Papa Felipe’s Mexican Restaurant
Where newbies and locals collide
My first 24 hours in Albuquerque were a nightmare. From the moment I drove the moving van off the exit ramp I felt like a can of beer at a church picnic, and I made so many mistakes with the locals I wondered if I’d ever fit in here. I remember mapping out my journey before I left and thinking that there were some weird street names, and when I stopped to get directions, I asked for “Ju-wan Tay-bo” and “Men-u-el.” The gas station clerk looked at me, shook his head, and told me to take “Central Avenue” south until I found it.
Everyone is new to somewhere at some point, and travelers like me rely on landmarks (and some accurate directions) to get a feel for a new city. Papa Felipe’s Mexican Restaurant on the corner of Eubank and Menaul has been around for years, and would make an excellent spot for a first New Mexican meal. It’s an equally excellent place for locals to have a reasonably priced lunch or dinner in a family-friendly environment.
The unassuming adobe lodge is in a great location for a stop off, and the parking is what Nob Hill residents dream about at night. I also found that the atmosphere is decidedly family-oriented and comfortable as hell with sturdy, dark wood furniture and a stain-disguising carpet. The décor is mix-and-match New Mexican and might be tacky in another place, but they pull off neon cacti pretty well. I was tripped out by the odd slanting booths; when I walked in I had to shake my head back and forth a couple of times to make sure my brain wasn’t bent, because it was only the cosmetic backs that were at an angle and not the actual seats.
The service in this restaurant is impressive. The hostess had me in my seat, with my chips and salsa down, my drinks delivered and my order placed well within 12 minutes. And these tortilla chips were big and brawny—you could tile a roof with ’em--with no chance of going soggy even after I left a couple in the my chile con queso ($4.95) by accident. The queso was just right; not too thick or thin, with plenty of green chile.
My dinner order was a tough call because the comidas especiales sounded interesting and, because the place is an Albuquerque institution, they’ve spent plenty of time perfecting their house specials. The tapatias ($8.95) were my pick, mostly because they contain blue corn tortillas. (You can easily tell I wasn’t born here, because blue corn anything will rope me in.) The tortillas are served soft or crispy fried; one is topped with seasoned beef and beans, the other with guacamole, and you get sides of refritos, arroz, more queso dip (is there ever enough?) along with tons of garnish and a basket of sopas.
The beef was ground fine with no clumps, and the red and green chile was pretty standard but good. The guacamole was meaty and the refritos were a blend of whole beans and mashed. I thought the rice was soggy; but, as I hail from the Midwest, where overcooked rices and pastas are the rule, I don’t write weird textures off immediately if the flavor is good, and it was. My runner-up dinner choice would have been the chilaquile casserole, which is layered with carne adovada, melted cheese, spicy green vegetables, sweet corn and tostadas smothered in red chile, all topped with cheese, chile and garnish and served with a guacamole salad.
I’ll probably be back in for lunch or dinner because choices like tampico tacos, green tamale pie, camarones Victor and the “macho” enchilada are a brief departure from the usual, but still traditional enough to appeal to purists. I did see fried ice cream on the menu (theirs gives you spiced apple, strawberry or peach topping) which is enormously popular in faux Mexican joints around the country, but I personally saw indigenous residents tear through more than one bowl of this stuff.
My initial directions through Albuquerque led me to around Mountain before I gave up and turned around. I distinctly remember following about seven other people in making an illegal U-turn. I also recall thinking that functional turn signals must only be offered as option packages in cars sold here. But for all its directional hazing, Albuquerque does have one big, shining quality---more restaurants than cities of this size usually have, with new ones opening up so often I have to keep a ledger. I still get lost sometimes, but at least I have a job.