The Land of Enchantment is bisected north to south by the murky and mucky Rio Grande which meanders some 700 miles through the state. Throughout the millennia, the fourth longest river in America has been the often tenuous lifeline upon which New Mexico’s citizenry has relied for sustenance and for recreation. Its precious waters are multifarious in their use–from human and animal consumption to the sustainment of agricultural systems and so much more. Depleted over time by human dependence and a perpetual drought condition, it is nonetheless a linchpin for New Mexico’s future even as demand for its resources increases and stresses on the river grow.
The Rio Grande Corridor is where the vast concentration of New Mexico’s urban centers exist and more than half of its population (over one million) resides. The four most populous cities in the state–Albuquerque, Las Cruces, Rio Rancho and Santa Fe in that order–are all within this riverine corridor. It’s been that way for the estimated 10,000 years in which New Mexico has been inhabited. The arable lands near the Rio Grande, for example, is where a vast concentration of the indigenous peoples the Spaniards named “Pueblos” chose to live. Considering their dependence on the river’s precious waters, it just made sense.
In many respects, the Land of Enchantment outside the Rio Grande Corridor seems to garner less attention, maybe even less respect than the cottonwood-lined riparian zone bisecting New Mexico. That may be especially true of New Mexico’s culinary scene. Everyone knows Santa Fe is one of the most highly regarded restaurant cities in America while Albuquerque restaurants are increasingly being recognized for their diversity and deliciousness. Taos, Las Cruces and even the Socorro area, all within the Rio Grande Corridor, have received national attention for their restaurants.
Ask visitors, maybe even locals, about the great restaurants outside the Rio Grande Corridor and you might get a blank stare. Many would be hard-pressed to name five great restaurants (maybe even five communities) outside that Corridor. Even on the New Mexico Tourism Department’s Green Chile Cheeseburger Trail which I helped develop, the vast concentration of the state’s most celebrated green chile cheeseburgers were within the Rio Grande corridor. Thank goodness for the ubiquitous Blake’s Lotaburger or the number of purveyors of burger greatness we listed from outside the Corridor would have been even smaller.
Reviewing my own index of New Mexico restaurants, it’s readily apparent I, too, haven’t ventured too far or too often from the life-giving waters of the Rio Grande for my restaurant visits. The “well eaten, well-beaten” path to restaurants on the Rio Grande Corridor, it seems, is a siren beckoning “give me your huddled masses yearning to eat more.” Fortunately New Mexico Magazine, the very best official state publication in the fruited plain, has been showcasing the terrific restaurants throughout the Land of Enchantment, not just within the Rio Grande Corridor, through its monthly Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner feature and other food-themed articles.
I’ve had the great privilege of writing a few of those Breakfast, Lunch and Dinner articles myself (and at the risk of being accused of shameless self-promotion, you should all subscribe to New Mexico Magazine). A recent assignment took me 139 miles from Albuquerque to Gallup, the “Indian Capital of the World.” A scant 25 miles from the Arizona border, it’s about as far as you can get from the Rio Grande Corridor without leaving the state. Route 66, the fabled Mother Road traverses the length of Gallup, and is home to many of the city’s 100 plus trading posts, shops and galleries.
Thanks to a heavy presence of Navajo, Zuni, Hopi and other American Indian artists, Gallup is often considered the “Southwest center for original Native American art.” With prices sometimes substantially lower than other Southwest bastions of art (Scottsdale, Santa Fe, Taos and Sedona come to mind) it’s no wonder Gallup gallery owners sometimes boast that once art buyers discover Gallup, they stop shopping for Southwest art at the aforementioned art centers. In large part due to the art trade, Gallup is credited with having more millionaires per capita than any other city in the United States.
Gallup is also home to some terrific restaurant finds, including some arguably the equal of restaurants of their genre anywhere in the Rio Grande Corridor. One of those is Jerry’s Cafe, the highest rated restaurant in Gallup according to TripAdvisor, a travel forum by travelers for travelers. My friend and fellow restaurant blogger Steve Coleman of Steve’s Gastronomic Home Page says “the red chile at Jerry’s is about as good as I have found anywhere,” comparing its taste to “something I would expect to find in Santa Fe or Española.”
