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Such a Thing as Good New Mexican Food in ABQ?

Yes, intentionally provocative.

I've read through A LOT of threads, plus lots of reviews on other sites, blogs, Yelp, etc. There seems to be little consensus with most people having their pet fav restaurants and dishes for (New) Mexican food. This often suggests there isn't anywhere especially good. And my meals, so far, are confirming this.

So far I've hit Patio, Frontier, and Garcia's (on 4th). I tried to hit Mary's & Tito's twice, but both times it was closed. (The hours I found were wrong.) There've been elements from these places I've liked, but really the best part were the fresh tortillas and sopaipillas.

To me, most the red chile sauces taste a bit harsh (harsh as in bitter or tinny, not spicy) and flat, reminding me of Old El Paso enchilada sauce from a can. The one at Patio was better to my palate, but only because it was lighter and brighter, perhaps cut. This seemed to be the case for their green chile, too, which made it worse than the others, imo.

The tacos seemed to be uniformly bad, barely a step up from Taco Bell. In fact, I'd say the chain Taco Time makes better crisp-shell tacos. They're all a far cry from the quality I grew up with since we fried our own shells at home and the Cal-Mex places we went to fried their own, too. And the meat is just mushy, flavorless ground beef.

I've had a similar problem at Tex-Mex places in Texas. I'm starting to wonder if the nature of Mexican food in restaurants -- ie, the emphasis on fast and cheap and big -- just keeps it from being even as good as what I would expect from a merely decent home cook.

So, please prove me wrong. Can I get good quality New Mexican food made skillfully to order with good quality ingredients, well-seasoned and well-balanced in a restaurant?

Frontier Restaurant
2400 Central Ave SE, Albuquerque, NM 87106

El Patio De Albuquerque
142 Harvard Dr SE, Albuquerque, NM 87106

Mary's & Tito's Cafe
2711 4th St NW, Albuquerque, NM 87107

Garcia's Kitchen-the Original
1113 4th St NW, Albuquerque, NM 87102

Taco Time
2520 Idaho St, Elko, NV 89801

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  1. Tacos aren't New Mexican.

    Why don't you try the places people consistently recommend - Mary & Tito's, Padilla's - during business hours? ;-)

    5 Replies
    1. re: Erich

      Well, two of those three are consistently recommended (again, I thoroughly read recs) and the other was recommended by a friend. I'd like to hit Mary's and Tito's. I just need accurate hours. The tacos were part of combo platters.

      1. re: extramsg

        You know how subjective recs are - myself, I've never been bowled over by El Patio (though I'd pick it over the other two you mention) and think of Garcia's as sort of . . . meh. I affirmatively dislike the Frontier.

        I think red is a challenge - there aren't many restaurants where I like it. I note a difference between the stuff made with pods vs. that made with powder (often more bitter). Green is easier to get right, in my opinion, though there are about three different schools of thought on making green (and I don't happen to prefer the one to which my wife's family subscribes, but what are you going to do?).

        Give Padilla's a shot - it's cash-only and it fills up fast. Portions are not huge, but I've found their food to be worth the hassle. FWIW, it's the one place my fussy in-laws (native northern New Mexicans) consistently will take themselves for "Spanish" food. Both their green and red are worth trying.

        And if you go to Mary's, get the red - I never understand why people bother with the green there, when the red is exceptional. Her carne adovada is probably my favorite presently available for purchase.

        1. re: Erich

          Hit Mary's & Tito's today. I appreciated that the rice and beans were both carefully prepared and well-seasoned. The rice still had some tooth to the grains and the beans were creamy and luscious. The rest was a bit more mixed. Tortillas were better elsewhere, though they weren't bad. Relleno and enchilada were both pretty good, though some little details were missed, like the cheese in the enchilada not being melted. The carne adovada was pretty dry, though tender. Got green on the former and red on the latter. The red did lack the harsh bitterness of some of the other versions, but I wouldn't say it was especially enjoyable. It tasted a bit flat to me. Not sure if it was lack of seasoning or just needs something to balance out the flavor. It's certainly possible that the simplicity of the sauces in NM just seem flat to me by comparison with similarly used sauces in Mexico or California.

          Mary's & Tito's Cafe
          2711 4th St NW, Albuquerque, NM 87107

          1. re: Erich

            Count me as another one who finds that many reds have a bitter note to them. I tend to stick with green, as a result.

