Shortly after it was announced that Mary & Tito’s was selected as a 2010 recipient of the James Beard Foundation’s “Americas Classic” award, the brilliant Albuquerque Journal columnist Leslie Linthicum wrote a gilt-edged tribute to my very favorite New Mexican restaurant. Indicating “the red chile at Mary & Tito’s Cafe brings grown men to poetic fevers,” she quoted something I wrote in my review which she must have found to be sufficiently rhapsodic to warrant mention.
For anything I write to be considered even remotely “poetic” by the scintillating columnist is a great honor. Compared to the spell-binding prose and incisive insight which typify Leslie’s columns, my writing is prosaic and dim-witted. It’s akin to comparing Michelangelo’s work on the Cistene Chapel to the asymmetrical graffiti under an overpass…with me the tagger. i don’t always start off agreeing with Leslie’s viewpoints, but so admire her sharp wit and sound-reasoned logic in forming her positions that she often sways my position. She is simply a magnificent writer, my favorite columnist on any periodical anywhere (with apologies to the great Tom Cole)!
In a 2008 column published on Thanksgiving Day, Leslie waxed eloquent in her inimitable manner about some of the things she’s for which she’s most thankful, including a New Mexican restaurant in the beautiful Española valley. She wrote, “the physical address of Joann’s restaurant is in Española. But at the precise point near the end of your meal where red chile and honey hit your tongue at the same time, I think of Joann’s as the place where heaven meets Earth.” How is that for lyrical prose!
The actual place where heaven meets Earth may well be the world-famous Casados Farms in Guique, New Mexico just north of Okay Owingeh Pueblo. That’s where most of the chile Leslie loves so much comes from. That’s also where JoAnn’s Ranch O Casados obtains its blue corn. In fact, Casados Farms is where JoAnn’s acquires most of its fresh, locally grown produce. The soil along the lush Rio Grande Valley is fecund and rich, sustaining a way of life that is quickly disappearing as Española moves further away from its agrarian roots.
It is reputed that JoAnn Casados personally roasts and peels all the chile used in her eponymous restaurant, most of it from chile lines descendant from native chile crops. She knows old-timers can tell the difference between commercially grown chile and chile grown locally. She also laments the fact that the three-centuries old tradition of growing chile in the Española valley is dying out despite the increased demand. Farmers can command a premium for locally grown chile, but JoAnn considers it a worthwhile investment.
JoAnn’s Ranch O Casados has been serving the beautiful Española valley since 1984. Its first home was near the Big Rock Shopping Center where the restaurant took residence at the former site of a Sears catalog shop. JoAnn’s moved to its current, more spacious location in 2003. The parking lot seems to be perpetually crowded, but wait times at the commodious restaurant aren’t long. The interior at JoAnn’s has an eclectic Alpine Lodge meets Tudor meets New Mexican meets American Indian motif. Tables and benches are carved from blond knotted pine.
I don’t know if the bumper on Leslie’s vehicle has a “[Heart] at first site” bumper sticker, but you can spot them all over Española–on pristine Range Rovers and on careworn pick-up trucks which are hosed down only to remove salt residue after a snowfall. On a wall near the “please wait to be seated” sign, there’s a poem paying loving tribute to JoAnn’s. Though not as eloquent as had Leslie written it, the affection is clearly conveyed. It’s also conveyed by empty plates being carted away, some so clean it may leave you wondering if the last remnants of chile were licked away.
The menu is a compendium of Northern New Mexico favorites: enchiladas, tacos, tamales, burritos, sopaipillas and even two staples made from corn–posole and chicos, the latter of which is rarely seen south of Santa Fe. The entire menu is available all day long and includes a wide selection of vegetarian options popular among Española’s Sikh community. Alas, the menu does commit the cardinal sin of spelling New Mexico’s official state vegetable “chili,” a spelling I’ve programmed my spell-checker to sneer at. At least Leslie spelled it correctly as she counted it among her blessings.
Perhaps how it’s spelled isn’t nearly as important as how it tastes and that’s where JoAnn’s excels. You’ll get a sense of that when salsa and chips (unfortunately not complementary) are delivered to your table Instead of on a separate bowl or ramekin, the salsa is served in an oversized “bowl” fashioned out of a crispy yellow corn tortilla. The salsa wouldn’t register too high on the Scoville scale, but it is quite good, an artisan amalgam of jalapenos, white onions, tomatoes, cilantro, garlic and salt. The red, yellow and blue corn chips are lightly salted and large. Unfortunately you’ll run out of salsa before you run out of chips.
Huevos Rancheros are a specialty at JoAnn’s–corn tortillas topped with two eggs any style, shredded melted cheese, and red and green chile with a garnish of lettuce and tomato. Two sides–pinto beans and papitas–accompany the huevos. Neither the red or green chile are especially piquant, but both, especially the green chile, are swoon-worthy. The green chile has a distinctly sweet-piquant flavor with little acidity. Neon green and finely chopped, it’s as pretty as it is delectable. The red chile is deeply red and rich with a slightly acidic aftertaste.
The pinto beans are wonderful, whole beans prepared perfectly with just a little broth to keep them moist. The papitas are delightful little cubes fried to a golden sheen. They’re reminiscent of French fries cut into cubes, but with a better flavor. You won’t miss Spanish rice in the least.
Another specialty of the house is JoAnn’s carne adovada. For breakfast it’s available with two eggs any style accompanied by papitas and pinto beans. JoAnn’s doesn’t skimp on portion size and that holds true with the carne adovada. You’ll be served a profuse portion, more than most can finish in a single sitting. Large, whole chunks of tender pork marinated in delicious red chile with a sweet, earthy flavor make this an addictive rendition of the popular pork dish. The red chile is even less piquant on the adovada, but it’s also more delicious.
Diners have their choice of tortillas or sopaipillas. The sopaipillas are large, puffed-up pockets of delicious dough just waiting for you to tear off a piece so they can release their steamy fragrance upwards. JoAnn’s serves real honey, the thick, sweet, wonderful stuff, not the honey-flavored sugar some restaurants serve. This is another difference-maker among many that account for JoAnn’s popularity.
JoAnn’s breakfast entrees include pancakes, nearly plate-sized orbs of golden deliciousness just waiting for butter to be slathered on and to be doused with syrup (or better yet, with honey). You can also assuage your sweet tooth with flan, ice cream, cake, sopa bread pudding (often called caprilotada) or pie. A display case of desserts practically greets you at the door, as does JoAnn herself.
Now I understand how Leslie Linthicum can be so thankful for JoAnn’s Ranch O Casados…even though I can’t convey it as eloquently as she did.
JoAnn’s Ranch O Casados
938 North Riverside Drive
Española, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 8 August 2010
# OF VISITS: 2
BEST BET: Carne Adovada, Huevos Rancheros, Pancakes, Salsa and Chips, Sopaipillas