Cervantes Restaurant & Lounge – Albuquerque, New Mexico

Cervantes Restaurant & Lounge on San Pedro and Gibson

In 1706, a group of Spanish colonists were granted permission by King Philip of Spain to establish a new villa on the banks and in the valley of the Rio del Norte. The colonists chose a spot “in a place of good fields, waters, pastures, and timber, distant from the villa of Santa Fe about twenty-two leagues.” They named the new settlement La Villa de Alburquerque in honor of the Viceroy of New Spain, Fernandez de la Cueva, Duque de Alburquerque.” A portrait of el Duque de Alburquerque hangs prominently just above the mantle at Cervantes Restaurant & Lounge in the southeast quadrant of the city named for him. Though there is a lot to see throughout the restaurant, the portrait of El Duque is the cynosure to which all eyes are inevitably drawn, a commanding presence with a quiet air of dignity and regal bearing.

One wonders what El Duque de Alburquerque would think of the city bearing his name and of the lively cuisine that prompted Livability.com to name that city one of America’s “10 most surprisingly vibrant cities for foodies to flex their taste buds” and for the Huffington Post to declare it “one of the ten best cities for local food.” El Duque would certainly marvel at the profligate portions served at every meal and of the rotundity of many who partake of those portions.” An aristocrat renown for the luxury and magnificence of his administration, El Duque would probably take great self-aggrandizing pleasure at the portrait hanging at Cervantes, but it’s likely the food would cause him severe gastronomic distress. He would certainly not be used to the richness and piquancy of the ingredients and might wonder what manner of alchemy is searing his tongue and saturating his brow.

Cervantes Dining Room

Note: It was during my initial visit to Cervantes in 1979 that I was told the portrait hanging over the mantle depicted El Duque de Albuquerque. During my most recent visit in July, 2016, our server related that no one really knows whose countenance hangs on the wall. She joked that it could be a portrait of “just about anybody.” Whether you choose to believe that distinguished gentleman who’s presided over every meal at Cervantes is El Duque or just some noble looking dude won’t add to or take away from how much you’ll enjoy a meal at this legendary eatery.

Although Cervantes Restaurant and Lounge is hardly contemporaneous with El Duque de Alburquerque, it is one of the city’s venerable dining institutions. Hundreds of Albuquerque restaurants have come and gone in the three and a half decades since Roberta Finley launched her restaurant in 1976. Still, this Kirtland Air Force Base area institution continues to thrive against increasingly formidable competition, outlasting many of the anointed “flavor of the day” restaurants which burn hot at the start, but fizzle out over time.

Salsa and Chips

There are many reasons Cervantes has not fizzled out like so many of its competitors and one of them is because it still burns red hot—literally. In the early 80s, Cervantes was where to go if you needed a chile fix, the hotter the better. The chile was incendiary, but addictively so. While stationed at Kirtland, we used to take the dreaded Inspector General team to Cervantes so we could watch them sweat in much the same way they probably delighted in watching us sweat their white-glove inspections of our mission readiness.

Today Cervantes’ chile isn’t nearly as piquant as the chile burned into my memory engrams (not to mention my taste buds and tongue), but it seems to be much more flavorable—especially the red chile. For the non-fire-eaters among us, the incendiary heat of that chile may have detracted from the flavor appreciation that just isn’t possible when your mouth is burning. For those of us with asbestos-lined tongues, eating that chile was a rite of passage, a demonstration of our manliness (being the more mature gender, women need no such affirmation). In any case, the red chile at Cervantes remains very good. It’s very healthy, too. In keeping with today’s healthier lifestyles it is made with less sodium, fewer calories and no fat or cholesterol while retaining the richness of traditional flavors. Cervantes food products contain no artificial preservatives, chemical additives, fillers or animal products.

Con Queso

Cervantes Food Products has become synonymous with the restaurant. The Food Products Division was born from the family’s commitment to preserving heirloom family recipes, many of which are more than a century old. Heart-healthy gift baskets for all occasions are available through the Cervantes Web site. They’re especially popular with expatriated New Mexicans craving a chile fix. Several Cervantes products have earned a multitude of Scovie awards over the years. Named for Wilbur Scoville who pioneered the rating scale for piquancy, the Scovie award was created by Albuquerque resident Dave DeWitt, founder and co-publisher of Fiery-Foods & BBQ magazine. Every year as many as 800 products from around the world compete for these coveted honors.

Cervantes remains, at heart, a much loved restaurant that has served three generations of loyal patrons. Active duty and retired Air Force personnel and the civilian workforce from nearby Kirtland are especially loyal, constituting a significant percentage of the restaurant’s daily visitors. No doubt they still bring the dreaded Inspector General for a meal or two, perhaps no longer to make them sweat from the piquancy of the chile, but to soothe the savage breast with New Mexican food with charms to do so.

