For diners, captive or otherwise
I’ve always been curious to know what sort of food is served to people in jail. I couldn’t imagine inmates having a make-your-own-omelet bar or anything, but I think we're also past the days when the chain gang stopped at noon for porridge.
So I asked an expert, my brother-in-law, to reveal the mysteries of jailhouse fare: “Lots of carbs,” he said. “And sometimes they give you sandwiches without any mayo—how're you supposed to eat turkey or ham without mayo?” Envisioning a life without the tangy zip of Miracle Whip should be enough to scare anyone onto the straight and narrow.
But back to civilian life. There's a breakfast and lunch spot conveniently placed off to the side of the Bernalillo County courthouse named Café Azul, and all jailhouse blues jokes aside, I had a decent meal at a decent price.
I had to walk up to the counter to order from the big chalkboard, as the menus were conspicuously missing.
“Jurors come in here a lot, and they take them,” Vicki Gonzales, the mother of Café Azul owner Tammy Brown, said apologetically.
The restaurant is a diminutive but sunny oasis from the austere concrete buildings surrounding it—there's even a nice, sunny patio out front. The interior is well-scrubbed and decorated with the odd but friendly duo of sunflowers and parrots. Coffee and tea tureens are perched against one wall, along with small coolers containing juices, soda and coffee drinks, a soft drink machine, and a pastry case containing mostly healthy breakfast and lunch snacks like yogurts and veggie sticks. The case also had plenty of on-the-go eats like cold sandwiches and salads, muffins, granola-yogurt parfaits and an excellent array of fresh fruit.
Breakfast from the grill includes familiar favorites like breakfast burritos ($3 for a big ’un), carne adovada and eggs, omelets, French toast, and hash browns. Lunchtime brings sandwiches to the tune of Reubens, tuna salads and house clubs with guacamole, and other filling dishes like pecan-chicken salad, chili-cheese fries and big wedges of chocolate cake.
The staff was cheery and fun, and while I waited for my grub, I overheard conversations that ran the gamut from praise for Nirvana (the band) to lamentations about Bluetooth technology. Out of curiosity. I asked owner Tammy about how many inmates eat their last meals here.
“Nope—no inmates,” she said. “Just a lot of jurors and other court employees.” A captive audience, nonetheless.
I admit I wasn't a fan of the nachos or tacos here because they lacked seasoning. Bland ground beef is a total spoiler, and it took away from the otherwise tasty (albeit fairly standard) chips dripping with cheese and jalapeños, and corn shells loaded with cheese and lettuce. I was, however, quite satisfied with the burger. It was huge, piping hot and loaded up with tomato, pickles and onion. The oversized basket of crispy shoestring fries was more than I expected, and the moist, buttery crème cake was rich with cream cheese icing and liberally sprinkled with chopped nuts.
While I was chowing down, it was difficult not to notice how truly sweet Tammy, Vicki and diligent coffee pot scrubber Jamie Lopez were. They greeted everyone warmly and by first name, and even broke into song every once in a while. I left feeling grateful that I had eaten there instead of grabbing a hot dog from one of the ubiquitous carts parked out front. Soggy dogs are only acceptable when you're drunk, anyway; and if that’s the only competition for Café Azul, then they’ve got plenty to sing about.