Los Olivos – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Los Olivos on Zuni in the International District

For many New Mexicans, Durango, Colorado is much more familiar than Durango, Mexico.  In truth, however, Mexico’s Durango may actually have more historical significance and ties to the Land of Enchantment than its like-named resort town in Colorado.  That’s especially true for the Catholic Churches of New Mexico. Episcopal jurisdiction for the Catholic church in New Mexico was placed in 1797 under the stewardship of the Bishop of Durango. New Mexico remained part of the Diocese of Durango until 1850 when Pope Pius IX created the Vicariate Apostolic of New Mexico and appointed Father Jean Baptiste Lamy as its first Bishop.  Yes, that’s the same Father Jean Baptiste Lamy on whom Wila Cather’s Death Comes For the Archbishop is based.

Durango, Mexico was also a significant “paraje” (stopping point) along the The Camino Real de Tierra Adentro (Royal Road of the Interior Land), the 1,590 mile road between Mexico City and San Juan Pueblo (Ohkay Owingeh), New Mexico. During the 17th Century, the area between the villas of Durango and Santa Fe also came to be known as “the Chihuahua Trail.”   It’s a vast understatement to declare that Santa Fe’s reliance on El Camino Real was crucial to the city’s survival.  The Trail was the very lifeline of Santa Fe.  For the entirety of the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries, every commodity used in the region traveled via El Camino Real.  History does not give enough credit to New Mexico’s Native American Pueblos  who produced virtually all of the exports (such as woolen textiles) used to pay for incoming commodities.

Louise McDade and John Martin in the Los Olivos Dining Room

Durango was the home state of General Francisco “Pancho” Villa, a prominent figure in the Mexican Revolution.  Villa, as you might know, led one of the last Armies to invade the United States. In 1916, Villa led an army of about 1,500 guerillas across the border to stage a brutal raid against the small American town of Columbus, New Mexico. Villa and his men killed 19 people and left the town in flames.  A fellow Revolutionary of Villa’s, Miguel Hidalgo Y Costilla, often considered the father of Mexican Independence, was executed in Durango.

On the website Mex Connect, Karen Hursh Gruber describes Durango as “a fantasyland of rugged mountains, pine forests, rivers, lakes, waterfalls, fertile valleys and yucca-strewn desert is perhaps best known as the location for the many movies shot under its startlingly bright blue sky. Because Durango is a northwestern state, it’s no surprise that its culinary offerings share many commonalities with New Mexico.  Durango is the progenitor of barbacoa a traditional dish of various meats steamed underground in a pit over coals.   We can also thank Durango for machaca, a dried meat dish.   Durango is also known for its fine chorizo and the cheeses made by its Mennonite communities.  Dishes typical of Durango’s gastronomy include enchiladas, tamales, albondigas, discada, tacos, carne asada and of course, red and green chile.  

Chips and Salsa

By now, you’ve likely figured out that Los Olivos features the cuisine of Durango.  Like New Mexico, Durango is landlocked so you won’t find netfuls of mariscos.  What you will find is a delicious array of delicious and familiar foods.  When our friends John and Lynn invited us to join them for lunch at Los Olivos, we didn’t hesitate.  Los Olivos had long been on our list of “must try soon” restaurants.  Our hesitation had been on account of familiarity with the area’ of the International District in which Los Olivos is located.  Formerly known as the “Combat Zone,” the area remains a nexus for crime despite having been rechristened with such an innocuous name.  Should any miscreants attempt to accost us during our time in the International District, I figured John and our girls could hold off the ruffians while I ran for help.

We were joined for lunch by  Louise, a physician with a great table side manner.  Louise fit in well with our good-humored crowd.  As usually seems to be the case, our server had to return several times before we were ready to order (it’s hard to concentrate on a menu when John is sharing his repertoire of amusing anecdotes and hilarious jokes).  The menu lists a number of “platillos,” mostly familiar items such as enchiladas, chile rellenos, carnitas and more.  Prices are relatively inexpensive with platillos averaging around fourteen dollars.  Six tacos are listed next.  Tacos include the de rigueur QuesaBirria.  Next on the menu are five burritos including a chile rellenos burrito.  The menu also lists four tortas and six caldos, a specialty of Durango.  A full breakfast menu is also available.

Queso Birria Tacos

Gentlemen that we are, John and I wiped out two servings of salsa and two baskets of chips without sharing.  We didn’t want our brides or Louise to burn their tongues (and if you believe that…).  The salsa is among the very best in Albuquerque with a pleasant piquancy based on jalapenos.  Its dark red hue is flecked with cilantro.  The chips are lightly salted and crisp.  Best of all, they’re formidable enough for Gil-sized scoops of salsa.  John is a man after my own heart.  Like me, he’s unfazed by piquancy and if possible, would load each chip with shovelfuls of salsa.  The salsa is complementary, a practice not many restaurants continue in this build back better economy.

In the past decade or so, perhaps no taco has ascended so highly on America’s radar than the birria taco and its cousin, the taco QuesoBirria.  Yep, it’s birria (meat marinated in an adobo made of vinegar, dried chiles, garlic, and herbs and spices before being cooked in a broth) and queso–two great tastes that taste great together.  Los Olivos version of birria is made with beef which is topped with cilantro and onions and accompanied by a consomme in which to dip the taco.   The consomme isn’t as aromatic as some, but it’s rich and flavorful, a perfect vehicle for excellent tacos.  You’ll note the taco shells are reddish in color, the result of having been momentarily immersed in the consomme.  I frequently get asked where to find the best birria tacos in Albuquerque.  My answer remains “I haven’t found a bad one.” 