Jerry’s Cafe is located one block south of Route 66 and similar to other local businesses, it has the look and feel of a bygone era. That includes a neon spangled sign complete with a flashing yellow arrow pointing toward the restaurant. The marquee reads “Mexican American Food,” what New Mexican food was called before New Mexicans determined our cuisine needed to be differentiated from Mexican food. The cafe is tiny, deeper than it is wide and tends to be crowded. It’s not uncommon to wait in line with long queues of prospective diners, many of whom are American Indian.
Booths are small, most accommodating only two to four patrons. The faux-wood paneled walls are festooned with framed artwork, but most diners seem to spend more time gawking at their neighbors’ plates than at the artwork. Frequent visits from artisans selling silver and turquoise jewelry might command just a bit more attention, but it’s the food that’s the real work of art. Service is friendly and accommodating with repeat customers greeted by name. One waitress has worked at Jerry’s for 38 years (as of November, 2010), having started when the original owner, Jerry Gonzales, opened the business some four decades ago.
Today Jerry’s Cafe is owned by Archie Baca, Jr., of the dynastic Baca family which owns several restaurants in Gallup. Archie, Sr. owns Don Diego’s Restaurant and sister Leslie owns Grandpa’s Grill. I’d like to own the recipe for the cafe’s salsa. It’s a fabulous salsa, some of the very best in the state–even if it’s not complimentary. Our order arrived with two bowls of the stuff and housemade chips several orders of magnitude better than most restaurants serve. The salsa has a nice bite to it, but it’s also quite flavorful, the product of tomatoes, green chile, onions in perfect proportion.
Few things in life evoke the sheer visceral pleasure of a perfect taco–a fried corn tortilla shell enveloping its constituent ingredients. Though my preference is for malleable grease-soaked tortillas, in a pinch the Taco Bell style hard-shelled corn tortillas will do IF they’re engorged with great ingredients. My Kim likes her tacos sans “salad.” No lettuce, tomato and onions for her, just ground beef and shredded cheese. The tacos at Jerry’s are special thanks to very moist ground beef, which I surmise may be ameliorated by beef or chicken stock and maybe onion powder. At any regard, the beef makes these tacos a sheer pleasure to eat.
The indisputable specialty of the house at Jerry’s Cafe is the stuffed sopaipilla, a fresh sopaipilla engorged with guacamole, beef and beans smothered with your choice of red or green chile (or both) and cheese. The guacamole, beans and rice burrito at Mary & Tito’s convinced me years ago just how wonderful guacamole inside an entree. Jerry’s stuffed sopaipilla reinforced that notion. The buttery, rich guacamole and the well-seasoned, ultra-moist ground beef are a winning combination. The red and green chile are about medium on the piquancy scale, but both are delicious with fruity accents defining the green chile. This is one of the better stuffed sopaipilla dishes in New Mexico.
Other entrees seem to indicate the menu at Jerry’s is just a bit different, not the seemingly standard template offered at many New Mexican restaurants. That menu is fun to read with cleverly named entrees described to whet your appetite. Take for example, the “Te Gusta,” grilled pork meat smothered with chili (sic) and cheese served with rice, bean, tortilla and sopaipilla as well as soup or a salad. The term “Te Gusta” can be used as an interrogative meaning “do you like it” or as a declarative as in “you like it.” Undoubtedly, the menu intends it as a declarative because you WILL like this entree.
Bite-sized cubes of perfectly seasoned grilled pork, a delicious red chile, melted Cheddar cheese–simplicity itself, but not a dish you see often and especially not so audaciously named. It certainly earns its appellation. You will like it! You’ll also like cutting up the silky flour tortilla and folding it into “New Mexican spoons” into which you can scoop up those chunks of porcine perfection. You’ll cut the sopaipilla, too, into bite-sized, steamy pockets into which the restaurant’s honey-flavored syrup will go. It’s a perfect way to end a perfect meal.
As restaurants such as Jerry’s Cafe prove time and again, the Rio Grande Corridor has no exclusivity on great food. Jerry’s is easily among my top ten, maybe top six New Mexican restaurants in the state, ranking with El Bruno as perhaps the best outside the Corridor.
406 West Coal Avenue
Gallup, New Mexico
LATEST VISIT: 6 November 2010
# OF VISITS: 1
BEST BET: Stuffed Sopaipilla, Te Gusta, Salsa and Chips