6217 Central Avenue NW, Albuquerque
(just east of Coors Boulevard)
For a South Texas boy like me, finding acceptable Mexican food west of the Pecos is a challenge; finding good Mexican food was, I thought, beyond hope. I feel renewed now, though.
The desk clerk at our hotel recommended this place; I almost didn't take up her suggestion, because it seemed a little too far, especially since my experiences of Mexican food out here have all been pretty dismal. But what the hell, I decided; the alternative she suggested was Chili's, which held no attraction for me either. At least, I figured, I might get a good, snarky review out of the local place.
First, the look of it: straight out of a Southwestern version of Happy Days, the show they should have made, but with Nacho instead of Fonzie. The place looks like it was built in the 50s, added onto in the 60s, and untouched since. Could use a larger parking lot, but otherwise it exudes a working-class cultura-coche charm: soda fountain-style stools in the front, tables and booths in the back (and I think there was another dining room beyond the kitchen). All done up in a red shade you haven't seen since before Nixon resigned, with some classically uninteresting prints on the walls.
Next, the service: after an initial bobble -- a pregnant pause before menus and water appeared -- the service was excellent, and included an apology for the misunderstanding between staff members that resulted in the delay. The waitress was very helpful as we tried to make our selections (one of the big problems with trans-Pecos Mexican food is the language barrier: they use the same words, but for all different things). And all her recommendations proved solid.
The food was almost great. The chips were only so-so, but the salsa was pretty good. My wife chose the daily special for her meal: green chili stew. I had just a taste of it, but found it delicious and piquant, and it sure looked good, with nice chunks of potato and other good things in a deep dish of ... well, green chili salsa. My own dish was the "house special," steak fingers and enchiladas, with an egg added (one of the waitress's recommendations). It was served with charro beans, some pretty good Spanish rice, a little salad, three very small breaded steak fingers (which looked kind of sad all by themselves on a side plate), and puffed bread called sopapillas. (Sopapillas are a dessert dish back home....) Because I'd ordered the egg on top, the enchiladas were served open, and topped on one side with red salsa (which they call "chili" here) and on the other with green salsa.
My biggest objection to the style of Mexican food out here is the amount of chili powder they use in their red salsas: it's overpowering. But tonight I discovered that if you mix a runny egg yolk into it, it becomes quite good. Better than merely acceptable. And except for the puniness of those steak fingers (which still tasted good; well, they're fried, you know, and fried food is always tasty. You could deep fry squirrel leg and it'd be good eatin', as I'm sure most of my peeps in West-by-God-Virginia can attest), everything was really enjoyable. The salad was fresh, the tortillas in the enchiladas had excellent texture, the cheese was creamy and not so profuse as to be overdone (a common affliction of many American adaptations of ethnic cuisines), and even the bread was flavourful, if not as tasty as a good flour tortilla.
We had all this for about ten bucks a head. That, I think, is pretty good value.
THE CURMUDGEON'S RATINGS:
FOOD: 4 1/2 chili peppers (out of 5)
SERVICE: 4 1/2 chili peppers
AMBIENCE: 3 1/2 chili peppers
VALUE: 3 1/2 chili peppers