La Esquina Restauranté and Cantina
Pretend it’s not in the mall
Malls scare the hell out of me. Ever since I was a child, I was terrified of going to the mall. They appeared to be huge, noisy castles with scary ladies pelting me with perfume, and I never once believed that the guy in the red suit was really Santa. So when I made the trek over to the First Plaza Galleria, I was appropriately apprehensive. As it turned out, I had no reason to be because the place seemed awfully uninhabited—empty storefronts, an out-of-service escalator and a few stragglers outside smoking cigarettes by the fountains. The mostly deserted castle did have a little bright spot in the corner, La Esquina, which apparently has been there since the ’70s (the current owner and staff have been there since 1985), but doesn’t get a lot of press due to its indistinct location.
Finding parking was a nightmare because it is Downtown, and also because of the construction by the Convention Center, so I was forced to park on First Street and hoof it over to the place. I was sweaty and speaking incoherently when I finally hit the lobby, 15 minutes before closing time, but the staff was undaunted and had me properly hydrated and seated at a wooden table with chips and salsa. One of the nicest things about moving to Albuquerque is all of the different salsas I’ve been introduced to. Everything from mango-raspberry to roasted garlic, and each restaurant has its own special blend. This salsa, the La Esquina house recipe, was deliciously unique in that it had a truly garden-fresh taste. It was all unsullied tomato and green chile (lightly roasted), with a mild-to-medium heat toward the end. It was so fresh-tasting, it could probably be sold by the pint at a roadside vegetable stand and be quite popular.
The funny thing about the salsa was while I was admiring the house stuff, the staff (including wonder-twin bussers Darin and Brian) were chowing down on a pint of salsa from Mary and Tito’s, which Darin had taken the bus down Fourth Street to procure.
“It looks like spaghetti sauce,” said one of them from a back table.
“It’s got a sneaky heat,” said another.
I suppose if you see the same salsa every day, even if it’s awesome, it gets old. This is primarily a lunch dig, so the menu is small, but features New Mexican faves like tacos, rellenos, enchiladas and a stray fried chicken plate for the gringo or gringa. I ordered the assorted plate ($6.99) of one beef taco, two rolled cheese enchiladas—one blue corn—a sopaipilla and two sides. I chose beans and papitas.
The service here was terrific. I was impressed by the fact that at least two of the servers I met had been working there since the ’80s. Most restaurants change staff like little pink underpants, so owner Roy Venaglia must be a cool boss to work for.
I had a look around while waiting for the meal, and I could best describe the interior as pastoral New Mexican with a marvelous air conditioner, both of which go over well with the natives.
My lunch lost a couple of points for presentation, but mainly because I have yet to develop the ability to discern one chile-coated serving of food from another. I still marvel at the way that born-and-bred locals can get their plate and be able to find the beans, rice, enchilada and relleno under a blanket of sauce, lettuce and tomato without probing first. Much like how scientists treated the La Brea Tar Pits upon discovery, I gently excavated my enchiladas and beans. They were all quite good, and the papitas—little seasoned fried potatoes—were a nice side dish with all the red and green to mop up. The taco meat was nicely seasoned, and the whole dish was cheesed to my liking. The sopa was a cut above, because it tasted more like a pastry than most I’ve had, with a good dough to work with. I kept eating the salsa, and found myself sadder and sadder as the bowl got lower and lower.
Any restaurant that offers homemade flan is a must-try, as far as I’m concerned. The flan ($2.95) passed through my lips with relish, and the little island of custard was surrounded by a delicious burnt sugar sauce.
And then I went back to the salsa. I inquired as to the preparation, and was told that owner and super-boss Roy makes it himself every morning, and it is the only food available during happy hour from 4-7 p.m., Tuesday through Friday.
Shoot, with chips and a margarita, what more does anyone need after a long, crappy day at the office?
I left satisfied with both my lunch and my check ($12.22 plus tip) and peered around the corner to see if this mall was any less creepy for its lack of businesses. Nope. But the restaurant is right next to the exit stairwell, so it’s easy to pretend it’s not in a mall. Keep your creepy Santas and stinky CK One vapors—I’m only here for the food.