If you had to pick a single Albuquerque street on which to dine for the rest of your life, you could do worse than Fourth. The diversity of restaurants on this North Valley artery is matched by a uniform unpretentiousness, as if by some silent but Spanglish-speaking truce. Dennis Apodaca has built a restaurant empire on a single half-mile stretch of that pavement. First came Sophia’s Place, named after his daughter. Then came Ezra’s Place, named after his son. And finally Jo’s Place, named after his mom, joined the block party in March.
The food at Jo’s is Mexican influenced, but the contemporary finish and casual feel make it hard to call it a Mexican restaurant. It’s more like American food with a Mexican finish. The line of hamburgers includes a mole burger, a huitlacoche (corn smut) burger and a cheeseburger with roasted poblano pepper—not to be confused with New Mexican green chile. I’m reluctant to label things the best ever, but this burger belongs in the inner circle of cheeseburgers.
The poblano burger has no holes in its game—all the way down to the fries, which are long and crispy like McD’s, and sprinkled with a magnificent dry mix of red chile, sugar, salt, cumin and coriander. Fixing, including chopped onions, are well-placed and lively. In my experience, burgers often suffer from construction issues (I’m looking at you, soggy buns) that make an otherwise great sandwich an unwieldy, ugly mess after the first bite. Not this burger. It wouldn’t fall apart, even when I hit it with a side of serrano aioli whipped up for a soft shell crab special.
Jo’s small, rectangular dining room is dimly lit, more by default than design. Regulars at Sophia’s and Ezra’s will recognize a certain, let’s say, tasteful disinterest in everything but the food. Though there’s not a lot to the decor, there is art. A string suspends what look like Mexican prayer flags, each sheet a different dog drawing. There’s the occasional doll, and several Frida-esque self-portraits on the south wall are for sale. The linoleum tiles look like petrified wood.
I’m reluctant to label things the best ever, but this burger belongs in the inner circle of cheeseburgers.
According to Apodaca, all of the staple ingredients, including the meat, are sourced as locally as possible. But he isn’t averse to importing specialty items along the lines of halibut, fresh-frozen corn smut or some amazing pomegranate sodas. The coffee, while of course not grown north of the border, is roasted at Fat Boy Coffee Roasters in the East Mountains—something I learned only after I was deeply impressed by my post-burger Americano. Back in the day, Sophia’s was Fat Boy’s very first account.
The menu is short, but deciding what to order is still difficult. Every dish looks like a winner, from a slate of $5 “comidas economicas” to the $10 burgers. Off the recession-priced menu, the tortilla soup is thickened with pieces of avocado, chicken and tortilla, all the better to absorb the broth’s deep, sour flavor.
The salads can be as heavy or light on the meat as you wish. They’re all full of nice touches (pumpkin seeds or fresh tortilla strips, for example), as well as some fascinating dressings (try the green onion vinaigrette).
Breakfast is served all day. A very nice breakfast burrito featured perfectly crispy potatoes and scrambled eggs with bits of cilantro and green onion. I added chorizo, which was excellent and in good quantity. Another breakfast special that went by “potatoes, scrambled eggs & black chili oil w/meat” was so much more. Black turtle beans from Estancia were prepared with the understatement great ingredients deserve. They were allowed show off their innate flavor while taking on those of their surroundings: a salad of local greens, a pile of eggs bulked up with fresh veggies, breakfast potatoes (with that same magical red chile powder as the fries) and sirloin that came in a massive pile of browned, seasoned cubes. Shots from the bottle of Mexican green habanero hot sauce slammed it home.
As my party and I finished a meal, a man placed a half-pint Mason jar with fresh flowers on our table. He’d come from Fairfield Farms, “just around the corner,” where he grows flowers, herbs and veggies for all three restaurants.
When you spend a dollar on a local business, it bounces around the local economy about seven times longer than it would at a national or international company. Jo’s Place, and the rest of Apodaca’s Fourth Street empire, is a beautiful example of a local food economy in action.