping description for La Fonda’s Chinese BBQ Duck Quesadillas (slow-roasted duck tossed in a Chinese BBQ sauce, balsamic onions and jack cheese served with a mango salsa). Well, maybe not. This is a PG-rated blog, after all. Use any positive adjective or synonym for delicious you want. These quesadillas are terrific with a nice balance of flavors and plenty of moist, unctuous duck. The Chinese BBQ side is rather sweet, but the jack cheese offsets the sauce’s sweet notes. The mango salsa is so refreshing and delicious that it’s easy to imagine Gil-sized scoops of that salsa on some crispy tortilla chips.
Chef Stefani told us the “Salad of the Day” during our inaugural visit would soon be promoted to the daily menu. That would be the Southwest Cobb Salad, half an acre’s worth of greens topped with tomato wedges, crispy bacon, sliced cucumbers, hard-boiled egg slices, ripe avocado, grilled chicken, chopped green chile and even a little feta. It’s an interpretation of Cobb salad in which the chef may take a few liberties from the textbook Cobb salad, but that’s only to make it a truly Southwestern. All liberties should taste as good as the Thai miso dressing, a vibrant and summery Thai-inspired dressing that brings the myriad elements and flavor profiles of the salad together. It should be bottled and sold.
It seems only in recent years have New Mexico’s chefs explored the chile relleno’s versatility as a vehicle for something other than cheese. We should have been paying attention to Mexican chefs who’ve been preparing chiles rellenos en nogada since the nineteenth century. Maybe Chef Stefani has. Her wild mushroom chile relleno (New Mexico green chile stuffed with caramelized shiitake and domestic mushrooms, caramelized onions, roasted garlic, goat cheese and asadero cheeses, lightly beer battered and fried, served on a bed of corn and red bell pepper coulis, served with a side salad) is an umami (a term used to describe a pleasant savory taste) delivery mechanism that’ll tantalize your taste buds. The light batter allows the green chile to star. Another star is the bed of corn and red pepper coulis, a garnish that can decorate my plate any time.
Legend has it that churros, the crunchy, deep-fried sweet dessert which originated in Spain, got their name because they resemble the horns of the churro sheep. More fritter than donut, these cylindrical, sugar-sprinkled fried pastries transcend borders and socioeconomics. In Spain, they’re a popular breakfast treat, one which goes so well with hot chocolate spiced with cinnamon. South of the border—from Mexico to Argentina–they’re often sold by street vendors. North of the border, they’re as popular in high-end restaurants as they are in food trucks, carnivals and fairs. Fate smile on us when the churro of the day at La Fonda was served with a piping hot chocolate ganache. These were the longest (six to eight-inches) churros we’ve ever had. They were also among the very best.
The National Hispanic Cultural Center hosts over 700 music, dance, theatre, film, art, history and literary events every year. It also hosts one of the most enchanting restaurants in the city, one helmed by a very creative and talented chef.
La Fonda Del Bosque
National Hispanic Cultural Center
1701 4th Street, S.W.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 10 August 2019
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Churros with Chocolate Ganache, Wild Mushroom Chile Relleno, Southwest Cobb Salad with a Thai Miso Dressing, Chinese BBQ Duck Quesadilla with a Mango Salsa