A sure sign Spring has arrived In rural New Mexico is the annual ritual of cleaning the acequias, the community operated ditches used to irrigate fields, gardens and lawns. Early in the morning, property owners or their designated paid representatives would convene at appointed spots to begin the effort. Work crews typically consisted of grizzled veterans, most of whom acted as “mayordomos” (bosses) and young bucks like me with strong backs. Not surprisingly, distribution of work was…shall we say, quite inequitable. The old-timers would order us around, shouting out instructions like elderly drill sergeants. Most of us youngsters didn’t mind. During frequent breaks we got to hear some of the most ribald and raunchy stories from highly respected elders. One I’ve never forgotten is when a thrice-married viejito was asked by a colleague “Do all women look alike?” “I’ll tell you honestly,” he responded “not even their tortillas look alike.”
While the question was designed to elicit a response about a certain female, er…anatomical part, my take-away had everything to do with tortillas. My mom was (and still is) the very best tortillera in the Penasco valley. Her tortillas were on the thin side with beautiful pinto pony char spots. We couldn’t wait to slather them with butter. My Grandma Andreita’s recipe, on the other hand, called for yeast which made her tortillas thick and fluffy. Grandma Piedad’s tortillas were somewhere between thick and thin. All the women in my life prepared perfect tortillas irrespective of thickness. Sadly, the art of tortilla-making was not inherited. Nor apparently can it be taught. Neither my sisters or my Kim have mastered that art. Their tortillas resemble the outline of states—misshapen contours and wonky profiles. The malformed masa’s appearance would be forgivable if the results were delicious. Instead, they’re either crispy and cracker-like or as elastic as saltwater taffy.
The time-honored, traditional art of making tortillas on a sizzling cast-iron comal is truly one of the defining elements we love most about New Mexican food. Alas, with the widespread availability of plastic-wrapped, store-bought pretenders, the art of kneading dough and shaping orbs for preparation on a griddle is slowly being lost. That’s why we were so excited when the Tortilla Kitchen opened its doors in January, 2023. We weren’t the only ones. On the weekend following an Albuquerque Journal article announcing the restaurant’s launch, prospective guests queued up for an available table an hour or more. That’s about 58 minutes longer than I like to wait for a seat so we postponed our next visit until Tuesday when we were escorted to an available table within minutes of our arrival.
It’s not just New Mexicans who have been beguiled by the flavor and diverse uses for the sacrosanct tortilla. According to Kemin Food Technologies, tortillas have gone mainstream under spacious skies with “234.39 million tortilla consumers in the U.S in 2018. 122.48 million people in the U.S. consumed one to eight or more bags of tortilla products per month. The tortilla production industry reached $5 billion revenue in 2018.” As in Mexico, the key growth driver in the tortilla industry is soft corn tortillas. Flour tortillas have 43% of the market share…much more than that in the Land of Enchantment. Most tortillas made in the United States are “manufactured,” not made at home or in tortillerias. There’s a significant difference.
That difference is discernible the second you step through the doors at Tortilla Kitchen where the inimitable aroma of tortillas on the grill greets you like a warm hug. It’s a sensation generations of New Mexicans have grown up with. Take a gander across the spacious dining room and there against the west wall is a tortillera flattening a ball of dough then rolling it into six- or seven-inch orbs which she gently slaps the orbs onto a hot griddle. Step closer and you’ll hear a faint sizzle followed by a perceptible bubbling across its surface. In a few seconds, the bottom of the tortilla will be replete with brown splotches. The tortillera then flips the tortilla over and bakes it until the other side is browned, too. All the while, the aromas grow increasingly mouth-watering.
You won’t be seated long before your server will ferry over a small covered basket. Open it up and two steaming flour tortillas are presented. It’s better than an amuse bouche because it’s several bites of warm, glorious made from scratch tortillas with no preservatives just beckoning for warm butter to be slathered onto them. These tortillas are about six inches around, about an inch or so smaller than the tortillas you can purchase by the dozen. Packets of butter are available on every table. You’ll make quick work out of these tortillas, one of the best ploys for whetting the appetite and tempting diners to order a dozen to take home.
The Tortilla Kitchen is the brainchild of Mike and Gloria Montoya, both of whom are likely to visit your table at some point during your meal. Mike, a burly gentleman with Popeye arms is a retired fireman who enjoyed the communal experience of cooking with the brotherhood of firemen. In launching a restaurant, he has a larger venue to continue cooking. The recipes come from Gloria, a petite and beautiful woman with a bright smile. She’s so tiny that you might wonder if the tortillas are any good as in “how can anyone so petite prepare tortillas that good without weighing 300-pounds.”
Everything is made from scratch at the Tortilla Kitchen and you can order from either the breakfast or lunch menu all day long. Well, at least until 2PM when the restaurant closes. New Mexican favorites adorn the menu–everything from enchiladas and burritos to carne adovada and chicken fried steak. Several “plate” dishes will heighten your challenge to decide just what you should order. You might be surprised just how tempting Tortilla Kitchen Weenies and Eggs (tortilla with two eggs, sliced weenies, papas and your choice of red and (or) green chile. It took all I had not to order that tempting dish.
