It was a cold and snowy Sunday morning when I first went to Cecilia’s. The air smelled like piñon smoke. Inside, it was still chilly sitting by the old brick wall at the south end of the dining room. I noticed a wood stove at the other end, so I switched seats. There was a woman sitting next to the stove sorting a big sack of pinto beans.
A wall-mounted television played a loop of the Food Network’s “Diners, Drive-ins and Dives,” filmed at Cecilia’s a year ago.
The decor must have been assembled by an eclectic genius, with a funkiness that 10,000 retro-crazed art students on acid couldn’t re-create. The walls are covered with a hodgepodge of old photographs, shrines, mirrors, clocks—some of which tell the correct time—battered license plates, poems, newspaper clippings and all manner of trinketry. The old wooden floor is uneven. A drunken spider’s web of Christmas lights crisscrosses the ceiling. Some of the interior walls are covered with corrugated sheet metal. A countdown of top-40s hits from the Fifties is usually on the radio. You have to walk through a supply room to get to the bathroom.
The menu is New Mexican to the core. Blue-corn-piñon pancakes had plenty of whole nuts and were excellent—although the fake maple syrup was a little too authentically diner for my taste. A side of chicharrónnes with my enchilada ranchera plate made me very happy. They were half meat, half fat, perfectly crispy and not at all burnt. Steeping in red and green chile, they smelled vaguely, and quite pleasingly, of Chinese food. The breakfast enchilada came with eggs, which I had ordered scrambled, as well as hash browns and pinto beans. As I enjoyed this harmonious dish, the waitress hustled a plate onto the table where the woman was sorting pintos. “Here you go, grandma.”
The red chile, made from whole Chimayó pods, is a strong suit here, turning everything it touches into red gold with earthy, piquant, dark soulfulness.
“Did you see the snow?” grandma asked. “It’s pretty out there.”
The red chile, made from whole Chimayó pods, is a strong suit here, turning everything it touches into red gold with earthy, piquant, dark soulfulness. The carne adovada in my blue corn enchilada: yum. The tamale—plump, sweet and filled with red-chile-soaked pork: yummier still. The green, by comparison, is underwhelming. Chicken fried steak, on special every weekend, is billed as coming with green chile gravy; but the gravy was white with green flecks and the dominant flavor was black pepper. A bowl of chicken soup with green was perfectly delicious, though pungent bites of chile were too few and far between. And while enormous, the chile relleno was heavy on crisp and cheese, light on chile flavor.
Cecilia’s has been riding a wave of notoriety that began with that first cable TV appearance, which lead to a spot on the Travel Channel’s list of 101 tastiest places to chow down. Soon the restaurant will be featured on “Man v. Food,” during which the host will take on Cecilia’s 10-pound burrito challenge. (The burrito costs $30 unless you can finish it in 90 minutes, along with a basket of chips and salsa. Then it’s free.)
Mornings at Cecilia’s tend to be peaceful. Grandma sorts beans and the waitresses will have time to show you snapshots of people attempting that behemoth burrito. But at lunch, the dining room has the feel of a ship being tossed in an angry sea. The old wooden floors pitch under the feet of the hustling waitstaff. Cecilia is at the helm, in the kitchen behind a modified street foodcart, doing the final plating and garnishing with a view of the warm end of the dining room. If red chile and a famously quirky, homey environment is what floats your boat, you’ll feel right at home at Cecilia’s.