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New Mexico: Duke City Dining, Albuquerque Restaurant List
Despite the urban sprawl and the apparent penchant for the slew of newly arrived chain restaurants now lining the highways and main artery roads, there is a wide variety of local options when it comes to dining in Albuquerque. Friends and family coming for visits are always amazed by the unusual places which we choose to eat at, and frequently tell us they are craving certain dishes once they've returned home. Here is a list of our favorite spots, but I'll begin with a primer on New Mexican cuisine.
New Mexican Food
New Mexican food differs from Tex-Mex and traditional Mexican food as it is prepared in most restaurants in the US. New Mexican food is traditionally a mix of Spanish, Mexican and American Indian cooking, melded into a local cuisine. It uses local ingredients such as blue corn, frijoles, squash and corn, and of course, the main ingredient in everything here, chile! Around these parts, chile is king. (I had a co-worker who roasted, peeled and chopped three large sacks of green chile one autumn, to last for the year. When her house was broken into, the thieves cleaned out her newly-filled freezer of the chile. They took nothing else. She commented, "I'd rather they had stolen my TV. Now what will I eat for a year?").
Red or Green? This is the official state question. We are probably the only state in the union which would take valuable legislative time to ponder and vote on such a thing, but it is indicative of the importance of chile. The question is posed when you order your meal in a New Mexican restaurant, asking if you want red chile or green chile smothering your dish. Red is a smooth sauce made from cooked and blundered dried red chile pods. This is a spicy sauce, not the tomatoey and bland sauce often found in Tex-Mex cuisine. It is sinus-clearing stuff! Green is a sauce made from roasted, peeled and chopped fresh green chile peppers. Also spicy, the heat varies based on the variety of the chile, but is usually a medium hot. Indecisive? You can sample both by ordering Christmas chile, red and green side by side on top of your combo plate.
Green chile is the hallmark of New Mexican cooking, and it is a fine indication of autumn when the harvest starts coming in and the chile roasters are set up and fired up around the city. The smell of roasting chile permeates the air as I drive past Wagner Farms, here in Corrales, daily in September and October. Green chile is added to nearly everything here. It's a frequent additive to cheeseburgers, pizza, eggs, turkey sandwiches, and beans. Be sure to give a try when you visit.
Chile is not to be confused with chili (a stew of meat and beans).
New Mexican Dishes
So just what are the items that look so foreign on the menu? Here is a list of the most frequently served local dishes. The pronunciations are Spanish. I'd give you a phonetic dictionary type guide to that, but it's too much fun for us locals to listen to out-of-towners tries to pronounce these!
Carne Adovada - lean cubes of pork marinated in red chile sauce then slow roasted or stewed. It is served in burritos, enchiladas or simply on rice and is topped with more chile; your choice, but I'd recommend the green on top of this dish.
Carne Asada - beef marinated with a spice rub and then roasted, broiled or grilled.
Carnitas - strips of beef marinated in green chile (sometimes red) and stewed.
Burritos - most people are familiar with these flour tortilla-filled roll ups, but here they're frequently served hand-held or smothered. If it's smothered, it's topped with lots of chile sauce and cheese, usually with the sides of beans, rice, or calabacillas.
Breakfast Burritos - found everywhere, either wrapped up and hand-held or smothered, it's a combination of eggs, choice of breakfast meat or beans, potatoes and chile sauce, and cheese. There is nothing like chile on eggs to get you going in the morning!
Chimichanga - a smaller burrito that is fried to a crisp.
Enchiladas - meat or vegetables layered or rolled up in corn tortillas and topped with chile sauce and cheese. You'll frequently find blue corn enchiladas, made from New Mexico or Colorado grown corn that is blue. It has a more intense corn flavor than traditional corn tortillas.
Chorizo - spicy Mexican sausage.
Calabacillas (or calabacitas) - a dish of squash, usually zucchini or yellow summer squash, with corn kernels and chopped green chile. It sometimes has cheese in it, as well.
Sopaipillas - a puffed-up fried bread served with honey. Many people think this is a dessert, but it is served with the meal, as a bread, but with the honey it serves to extinguish the chile fires in the palate. If you prefer it as a dessert, ask for it to be served at the end of the meal, or they'll become cold and chewy. Stuffed Sopaipillas can be found on many menus, too; filled with meat, beans or vegetables.
Huevos Rancheros - eggs with beans and papitas on a tortilla, smothered in chile and cheese. Not just for breakfast, it can come with meat or veggies too.
Fry Bread - a round piece of dough is fried in oil, traditionally over a pinon-wood fire. It can be used for a main dish, like tacos, or a snack which is drizzled with honey. When you visit the Pueblos around New Mexico, you'll see the women making fry bread for sale.
Indian Tacos - meat or vegetables served taco-style in a piece of fresh Indian fry bread.
Chile Rellenos - whole green chile, slit open and stuffed with cheese, then covered with a light batter and fried. Served smothered, of course.
Frito Pie - this is an unusual New Mexican tradition: Frito chips topped with chili (the stew of meat and beans, but usually with chopped green chile in it, too) and cheese. The "classic" way to eat it.a small individual bag of Fritos sliced open and the chile poured into the bag on top! You'll be amazed how good this is! (But it's not recommended for heart patients!)
Posole - a stew made from hominy and pork and served with red chile sauce stirred in. This is traditional for Christmas Eve, along with tamales, but is served throughout the area year-round.
Bizcochitos - the State cookie, it's a flaky, anise-flavored shortbread type of cookie.
Empanadas - fruit-filled pie turnovers.
Donde? Where to Go?
So where do you go to eat these delicacies? I'm so glad you asked!
Garduno's is popular with tourists and they have several locations around town. If you're the more timid type when it comes to spicy foods but want to try New Mexican fare, then this is for you. We usually call it "gringo food" for its lack of "oomph". But hey, they have a lot of atmosphere.
Casa de Benavidez, 8032 Fourth Street NW
Ramon's, 5700 Fourth Street NW
El Pinto, 10500 Fourth Street NW (far north, north of Alameda Blvd.)
Los Cuates, 4901 Lomas Blvd. NE and 5016 Lomas Blvd. NE (the original)
Padilla's, 1510 Girard NE, north of the University of New Mexico
The Frontier Restaurant, 2400 Central Avenue SE, across from UNM
Other Dining Options
Now that you've eaten your fill of New Mexican food, how about a change of pace? We have a great variety of other ethnic cuisines here too.
Pars Cuisine, 4320 The 25 Way NE, off I-25 and Jefferson
Noda's Japanese Cuisine, 2704 Southern Blvd., Rio Rancho (In Trinity
India Kitchen Restaurant, 6910 Montgomery Blvd. NE
Il Vicino, 3403 Central Ave. SE and 11225 Montgomery Blvd. NE
Flying Star, 4 locations (one on Central, just east of UNM)
Model Pharmacy, 3636 Monte Vista NE, at Lomas
Restaurant Antiquity, 112 Romero Street NW, in Old Town
Cajun Kitchen, 4500 Osuna Road NE, at the corner of Jefferson
Blake's LotaBurger, all over the state
There are many, many other great places around town. But with this list, you'll be dining well and enjoying some of the local flavor and ambiance, as well as discovering that our multi-cultural background encompasses much more than people generally think. Viva le variety!
© Valerie Schneider, 2004
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