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.
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.
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.
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.”
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.
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.
7900 Zuni Road, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
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LATEST VISIT: 27 January 2023
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Queso Birria Tacos, Torta de Barbacoa, Carne Asada Plate, Agua Fresca De Fresas