Kings of the Wild Frontier
Do us all a favor; go Western
On the surface, which I imagine is spread out lovingly like the shredded iceberg lettuce that accompanies just about anything one might consider ordering at the Frontier Restaurant (well, except the fresh squeezed OJ or the legendary sweet rolls), it might seem somewhat tangential to throw in this or that lyrical relic for reference purposes.
But given the history, popularity and ubiquitous market presence of the eatery, such oblique references make sense. By following on through this conglomeration of allusions, remembrances and taste bud-based words designed to enliven our readers’ hunger and fascination with all things Burque, it’s hoped that you’ll finish the final paragraph of this review, hop in your favorite ride and head on over to a joint that helps define the culture of our humble burg.
Larry and Dorothy, you two are geniuses even if your legendary sweet rolls are a menace to thin people everywhere; Dr. Shock you have, like, totally done me a favor; your next sweet roll is on me.
Listen: I know you’ve been there. I’ve been there, too. It’s a place as familiar as home, as frighteningly alluring as any dimly lit alleyway in the student ghetto and ultimately as reliably delicious as any “real” Nuevo Mexicano place you’ve ever set your wide eyes and hungry mouth upon.
First, allow me to tell you a story about the Frontier Restaurant, how it has played an important part in my life—even as I continue to seek out esoteric iterations of enchiladas, creative combination plates and tasty tacos.
As an undergrad, I rented a house that was owned by Larry and Dorothy Rainosek, the long-time proprietors of the Frontier. Every month, I would knock on the service entrance and walk by the kitchen and into their office, check in hand and smile on my face. On the way through that chaotic and chile-drenched scullery, I’d stop and say hello to a fellow named Alice.
He lived next door to me in a small apartment on the edge of the restaurant parking lot; the punks and freaks in town also knew him as Doctor Shock. He was one of the first Frontier employees trained in the use of the mammoth tortilla-making machine that came to dominate the restaurant and consequently, Burque’s craving for fresh and buttery unleavened bread.
I would say, “Hello, Alice,” and he would reply, “Why don’t you ever eat here, the tortillas are just your thing, dude.” I suppose I made up some far-fetched excuse or another, mostly based upon the idea that what was on offer just didn’t appeal, not when I could get the real thing at Ron’s Camino Real (a storied Nuevo Mexicano restaurant on Yale and Coal that has long since disappeared into the mists of time). He would frown and crank up the tortilla machine as I ambled away.
One day, more out of kindness than curiosity, I took Alice up on his admonitions. I went up to the counter and ordered the Western-style hash browns, a side of tortillas and a large Coca-Cola. The next day I was back for the number two breakfast; within a month I had graciously and voraciously sampled just about everything on the menu, settling on the New Mexican plates. I found them to be vaguely Texan in presentation and taste, but still damn good for a guy used to the finer iterations of local, ranch-style cooking.
Thirty years on, the paintings of John Wayne and his cowboy cohorts still hang in the dining hall along with wagon wheel chandeliers. Dr. Shock has moved on, but the tortillas, the Western-style hash browns, the ranchero sauce sitting in hot cauldrons by the cutlery stations—and yes, the Nuevo Mexicano food itself—remain awesomely edible, even by my high-falutin’ standards.
This time ‘round, my wife and I settled in a booth up front, so that we might take in the action on Central from the wide windows that gird the Frontier Restaurant. Street people caroused, students gamboled away from campus on the term’s penultimate day and I sauntered up to the counter and ordered for both of us.
She wanted the Mexican combo ($8). I favored the carne adovada burrito ($2.25) with sides of (wait for it) Western-style hash browns ($3.50) and tortillas ($1.60). The whole affair is self-service so we busied ourselves with copies of the Daily Lobo while we sat and had a look around. When our number was called, I walked over to the service counter to pick up our order, still expecting to see Alice working the tortilla machine. Meanwhile my wife gathered up forks, knives and napkins while also seeing to the filling of our beverage glasses at the automated drink station in the midst of it all.
The combination plate was simple and satisfying, she stated. With a mountain of whole beans and fresh, fluffy rice accompanying an enchilada and taco drenched in a slightly sweet and possibly (just like Tejas, folks) tomato-laced red chile sauce, she continued that the whole thing seemed like a wholesome hybrid of two distinct culinary traditions. West Texas and northern New Mexico came to mind as she dug in delightfully.
The carne adovada, Western-style hash browns and tortillas are hallmarks of the diner though. The first is tender, tangy and clearly slow-cooked to a kind of tempting perfection that invites repeated encounters. Wrapped in a fresh tortilla and eaten with both hands providing grateful guidance, it is a meal fit for a king that will never lose its taste or place in the annals of my dining experiences. The tortillas are unlike the others I’ve eaten in the restaurants of Burque. Soft and thin with a mild and melt-in-the-mouth elasticity, they could be from home, though they are made by a machine. Who knew?
As for the Western-style hash browns, I’ll just describe them plainly in case you have not been initiated into the culinary cult that consuming them confers. Take a plate of shredded and fried potatoes. Slather them in hot Hatch green chile. Cover that over with sharp cheddar cheese and serve them up like the resulting dish is a precious object, served alone on a white porcelain platter. Damn.
Finally, repeat the following mantras while eating them—or anything else on the menu for that matter: Larry and Dorothy, you two are geniuses even if your legendary sweet rolls ($1.85 ea.) are a menace to thin people everywhere; Dr. Shock you have, like, totally done me a favor; your next sweet roll is on me.
2400 Central SE
Hours: 5am-1am Sun-Sat
Vibe: Busy and bright
Alibi Recommends: Western-style hash browns, carne adovada burrito, Frontier sweet roll