“I get no respect.” Comedian Rodney Dangerfield parlayed that catch-phrase into a lengthy and lucrative career. With his uniquely self-deprecating sense of humor, Rodney invariably made himself the butt of his own brilliant one-liners: “I could tell my parents hated me. My bath toys were a toaster and a radio.” Despite his schtick as a perpetual loser, Dangerfield was a beloved comedic icon about whom Jim Carrey once wrote, “Rodney is, without a doubt, as funny as a carbon-based life-form can be.” True to the formula which made him a success in life, his tombstone is engraved, “there goes the neighborhood.”
The citizenry of the beautiful Española valley can certainly empathize with Rodney Dangerfield. Inexplicably, Española has, for decades, been the punch line of cruel jokes. My friend Bill Resnik, a stand-up comedian for nearly three decades, says every stand-up comedian performing in New Mexico has at least one Española joke in their repertoire, but admits that in the comedy circuit, the name of the town being made fun of changes from state to state. Española jokes are, to some extent, just repackaged jokes. Many of those jokes will work if you substitute “blond” or “Aggie” or “Redneck” for Española.
Other Española jokes, however, are more antagonistic, mean-spirited–and most definitely targeted. In a 1984 article, the New York Times noted “few of them are free of an obvious anti-Hispanic bias,” observing that the target of derision in many of those jokes is Española’s low rider culture: “Why are low rider steering wheels so small? So you can drive them handcuffed.” In the 1980s, traversing the “low road to Taos” through Española often meant following elaborately painted late-model cars at their low and slow pace as they hugged the pavement on both lanes for the entire length and breadth of the city limits. The frustration was the genesis of many Espanola jokes.
You might think any city or town subjected to cruel derision for decades might wish for anonymity or would suffer from an inferiority complex, or perhaps worse, bitter resentment. Española has instead embraced the attention, in recent years turning lemons into lemonade with marketing campaigns that have drawn many to all that Española has to offer–and what it has to offer is the type of preternatural beauty which exemplifies New Mexico’s sobriquet “The Land of Enchantment.”
In delivering his forecasts, KOB TV meteorologist Steve Stucker drives home that point. When predicting the weather in New Mexico’s most maligned city, he invariably emphasizes the term “the beautiful Española valley.” The media savvy Stucker isn’t just pandering to the community of some ten-thousand; he really means it.
The brilliant watercolor artist Jan Hart may have best captured the essence of the first capital city in America: “Española is what it is. No apologies. It is the punch line of jokes and the bearer of some grim tales. It doesn’t pretend to be anything that it isn’t. Sprawled across the Rio Grande river, it isn’t tidy or trendy. But it is very real and its location is perfect – surrounded by the Sangre de Cristo mountains on the east, the Jemez mountains on the west, Taos to the north 40 miles and Santa Fe 20 miles south! Española sits in the very heart of northern New Mexico!”
Española, whose very name translates to “Spain,” is indeed predominantly Hispanic ethnically and as recognized by the New York Times, remains a “hub of Spanish-American craftsmanship in weaving, pottery and carving.” It’s not Taos and it’s not Santa Fe, but it’s not trying to be.
Unlike the aforementioned hubs of multiculturalism, Española holds fast to its many Spanish traditions. That may be especially true of its devotion to the cuisine which has graced family homes throughout Northern New Mexico for hundreds of years. Española’s restaurants don’t cater to tourist tastes; their market is the local palate, a discerning lot who insist on authenticity, not some watered-down hybrid. Try finding chicos, posole, quelites and costillas at Santa Fe or Taos restaurants. You can find these traditional stapes of Northern New Mexico family homes in Española’s restaurants.
A May, 2010 visit to Angelina’s Restaurant in Española, reinforced Española’s stance on tradition and authenticity. When we asked if cumin was used in the restaurant’s carne adovada, our waitress had never heard of the spice, but offered to find out. Within minutes, Chris Quintana, the restaurant’s owner, visited our table to expressly denounce the use of cumin, saying “if you want cumin, drive about 200 miles south of here. Traditional New Mexican food does not include cumin.” A man after my own heart!
Angelina’s Restaurant was founded in 1984 by Fidel and Angelina Gutierrez as a way to honor their recently deceased son’s love of his mother’s red chile and beans. Rather than take the family name, the restaurant was named for Angelina since traditional New Mexican home cooking is traditionally passed on from mother to daughter. The original restaurant was ensconced in a somewhat dilapidated old edifice with a memorable charm. In 1998, Angelina’s Restaurant moved into a bright, open and airy building with capacious accommodations.
Drive past Angelina’s on any day, but especially on Sundays, and you might be amazed at the number of two- and four-wheeled vehicles parked in the restaurant’s east and west parking lots. It’s the type of parking you might otherwise see at a county fair and you’ll wonder how Angelina’s could possibly seat everyone. Enter the restaurant and you’ll see large tables accommodating ten or more people, many of them families several generations deep. You’ll find guests eating al fresco at the umbrella-shielded picnic tables in the courtyard prefacing the restaurant’s entrance.