17 January 2023: Starters include salsa, guacamole or con queso with chips as well as a quesadilla, taquitos or chile cheese fries. All were tempting, but on a rainy, windy morning it had to be con queso with chips. There’s nothing like heat to beat heat on a cold day. The con queso isn’t very piquant, but it’s flecked with New Mexico’s sacrosanct green chile and it’s served warm. The chips are lightly salted triangles of crispy corn. Each chip is formidable enough for either scooping up or dipping into the molten queso. Con queso good very well with the house coffee, an Ellington brand with a smooth flavor.
17 January 2023: As tempting as virtually everything on the menu may have been, sometimes variety is what you crave. Variety is a term that certainly applies to the Tortilla Kitchen Grande Plate (tortilla with two eggs, papas, bacon, sausage, two pancakes or French toast and your choice of red (and) or green chile). New Mexican food goes especially well with pancakes. Neither the red or green chile are especially piquant, but possess other attributes New Mexicans love about our sacrosanct chile. The green chile, an autumn blend, has a smoky flavor while the red has a characteristic earthiness. The papas are terrific, cubes of tubers you can dip into the chile or enjoy on their own.
17 January 2023: In Northern New Mexico where I grew up, winter had two distinct smells. One was the warm, earthy, reassuring fragrance of firewood on the stove. The other was my mom’s pancakes, griddled orbs of pure love slathered with butter and pure maple syrup. The Tortilla Kitchen’s pancakes reminded me of my mom’s pancakes, giving me a warm feeling all over. These are pancakes only moms and the very best cafes and diners can serve. The Grande Plate came with two of them, each nearly as large around as the tortillas. We discerned something uniquely special about these pancakes, but couldn’t get Gloria to share her secret recipe.
Since a change in prescription, my Kim has been unable to tolerate anything more piquant than ketchup. She tells me her taste buds are ruined now that she can’t enjoy chile. My Chicago born-and-bred bride may not have grown up with chile, but she’s made up for lost time. She loves and prepares outstanding chile for us. Lilly, our on-the-spot server assured my Kim that the carne adovada isn’t especially hot. When New Mexicans like me say that, it’s usually with the same veracity as someone from the government telling you they’re here to help, but Lilly was spot on. The carne adovada wasn’t especially piquant and it had the chile marinated flavor that makes carne adovada my Kim’s favorite New Mexican dish. The carne adovada plate comes with two eggs, papas and a small mound of carne adovada.
Characteristic of family owned and operated New Mexican restaurants, service at the Tortilla Kitchen was warm and friendly. We interacted with several of the wait staff as well as Mike and Gloria Montoya, the affable owners. Most of our interactions were with Lilly, a very sweet young lady with a strong customer orientation that reflects the restaurant owners’ attitudes toward their guests. Lilly took great care of us, imparting advice and recommendations when we asked for them, and keeping our glasses filled.
One of the things you’ll notice about the Tortilla Kitchen is that its walls are somewhat spartan. Walls aren’t festooned with bric-a-brac or family paraphernalia. You will, however, notice two familiar framed posters that adorn the walls of many a New Mexican kitchen. Both are painted by New Mexican artist Edward Gonzales. Both are of kitchen scenes that will resonate with everyone who grew up in Northern New Mexico and spent countless hours in their abuelita’s kitchen (probably enjoying tortillas).
24 February 2023: In New Mexico chilaquiles without chile are akin to a day without enchantment. Elsewhere, the absence of chile doesn’t seem to cause much of a stir. Wikipedia describes the dish as being made with red or green salsa. Another will tell you fried corn tortilla chips are simmered in a brothy sauce. A brothy sauce? Where’s the rope Texans used to hang the cook who dared bring salsa from New York City to a cowboy cook-out? Alas, because she can no longer tolerate the piquancy of New Mexico’s sacrosanct chile, my Kim has to order some of her favorite New Mexican dishes without chile. Chilaquiles sans chile just isn’t chilaquiles!
It’s possible, in fact, that what you see pictured below is more reminiscent to you of pretty boring nachos: tortilla chips topped with shredded cheese and two fried eggs. That might not even appeal to you as good nachos. New Mexicans enjoy chile on almost absolutely everything. To be honest, the chips and shredded chile weren’t bad. That’s what you might expect on nachos. It was the runny egg that just didn’t hit the right notes for me. Without red or green chile, Beethoven would have a heckuva time hitting the right notes.
24 February 2023: Much more up my alley was a chicharron burrito (burrito wrapped in a made-from scratch flour tortilla, chicharron, beans, cheese, your choice of red or green (or both) chile and two sides. Neither the red nor the green chile have much heat and there’s a tad too much thickener on the red chile for my liking, but both still manage a good flavor that will help start any day the right way. The chicharrones are plentiful. Just about bite sized, they’re replete with crackling pork flavor albeit slightly more fatty than I would have liked. Still, a little chile cures all ails. A lot of chile has restorative powers.
My sides were a bowl of green chile stew and papitas. The green chile stew was served in a rather small bowl, but it was quite good. It would have been even better with a tortilla on the side. The papitas were crispy on the outside and fluffy on the inside with just the right amount of salt. They were even better dipped into the green chile stew.
The Tortilla Kitchen has the look and feel of a restaurant that’s been around for a long time–like a home away from home. It gives you that sense of comfort and familiarity with which you grew up. It makes you feel good.
6650 Holly Avenue, N.E., Suite C4
Albuquerque, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 24 February 2023
1st VISIT: 17 January 2023
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Chips con Queso, Carne Adovada Plate, Flour Tortillas by the Dozen, Tortilla Kitchen Grande, Chicharron Burrito