New Mexican for the old guard
One morning while waiting for a plate of huevos rancheros at Cocina Azul, some sort of meeting started taking place at a group of tables by the piano. Owner Frank Barela told me later that Cocina Azul has become a popular meeting place for local politicians, judges and other operators, and that Henry Tafoya sometimes does his KDEF 1150 AM radio show from the dining room, via cell phone.
It’s not hard to see why they’ve picked this place. In the old (but beautifully renovated) Sunshine Market building on Mountain and 12th Street, Cocina Azul has the feel of a high-end coffee shop. There are big windows, high ceilings, free Wi-Fi, welded chairs, and framed yellow and purple watercolors. A flashy, retro jukebox on the concrete floor faces the door when you walk in. On the wall above the kitchen window is a menu board that advertises bulk New Mexican foods—trays of tamales capable of feeding as many as 35 people, carne adovada and chile by the quart, and chile con queso by the gallon. “We provide the food, the customers provide their own service,” Barela said, describing his catering menu. Most of the dine-in menu is similarly boilerplate New Mexico, with a few forays into sandwiches.
As I dug in to my huevos, the various components of the plate became greater than the sum of their parts. On their own, the beans were a bit bland, while the rice had an abundance of seasoning. But together they formed a happy medium that worked gracefully with the other elements on the plate. When I got blasted by green chile, for example, those beans helped absorb the excess heat. When soaked in red chile and mixed with molten, over-easy egg yolk and soggy tortilla, those beans were anything but bland. The house-made potatoes, which looked like Tater Tots when they first arrived, were coated in a spiced batter that was patchy like old stucco. They ate insanely well with eggs and chile. The lettuce-and-tomato garnish was cut into small pieces, which found their way into my happy mouthfuls.
The management at Cocina Azul loves the chile con queso, presumably because the people who try it do, too. If you ask about it, or even mention something that sounds like it, such as “Willy’s in Pecos,” the waitress will swoon on cue and offer to bring you a sample. It appears to be constructed like a high-quality, New Mexican Cheez Whiz; a blend of cheeses, cream and green chile chunks, served warm and soupy. The sample comes with chips that are fresh and thin. I can see why a cheese lover would be impressed with the chile con queso, but I prefer Cocina Azul’s smoky salsa or the hearty, flavorful guacamole to grace my chips.
The warm green chile—chunky with tomato and garlic—plays bad cop to the silky red, which is buttery sweet and playful like candy. Also sweet are the doughtnut-like sopaipillas. The tamale masa is so bright it looks like white corn (but isn’t), and the pork inside it is stringy and tender. The bright-red carne adovada in a rolled, blue corn enchilada is large-chunked and firm, yet submissive to hungry teeth. The green chile stew is textbook: beef, tomatoes and potatoes. The beefy fiesta burger comes covered in green. For dessert, a big serving of flan has a sturdy, pleasing flesh and fabulous flavor.
The only disappointments I experienced were a hard-shell taco (with hamburger meat, yellow cheese and shredded iceberg lettuce, it reminded me of school lunches) and too-creamy green chile chicken soup. On the sandwich side, the BLT didn’t have mayo on it—something that may require therapy to put behind me.
Cocina Azul has only been open for six months, so a few kinks are inevitable. But if anyone has a problem with anything, Barela says, speak up. “Anybody eats here and they’re not happy, we’ll take care of them.”