The first taste of the cream sauce had me begging for more. The second had me nearly screaming, “Hurry up, margarita!” It was the only thing that doused the fire.
The new El Patron Restaurant and Cantina is in the former Garduño’s building on Montgomery near Juan Tabo. Well-known Albuquerque restaurateurs Nick Kapnison and Jimmy Daskalos (of Nick & Jimmy’s) took over the space and, according to their news release, “completely remodeled” it. But when my companion and I arrived, it looked to me as if little had changed from the Garduño’s days, with the same Mexican tiles lining the walls throughout, the same murals and Saltillo floors.
We found our seats on the outdoor patio to take advantage of the warm weather and the view of the Sandias glowing in the setting sun. No sooner had we sat down than a server brought warm, just-made tortilla chips and fresh salsa. The tomatoes were tangy, punctuated with small chunks of crisp jalapeños and a healthy bit of garlic that mingled well with the super-thin chips.
I ordered a $7 El Patron happy hour margarita. It wasn’t syrupy—a quality that’s too often a margarita signature. It was mixed with fresh-squeezed lemons and limes that didn’t overpower the Patron Silver. Our guacamole ($4.25) was cool and buttery with not a lump to be seen.
While we were waiting for our meals, a white-haired man sat down at an electric keyboard and announced himself as Freddie Chavez. I've lived in Albuquerque most of my life and it was the first time I had ever heard the well-known musician play. His rendition of “Fly Me to The Moon,” soon had the place dancing. (For the many who follow him in and around Albuquerque, he’s at El Patron Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays from 6:30-9 p.m.)
While we were waiting for our meals, a white-haired man sat down at an electric keyboard and announced himself as Freddie Chavez. His rendition of “Fly Me to The Moon,” soon had the place dancing.
Our food arrived not long after the music started. My rolled seafood enchiladas ($13.95) sported a light green-tinted cream on top (something the waiter called the ultimate aioli sauce with ground-up serrano chiles) with a small amount of melted yellow cheese. Upon my first bite I opened my eyes wide to a different chile flavor than I’m used to. I found the serrano crisp, clean and much hotter than jalapeño. I scooped up another taste, and that’s when the heat really kicked in. I reached for my margarita, and it helped to cool the fire, but my drink was soon gone.
When the second margarita arrived, I was able to continue my meal without further threat of tears and nose-blowing. Bite after bite revealed a firm shrimp or flaky white fish lightly battered and fried, intermingled with slices of zucchini, corn and onion (calabacitas). The pinto beans on the side were soft but not to the point of being mushy and were a welcome contrast to the spice. Coral-colored Spanish rice had a pudding-like texture and a slight tomato taste with just a little bit of salt.
The chicken tamales with red chile ($8.75) featured a masa that was firm and thick, but easily fell apart in my mouth revealing shredded white meat, lightly flavored with cilantro. The red chile was clean and not bitter, though I prefer a red that has a creamier, softer taste.
Red chile barbecue ribs ($13.95 for the half rack) were tender and and glazed with a honey-based sauce. A server brought a couple of sopaipillas to our table, though we hadn’t ordered any. Not too greasy, they were crispy on the outside and soft inside, just as they should be. Our dessert, a house-made slice of New York style cheesecake, was creamy, and came with a fresh raspberry compote which was tart enough to make it a perfect contrast to the sweetness.
We returned several days later to find out why El Patron's bar prides itself on the “Patron tequila chill tower” that apparently cools sipping-quality liquor to zero degrees. We shared a chilled Patron Reposado shot ($10) that was strong, straightforward and a little oaky. A St. Patron margarita ($8.75) came recommended by a waitress. It was mixed with St. Germain liqueur (made from elderflower blossoms), but its flavor was buried under the sweetness and citrus.
I will definitely return to El Patron and try another dish featuring their fiery serrano chile sauce, and wash it down with a happy hour margarita (or two). Maybe we can squeeze in another visit before the weather gets cold so that we can hear Freddie Chavez on the outdoor patio.