It's OK to fork around
I've developed a whole new appreciation for our state's superior, scrumptious food after taking some New Mexico newbies into Los Cuates. Seeing our chile-laden regional cuisine through the eyes out-of-towners not only brought back memories of my first honey-drenched sopapilla, but also made me feel like a great sage, dispensing knowledge and wisdom to those not fortunate enough to live here.
Los Cuates’ reputation is pretty widespread. If you ask a native resident (or “lifer” as I’ve heard them called) for a good place to take visitors to eat, they usually bring up the big five: Sadie’s, Garcia’s, Little Anita’s, Dos Hermanos and Los Cuates. I made a point to include plenty of smaller “mommy and poppy” joints when taking the nonresidents around town (I’ll call these two “Dannie and Rodd”), but I had to take them to at least one of the popular local chains.
We went in for dinner around 8 p.m.—the place was peppered with diners but not at all crowded. Daphne, our server, was excellent from beginning to gut-grabbing end. I started the festivities by ordering the chile con queso with tostadas ($3.95). After I explained there was chopped green chile in the cheese dip, not chili (with the beans and such), Dannie and Rodd were fascinated by the theory of red and green.
“Huh?” said Dannie.
“Are you supposed to use unripe peppers?” queried Rodd.
“I like peppers,” said Dannie.
“These aren’t like bell peppers,” I told them.
“Do they have any chalupas?” asked Rodd.
“Shut up, Rodd!” said everyone else at the table.
Rodd then wondered, “Which is better—red or green?”
Now that's is a tough question to answer no matter how long you’ve live in New Mexico. I personally like red on some things like enchiladas, and green on other things like chile rellenos. I told them to go Christmas for their first time. They giggled, and agreed.
With some more guidance, Dannie got the chili relleno plate ($6.29) and Rodd got the large enchilada plate ($6.29). I ordered Frank’s combination plate ($6.29) and the carne adovada plate ($6.29) to share with everyone.
Daphne brought us two decorative chip and salsa bowls, each filled with hot, crisp chips and their signature sweet-hot salsa.
“This has a little nip to it,” said Rodd, crunching away.
The queso came in an edible, fried tortilla bowl. It was fantastic. The dip was thick and liberally spiked with chopped, roasted green chile.
“It’s really warm in here,” panted Dannie, draining her third iced tea.
I watched with glee as both of them emptied their drinks, one after another like a chain-smoker and a pack of Virginia Slims.
Daphne delivered our entrées with expert timing. Since Dannie and Rodd’s beverages were empty again, I asked her to wait about 20 minutes and then refill them so I could see which of the two could survive without liquid the longest.
“Nooo! That’s really mean,” said our server, but I saw her cracking up as she walked away.
Dannie peered at her plate.
“I can’t find my food,” she said.
“Me neither,” said Rodd.
I explained that everything is blanketed in chile sauce, so you have to poke your fork around to discover the location of each item, like hunting for buried treasure.
“So you have to fork around it for a while?” asked Dannie.
The rellenos were pretty damn spicy. As I was the lucky one who got the seed bite at the end, I was teary and chokey as I reached for the honey. I showed everyone how to tear off the corner of their sopa, then squirt honey into the cavity.
The food, overall, was great. The refried beans were well-flavored and had the stray whole bean here and there to remind you that, creamy as they were, they were freshly made. The rice on each plate was moist and tasty. The green chile sauce wasn't too thick and had a fruity aftertaste and warm heat.
My rolled enchiladas seemed skinnier than the last time I ordered them. However, the red chile sauce had that spice, temperature and hint of smoke that makes me proud to be a New Mexican. The adovada was richly marinated in that searing red chile and cooked until the pork fell apart.
“I don’t know if I wanna see the bill,” said Dannie, draining her seventh iced tea.
Our tab was cheap as fake turquoise. I was reminded how great it is to live in Albuquerque. On the way back to my apartment, someone in a Chevy Cavalier cut us off and indicated we were No. 1. Good ol’ Burque.