Enchiladas in Albuquerque
The food of New Mexico has the basic structure of any number of American culinary imports: it’s like regular food, but cheesier, saucier, messier. People compare New Mexican food to “Tex-Mex”; there’s something to this; but the comparison is off: New Mexican food is more compact, spicier, smoother, less awkward. It’s essential dish is a plate of enchiladas (on which more on a moment), but the best way to identify a New Mexican restaurant is to note the ubiquity of sopapillas on the menu. These are a kind of sweet, airy pastry, which should be eaten as an accompaniment to your meal, with honey, or else as a main course, stuffed with meat (and, again, accompanied by sopapillas with honey).
New Mexican enchiladas are served like this: two or three corn tortillas are arranged in a stack, with cheese between them, covered with sauce, and a fried egg. (On the side: rice and beans and a bit of lettuce.) Now while I said “sauce,” but I meant what is called here “chile,” and chile, in this connection, is a liquid preparation of chili peppers, of variable viscosity, in which all New Mexican food swims. And while I said “a” preparation, what I want was one of two preparations, the dichotomy of which permeates and defines New Mexican life. There is red chile, made from matured red pods of the Capsicum annuum, and green chile, made from the younger green pods. The former is deeper and richer, mellower; the latter is bright and spicy. New Mexico’s official “State Question” is “Red or Green?”; I have a preference for red chile, but I get that New Mexicans consider “green” the more authentic answer.
The result of all this is a fantastic piece of cuisine: a rich, spicy, creamy mess of food. I’ve been living in Albuquerque for two months, having been a frequent visitor for years, since I lived in nearby Lubbock, Texas, in the middle part of the last decade. I’ve drawn some tentative conclusions about the enchiladas in the city. I say “tentative,” and I mean it, for I feel like the study of enchiladas, indeed the study of these enchiladas, could continue indefinitely. My finite survey covered: El Patio, near the University, El Modelo, on 2nd Street in the South Valley, Garcias’, at multiple locations, Los Compadres, on Central near the river, Los Cuates, at multiple locations, Mary and Tito’s, on 4th Street, and Padilla’s, on Girard.
I rule in favor of Padilla’s. This is a modest and simple place that fills up as soon as it opens. My judgment is based principally on their red chile, which offers a deep, rich, and mellow spiciness. I can speak highly of the enchiladas, as well as of the carne adovada (pork stewed in red chile). Every time I have walked out of this place, I was happier than when I walked in, and that feeling lingers with the flavor of Padilla’s food, which is on your lips for the rest of the day.
The chile at Mary and Tito’s is stronger, spicier, and their generosity with onions makes their enchiladas a most intense experience. I have probably spent the most time at Los Compadres, for a breakfast plate of enchiladas and eggs, which is made to constitute breakfast by the addition of an extra fried egg, and potatoes on the side. They also have the best refried beans. Their red chile is mellower. El Modelo will present you with a large take-away box stuffed to the brim with tamales, tender carne adovada, enchiladas, and cheese, as well as an awkward taco of ground beef and green beans, to be eaten at the picnic tables outside. El Patio and Sadies’, as well, offer very fine, very satisfying plates.
I must most of all conclude that I will suffer a kind of evil when I am separated from the wealth of this cuisine.