What you won’t find is guests waiting for too long. Somehow, despite the constant flow of guests, Angelina’s wait staff turns them around quickly without hurrying anyone. In fact, you’ll see no shortage of diners visiting friends at other tables with friendly abrazos and besos (hugs and kisses) all around. The reverberation of conversations in both Spanish and English creates a rather noisy din, but it’s more joyous than raucous, more neighborly than discordant.
The specialty of the house at Angelina’s is lamb, raised on the verdant high-mountain pastures of Northern New Mexico by the Patricio Martinez family, sheep herders for generations. The “other white meat” has long been a staple in Northern New Mexico kitchens though it’s increasingly uncommon to find it on restaurant menus, save for pricey Colorado lamb entrees served in high-end dining establishments. Angelina’s offers lamb in several forms–and it’s the real thing, with its characteristic gaminess and flavorful fat.
You can engorge enchiladas (rolled or flat), stuffed sopaipillas, burritos or fajitas with lamb or you can have lamb chops, roast leg of lamb or lamb costillas (ribs). You can even have a lamb burger or lamb sandwich if you wish. The lamb flies off the menu and is especially popular among senior generations. Lamb entrees are served with beans, fluffy sopaipillas and your choice of red or green chile.
For me, there’s no better way to enjoy lamb than in the form of costillas, succulent lamb ribs served five to an order. These are unpretentious and undoctored ribs with meat and fat coalescing into a crispy and flavorful riblet treat. Gnawing on the bones and extricating the meat is an adventure in flavor appreciation. You might think you like lamb, but if all you’ve ever had is expensive lamb served at fine-dining establishments, you haven’t really had lamb. Angelina’s serves lamb New Mexico style and it’s terrific!
Salsa is not complementary at Angelina’s, but it just isn’t a meal at a Northern New Mexico restaurant without salsa and chips so splurge on the large-sized order. The salsa is fresh and delicious, rating about medium on the piquancy scale. It will make your taste buds pay attention without singeing them. Prominent flavors include fresh tomatoes, onion, garlic, cilantro and jalapenos. The chips are large and low in salt, formidable enough for large scoops of salsa.
Most entrees come with two sopaipillas. Now, sopaipillas have become so commonplace in New Mexican restaurants as to engender blase reactions. Not so at Angelina’s which may offer the very best sopaipillas in New Mexico. That’s an audacious claim to be sure, but it’s a claim for which I’d get plenty of support from the Albuquerque Journal North’s brilliant restaurant critic Anne Hillerman. In her 2009 review of Angelina’s, Anne admitted she hasn’t done a “professional sopaipilla study,” but would be willing to bet Angelina’s “would get the trophy.”
The sopaipillas are large golden, deep-fried deliciousness served fresh and hot. Don’t wait to break open a sopaipilla and cut off a piece while it’s still hot. The sensation of steamy puffs wafting upwards is an experience not to be missed. The sopaipillas beckon for the cooling effect of sweet honey to be drizzled onto them, again an experience best had when they’re hot.
Chicos are another Northern New Mexico staple found in few restaurants outside of Española. The menu describes them as “made from locally grown corn. Picked young, it is then roasted in a traditional horno and sun-dried. Prepared by simmering with pork, this dish is a true native specialty.” Try them with green chile, a mildly piquant, neon green variety with a nice roasted flavor. For those of us from the north, chicos are a taste of home, of youth and of mom’s home cooking.
Angelina’s rendition of carne adovada is very traditional, too. The pork, cubed and marinated in red chile caribe (concentrated chile made from dried red chile pods, blended and processed to a smooth consistency), is fork-tender, shredding easily. You’ll want to fashion a tortilla into “New Mexican spoons,” triangle-shaped wedges into which you deposit carne adovada for quick consumption. It takes carne adovada from a fork food to a hand-held, bite-sized treat. The carne adovada plate is served with Spanish rice and beans. The rice is a bit on the soupy side, but the beans (with red or green chile) are excellent.
At Angelina’s, guests who might not want Northern New Mexican specialties (gasp, that sounds almost heretical) have a nice selection of traditional diner far from which to choose. That includes liver and onions, steaks (hamburger, T-bone and rib-eye), seafood (catfish, halibut, trout, salmon and shrimp) as well as a surprisingly good honey-batter dipped fried chicken served with your choice of potato. The fried chicken is so good, the Colonel should be demoted for serving such an inferior rendition.
The beautiful Española valley has been home to the Gutierrez family for centuries and home to their wonderful family restaurant for going on two decades. Forget any disparaging comments or jokes you may have heard about this beautiful little city and discover some of the best dining treasures in Northern New Mexico.
1226 North Railroad Avenue
Espanola, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 30 May 2010
# OF VISITS: 3
BEST BET: Costillas, Sopaipillas, Fried Chicken, Bowl of Beans, Salsa and Chips, Carne Adovada