Dahlia’s Central Mexican Cuisine
Rio Rancho’s queen of carne
It’s rare that Mexican food reminds me of my Jewish mother’s cooking, but that’s what happened with a bowl of albóndigas at Dahlia’s. A mildly aromatic broth crowded with chunks of carrot, celery, zucchini and a single large meatball comprised this bowl of Central Mexican comfort food. The meatball’s almost ethereal texture and mellow, satisfying flavor reminded me of mom’s matzo balls.
Perhaps I was tuned into something. When Dahlia Carrasco-Romero, the exceptionally friendly co-owner of this Rio Rancho eatery, stopped at my table, I asked her why the lamb chops—according to the menu—are her favorite. She said they remind her of the farm where she grew up. They raised a lot of animals, she said, but rarely ate the pigs. She speculates it’s because her grandmother was Jewish.
Pork is definitely on the menu at Dahlia’s, and like all the meat she serves, it’s carefully chosen. The red meat is “all-natural,” hormone and antibiotic free, and the chicken is free-range. While it isn’t clear to me what claims like “all-natural” meat mean (Dahlia’s webpage boasts “all of our meats are grain-fed instead of grass-fed”), it is clear to me that they know how to cook it.
Rounding out my second visit, in more ways than one, was the meatfest known as carne Tampiqueña : New York steak stuffed with ham, wrapped in bacon, grilled and smothered with onions, peppers and tomatoes.
When you’re inside Dahlia’s, you almost forget you’re in a strip mall. The walls are covered with an eclectic assortment of art: outdoorsy watercolors, southwest Indian and Aztec-style art, mirrors, still-life fruit bowls, commemorative plates, a ristra of fake watermelon slices ... a velvet, black light Elvis painting would not have been out of place. At midday, with the sun beating down outside, the restaurant’s interior lights were off; sunlight softened by window curtains lit the room.
A trip through the brunch buffet, served Sunday and Wednesday, wasn’t the tour of Central Mexico I’d hoped for. Red and green enchiladas were too cheesy for my taste, as was the omelet. But the charbroiled chicken topped with cilantro and onions stood out.
Ordering off the menu proved more satisfying. A tamale smothered in red chile with stringy chunks of meat inside scored points. And the chile verde was amazing—big chunks of citrus-marinated pork with a light but resonant cilantro sauce.
The made-on-site horchata was special. Sprinkled with cinnamon, it came with as many refills as I could drink. Chips and salsa were also homemade. I was caught off guard at how good the sides of tangy, olive-laced Spanish rice were.
After an underwhelming à la carte chile relleno—I had to do a visual inspection to confirm there was really a chile inside all that breading—I decided to play into what is obviously a strength at Dahlia’s: meat. A taco al pastor was filled with fantastic hunks of browned beef (also marinated with citrus—it never got old) and guacamole. A fresh, chunky cilantro-and-onion sauce came on the side. Asado tacos (not to be confused with carne asada, which Dahlia’s serves as well) contained large, soft pieces of pork marinated and slow-cooked in red chile. Rounding out my second visit, in more ways than one, was the meatfest known as carne Tampiqueña: New York steak stuffed with ham, wrapped in bacon, grilled and smothered with onions, peppers and tomatoes. This may have been too much of a good thing. I think I hurt myself.
The tacos, carne Tampiqueña and chile verde all came from a part of the menu appropriately named “House Specialties.” I would advise diners trying Dahlia’s for the first time to stick close to this section. When she says “special,” she really means it.