Monica’s El Portal
True Old Town
Monica’s El Portal may be the answer to the quest common among Old Town visitors for some real New Mexican food without tourist trappings. Lurking on the edge of Old Town and partially hidden by trees (which also shade the patio), this is a place where the state question—red or green?—applies to nearly every menu option.
A squadron of spinning ceiling fans cools the bright dining room, enlivened by tiles, arches between the semiprivate dining areas, and watercolor paintings of Indians, cowboys and sunsets. In the center of the dining area is a display of antique pressure cookers.
The salsa doesn’t assume you’re some wimpy tourist. It’s chunky with fresh onions and a creeping heat that commands respect. After my waitress assured me I wasn’t crazy for doing so, I ordered a bowl of green chile stew with an added helping of carne adovada. The chunks of pork marinated in red chile stole the show. Likewise, the green sauce on my tamale could not hold its own against the red pork inside. In other words, while the green chile is solid, it doesn’t compare to the red: a meaningful journey into the depths of what red chile can offer, with all the potency, depth and sweetness you could hope for when answering such a simple question.
Rarely am I compelled to eat so quickly without pausing to breathe.
The chile relleno was a decadent yet pedestrian example of this New Mexico standard, with a thick layer of weightless breading and creamy stuffing. It was satisfying but didn’t take the dish to new heights. The sopaipillas, on the other hand, broke new ground. I’m hardly old hat at rating sopaipillas, but I know a masterpiece when I see it. They were flaky, crumbling like a fine croissant and collapsing like a soufflé when I tore into them. They dipped like a chip, absorbed like bread and were the perfect vehicle for delivering that carne adovada to my face.
Full as I was, I noticed the natillas on the dessert menu. “Oh, he just took out a fresh batch," my waitress told me. "They’re so good, you have to try them.”
She was correct. The flan-like pudding came with a meringue topping. It was insanely edible; warm, rich and creamy with a strong vanilla presence. The natillas swept me over the threshold from stuffed to painfully bloated, but I was helpless to resist. Rarely am I compelled to eat so quickly without pausing to breathe.
The fajitas, on my next visit, were gray and soggy rather than brown and crispy. A shredded beef taco was dry and sparse. But all was redeemed with a sopaipilla stuffed with chicharones. I've had my share of those crispy chunks of pork belly since moving to New Mexico, but the magic had yet to happen. They were always too dry, or salty, or greasy. But stuffed into my sopaipilla with green chile, these chicharones made me feel like I was getting shot out of a cannon—something about the reaction between the crispy pork and smoky green sauce. To compare, I dunked a few chicharones in a side of red chile: merely amazing. Somehow, the chicharones with green were truly sublime. Maybe that state question isn’t so simple, after all.