Albuquerque is well known for its spicy cuisine. Your server will probably ask you “red or green?” Do you want red or green chilis in your food? Your appropriate answers include red, green or “Christmas” for both red and green. The most popular request by diners is “on the side” and if you are not confident in your tolerance for spicy, “on the side” is a smart request.
I loved the food on our recent trip to Albuquerque. Here are some restaurants I can recommend:
We were in town for the Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta (see Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta – A Bucket List Adventure and Video #93) so we had two of our breakfasts out at the Fiesta grounds. There are 45 different food booths out there but the most popular offering is the breakfast burrito with green chilis, eggs, potatoes and cheese. I am told it was invented at the Fiesta.
The one breakfast that we had outside of the Fiesta grounds was at The Grove Café & Market in northern Albuquerque in the Edo neighborhood. Owners Jason and Lauren opened the place in 2006 after long careers in the hospitality industry.
The Grove has both a breakfast menu and a lunch menu that focus on natural and local food. I had a breakfast burrito and my wife Joan had the Grove Pancakes (french style with fresh fruit, creme fresh, local honey, and real maple syrup). The Grove is light and inviting and the food was fresh and delicious.
If you buy a cup (more like a bowl) of specialty coffee, you can get a cup of regular coffee free for a refill.
Jack and Connie Thomas started the El Pinto in 1962 next door to their home in the middle of nowhere. The restaurant had only 10 tables.
The current owners, twins Jim and John Thomas, expanded their parent’s restaurant to the largest restaurant in the Southwest. The restaurant now seats 1,200 patrons in 5 patios, 3 dining rooms and a cantina. The restaurant has 500 employees… although 224 of those employees are chickens.
“Biggest” is not my favorite honorific for a restaurant. I have been to a number of restaurants that were large, but not good. What is impressive is that El Pinto has managed to keep a level of quality that would be good in a small restaurant but is impressive in a large one. The fact that El Pinto has 224 chickens is only significant because it tells you how ridiculously focused the owners are on quality.
El Pinto uses a lot of eggs in its recipes and to get better control of that process they have their own laying chickens. The chickens are the only animal welfare approved laying chickens on a restaurant property in the United States. The eggs are “pasture-raised”, meaning the chickens get to run around and act like chickens, not just live in a dark box.
They also have their own salsa company that makes up to 25,000 jars of salsa a day, a greenhouse growing organic greens, chili fields grown just for them and a WormaCulture farm on the property that produces compost that they use on the chili fields. They believe in real blue corn in their chips (better tasting although not as bright in color) roasting their own chilis and imported Celtic sea salt. These guys may just be a bit obsessed about their food.
So how was the food? In a word, great!
I had the signature red chili ribs as an appetizer. If you are one to order your salsa “on the side”, this is not the dish for you. This dish is all about the spices. Joan ordered the more tame enchiladas and I doubled down on spices with the Carne Adovada (pork marinated in red chili).
We had lunch one day at the café at the Indian Pueblo Cultural Center. You can visit the café with or without visiting the rest of the cultural center.
I ordered one of the meals which was inspired by Native American cuisine from the menu, the Tewa Taco. The Tewa Taco (their “world-famous” “Indian” taco) is built on handcrafted frybread… because fried bread.
Joan had the salad and sandwich combo where the sandwich was the Frybread TBLTA (Oven-Roasted Turkey, Applewood Smoked Bacon, Lettuce, Tomato, Avocado, Chipotle Mayo, and again Frybread).
We left full. We could have split a single meal.
We ate dinner at the High Noon Restaurant & Saloon in Old Town. To be honest we were still pretty full from lunch at El Pinto so we did not try the steak that the restaurant is known for. But the menu is more creative than just a steak house. We stayed on the light side with one of their salads.
Whether you get a big steak, a burger or a salad leave room for brie empanadas. Give up dessert if you must to have these. They are made with roasted garlic cloves, apricot-green chili chutney, and raspberry sauce. They were awesome.
High Noon also has 30 different tequilas and a selection of Margaritas in their fully stocked saloon.
Zacatecas Tacos + Tequila
Zacatecas Tacos is located in an old Route 66 Coke bottling plant building in Albuquerque’s Nob Hill neighborhood.The Nob Hill neighborhood has some of the best nightlife in town and the scene in Zacatecas is lively.
The restaurant opened in 2012. Chef and owner Mark Kiffin is the only James Beard award winner in the state (Best Chef of the Southwest) which he won for his other restaurant, The Compound Restaurant, in Santa Fe.
The restaurant was named on the list of the Best Mexican Restaurants in America by Thrillist and on the list of America’s Best Bars for Tequila Lovers by USA Today.
I had the tacos, because, it’s right there in the name of the restaurant. Their tacos al pastor were great but much more spicy than the equivalent dish in Mexico City. Joan had the enchiladas with the sauce “Christmas”. For dessert, we had churros with a chocolate dipping sauce.
Scalo Northern Italian Grill
Most of our restaurants were picked for us on this trip as we were hosted by the Albuquerque Tourism Board but we did pick up some other recommendations along the way. Our guide on the ABC Trolly Co. tour recommended the Italian restaurant Scalo which is across the street from Zacatecas in Nob Hill.
A popular place with the locals for a quick bite with the girl’s soccer team is Taco Cabana which was located next to Nativo Lodge (check prices) where we stayed. I got in trouble with the clerk at the front desk of the hotel for not bringing him something from Taco Cabana.
Remember to ask for the sauces on the side if you are afraid of spicy food because Albuquerque is bringing the heat and the flavor. The food is bold and the food is good. There are lots of things to do in Albuquerque but the food may be worth a visit all by itself.