Ground Beef Enchiladas Christmas Style with an Over Easy Egg

The dining room at Cervantes is in two levels with a lower center section flanked on both sides by seating for lesser numbers. Tables in the lower center section accommodate larger parties. The ambience is a sort of Spanish Gothic meets Mexican traditional. Chandeliers suspended from the ceiling provide low-light comfort that just seems appropriate considering the dark woods and especially the crossed Spanish swords and shields festooning the walls on either side of the fireplace where el Duque de Alburquerque appears to look over the restaurant. Colorful Mexican blankets are strewn about judiciously.

A basket of chips and a bowl of salsa are presented with your menu. The first round is complementary, the second (and likely third and forth) will cost you a pittance. The chips are unsalted, but large and crisp, perfect for Gil-size scoops of salsa. The salsa is gloriously red, constructed of fresh ingredients (garlic, tomatoes, onion and I believe both jalapeno and green chile). It is of medium piquancy with just enough bite to get your attention.

Carne Adovada

The menu includes many traditional New Mexican food favorites: enchiladas, chile rellenos, tacos, carne adovada, stuffed sopaipillas, burritos, taco salad and more. House specialties include bowls of red or green chile with two flour tortillas and butter, posole, a New York cut steak and a unique Cervantes twist on the traditional New Mexico green chile cheeseburger. This burger is crafted with a three-quarter pound of lean ground sirloin served open-faced on your choice of tortilla, French bread or a sopaipilla. It’s quite good.

17 July 2016: Marinated overnight then slow-cooked until so tender it’s falling apart, Cervantes’ carne adovada is among the very best in Albuquerque, melding the exquisite flavors of New Mexican red chile, oregano and garlic with pork. Unlike some restaurants, Cervantes doesn’t adulterate their carne adovada with cumin or an excess of Mexican oregano which can make the dish acerbic. Instead, the marinade accentuates the marriage of pork and chile, imparting flavors that warrant reverence. My Kim enjoys the carne adovada with a fried egg over easy on top. A runny yoke atop the crimson carne may sound heretical, but the resultant flavors are quite good.

Ala Carte Tamal

Huevos Rancheros with Carne Adovada is a popular way for your taste buds to pay proper homage to Cervantes’ carne adovada. This plate includes two eggs any style, beans and rice on a flour or corn tortilla. The beans are excellent, refried with melted white Cheddar atop. The Spanish rice is moist and delicious with bits of green pepper which enliven the rice. It’s the carne adovada which stands out. Unfortunately there isn’t much of it–enough to make you crave more of it, but not enough to sate your immediate need for its delicious qualities.

17 July 2016: Another long-time Cervantes favorite is the enchilada plate, a plate of New Mexico enchantment comprised of your choice of two or three rolled enchiladas–two stuffed with cheese and one with ground beef. You can also have them stuffed with carne adovada or chicken. The enchiladas are great with both green and red chile and with a fried egg on top, but for my money, the red chile accentuates the other ingredients best. As with other plates, the enchiladas are served with refried beans and Spanish rice. Skip the Spanish rice and ask for two portions of the beans. They’re among the best in town.

Sopaipillas

The sopaipillas are a true contender for “best in the city” honors. These are puffy pillows of fried dough without any of the greasiness sopaipillas tend to have. Cervantes also uses real honey (local) instead of that honey-flavored syrup some restaurants serve. Don’t save them for dessert; polish them off as soon as they arrive at your table when they’re hot and steam wafts upwards as you pull them apart to form a pocket for the honey.

17 July 2016: Even after polishing off the sopaipillas with honey, do yourself a favor and order either natillas or flan for dessert. The natillas are exemplars of what natillas should be–a creamy custard made with milk, eggs, sugar, vanilla and cinnamon. Ask for lots of cinnamon, an ameliorant which imbues the natillas with a fragrant bouquet you’ll enjoy as you’re spooning up the light, delicate (never lumpy at Cervantes) natillas.

Natillas

Cervantes Restaurant and Lounge is somewhat off the beaten path for diners who live outside the city’s Southeast quadrant, but thousands of loyal local patrons find their way to this popular favorite for New Mexican food the way it’s been made for generations. It’s one of the very best, most traditional New Mexican restaurants in the city of El Duque de Alburquerque.

Cervantes Restaurant & Lounge
5801 San Pedro, S.E.
Albuquerque, New Mexico
(505) 262-2253
Web Site | Facebook Page
LATEST VISIT: 17 July 2016
# OF VISITS: 7
RATING: 22
COST: $$
BEST BET: Sopaipillas, Enchiladas, Carne Adovada, Salsa and Chips, Natillas, Con Queso

Cervantes Restaurant & Lounge Menu, Reviews, Photos, Location and Info - Zomato

About Gil Garduno

Since 2008, the tagline on Gil’s Thrilling (And Filling) Blog has invited you to “Follow the Culinary Ruminations of New Mexico’s Sesquipedalian Sybarite.” To date, nearly 1 million visitors have trusted (or at least visited) my recommendations on nearly 1,100 restaurant reviews. Please take a few minutes to tell me what you think. Whether you agree or disagree with me, I'd love to hear about it.