            1. re: Erich

              Went to Padilla's for a late lunch. Not impressed. Like the sopaipillas. Very good. The green chile was very thin, though, and lacking in actual chile. The red was also thin, but had that same harshness behind the thin flavor. If not cut with whatever they're cutting it with, I suspect it would have been harsh as well. The tortillas for the enchiladas were very dry and almost tough, but still not bad. Didn't try the adovada. Beans were very bland. Worst so far. The rice was better on flavor but very mushy. Relleno was easily the best part of the meal.

        2. I may be a heretic, but I like the food at Malone's on Osuna. I agree with you (and disagree with so many others) that the red chile at Mary and Tito's and some others is bitter, not flavorful and savory. I like the savory flavors at Malone's. And food is cooked to order. I especially like the low carb chicken breast. You might also try Cecelia's (sorry I don't know the address offhand, but it's approximately 8th and Gold or Silver)

          1. I may be considered a heretic, but I do not enjoy the red sauce at Mary and Tito's. Like some other restaurants, it is too bitter and harsh for my taste. I prefer a more savory chile. I like hot, but not bitter. You might try Malone's on Osuna (they make a really nice low carb Chicken Breast ) or Cecelia's downtown -- around 8th and Gold or Silver. No fast food in either place.

            1. Hey, you like what you like, which is cool, but is it possible you just don't like NM-style food? As a yardstick for us, are there any NM-style places in other cities that you specifically *do* like?

              1 Reply
              1. re: finlero

                Hi finlero, actually I LOVE NM food....I just don't like BITTER/ HARSH red chile. I adore green chile, hot, mild, or in between. I love most of the red chile sauces whether hot or mild, but like extramsg, not when they are bitter or harsh. I can't tell you of NM-style places in other cities that I've liked because I've never found any. Nobody cooks NM like NM cooks do. In the midwest, there is no heat at all and everything comes out of a can. In the east, I haven't found any. In AZ or CA or CO, nothing compares to NM. Even TX doesn't cook NM style. They may call it "Mexican" or southwest", but IMHO, no comparison. I love posole, menudo, and chicos. I am such a fan of NM style that I bought an artisan-made micaceous clay pot to cook in. Ahh, well...my taste just doesn't run to bitter/harsh. ;-)

              2. Extramsg, Maybe a modern take on traditional NM cooking, like what they offer at Casa Vieja, is more like what you're looking for. (Not quite in Albuquerque, but close enough in Corrales)

                Casa Vieja
                4541 Corrales RD, Corrales, NM 87048

                1. Red chile is pungent and can be a bit of an acquired taste for some people. My wife didn't much like red chile when she first had it over 25 years ago. She preferred green until fairly recently but now likes red better. I'm not a big fan of green, but I could drink red by the glassful. The only thing that really puts me off red is when it hasn't cooked enough and still has a raw taste to it.

                  A couple more places: You might want to try Cecilia's Cafe(her red uses Chimayo chiles which have a little different flavor than what you typically get in red chile in Albuquerque). Cecilia's can be inconsistent and sometimes stingy on portion size & the amount of red chile you get, but the red chile is always excellent there. The other place I recommend is Perea's Tijuana Bar and Restaurant in Corrales. Simple food done well.

                  4 Replies
                  1. re: Chimayo Joe

                    @Chimayo Joe
                    Could be. But it's worth noting that I've traveled a decent amount in Mexico and cook with a variety of whole dried chiles (what you guys seem to refer to as pods as opposed to powder). I don't usually have a problem with it. I'm going to do some experimenting when I get home and see if there's something that creates the tinny bitterness that reminds me of Old El Paso from a can. We leave Albuquerque today, so it's on to Santa Fe and Taos to see if we do any better.

                    If "modern" means using untraditional food stuffs like mangos and chipotles, I'm probably not all that interested. I would be very interested, though, in a place where they charged a bit more and focused on using the best quality traditional ingredients they could get their hands on and were very careful in preparing the dishes, making everything to order where it mattered, etc.

                    1. re: extramsg

                      I get what you mean. Casa Vieja is not all New Mexican, --more Southwestern, I guess, -- but the chef doesn't seem to mess with the NM classics too much, so you might like it. You can see a sample menu on their website. <http://www.casaviejanm.com/> He does do duck tamales, which may or may not be a deal-breaker.

