El Portal de la Percepción
Monica’s is the door to delicious
It’s been brought to my ever-shortening attention that I write a helluva lot about la comida Nueva Mexicana—to the exclusion of all else. Well what else is there, carnales? I feel like I’d be at a loss with la comida China because the only time I head out to those sorts of restaurants is on Christmas Day; consequently I don’t really have a clear idea of what constitutes great Chinese food. I just happen to be in the thrall of certain customs that call for attendance at places like Ho Lo Ma on those days when everyone else is busy opening presents and singing ‘round a dead evergreen.
Someone else suggested pizza but I told them that until there was a local joint that served up authentic Chicago-style pies (with the sauce on top, hermano) there wouldn’t be any reviews like that coming out of my oven.
And so I forge ahead, aware of my growing limitations but still happy in the knowledge that somewhere in this town, the perfect enchilada plate, festooned with the best refried beans and pan-fried potatoes money can buy—and supported by fresh sopaipillas drenched in real honey, not syrup—await.
When everything works out—which isn’t always, by the way—the results are amazing. A full belly and the renewed realization of how totally chido our local culture really happens to be in regards to traditional food-making and food-eating are ample yet simple rewards for driving around town with my mind on tortillas and tortillas on my mind.
This month, I visited Old Town and had breakfast at Monica’s El Portal, an eatery with heaps of local cred, a colorful history and damn it all to el cielo, homemade tortillas!
When I found out about that last bit—the tortillas thing—you bet all your bitcoins that I jumped on El Portal’s bandwagon in a manner similar to the enthusiasm shown by our Democratic congressional delegation when told they might have a chance at hegemony in the upcoming mid-terms.
Let me tell you all about it.
Monica’s used to be called El Encanto. The place burned down in 1983 after many years of service. The cook, who apprenticed under the watchful eyes of her doting mother, took over operations and the restaurant re-opened as Monica’s El Portal. Some relics of the past remain (a restored, antique stove and a collection of pressure cookers on display in the main room) but overall, El Portal has a modern yet comfortably home-like atmosphere.
As my dining partner noted, the food at Monica’s resembles and tastes like home-cooked New Mexican fare more than any of the other dozen or so diners I’ve visited in the past year.
I ordered a traditional breakfast, the enchilada ranchera, while she thought to sample the huevos rancheros. I asked for red, she went with green. We implored the server to bring us both tortillas and sopaipillas to sample.
After what seemed like only a few minutes, our plates arrived. Thick sliced, freshly fried pan potatoes complemented both meals. They were big beautiful red skins, cooked to perfection and seemingly placed among other gustatory pleasures as a sign of the good meal that lay ahead.
The eggs—on top of my enchilada and featured within my partner’s plate—were tasty, also thoughtfully prepared and spiced with just enough pepper and salt to elicit a certain satisfying salivation when approached with a fork and knife.
The red chile had a strong, awakening, yet tender bitterness to it, certainly fit for a rancher beginning a hard day of riding the range. Her green chile was fresh and vegetably with chunks of the green, gorgeous fruit interlaced with a light sauce.
And the tortillas? They were what I’d expect in heaven if I believed in all that afterlife woo-ha. Serio. Thick, warm and just waiting for butter to be laden upon their crispy surface, these are the tortillas of myth, the tortillas that founders of our town must have eaten while plotting their expansion into the mesas and foothills east of Old Town.
Afterwards, I was so satisfied I really just wanted to go home and sleep. But work and the writing of this continuing guide to la comida Nueva Mexicana beckoned, passage-like, wide open. Those experiences would be like a portal to a place where the plates are always warm, always stacked high to the sky with fresh tortillas, I reckon.
321 Rio Grande NW
Hours: Tue-Fri 8am-8pm, Sat-Sun 8am-3pm, Mon Closed
Vibe: The old town at the edge of the new city
Alibi Recommends: Huevos rancheros, enchilada ranchera, hand-made tortillas