“Mexican” Food

Then there was Mexican food.  Or, more accurately, New Mexican food, because many long-time New Mexicans, Latino and Anglo alike, will remind you that the food served in nearly all of Albuquerque’s so-called “Mexican” restaurants is decidedly different from the fare served in homes and restaurants in Mexico―and, for that matter, different from the “Mexican” food served in Texas, Arizona, Colorado, and California.  (And today, maybe even in Vermont.) However, for the purposes of this narrative, “Mexican food” refers to any food that obviously has its culinary roots in the United Mexican States.

When the opportunity to eat at a sit-down restaurant presented itself during my initial years in Colorado, I didn’t automatically consider a Mexican venue.  During my first summer in Denver, still a Northeasterner at heart, my mouth watered at the prospect of a pasta dish at Fratelli’s or a pizza at Shakey’s.  I also looked forward to a steaming dish of bland chow mein awash in added soy sauce in a Chinese restaurant on East Colfax.  During my second summer in the city, however, the seed was planted. 

It was quitting time after a hot day of pumping concrete to a lofty story of an apartment complex under construction in Denver’s Capitol Hill.  The crew with whom I worked agreed to meet for beer and food at a restaurant and bar on Santa Fe Drive.  Upon entering this modest establishment, it hit me immediately, a sensation that I remember to this day: the sweet, earthy odor of masa, the maize dough of the corn tortilla. 

We all decided to drink and eat at the bar, rather than at a table.  I was 19; yet I wasn’t carded, and the bartender therefore set me up a glass of cold, high-octane (as opposed to 3.2) Coors.  For my entrée, I chose cheese enchiladas smothered in red chile.  Hearing snow-white Pat Boone singing of “enchiladas in the ice box” in his recording “Speedy Gonzales” years earlier undoubtedly had a subliminal hand in this choice. 

When the plate, which included sides of rice and refried beans, was set before me, I found its appearance vaguely, yet pleasingly, familiar: the red chile and milk-white cheese, both bubbling vigorously, recalled the cheeses and tomato sauces that covered the countless slices of pizza I’d devoured since childhood on the East Coast.   

Then, I ate.  Like the best pizza crust, the folded corn tortillas, golden and vaguely crystalline, yielded tenderly to my bite.  The flavor of the pureed, scarlet chile was unlike anything I’d ever experienced: a sweet-smoky tang with a citrus-y hint.  On the heels of the flavor was the chile’s capsaicin, the legendary ball of fire, the source of the chile pepper’s “heat.”  It was a vegetable, all right, but a vegetable from another world, a desert world of fire and blinding light.  I was raised on a bland diet: paprika was about the boldest spice on my mother’s shelf.  Yet when introduced at Jersey pizza parlors to crushed red pepper seasoning, I realized my weakness for hot food, and the chile at that Mexican eatery didn’t disappoint.  It opened wide my work-weary eyes and set my nose to watering.  However, with regular swallows of the Coors, I managed the flames.  (And I didn’t know what to make of the single sneeze the meal seemed to trigger.)  Meanwhile, I gradually experienced the deep satisfaction that only a meal prepared with lard and a judicious helping of sodium can provide.  Made with obvious south-of-the-border amor, the meal was simple and unforgettable.

Thus, during my subsequent years in Colorado, I became a regular consumer of Mexican food.  I enjoyed beef enchiladas at Denver’s Satire Lounge, which every hip newcomer to Denver, it seemed, was advised to visit to eat Mexican food, perhaps for the first time, and drink beer and margaritas; the combination bar-and-restaurant was owned and run by a Greek, although there was little doubt a team of muchachos, faithful to the tradition, was preparing its food.  Other Denver Mexican restaurants I favored were The Riviera, Las Delicias, and El Rancherito.  In Leadville, I particularly liked the chicken-stuffed sopapillas, smothered in chile verde, served at The Grill, where my Leadvillian friend Johnny swears Jack Nicholson and Art Garfunkle, en route between Denver and Aspen, would stop for some authentic. 