Torta de Barbacoa with Fries

Because barbacoa is one of the foods for which Durango is best known, I had to try it.  Los Olivos offers barbacoa on both tacos and tortas.  For me, there is no better vehicle for showcasing the deliciousness of any meat than soft, delicate Mexican bolillo bread.  It may be sacrilege, but I wholly believe a torta beats a taco any day–even a taco QuesoBirria.  Los Olivos version of a torta de barbacoa is made with cabbage, onion and cilantro.  Cabbage is something entirely new to me so I expected a coleslaw-like cabbage drenched in mayo or salad cream.  Instead, the cabbage was unadorned.  While quite good, the barbacoa wasn’t quite as moist as other barbacoa I’ve had.  Nor was it quite as generously nestled on the soft, thin bread.  The accompanying French fries were crispy and good, but it should be illegal to serve any fries with ketchup in those confounding little plastic packages which not even Houdini can open.

Because of a recent aversion to piquancy attributed to a new medication, my Kim tends to order he least piquant item she could find when we visit Mexican or New Mexican restaurants.  Carne asada  always does the trick.  By definition carne asada is grilled and sliced beef, but honestly you never know what you’re going to get when you order it.  We’ve been served cubed beef, shredded beef and the strangest of all, hamburger meat.  Los Olivos’ version of carne asada (pictured below) was somewhere in between shredded beef and beef ribs (including one bone-in).  A generous platter that would delight most carnivores also includes rice and ranchero beans.  Everything on the platter was first-rate.  The carne asaada, in particular, was quite good, especially when dipped into the green chile served with Lynn’s plate.

Carne Asada Plate (Ranchero Beans Not Pictured)

I may have joked about the perils of a pilgrimage to the Combat Zone…er, International District, but Los Olivos is a safe respite from whatever concerns you might have.  If everyone in the International District (and Albuquerque for that matter) was as warm and welcoming as the great folks at Los Olivos, the city would be a much better (and better fed) place.

Los Olivos
7900 Zuni Road, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 503-7879
Website | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 27 January 2023
COST: $$
BEST BET:  Queso Birria Tacos, Torta de Barbacoa, Carne Asada Plate, Agua Fresca De Fresas
REVIEW #1317

7 thoughts on “Los Olivos – Albuquerque, New Mexico

  1. Happily Los Olivos is drawing a very healthy crowd. When you plan your visit — and believe me, you want to! — keep this in mind as it is a small place. This is helped by the fact that they have a lovely, large outdoor patio. (Completely enclosed if you have concerns about the neighborhood.) The patio will undoubtedly be more comfortable in warmer weather, though they do have a heater out there. So far we’ve always snagged a table inside. Going at off times helps, but they are also experiencing growing pains so that didn’t work out too well for us yesterday (Saturday.) We arrived just after 3 pm and they had simply run out of some things. Notably the piquant salsa which Gil mentioned. Our server was profusely apologetic. Live and learn, as they say. I’m sure they will prepare more salsa in future, and we will stick to weekday dining for a while.

  2. I’ve lived in 20 cities in 13 states…. coast to coast, north to south and in the middle, and have traveled extensively and eaten my way through the rest plus Mexico. ABQ is far and away my favorite city for food and that food is a big part of why I decided to settle here and put down roots.

    But that greatness comes with a dilemma… where to eat…. not because nothing grabs us but because soooooo many places gra us….. so we’re not often
    repeat customers as we spread ourselves around.

    Los Olivos is a rare example of an ABQ establishment I’m happy to go back to time and time again, without any fear of missing out on some other great place…. there is no opportunity cost associated with another meal at Los Olivos. It’s where I take out of town visitors, whether they be business, friends, or family. Every last one has been completely wowed.

    In addition to the delicacies mentioned in the blog, definitely try the pellizcadas (similar to sopes), which aren’t on the menu, but are usually on the specials board. My wife raves about their Mexican coffee and their dessert chimis are a fantastic way to top off one of their spectacular meals.

    The dining room legitimately takes us deep into the heart of Mexico and the service is always friendly. I really love it when the kitchen staff briefly makes their way into the dining room; you can tell they take not only great pride, but also great joy, in serving legit home cooked food and putting goofy big smiles on their customers’ faces.

    Nothing but love for this place.

    1. What a tremendous endorsement for the Land of Enchantment. Thank you for sharing your love for the foods of our great state. I hope you were able to read the Red or Green report for January in which I wrote about Eater selecting Albuquerque as one of the “The Best Food Cities to Travel To in 2023.” That’s best cities around the world! We have a lot to be proud about Albuquerque’s culinary culture.

      I don’t often eat pelizcadas–not because they aren’t absolutely delicious but because pelizcadas comes from the Spanish word for “pinching,” something I experienced frequently before corporal punishment was banned in schools. It’s a wonder my arms aren’t still black and blue from all the pinching to which I was subjected.

    1. Aha and at last! Was losing faith that I’d ever have a chance to use that Gif given there are rare times Folks ever talk about Taco Dipping and here you come along mentioning the OP of a consomme being available at Los Olivos!!! This would seem to picture such an adventure in action!!!
      (Nice history prologue.)

  3. Thanks! Another one to put on the list.

    Regarding history, Border Campaign skirmishes continued into 1919. The last invasion of US soil was by Japan during the Aleutian Islands Campaign from June 1942 to August 1943.

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