The line between Mexican and New Mexican food has always been thin. Perhaps nowhere in Albuquerque is this border more porous than at Rincon del Pollo, on north Fourth Street near Alameda, where few of the menu items can be ordered without answering the New Mexico state question. But the owners, Rifiel and Ana Rivera, call their food Mexican.
There are some clues to this effect. They sell cartas telefónicas and horchata, heavy on the vanilla and cinnamon, but no chile rellenos. Rifiel, the cook, acknowledges that his cooking has been influenced by time spent in California, and he added the state colors when the couple relocated here. But deep down inside, and with the help of some undisclosed spices and tactics, Mexico remains his culinary foundation.
I was headed to Los Ranchos to buy a rooster when I first noticed Rincon del Pollo. My hens were getting picked off by a hawk, and I wanted a cock in my flock to protect them. Rincon del Pollo was closed, but since I had chickens on the brain I stopped and peaked in the window. A parade of stuffed birds, most of them roosters, marched along a high shelf above the small dining room and crowded the counter. Two items I’d never seen were announced on the menu board: red chicken and green chicken plates, both of which Rifiel invented.
I returned during business hours and tried the red chicken, half a bird’s worth of pieces baked in a bright, velvety red chile. The silky sweet red impregnated the chicken flesh with enough heat to stop me from reaching for the hot sauce. A side of rice, nicely flavored and flecked with carrots, was on the soft side of al dente. The refried pintos earned a double-take; if Rifiel hadn’t told me otherwise, I’d swear he snuck in some lard. A mix of whole and mashed beans formed a thick, nutty paste that the most bloodthirsty of carnivores wouldn’t pass over. Vegetarians couldn't possibly consider a bean enchilada or burrito here to be a consolation prize. Those Mexican beans practically jumped into my mouth.
Two items I’d never seen were announced on the menu board: red chicken and green chicken plates, both of which Rifiel invented.
As I licked my plate clean, all I could think of was returning for more chicken, next time with green chile. When that moment came, I found the green more straightforward, without the element of mystery presented by the buttery red, but it was hardly disappointing. Baked onto the chicken, the green was smokey, pungent and hot as the red.
Another dish I’d never seen, green chile adovada, was so good I’m surprised more restaurants don’t attempt it. Green chile with succulent pork chunks bring out the best in each other, and this dish, made similarly to the green chicken, is a perfect showcase for each ingredient. It won't leave you hungry.
Country music drifted from the kitchen as I picked my bones clean. A stream of customers wandered through the covered porch and into the much cooler inner dining room. Some ordered takeout, others sat shoulder to shoulder at the crowded tables, others bought popsicles from the freezer and left.
Elsewhere on the menu, the chicken soup was as mild as the red and green chicken were piquant. It was thick with rice and chunks of celery, carrot and yellow bell pepper. Beef enchiladas were the most cheese-laden dish I encountered at the Rincon. The mix of cheddar and jack fused beautifully with red chile on the rolled tortillas, which were filled with chewy—but not tough—shredded beef.
Is it Mexican? Is it New Mexican? Who cares? Semantic hairsplitting has little meaning when the food in question is this good and in your mouth. This is a neighborhood restaurant worth driving across town for.