Where the first language is meat
If you haven't been inside one of the many Mexican markets around town, you're missing out. They're enclaves of culture as well as food, filled with goods and services to make their customers feel at home, not unlike an Asian supermarket or a Whole Foods. Some Mexican markets have developed a loyal following among the English-
Inside the flagship location on San Pedro near Central, the biggest clue you’re still in the U.S. is an MVD Express. All the stores have a casa de cambio currency exchange service, which adds to the foreign flavor. So do rows of Mexican and other Hispanic foods with an army of piñatas suspended above.
A restaurant, flanked by the store's bakery, features a cafeteria-style serving line that begins in front of a mountain of roasted pig. Next, there’s an array of meats, some mixed with vegetables, and at least one soup: menudo, posole, or a caldo of beef or chicken. Finally, past horchata and aguas frescas and a cash register, big wooden tables and a 20-something-member salsa bar await diners.
One $5.99 lunch plate included a pile of barbacoa that was rich, moist and fatty, with a browned exterior and a small, stray piece of animal plumbing from an airway or blood vessel—all meltingly soft. It came with rice and beans, a stack of house-made tortillas, and a second meat dish: fatty pork ribs in red chile that were flavorful but not too spicy. Any painful levels of heat are self-administered at the salsa bar.
In addition to what’s served on platos, the same meats are also available rolled into burritos, folded into tortas or sold by the pound, which is a terrific deal—$15 would easily feed a whole band, groupies included. Bulk orders come with rice, beans, tortillas and to-go containers for the salsa bar. The kitchen also does tamales on occasion, as well as fajitas and other dishes to order, including breakfast.
El Mezquite's biggest competitor, Pro’s Ranch Market, gets a lot of well-deserved praise for its diverse bounty. But unlike that multistate “Hispanic concept store” chain created by an Italian family (“Pro” being short for Provenzano), El Mezquite was started in the South Valley by six siblings from Sonora. Since 1998, El Mesquite has quietly become the largest Latino immigrant-owned business in New Mexico, according to the Asociación de Comerciantes Latinos de Nuevo México.
If you want a steak or pork chop cooked to order, they have that—and they can cook it in a variety of ways, depending only on how good your Spanish is.
In addition to four stores in Albuquerque, there’s an El Mezquite in Los Lunas. Another one’s set to open in Rio Rancho next year. Since a Google Maps search somehow only turns up two locations, a group of diehard fans got together on a Duke City Fix forum and created a map with all of them (at the time, it even included a street view of the West Central store’s construction site).
Although I can tell you with confidence that it's worth a visit, I’m hesitant to give specific recommendations on what you should eat at El Mezquite. I had the chicharrónes one time and they were great, but what gets called chicharrónes from day to day changes. Sometimes they’re in tomatillo sauce, sometimes they’re plain or cooked with string beans. Sometimes they're meaty and chewy, like mine were, but I’ve also observed trays full of soft, fatty pieces of pure pork rind.
As a general rule: Breakfast or an early lunch are the best bets. I've seen the kitchen run out by 6 p.m. on busy days. And as with any cafeteria or buffet-style restaurant, you want to hit it when it's fresh. In the summer, look for lots of calabacitas among the meats and a few dishes sin carne (though probably with cheese aplenty). And while whole corn cobs can be seen floating in the caldos during the summer, these days we get chewy corn kernels in the red rice instead.
Duke City Fix poster mombat raved about the chuleta de siete, a cut of pork from the rib/loin area that's cooked a la plancha to order. This is a great example of the advantageous symbiosis that's possible between a butcher shop and a restaurant. On stainless-steel tables behind the cafeteria counter, employees can often be seen cutting animals apart. The tough, odd-shapen, semi-cartilagenous bits of meat carved off the bones—what in the U.S. gets turned into burger or hot dogs—is transformed into tender, flavorful Mexican dishes. But as mombat's chuleta de siete suggests, if you want a steak or pork chop cooked to order, they have that—and they can cook it in a variety of ways, depending only on how good your Spanish is.
Like the hot food selection, the salsa bar is unlabeled. Among the pico de gallo, onions, oregano, lime and pickled jalapeño slices, there are several red and green sauces that you’ll have to taste your way through. Most, if not all, of the green sauces are tomatillo-based—as if you needed further proof that you aren’t in New Mexico anymore.