Taco Sal and the Suburban Sopaipillas
An entrance to the fabled Heights still shines
By August March
It's a long haul up to the Heights. Really, it's literally only a matter of four miles from mi chante, but the yellow brick road (read: Lomas Boulevard) up to the mountain-clad section of Burque seems to go on forever, promising something new as the path proceeds to the Foothills.
As the asphalt street rises gently upward and toward the Sandia mountains, the city changes as the population density rises. Here, there aren't many open fields left and signs of suburbia, including ubiquitous strip-malls, roll out from just about every corner.
The Heights has always been the preferred destination with regards to migratory patterns in Burque. A glittering one-size-fits-all solution for Hispanic baby boomers seeking to escape the barrio by moving on up and over—with the assistance of avocado-colored appliances, stylized wrought-iron window bars and a slick new Pontiac in the driveway—the Northeast Heights has been a cultural solution, in as much as the environs encourages assimilation. It's where the middle class was, ese.
At the height of its lofty economic and business power in the early ‘90s, one Albuquerque media personality even wrote songs about the popularity of the area, with titles like “Just Like Living in Northeast Heights” and “Two Tickets to Northeast Heights.”
Of course moving to the Heights didn't mean losing one's Hispanidad, it just meant adapting to its expression as a fully formed ancillary of the predominant culture.
So yeah, there were tacos and enchiladas everywhere; there are plenty of restaurants where such traditional output is available for purchase. But they're different from the joints you might visit Downtown or in the Valley or out by the railroad tracks. In many cases they've done an admirable job of combining Nuevo Mexicano cuisine with the latest gastronomic goings on in, say, Rancho Santa Clarita, Calif. Such is the case with fancy-delicious but mildly out-of-touch places like Papa Felipe's and Garduños, which I am sure I'll get to in the sweet by and by.
In the meantime there are always eateries like Taco Sal, a symbol of how a type of food moved up to the Heights, absorbed some of the cultural conveniences and contrivances of a thing called America but kept its native funk and far-out New Mexican identity through consistency, simplicity and a damn good neon sign for luring generations of Burqueños when damn good eats alone could not.
The story of Taco Sal is the story of migration to El Heights. Taco Sal is named after the original owner, Sally Gabaldon. Along with her husband Felix, the Gabaldons intended to take advantage of the growth going on at the edge of town. In 1960, the corner of Eubank and Menaul was indeed the end of all things Burque—to the north and east a huge mesa top gave way to sprawling mountains—but folks like the Gabaldons aimed to change that.
The success of the restaurant, the shopping center that cloistered it, and the clean and preppy neighborhoods that surrounded all of that development clearly indicated where and in which direction Albuquerque would grow in the coming years.
Now, those coming years have come, have gone and continue to flow around the restaurant called Taco Sal. While the Heights has been in and out of vogue, as the noticeable number of empty storefronts in the area attest, the restaurant I am reviewing today has been open continuously for going on 57 years. Though it has changed owners a few times recently, Taco Sal still carries a reputation for excellence, something I pondered deeply as I sat in the main dining room and began my latest epicurean encounter.
Taco Sal has a bright, mirror-enhanced interior and falls into a category I call Cali-diner style, which means the place feels mildly Art Deco with an emphasis on modern touches. Unlike its humble counterparts in the Valley and Downtown, there aren't really any Nuevo Mexicano cultural accoutrements here, but rather relics having to do with car culture and summertime and fun—like the palm tree that is part of the joint's logo.
Deciding to jump right on in, I order the titular taco plate while my companion chooses the combination plate—mostly to check out the fabled chile relleno that comes with it, she says slyly while handing a menu back to our patient and friendly server. Two large Coca-Colas, the perfect example of cultural cross-over in the Americas, complete our order.
While we await our dinner, both of us have time to consume and comment on the extra-large plate of chips (with ample, very tasty green-chile-based salsa, I might add) that have suddenly graced our table. The chips are fresh and hot; their aroma fills the area adjacent to our table as they arrive and we both smile at our good fortune, trying not to ruin our appetites with more than one plateful.
Luckily, the main course comes quickly afterward and we both set down to some serious eating. My partner tells me the relleno is crispy and cooked properly, so that it cuts cleanly. It has a fresh taste; the cheese inside is a complement rather than a distraction. Her enchilada is similarly robust, but balanced because of what it lacks (too much cheese, oily texture). Upon completing her meal mission, she wishes the red chile were a tad thicker; I agree it lacks the boldness and spicy aftertaste of its green opposite.
My tacos are also alluring because they seem highly crafted, I tell her while nodding in agreement and chewing luxuriously on a tasty, fresh-baked shell. Although the taco meat seems plain and unseasoned, the green garnish and taco sauce that one can slather into said gustatory device more than make up for any bland filling that might be served that day.
We both ordered fresh beans and papitas and were once again rewarded for our prescient choice. The potatoes were as golden as they were plentiful; when mixed up with the smoky beans and some of that great green chile sauce, they all made a helluva third course on which to use our sopaipillas.
The meal's end coincided with the production of a sales ticket which was also an encouraging reminder of how the past becomes the present. Not only had Taco Sal maintained its unique identity as well as its ability to produce lip-smacking soul food over the years, they've also been able to keep the prices affordable enough that I felt like leaving a Hamilton for a tip wasn't a big deal, even if we were up in the Heights, sabes?
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