An outsiders’ take on dining in Albuquerque
I have been dining in Albuquerque for more than a decade. However, I consider myself an outsider in some ways because of my east coast roots (New York City). So this perspective on what Albuquerque has to offer can hopefully benefit the traveler coming in from one of the larger urban centers like New York or Chicago.
Albuquerque is not a fancy town. For serious foodies, that is a good thing. The best food here comes good and cheap. You just need to know where to find it. In fact, the best examples of New Mexican cuisine are often found in very modest buildings that look like something out of a western movie studio backlot. Slightly worn adobe buildings with hand-painted signs and aging diner furniture.
Just be aware that if you snub these locations because they do not look impressive, you will miss out on some truly excellent and value-priced meals. A good example is Mary & Tito’s on 2711 Fourth Street N.W . This 2010 winner of the James Beard American Classics Award is considered by discerning locals to be the best of the best for slow-cooked pork-based classic New Mexican dishes.
Not Too Late…
Albuquerque is a big city with a small town attitude and culture. You will find that by 10PM, even on weekends, most restaurants are closed. Albuquerque does not have the late dining hours you may expect coming from a major urban center like Chicago or NYC. The only thing left open are bars after 10PM, and they are best left for the locals. So if you want to dine well, plan to do so around 6PM or so.
If you must dine late, there are very few eateries that remain open. The best of the late night diners (up to 1AM) is The Frontier Restaurant in downtown Albuquerque across from the University of New Mexico campus.
Red or Green?
The most common question asked in Albuquerque restaurants is “Red or Green?” That question is a request for your preference. Do you want red or green chile as a condiment on your meal? Even the McDonalds in Albuquerque serves burgers with red or green chile, that’s how ubiquitous this locally grown pepper is to local cuisine. The faster you acquire a taste for red or green chile, the easier it is to adapt to New Mexican cuisine. Don’t fight it. Learn to love these locally grown wonders. Generally, New Mexican chile peppers are mild to moderate in heat and very flavorful. If you are truly adventurous, ask for Christmas, which is a combination of red or green chile on your meal. Good stuff!
New Mexican Cuisine May Take Some Getting Used To
Are you trying New Mexican food for the first time? Some people may love New Mexican food right away, but some do not. The truth is that the range of flavors that make up the New Mexican palette can feel a bit foreign to traditional American tastes. Some may be expecting it all to taste like something from Taco Bell, and when it does not conform to their preconceptions they quickly reject it. It’s like the first time I had an ice-cold beer. I hated it! I could not understand how people could drink that stuff, but I quickly acquired a taste for it. And that taste has matured and become more refined over time. New Mexican food can be like that for some. If you don’t like some element of New Mexican cooking, keep an open mind, be patient. Almost certainly, you’ll come to appreciate it in time. Many of the bad reviews of very good New Mexican restaurants I see online are often from “foodies” who are trying New Mexican cuisine for the first time. They are, in most cases just not familiar with the new flavors they are encountering. Give yourself a bit of time to adjust to this new cuisine. You will love it!
In many ways, Albuquerque has a culture that has remained authentic largely due to its isolation from the major urban centers. It feels more foreign that any other large American city. The local cuisine is a big part of this unique culture and is worth exploring. Enjoy it!