                      Casa Vieja
                      4541 Corrales RD, Corrales, NM 87048

                      1. re: ninrn

                        I've always loved sadie's on 4th. I think their salsa and chips are outstanding, as well as the top shelf margaritas. The carne asada is very good maybe I was used to it, but I didn't find the red to be harsh.

                    2. re: Chimayo Joe

                      Joe, thanks for the reminder - I'd not been to Cecilia's for a time (and it's just down the street from my office) - went today at lunch and enjoyed this year's spicy red. :-)

                    3. First off, up front, I generally want green, not red. Heat doesn't bother me, in fact the hotter the better but I really don't like the harshness/bitterness you and others below refer to.

                      So here's a tale... a friend in Albuquerque, Armando, now 70, born and raised in Hatch is very fussy about his chiles. He makes his own sauce from chiles that he roasts that were grown on family land in Hatch. He talks chiles routinely with people he grew up with who are now involved with the programs at New Mexico State University that study historic chiles while studying and developing new New Mexico chiles.

                      He's my go-to guy when I have a question and he always has an answer. I asked him after last year's harvest (as he gifted me with some home made sauce) why some reds were so bitter.

                      He cited two things.

                      First, the use of less fresh, powdered chile. Second (and here was the surprise to me), he said that some people pick over the chiles before roasting, even de-stemming them. Others he said, simply dump the bags (usually about 30 pounds) of picked chiles into a roaster ALONG WITH ALL MANNER OF DEBRIS FROM THE FIELDS, INCLUDING DIRT.

                      Again let me reiterate, I cannot vouch for this but I also couldn't question it either, never having picked or roasted a chile. It would seem to me that larger, commercial sauce producers would have some washing step prior to roasting but who knows.

                      Finally just fwiw, the red I like best in ABQ is at Mary and Tito's. Most of the time though, I still ask for green.

                      1 Reply
                      1. re: fyfas

                        Hit El Modelo before heading to the airport. Actually, hit Golden Crown Panaderia first. Love that place. It's so hard to find places that make pan dulce from scratch, even if it's a limited selection. Most Mexican rather than New Mexican panaderias use commercial mixes, such as Bakemark's. It was great to see them rolling out their own dough for empanadas. The Mexican wedding cookies and the biscochitos were both delicious and expertly made. Nice textures and flavors on both. Liked seeing their inside grow operation. In Portland, those wouldn't be tomatoes under those grow lights.

                        I also really liked El Modelo. Didn't get a lot since we were in a hurry to get to the airport, just chile rellenos and enchiladas. Even after 30 minutes in the car, the enchiladas weren't mushy. I liked the red. It had heat and intensity, but also a certain meatiness to it and balance. Maybe a little salt would help, but that's about it. The beans that came on the side seemed to also have meat chunks in it. I liked the flavor of their refritos, but they were a little pasty. Rice was bland but well-cooked. The rellenos had gone soggy, of course, by the time we got to the airport. Not sure if they would be if eaten immediately. The batter on them seemed nice. The rellenos (and sopaipillas) on this trip have been much better in Albuquerque than Santa Fe or Taos (by contrast, the adovadas I had were much better in Santa Fe than Albuquerque). I liked the green chile they put on top of the rellenos. It was atypical with a few chunks of tomato and meat mixed in with the chunks of green chile. I have no clue if the sopaipilla would have been good. 30 minutes in a paper bag is no way to measure the quality. It seemed to have some flakiness and a decent flavor, though. I also like that they seemed to be making their own nixtamal and that you could buy it, fresh masa, and masa preparada for tamales and the like. I saw a lot of tamales go out the door frozen. Probably should have tried one. Got a free bumper sticker, too, that says I <3 Chicharrones, which I do, so that was a bonus. Obviously the place churns out the food assembly-line style just like behemoths such as Sadie's or Frontier, but the food, in my very limited experience, seemed a little more homey or soulful. Maybe it's just all the extra meat. ;-) Either way, it was a nice last meal in New Mexico.

                        Golden Crown Panaderia
                        1103 Mountain Rd NW, Albuquerque, NM 87102

                        El Modelo Mexican Foods
                        1715 2nd St SW, Albuquerque, NM 87102