El Sabor de Juarez
Juárez-style home cooking since 1980
If you need a reminder that there’s more to Juárez than disheartening headlines, look no further than El Sabor de Juarez. The sunny little place on Gibson near Carlisle serves Juárez-style Mexican food under the care of owner Jesus Mata Sr. and his son Marcos. Jesus says the only concession to New Mexican cuisine they've made is the addition of flour to thicken the red and green sauces.
The front dining area has about eight booths, the backs of which are painted with landscapes. Cinderblock walls in a side room are painted into a surround of more landscapes, making you feel like you’re in a fishbowl on a Mexican porch. A dry-erase board by the counter advertises the vegetarian options (they don't use lard in beans or anywhere else, says Marcos, for their Muslim and vegetarian customers).
In addition to the usual suspects like burritos and tacos, the menu has some lesser-known dishes like machaca (jalapeños, tomatoes, onions and carne desebrada scrambled with eggs). A little soupy looking, but it goes down bueno. The chile relleno, encased in a fried, oversized puddle of egg batter, is drenched in a mild and roux-based green sauce. Just enough white, chewy cheese supports the relleno from the inside without upstaging the green chile. A tamale is filled with pork and red chile, then smothered in a mellow red sauce; the delicate texture of the masa is soft and grainular, reminiscent of whole wheat bread.
The mole had a creeping heat, as opposed to the kind of fire that’s like getting shot out of a cannon.
On any given day, it seems that most customers are eating menudo. Dainty plastic bowls are served alongside crusty bolillo rolls and a condiment caddy. I don’t always like menudo, but this I can appreciate fully. The sliced innards are less gamey than other places, and the spicy red broth is soothing and sweat-inducing. It becomes vaguely pho-like when the condiments—chile pequin, dried oregano, lemon wedges and chopped white onions—are added. On weekends, menudo eaters have the opportunity to add a stewed pig’s foot for an extra dollar.
I once went there for lunch with a group of friends, the tallest among them claiming to know something about mole. On the advice of Jesus, the tall guy ordered his mole with shredded chicken rather than whole pieces.
“It’s good,” he reported. “Not too sweet, and it has a nice, back-of-the-tongue bite.”
“What is this, a wine tasting?” we ribbed on him.
The tall guy explained that the mole had a creeping heat, as opposed to the kind of fire that’s like getting shot out of a cannon.
Another friend ordered pescado empanizado. He let me try a bite of the flaky cod, lightly breaded and delicately spiced. It was pleasant and very good. Fried fish lovers won’t be disappointed.
My pescado à la Veracruzana was a big piece of cod cooked in a tomato-based sauce that was chunky with carrots and bell peppers. It came with some typical red rice and a salad drenched in creamy avocado dressing. I was full and happy.
The kid who works at the morgue—who got a tattoo in Juárez (puckered lips, on his nalga)—ordered a bistec picado, little chunks of beef sirloin cooked with salsa. It was mildly spicy with a drool-inspiring browned meat flavor.
Jesus, Marcos and their staff took care of us like family; refills were plentiful and we left satisfied. In a way, the experience took some of the edge off a city I would otherwise be too scared to go these days. Juáreños can cook. And luckily for us, at least, they’re doing it right here in Albuquerque.