I had little sense of Linda’s regard for Mexican food while we were still living in Denver. When we reunited in New Mexico, however, we both went for it full bore. In 1988, there were scores of Mexican restaurants in Albuquerque. During our first couple of years in the city, we sampled 10 to 20 of them, but eventually patronized two on an almost weekly basis.
Los Cuates was located next to a barber shop in an old strip mall in East Albuquerque. Like Chubby’s, it had a tiny waiting room at its entrance. The relatively small dining area consisted strictly of booths, no tables. A number of the red vinyl bench seats were lumpy: shift as you might on them, you invariably found one buttock on a precipice, the other in a sinkhole. The servers were generally full-figured Latinas―an encouraging sign, I concluded, in a Mexican restaurant. For starters, I’d order a “Pape-see,” which was served with crushed ice in a large plastic tumbler. Heaven began with the arrival of the complementary tortilla chips and salsa, both of which I relished. Los Cuates’s salsa was unlike any I’d ever eaten; it still is. It had bite, of course. Beyond that, it was thoroughly red―dark red―and smooth, thick, and slightly sweet; indeed, it was the sweetness that set it apart. The tortilla chips always arrived warm and glistening with a wisp of oil. Owing to its unique consistency, the salsa clung to the chip, never bailed to your chest or lap on its way to your watering mouth. Then, “This plate’s hot,” the server always warned me as she casually set down my usual order, an oven-fresh platter of cheese enchiladas swimming in chile verde sauce, the sauce bubbling menacingly at the platter’s edges. I could never fathom how the naked fingers of these servers withstood the heat, blistering to most mortals, of the platters during the segue from tray to table. Like that of Chubby’s, Los Cuates’s chile was thick and jewel-like. The corn tortillas, drooling the fatty yellow cheese, surrendered tenderly to the bite. If it was a Sunday lunch, Los Cuates offered a complementary bowl of natillas, a custard of milk, eggs, and cinnamon, for dessert. This creamy concoction calmed the walls of the mouth and throat, eased one into the blaze of a New Mexico afternoon.
Sadie’s was located not far north of downtown Albuquerque. It shared its space with a bowling alley, and a Lebanese woman operated it. (Lebanese? Greek? Who cared, as long as it was good.) Sadie’s, too, began your meal with a complementary serving of salsa and chips, a veritable mountain of them. Chile verde is what kept me returning to Sadie’s. The diner was introduced to it immediately, for it was the foundation of the restaurant’s salsa, a dull green-gold concoction flecked with chile seeds that, because they are magnets for capsaicin, exploded like firecrackers in the mouth. Sadie’s salsa was far thinner than that of Los Cuates, so one had to apply it to the chip carefully and minimize gesticulation when delivering it to the mouth. As always at Sadie’s, I ordered the enchiladas con queso with chile verde. Unlike nearly all of the Mexican restaurants Linda and I sampled, Sadie’s offered you the choice of “mild” or “hot” green chile on your entree. For several consecutive visits to the restaurant, during which time the rumble of a careening bowling ball and the thunder of clobbered pins seemed to anticipate the drama of the imminent meal, I ordered the “hot” sauce on my enchiladas, attempting to develop a liking for it. But I failed repeatedly. During each meal, no amount of ice water could douse the flames issuing from my mouth, and for several hours after each meal residual embers crept uncomfortably up into my chest.
Linda and I didn’t limit our consumption of Mexican food to Albuquerque. In Las Vegas, New Mexico, I took a liking to the red chile at Johnny’s, a restaurant whose beams were hung with frontier Americana and walls were covered with photographs of celebrities―well, regional celebrities―that bore their scribbled testimonials. Nearby, at a restaurant on the town’s plaza, Linda, often adventurous when dining, once ordered for the first time chicharrones, deep-fired pork rinds smothered in a red chile sauce, reputed to be an authentic Mexican―as in the United Mexican States―food. She liked the sauce, but abstained from the fundamentally fatty pork after several bites; although she is a sophisticated diner, to this day I’m not certain she knew exactly what she was ordering that evening. The El Seville in Questa, New Mexico, not only served exceptional Mexican entrees, their sopapillas―light, balloon-like pastries deep-fried to a golden brown and to die for when drizzled with honey―were our favorite in the entire state.
By far the most oddly-named Mexican restaurant we frequented in Albuquerque was the Sanitary Tortilla Factory. While we were expanding our waistlines there, we couldn’t help but wonder: “sanitary” as compared to what? I was surprised and impressed by the four-page 1984 New Yorker magazine profile of the downtown restaurant that was framed on one of its walls. However, the Tortilla Factory fell out of our favor, although not because of the quality of its food, which was consistently high, or, for that matter, its hygiene. After a dozen visits, we realized our final charges were being regularly arrived at not electronically, but as a result of the mental arithmetic―the creative mental arithmetic―of the regular cashier, and that we were being routinely overcharged―true, only by nickels and dimes, but enough to add up, and to irk us.
Monroe’s, Tiny’s in Santa Fe, Garduño’s, Barelas Coffeehouse, Anthony’s at the Delta in Española, Padilla’s, La Posada, Cervantes, El Bruno’s in Cuba, Paul’s Place, Casa de Benevidez, Little Anita’s, The Owl Café in San Antonio, Mac’s La Sierra, El Norteño: the number of Mexican restaurants Linda and I visited, individually and together, multiplied rapidly in just a matter of months in New Mexico. We just couldn’t get enough of that heavenly chile. It held us hostage, excited some heretofore unknown receptor in our brains. We took to it like a child takes to ice cream, like the desert takes to silence and stillness.