I have a confession to make about Mexican food. I am originally from the Midwest (gasp) and I have always loved that region’s version of Mexican food (gasp again). I grew up cooking and eating what residents of New Mexico might charitably refer to as “Tex-Mex”-style food, the characteristics of which include enchilada sauce, black olives and massive quantities of sour cream. Nothing made me happier as a kid than for my dad to declare it taco night, because that meant rows of crunchy Old El Paso taco shells, mountains of refried beans out of those little yellow cans and Mexican rice loaded with tomatoes, bell peppers and that strangely intoxicating vinegary taste. We even had “fiesta corn” (translation: bell peppers mean fiesta). Stop gasping now; you may get brain damage and I could be blamed.
For my first few years here in Albuquerque, I found myself comparing New Mexican cuisine to the many taco nights I shared with my family. Just for kicks, when I decided to review Eloy’s, a veteran local New Mexican restaurant on Wyoming, I spent some time during my visit trying to find a commonality between my childhood Mexican meals and the family-style plates of food served there.
The dining atmosphere at Eloy’s is very comfortable, with heavy wooden furniture and owner Serna’s family portraits on the walls. There are homey touches of obviously handmade décor, and the scents coming from the kitchen were positively drool-hardy.
The service? Well, my dad used to scream a particular phrase to call us to grub, I believe it was, “Come and get it while it’s hot, better come quick ’cause we ain’t got a lot.” My server, Angie, shouted no such soliloquies, but throughout my dinner she came to embody what I call “real service.”
We’ve all had the shared experience of plastic servers, vapid hosts and fakey-sweet smiles, but I was pleased to see that the Eloy’s gang were attentive and genuine, and seemed to know the majority of the customers by name. When Angie spoke to me, I could tell she was interested in my responses, but wouldn’t hesitate to take me down like a calf at a rodeo if I wandered into annoying diner territory.
The menu bore no resemblance to canned or boxed anything--and no Pace picante sauce in sight--but the meals and cheap prices are family friendly with a charming children’s menu to boot. Their house specialty is what the menu reads as “complete Mexican dinners,” which include entrée, coffee or tea, a guacamole salad, chips and salsa, sopaipillas, and dessert, all for the median price of about $10. That’s a lot of food for the money, and I will say up front that it was well worth it.
I ordered the Eloy’s combination plate ($9.95 at dinner), which included a beef taco, a cheese enchilada with red chile, a chile relleno with green, refried beans and Mexican rice. My supper began with a full basket of chips, medium-hot salsa and passable guacamole on a bed of shredded lettuce. The avocados were a touch underripe, but the salsa was spicy and just thick enough.
I had fun with the sopas. I grabbed one too soon, tore off a corner and was assaulted with steam, kind of like when you open the microwave popcorn bag too quickly and scald your digits.
Dinner arrived like clockwork--and I loved the rice. It was better than most I’ve tried; nice and moist. The taco was well-endowed with fillings that broke down to three-fourths ground beef and one-fourth lettuce and cheese. I was surprised by the relleno because as I severed the tip, a river of melted cheese came gushing out. I was initially bummed because of the liquid consistency, but it tasted like a really good queso. I dipped a couple of chips in it and satisfaction was achieved.
Just when I thought I couldn’t eat another forkful, dessert arrived. A small glass bowlful of natilla was positioned next to my hand, practically taunting me to look but not eat. Yeah, right.
I dug in. It was a sweet, rich custard and dusted with cinnamon, light enough to finish the meal without putting me over the edge.
There was little in the food to remind me of taco nights past (I bet that’s a relief to the locals), but I was totally comfortable with the easygoing atmosphere. I even engaged a few of the other patrons in conversation. While taco night conversations generally revolved around stuff that happened on “MacGyver,” the tableside banter here was all friendly bragging about sons in real estate and grandkids eating bugs. It was a thin slice of home, and I appreciated it.
Eloy’s is open for lunch and dinner, and they offer all the home faves like tamales, stuffed sopaipillas, tacos and arroz con pollo, along with a few gringo plates like fried chicken and roast beef with potatoes and gravy. Taco night was free for me, but I sure wouldn’t mind paying a few skimpy bones for Eloy’s night. I may even make it a habit, even without the fiesta corn. After all, you gotta grow up sometime.
The Alibi Recommends:
Meat or bean burrito plate
Blue corn enchilada plate
Eloy’s New Mexican Restaurant, 1508-C Wyoming NE at the Belle-Haven shopping center, 293-6018; Hours: Mon.–Thurs. 11 a.m.–8 p.m., Fri. and Sat. 11 a.m.–9 p.m., Closed Sundays. No smoking, credit cards accepted, espresso bar, large parties, full takeout menu.