For atmosphere as well as provender, Denver’s Chubby’s was without equal.  When I was a taxi driver in that city, a fellow cabbie recommended the joint, a take-out in a heavily Latino neighborhood just northwest of downtown.  A cabbie knows that time is money, and Chubby’s was perfect for a quick and satisfying meal, providing one had good intestinal control and no history of heartburn, during the 10-hour hustle. 

After parking in the grimy lot containing Chubbys’s white cinder block building, I would join the crush―heavily tattooed vatos with pressed pants, pompadours, and hairnets; beguiling young Latinas under pounds of makeup; grandmothers cradling crying babies; viejos with canes and walkers; slumming, nervous gringos―in the tiny waiting room with a few chairs against walls bearing posters for upcoming boxing matches and ranchera concerts.  A short, surly guy, his face recalling that of a young Al Pacino, often took my order.  In a big room behind him, partially visible, an army of men and women ladled chile and stirred huge pots of refritos. (Bubbling refritos, too, have that arresting odor of pure, fresh earth.)  

Soon I was handed my order, which never varied: two bean-cheese-and-green-chile burritos, each in a small white paper bag and the two of them in a larger white paper bag, and a can of Pape-see to manage the flames and summon the insulin.  Back in my cab, I took a big but careful bite―for Chubby’s never scrimped on the filling: one reckless bite and it was on your shirt or in your lap―then peered gratefully at the burrito’s cross-section, marveling at its construction and bounty: the tender white frame of the flour tortilla, the generous helping of vaguely emerald-green chile layered on the bed of refritos, the gratings of queso.  Meanwhile, the great satisfaction, the whole point of life.

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 ordered 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.  Los Cuates’s salsa was unlike any I’d ever eaten.  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 sometimes glistening with a breath of oil.  Owing to its unique consistency, the salsa clung reliably 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 and thumbs 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 verde was thick and jewel-like.  The corn tortillas, drooling the fatty yellow cheese, surrendered tenderly to the bite.  If it was a Sunday lunch or brunch, 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 north of downtown Albuquerque.  It shared its space with a bowling alley.  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 the latter.  Chile verde is what kept us 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 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 the diner the choice of “mild” or “hot” green chile on his or her entrée.  For several consecutive visits to the restaurant, I ordered the “hot” sauce, attempting to develop a liking for it.  (On these occasions, the distant sound of clobbered bowling pins seemed to anticipate this decision.)  I failed, however.  During each meal, no amount of ice water could douse the flames issuing from my mouth, and for several hours after the meal residual embers crept uncomfortably up into my chest.  I eventually settled happily for the “mild.”

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, a restaurant on Las Vegas’s plaza offered chicharrones.  If there is such a thing as “Mexican soul food,” chicharrones are probably it.  They are deep-fired pork rinds smothered in a red chile sauce, reputed to be an authentic Mexicanas in the United Mexican Statesfood.  Very funky.  Linda, often adventurous when dining, ordered them.  She liked the sauce, but abstained from the fundamentally fatty pork after several bites.  Although an informed diner, to this day I’m not certain she knew exactly what she was ordering that evening. 

West across the mountains, the El Seville in Questa, New Mexico, not only served exceptional Mexican entrées, their sopapillas―light, balloon-like pastries deep-fried to a golden brown, dusted with cinnamon, and to die for when drizzled with honey―were our favorite in the entire state. 

Monroe’s, Tiny’s, Garduño’s, Barelas Coffeehouse, Anthony’s at the Delta, Padilla’s, La Posada, Cervantes, the Sanitary Tortilla Factory (yes, its actual name), 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, booden-schnotzened some heretofore unknown receptor in our brains.  We took to it like a child takes to ice cream, like a mountaintop takes to a bolt of lightning, like the desert takes to sand and space.