Note: Not long after I wrote this review, the original Richardson’s Cuisine of New Mexico burned down. It has since reopened in a different location. Reliable sources tell me it is still as wonderful as described on this review.
My friend and colleague Steve Caine will forever rue the day he asked me to help him with an expense report for a business trip he made to Portland, Oregon. His itemized expense report indicated he had dined twice at Chevy’s, a middling quality Americanized Mexican restaurant which wouldn’t survive in the tough Albuquerque market. I teased him mercilessly. Worse, when my boss saw what the commotion was all about, he immediately put Steve on double-secret probation. Steve has never lived down visiting a Chevy’s in Portland where he could have had some of the country’s freshest and best seafood.
When the din died down, Steve admitted somewhat sheepishly that after two days in Portland, he was missing New Mexican food so desperately that he visited the closed facsimile he could find. It was either Chevy’s or a restaurant named Machissimo Mouse (seriously). In truth, I’ve been there, too…well, not to Chevy’s, but at a point in my business travels where the craving for New Mexico’s inimitable cuisine strikes like an addict’s need for a fix.
We New Mexicans are understandably proud, maybe even haughty about our cuisine. We don’t think anyone can prepare it the way we can. We scorn and deride what passes as chile (usually called chili sauce on the menu) in restaurants across the fruited plain. Some of us feel sorry for the states in which our chile can’t be found; others see that lack of chile as a reason not to visit those states.
The most frequent victims of our derision tend to be our immediate neighbors to our east and west. Both Texas and Arizona are proud of their Mexican food heritage, most of which self-respecting New Mexicans find inedible. Phoenix, Arizona, a frequent destination of my business travels, has several restaurants claiming to serve New Mexican food. I’d known about them for years, but have never visited any of them. How, after all, can any restaurant in the culinary wasteland (I emphasize only in terms of New Mexican food) of Phoenix serve anything even vaguely resembling our great cuisine?
The most frequently mentioned New Mexican restaurant of note is Richardson’s Cuisine of New Mexico whose sobriquet has nothing to do with our governor. Richardson’s Cuisine of New Mexico is named for Richardson Brown, a part-time resident of the Land of Enchantment. No doubt that, like anyone expatriated from New Mexico for only a few days, Brown had a powerful hankering for chile. He did something about it. He opened one of the highest regarded restaurants of any genre in Phoenix, a restaurant which will sate the cravings of any New Mexican.
Aside from my own personal cravings, what it took to get me to Richardson’s was Seth Chadwick’s eloquent review on Feasting in Phoenix, the wonderfully entertaining and informative blog in which “Zagat meets Sex and the City.” Seth is not only a great writer, he’s a tough critic. He’s honest and direct in his evaluations and I’ve found him, by far, the most trustworthy source of information on the burgeoning Phoenix dining scene. Not prone to hyperbole, Seth’s review of Richardson’s was (chile) peppered with adjectives such as “fantastic,” “memorable,” “delicious” and “incredible.” Still, I had my reservations as to whether or not Seth really understood New Mexican food. I should not have doubted my esteemed colleague and after my inaugural visit to Richardson’s immediately uttered fifty “Hail Seth’s.”
Richardson’s seems both in and out of place in a mostly residential neighborhood. It’s ensconced in a small strip mall, but otherwise conforms to the neighborhood’s color scheme and stucco textured template. Step inside the dimly lit restaurant and you can’t help but think of New Mexico. To the immediate left of the front door is a kiva fireplace the likes of which you might find in any Santa Fe home. The same adobe hued stucco used on the fireplace backdrops the booths.
Windows are shaded with screens crafted from the reddish salt cedar twigs so prevalent in New Mexican decor. The familiar reddish hue of Saltillo tile adorns the floor while several Native American blankets, including some made by Pendleton Woolen Mills hang on the walls. It’s not entirely New Mexican, but it’s in the neighborhood.
The restaurant’s focal point seems to be a well equipped bar around which are situated two distinct dining areas. Because Richardson’s is so well trafficked, diners eating solo may be asked to sit on one of the barstools surrounding the bar. The day’s specials are scrawled on slate chalkboards. Placemats serve as the menu. Two toothsome coyote caricatures flank a cartoon banner on the placemat which proclaims “Richardson’s, Home of the Original Green Chile Potato.”
The menu includes several New Mexican favorites (including our legendary green chile cheeseburger), but it’s also apparent much latitude was taken in the design of the menu. The menu’s creative flair might better categorize the cuisine as New Mexico inspired Southwestern with an emphasis on wood-grill-fired entrees, including an array of wood-fired pizzas.
Appetizers include some items rarely, if ever, seen on a menu in New Mexico. Starters such as “New Mexico sausage” piqued my interest, but not as much as an item for which the restaurant is best known, the aforementioned green chile potato. The green chile potato is in essence a twice-baked and whipped potato stuffed into a roasted green chile. The chile is of the Anaheim variety which is also known in some circles as a New Mexico chile. It is a very mild chile of medium size. On the Scoville heat index for chiles, it barely registers above a bell pepper.
Lack of piquancy not withstanding, Anaheim chiles inherit a fabulous smoky flavor when roasted. The flavor combination of roasted green chile and fluffy whipped potatoes, while quite good, heightened my preconception that Richardson’s chile would be of the “gringo” variety with absolutely no heat. I should commit to memory that often used adage about assuming. Thankfully my preconceptions were absolutely without merit. Richardson’s chile is not only wonderfully tongue-tingling piquant, it is absolutely delicious and wholly authentic. The red chile is a dark, rich red burgundy color and comes from Hatch, New Mexico (where else?).
Consider this heresy if you will, but I believe Richardson’s red chile compares favorably to the chile served at La Choza in Santa Fe, one of the best purveyors of red chile in northern New Mexico. Much to my surprise, it is far better chile than I’ve experienced in hundreds of restaurants throughout New Mexico. Wow, I never thought I’d ever say that! Hopefully Governor Richardson won’t make me renounce my citizenship.
One of the best ways to experience that fabulous chile is with an order of blue, red and white enchiladas. The blue represents the blue corn tortilla base for the triumvirate of chicken, cheese and grilled shrimp enchiladas served with your choice of green or red chile (or both if you prefer though my waitress didn’t get the term “Christmas style”). Even without the worship-worthy chile, the enchiladas would have been very good. With the chile, they obtain a rarified status.
The grilled shrimp enchilada, in particular, is memorable. The shrimp is sweet and has the snap of freshness. I don’t know how many shrimp engorge the blue corn tortilla, but it is a generous amount. Every bite includes at least a morsel of shrimp.
Richardson’s will, at your request, even fry an egg or two on top of the enchiladas. This is a New Mexico nuance that we used to call our own. New Mexicans know that the optimum degree of “fried” on our eggs is medium and Richardson’s has medium down to an art form. At medium, there’s just enough runniness on the yoke to enhance the enchilada flavor without leaving a mess.
For dessert, if you loosen your belt, Richardson’s serves a very good flan, the ubiquitous pastry tart made with a sweet custard filling and topped with a light caramel sauce.
My friend Steve Caine would have been entirely forgiven had he dined at Richardson’s, as good a New Mexican restaurant as there is in New Mexico. That’s saying a lot!
Richardson’s Cuisine of New Mexico
6335 North 16th Street
LATEST VISIT: 26 June 2008
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Green Chile Potato; Blue, Red and White Enchiladas; Lemonade