Have Fork, Will Travel
Eating on a Southbound Train
Rail Runner snack stops south of Albuquerque
Trains make some people lonesome, others horny. Me ... well, as a food writer for the Alibi, it shouldn’t be a surprise that trains make me hungry. This is not always a welcome thing. Once, on a train through southern Siberia, I got mugged by Russian mobsters in the dining car.
The Rail Runner has no dining car, but it does stop in towns with some good eating options (and few, if any, Russian mobsters). Whether the meal is the purpose of your journey or something you eat along the way, here are my tips for navigating the culinary possibilities within walking distance of the southern leg of the Rail Runner.
After leaving the city, the train chugs through the mesmerizing green ribbon along the Rio Grande, arriving first at Isleta Pueblo. Except it isn’t really the pueblo. It’s the casino.
A shuttle bus waits at the train stop to drive you the half-mile to Isleta Casino and Resort, where there are five restaurants, the most interesting of which is 505 Fusion. The décor is modern—lots of brushed aluminum and glowing columns—and so is the menu, with dishes like pumpkin seed oil-seared ruby red trout with calabacitas and arroz verde. Alas, I was eating my way north the day I went on my culinary excursion, and I was already too stuffed from my adventures in Los Lunas and Belen to give it a try. Plus, the sound of all those slot machines was killing the buzz I’d acquired at the Becker Street Pub in Belen.
Heading south from Isleta you get nice views into the pueblo and thick forests along the river. In Los Lunas, right across the street from the train stop, is the effortlessly retro AJ’s Restaurant. Open 8 a.m. to 2 p.m. seven days a week, AJ’s serves a mix of American and New Mexican food. The interior is classic diner, with high-backed booths, cowboy art and a curved countertop with spinning stools.
The green chile was solid, though unexceptional. A chile relleno with red chile, however, was a work of art. Carne adovada is the specialty of the house—and I believe it, since red is clearly the strong suit at AJ’s—and on Fridays it clocks in at just $6.75 for a full plate. As I stealthily took notes on my laptop, I discovered another cool perk: free Wi-Fi!
If green is your color, I’d skip AJ’s and head for Henrietta’s. Breakfast is served all day, and they will happily smother your whatever with their excellent green chile. Located at 740 Main Street, it’s about a 20-minute walk from the station.
Then again, you could cross Hwy. 314, walk a few hundred yards south to a little strip mall and poke your head into Los Lunas Natural Foods. The health food store specializes in dried fruit, nuts, herbs and beef jerky—and the jerky's so fresh, boasts owner Jacob Lovato, it was walking around last week. “Melt-in-your-mouth” isn't a phrase normally reserved for jerky, but this stuff is a game-changer. The green chile and piñon flavors were my favorites, but Lovato—who sells about 100 pounds of his Socorro-made jerky a week—says the carne adovada version is his specialty. I had to take his word for it: He was sold out.
The Belen station is hidden in a sleepy neighborhood a few blocks northeast from its Downtown. If you stay on the west side of the tracks and pick your way south, just past the old train station you’ll find the famous and underwhelming Pete’s Café, established in 1949. Due to its notoriety, I was the only one there who hadn’t arrived by RV or wasn’t wearing a Hawaiian shirt.
The menu sported the unsettling spelling of “chili.” And call me high maintenance, but I was shocked when the waiter said a carne adovada taco wasn’t possible—only a burrito. C’mon. We both know there’s a pot of carne adovada in the kitchen. Instead, I got a chicken taco smothered in watery green chile and a solid corn tamale—solid as in nothing inside it—smothered in not-bad red chile. ... I mean, chili.
It was 94 degrees when I left Pete’s and strolled south into the perfectly crumbled old Downtown. The intersection of Becker and Second Street is home to an extinct bowling alley, a karate studio, the Belen Hotel (now Judy Chicago’s homebase, see this week’s feature), a shuttered carnicería and the block-long Becker Street Pub. Dollar beers and mariachi music flowed, billiard balls rolled and plastic grapes hanging from the ceiling glowed. There was a strong neighborhood vibe, with a bilingual mix of bikers and cowboys decked in turquoise belt buckles, ponytails and wife-beaters (the shirts, that is). Model trains decorated the walls. A free happy-hour buffet offered hot dogs, sauerkraut, beans and chips, with a pot of chopped green chile so hot I had to suck down my beer way too quickly. But hey, it was only a buck, so I ordered another.
If you’re looking for more to eat, finish that beer and head west on Becker until you hit Dalies and hang a hard right. In half a block you’ll find Harla May’s Fat Boy Grill inside an old movie theater. Harla May’s has a legendary lineup of burgers, including an ostrich burger, and some funky appetizers like Wet Willies (fries in a gravy boat) and Shavon's Onion Petals (spicy battered onion rings). It's just the place to prepare for your next beer at the Becker Street Pub, which you’ll conveniently pass en-route back to the train stop, and your ride home.