La Fonda del Bosque
Albuquerque's most colorful tastes
I have frequently been given the monumental task of choosing a representative New Mexican restaurant for both out-of-towners and Burque newbies. There are so many places here with so many different types of food and atmospheres, and picking one is akin to choosing a mate: It's important to be careful and conscientious, while being aware that good looks do matter. Lucky for me, my figurative engagement ring just got a big, fat diamond placed in the middle of it in the form of La Fonda del Bosque, the brunch spot of champions located inside the National Hispanic Cultural Center.
The cultural center's expansive dirt parking lot is still quite off-putting (if they can afford the huge buildings and fine furnishings, you'd think they could pop for concrete), and you will undoubtedly have to search the labyrinth of adobe for the building that houses the eats, but the destination merits the pilgrimage.
The atmosphere and furnishings are bright and comfortable; the first thing I noticed was the ceiling-high windows that lit the dining room up with a permeating desert glow. Apparently, the restaurant used to be the old Barelas elementary school, and the windows that used to help illuminate a textbook or two now light the path right to the best damn New Mexican buffet I have eaten at in the four years I've lived here. Period.
The lunch buffet (a mere $8.49—way too cheap for the quality fare) included hot entrées and side dishes, soups, a cold salad bar and desserts. But what really stands out for high praise is the quality and the colorful appearance of the food. The red- and green-chile cheese enchiladas are rich, plump and strewn with beautiful green chiles like a delicious mosaic. The house special Mexican rice is sautéed with diced carrots, celery, peppers and tomatoes, and has a choice smoky tomato flavor. The carne adobada is encased in a warm, brick-red sauce that's a bit salty, but the pork melts upon first contact with a fork.
Menudo and posole are standard fare here, but these are in a meaty broth with hominy that is at the height of tenderness. Even the tripe, which we all know can be stringy and chewy, offered only the slightest of mouth resistance. The food overall had lots of color, and the best example of that was the small vat of well-spiced meatballs in a tomato and pepper sauce that were so meaty and savory they would have overshadowed any pasta under them.
They made certain we could cool off afterwards with an assortment of sliced, fresh melons. I was surprised by the juicy, ruby-red watermelon that looked way too delectable for this time of year. The homemade sweet rice dessert and the natillas custard were both ice-cold, sweet as condensed milk and had the perfect complement of nutmeg, cream, vanilla and cinnamon. Not that these were the only desserts. There were bizcochitos with lacy edges, a chocolate-coconut layer cake, a moist cream cheese-iced carrot layer cake, a strawberry-custard trifle, and individual servings of homemade flan with burnt sugar syrup. I skipped the salad—no room in the tummy vault, and skipping dessert here would make the Virgin Mary weep.
While I was contemplating removing my belt and stretching out, I had the chance to drink in the subtle nuances that make this restaurant a prime candidate for a wedding reception, large banquet or a rockin' holiday party. The adobe fireplace and requisite chile ristras and clay soleil face were interspersed with tiny hanging clay pots, truly awesome religious artwork and hand-carved wooden tables and chairs.
It was a good thing I did not remove my belt, as I was then introduced to Head Chef Daniel Baca, the creator of fine meatballs et al. He is a congenial, unassuming man, and after speaking for a minute, I learned he was one of the first graduates of the Culinary Arts program at TVI back in 1984. He and owner Charley Villa (the busiest guy in the tristate area, double-fisting cell phones) have been friends for 20 years, and I have to say that if I had known what a good cook Baca was, I would have made him my best friend, too. Charley is a smart man.
Chef Baca mentioned some upcoming menu additions for the summer, like more sandwiches and salads, and, most importantly, a beer and wine license is pending. About the only thing that could have made my lunch more enjoyable would have been a bucket of sangria, or a nice glass of some sweet local red wine.
This is the place to bring your relatives, your friends or anybody else that wants (needs) an introduction to the finest foods the city has to offer. The buffet prices are indicative of the rest of the menu, with breakfast plates under $6, lunch entrées under $8 and a children's menu under $5. And the added locational benefit is a huge plus, because you can walk off those cake calories while absorbing a smatter of local culture at the art museum or taking in a show at their theater complex.
Sitting down to eat with a non-native for their first red or green is like being on a first date. The look in their eyes when they have that initiation bite of enchilada or flan is almost as cool as the look you get when you tell your date about your four divorces and criminal record. OK, maybe it's not quite the same, but what's in a look?