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7 Comments on “Cervantes Restaurant & Lounge – Albuquerque, New Mexico”

  1. To my amazement I think I have eaten at Cervantes only once, way back in ’75 an few months after moving here. I actually remember the location more than the restaurant. My main tie to Cervantes is the food products divisions Red Chile. I am too lazy to make it myself and find most of the prepared products awful. Many claim to be red chile but the primary ingredient is tomato (no “E”). After we ran out of our load from Costco last week the Child Bride was going to the grocery and I told her to get some Red Chile. She asked what red chile “sauce” I wanted. Naturally I flipped out and let her know that she had better not return with anything containing the word “sauce” in the name and showed her the empty jar. She returned saying she saw a “sauce” (can’t get that out of her vocabulary) that looked familiar but Bueno was $1.50 cheaper. It should be $150.00 cheaper, awful.

  2. Aah yes, Nostalgia… it’s been about 6 months since I hit Cervantes per its proximity to my having “worked” at the Sunport one day vs travelling from the VoLR…my kids always wondered why they didn’t build Carlsbad closer to ABQ. Anyway, deliciousness lingers. My late Vieja and I were thrilled when Cervantes opened so close by back around “73?” per the sign seen here http://www.cervantesabq.com/about-us as I had just moved her out of 5 Points (LOL) up to near the non-existent Anne Kassman the year before. Indeed, the interior, some might say somewhat faux, was a step-up to a lot of “New Mexican” venues of the time, but it nevertheless became more “real”/cozy when paired with the great food. (If I may, perhaps you might consider using that link as a better one underlying its “website” link.) T’was always curious…per it being jammed…. why they didn’t have a sibling (pardon the PC reference) site elsewhere. Alas, but wasn’t Garduno’s beginning to make its surge at the time “way out” on North Fourth in Tortilla Flats? (Whoa…I always thought that one, of course, ate their sopaipilla during the meal as the honey helped cut the heat for some of us!)
    If I remember correctly, the place next door to Cervantes, the now-moved “Talking Drums” http://www.talkingdrumsabq.com/, was initially a fairly decent Chinese restaurant in a field of few at the time. Ooo Ooo…also in the area and era, the original Japanese Kitchen was starting up in the “original” Winrock along with Diamond Jim’s (or whoever; besides steaks, did it have a gal on a swing?) and then there was The Cooperage, but I’ve digressed.
    As an aside: you mentioned that ABQ was “… distant from the villa of Santa Fe about twenty-two leagues.” Might you/anyone know how they measured that back in the 1700s? Surely they didn’t have those FIT watches! A league is supposed to be 3.4 miles. 22 leagues would make the distance 74.8 miles while everyone knows it is…60 miles! Elsewhere, “they” say that a league is the distance one walks in an hour. As such, I’m figuring your source got 22 leagues per the walk being from ABQ to SF vs the reverse, as trekking UP La Bajada might account for variants of how far one might walk in an hour.
    “Chow!”

    1. Nostalgia indeed.

      Garduño’s launched in 1981 on the intersection of Fourth and Garduño Streets.

      The Chinese restaurant about which you ask was the original Hunan Chinese Restaurant which once boasted of the very best Chinese buffet in Albuquerque. Hunan had a sister restaurant in the basement (or first floor) of the Coronado Mall. It was a sad day when this restaurant closed.

      The distance from Albuquerque to Santa Fe may be “officially” recorded at 60 miles just as the daily official temperature of Albuquerque is recorded daily at the Albuquerque International Airport, but it doesn’t mean every part of Albuquerque is 60 miles away from the City Different. There are parts of the city that are indeed 22 leagues away from Santa Fe just as parts of the city climb to well over 100 degrees while the airport’s official temperature is recorded at 99 degrees. Declaring 60 miles to be the one distance from Albuquerque to Santa Fe is akin to declaring all of Albuquerque’s weather happens only at the airport.

  3. My significant other and I both tried the combo plate #2 at Cervantes. The carne adovada was wonderful – tho not much of it one lump and a few shreds–and the red chili sauce was indeed very good. The green chili sauce on the rellano was quite uninspired–neither piquant nor flavor full. The beef taco-thankfully served on a separate plate-was chock a block full of beef-ground beef, shredded would be better. But that’s usual. I cannot comprehend why you would describe their sopapillas as “among the best in Albuquerque.” Ours were flaccid, greasy and tough–almost leathery. Overall OK but there are places I like much better for NM Mexican food. John L

  4. Hello Gil: Thank you so much for the wonderful blog. Your knowledge of Albuquerque history and Cervantes’ cuisine is wonderfully stated. Thank you again for the time you spent writing this fantastic article….it is greatly appreciate by our family (Roberta, Iris, Richard, & Arian)!
    My Best, Arian Gonzales (Cervantes Food Products)

    1. Hello Arian

      Thank YOU and your family for always being so kind to the Air Force personnel who visit your wonderful restaurant. Cervantes was one of our sanctuaries when I was stationed at Kirtland and it does my heart good to see you’re still doing so well and still providing a second home to my colleagues and brothers in arms.

      Gil

  5. We’ve been there twice. Enjoyed our meals. Best time to go? Christmas. There are plenty of lights and you can sit next to the fireplace.

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