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New Mexico: Duke City Dining, Albuquerque Restaurant List

Valerie Schneider

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
This restaurant offers two options. For the budget-minded, go around back to the coffee shop where you can enjoy the same dishes, served a la carte, ordered at the counter, for less money. For the ambiance and table service, go to the main dining room. Fashioned with hand-carved chairs and a nice patio for outdoor dining, they serve good hearty New Mexican fare.

Ramon's, 5700 Fourth Street NW
This is an inauspicious place in a strip mall, but what is lacks in atmosphere it makes up for in home-style New Mexican cooking. Expect a basic but good meal.

El Pinto, 10500 Fourth Street NW (far north, north of Alameda Blvd.)
Famed for their margaritas and extensive patios, it's a popular spot for outdoor weddings. The food is, well to be honest it's rather mediocre, but the patio dining is a big draw, and it's located far up in the North Valley beneath ancient cottonwood trees.

Blue Corn Cafe, 4931 Pan American Freeway NE
This is a fun and funky place, with new twists on New Mexican food. The original Blue Corn is in Santa Fe. The Albuquerque locale has the same micro-brewery and variety menu. The fare is not traditional, but it's lively.
March 2005: Albuquerque location closed, Santa Fe locations are open.

Los Cuates, 4901 Lomas Blvd. NE and 5016 Lomas Blvd. NE (the original)
Consistently voted "best New Mexican" in various publications, this place churns out good and mostly traditional food at reasonable prices. Expect a line when you arrive!

Padilla's, 1510 Girard NE, north of the University of New Mexico (UNM)
Padilla's had been around a long time and they're consistently good though not real spicy. There is almost always a long line to get in the door.

The Frontier Restaurant, 2400 Central Avenue SE, across from UNM
This funky-strange restaurant is an Albuquerque institution. I don't know how many cups of coffee I consumed when I was a student, sitting here between classes among the myriad of other students, professors, families, transvestites, and general weirdoes. This is an experience! You order at the counter when you see the green flashing light. If you're not fast enough to the counter, they'll sound a buzzer to get your attention. The line, even when it's into the other rooms, moves very quickly. They churn out an amazing quantity of food daily. They're famous for their sweet rolls, but I think they have the best breakfast burritos (order it smothered in green chile stew), and the Frontier Burrito is great. Other stuff on the menu, too; I just don't know what!

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
Persian/Greek. If you like Greek food, you'll love Pars. The owners are from Iran and serve up traditional Persian dishes along with Greek specialties in a sumptuous atmosphere (no small feat in a new strip mall). If you are willing, sit on the floor cushions at the low table next to a fountain, beneath billowing ceiling drapery. Fantastic food.

Noda's Japanese Cuisine, 2704 Southern Blvd., Rio Rancho (In Trinity Plaza)
A small place tucked away in an obscure Rio Rancho location, they offer a variety of fresh, fresh sushi and home-style Japanese dishes. This mom-and-pop operation is one of our favorites. We've never ordered anything we didn't like.

India Kitchen Restaurant, 6910 Montgomery Blvd. NE
An excellent and inexpensive Indian restaurant tucked into a small strip mall on Montgomery (beside a brewery restaurant). Many vegetarian selections. Entrees come with rice, papadum, yogurt and chutney. For example, Tandoori fish is $11.95, Alu Gobhi is $8.95. Don't miss the garlic Naan. The family that runs this restaurant is very friendly. The restaurant is always busy. (This entry was contributed by Pauline. It is our favorite Albuquerque restaurant.)

Il Vicino, 3403 Central Ave. SE and 11225 Montgomery Blvd. NE
Wood oven, thin and crispy crusted pizzas, it's the closest we have here to authentic Italian pizza. They also offer micro-brews, and a fabulous death-by-chocolate the Torta di Seda.

Flying Star, 4 locations (one on Central, just east of UNM)
An Albuquerque "chain", this is funky-fun and hip with loads of magazines to browse, fantastic desserts, sandwiches, salads, soup, burgers and "Buddha bowls", they have a combination of dishes so everyone will find something to make them happy.

Model Pharmacy, 3636 Monte Vista NE, at Lomas
A lunch room inside a pharmacy where you can browse the selection of cards, soaps, perfumes and other gift items, they offer lunch of sandwiches, soup, a few different specials, daily cobblers, and an authentic soda fountain. A nice change of pace.

Restaurant Antiquity, 112 Romero Street NW, in Old Town
Considered one of the nice romantic restaurants in Albuquerque, it's located in an old adobe honeymoon cottage. Quaint and cute, with a sort of Continental menu. If you like a good cut of beef, try the Henry IV, a bacon-wrapped filet topped with an artichoke heart on a bed of the leaves, and topped off with barnaise sauce. Try the policenta for dessert.

Cajun Kitchen, 4500 Osuna Road NE, at the corner of Jefferson
Good, honest Cajun cooking with po'boys, jambalaya, red beans and rice, gumbo and file, it's worth the trip just for their "to die for" bread pudding. It's a mother-daughter team in the kitchen running this little gem.

Blake's LotaBurger, all over the state
Sometimes you just have to have a burger, and around here Blake's is the local chain that the locals love. Just make sure you get yours with - what else? - green chile!

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 (Valerie) is a freelance writer, who lived in New Mexico for twenty years before trading the high desert for the medieval hill towns of Italy in May, 2006. She is a regular contributor to Slow Travel, pens travel agency newsletters, and has written for Arthur Frommer’s Budget Travel. She and her husband, Bryan, currently reside in Ascoli Piceno where they conduct small-group tours called Panorama Italy. Read about her Italian adventures in her monthly Slow Travel column, Living Slow in Italy, and on her blog, 2 Baci in a Pinon Tree. See Valerie's Slow Travel Member page.

© Valerie Schneider, 2004

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