The Whole Enchilada
And then some
There are a lot of Mexican restaurants in New Mexico that really aren’t all that Mexican. Their menus are all pretty much the same: enchiladas, tacos and burritos served with beans, rice, a few shreds of iceberg lettuce and a measly scattering of tomato. After a while it all blends together into one big dish of mushy tortillas buried under cheese that’s more at home in Wisconsin than Oaxaca.
Of course, I understand that Mexican and New Mexican cuisine have their differences. But what I’ve always wondered is how New Mexican cuisine evolved to be so limited. Mexico has such varied foods that go beyond the all too familiar tortilla-bean/meat-cheese-lettuce formula that I can’t help but feel cheated every time I bite into yet another flaccid enchilada.
This is pretty much what I expected when I pulled into The Whole Enchilada, located on San Mateo and Kathryn. Its sign read “It’s time for something different,” and though I agreed with the sentiment, I didn’t take it seriously.
Inside, the dining room was large and fairly unremarkable. Other than several paintings depicting underwater scenes, the décor was sparse. Honestly, my immediate thought was that this place looked like it could shut down as fast as it had opened. Then I thought back to some of my favorite places to eat—usually holes-in-the-wall—and chided myself on being so quick to judge.
As I looked over the menu, it occurred to me that the words I had read in the parking lot might be more than a simple slogan. Besides several dishes I was unfamiliar with, there were some usual dishes that just weren’t there. No ground beef tacos, no flautas. Hmm…
On my first visit I ordered enchiladas Michoacanas. Taking its name from the Mexican state of Michoacán where owner Vincent Nieto hails from, it was more of an experience than an entrée. Four freshly made corn tortillas were wrapped around tender chicken and soft potatoes and lightly covered in red chile sauce that was delicately balanced in flavor and heat. Topping the enchiladas were shredded romaine lettuce, slice after slice of buttery avocado, whole black olives, sour cream and crumbles of queso fresco. Served with nothing more than a whole pickled jalepeño, the individual flavors melded into mouthfuls of richness.
I was surprised I wasn’t given the choice of red or green. Nieto explains that “in Mexico itself they don’t ask red or green. We have 10 different red chile sauces, so we would have to ask which one.”
The red chile sauces are all so different from each other—there are 15 to 20 different chiles involved—that ousting the standard green sauce won’t be missed by most diners.
Served with nothing more than a whole pickled jalepeño, the individual flavors melded into mouthfuls of richness.
Birria de borrego made an even bigger impression. A simple lamb soup consisting of meat in a slightly greasy broth (to be expected with lamb), it is livened up with the addition of cabbage, cilantro, onion, lime and red chile that's served on the side. After adding these condiments, the soup came alive and the seemingly heavy broth became nimble and refreshing.
Wonderfully simple, chicken Morelia was as far from typical Mexican food as I had ever been. Sliced grilled chicken was mixed with bell peppers, onions and corn and tossed with a basic cream sauce. It was similar to chicken à la king, but paired with rice and beans (a little humdrum) instead of puff pastry.
I made a point to sample the tacos asada, just to see how they compared to the approximately 5,652 other tacos I’ve eaten in this state. With just meat and those fabulous tortillas, they held their own.
The Whole Enchilada not only recognizes that Burqueños are ready for something different, but delivers just what it suggests. If you need a break from flat, soggy fare, by all means drop in on the Nietos. Their service is fast and friendly, and their food is unlike anything you’ll find anywhere else in the city, and, maybe, the state.
The Alibi recommends:
• Enchiladas Michoacanas
• Birria de borrego
• Chicken Morelia
The Whole Enchilada, 1113 San Mateo SE, 256-8202. Hours: Every day 8 a.m.-6 p.m. Price range: inexpensive. Credit cards, large parties.