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 V.18 No.50 | December 10 - 16, 2009 

Restaurant Review

Chili Express

Quirky comfort in Southeast Albuquerque

Combo plate with a taco, enchilada and relleno
Sergio Salvador
Combo plate with a taco, enchilada and relleno

Chili Express, on the easternmost stretch of Gibson, marches to its own beat. Its spelling of “chili” seems out of place in New Mexico, and even its claim to serve “Mexican food” would be believable anywhere else but here—this is New Mexican to the core. Luckily, this same peculiar approach goes into crafting comfort food with a meticulous sensibility, not to mention the decor of one of the funkiest eateries in town.

Various objects and knickknacks crowd every inch of available space. A stuffed parrot roosts on a hanging perch above a gum ball machine. Native American fetishes hide behind a television tuned to CNN. While Christmas lights flicker, posters of divas, old advertisements and Norman Rockwell spinoffs crowd the walls. A saddle rides an interior half-wall. Statues, a sewing machine, an alarm clock, an old-fashioned meat grinder, a few sombreros and a street sign that says “Los Angeles Lakers lane” complete the busy picture. Everything is doubled by the floor-to-ceiling mirrors on the restaurant’s west side. And you could film a porno movie in the bathroom, with more mirrors, a corner sink and snazzy ’70s disco tiles.

Don’t be late, because when the salsa runs out for the day, it’s gone.

The food is inexpensive but made with care. The french fries are hand-cut and freshly fried. The green chile cheeseburger, on a braided sesame seed bun, stands as tall as in promo photographs of what some burger joints want you to think their burgers look like. The tortilla chips are fresh. The salsa bar (available to dine-in customers only) stocks a chunky, housemade pico de gallo, a smooth red salsa, a tomatillo salsa and a very hot “chapulin” salsa. Creamy and garlicky, you’d swear this green puree has mayo or sour cream in it. But it doesn’t; just serrano peppers, garlic and salt. Mixed with ketchup or any of the other salsas, the chapulin elevates a burger or fries to mythical status. But don’t be late, because when the salsa runs out for the day, it’s gone.

A smothered red chile burger and fresh-cut fries
Sergio Salvador
A smothered red chile burger and fresh-cut fries

The menu sports the standard array of items you’d order with either red or green. The chicharrón inside a burrito steals the show like chicharrón is supposed to. The tamale is flat and dense with a sweet red inside. The relleno has great flavor, if somewhat standard.

The green chile stew is more stew-like than I’m used to around these parts, with multiple chunks of soft beef, carrots, celery, potatoes and tomato, and not a lot of roasted chile flavor. But it’s delicious.

The posole teems with juicy, falling-apart chunks of pork, and it comes in a rich red sauce whose heat delivers the perfect amount of bite. It’s a spot-on rendition of that indispensable New Mexico comfort food.

Homemade limeade (made from bottled lime juice, by the taste) provides a refreshing alternative to the usual fizzy suspects. And the free refills appear to be inexhaustible.

Chili Express strikes me as a good place for a first date—and not because of the porn-set bathroom. The decorations give plenty to talk about and the location feels out-of-the-way and anonymous, the sort of place where quirky romance blooms. And the food is good and cheap. If you’re looking to go red, green or Christmas, Chili Express will deliver.

The Alibi recommends:
• Salsa bar
• Posole
• Chicharrón burrito
• Smothered burger

Chili Express

5901 Gibson SE • 232-4454
Hours: 11 a.m. to 8 p.m. every day
Price range: $5.95 (burger platter) to $10.95 (steak plate)
Ambience: Sleepy yet snazzy antique shop
Credit Cards: Yes
Booze: Nada
Extras: Patio seating
Public Comments (5)
  • You were kidding right!?!?  [ Fri Dec 11 2009 1:31 PM ]

    I'm not sure if I have faith any longer. While I have always found Alibi's reviews of resturants helpful in finding new dinning spots, this latest review was far from the mark. So where to start, perhaps the lack luster salsa you must serve yourself. The guacamole while spicy is so packed with garlic as to defeat the subtle and creamy flavor of the avocado. Today we ordered the Huevos Rancheros, and when it arrived we were presented a platter of dry and fairly bland refried beans (most places use lard to create a creamy tasty mix). The chile used was weak in flavor as well; using a tomato based stewed chile with ground beef in it! I suppose I am a traditionalist liking my chile without meat, but if you must add beef to chile it should be SHREDDED! The only part of breakfast that was close to what it should be were the eggs. Cooked nicely over medium this was by far the most impressive aspect of the plate. As for the ambience of the place, I am not a fan of the junk town traders look. The busy and eclectic decorations seem out of place with the large mirrored wall dominating the dinning area. So, while your reviews have been useful in the past I would recommend you reevaluate your criteria, as this place fell very short of the review it recieved.

  • shredded beef  [ Fri Dec 11 2009 3:01 PM ]

    I, for one, have no problem with ground beef in green chile stew, and I'm a lifetime native.

  • Green chile stew  [ Fri Dec 11 2009 3:15 PM ]

    I don't think I've ever had it in a restaurant in NM without meat. Or shredded beef, come to think of it. Cubed pork (Garcia's, Los Cuates, Barbara's) seems like it's the rule, but ground beef is almost as common -- that's how they do it at Frontier, Duran's and El Camino Dining Room, and no one would accuse those institutions not being authentic (whatever that means).

  • I mean to say  [ Fri Dec 11 2009 5:49 PM ]

    ....I haven't had it *with* shredded beef. Yes.

  • You are doing a fine job Ari!  [ Sat Dec 12 2009 4:49 AM ]

    You can't please everyone, and most days you can't please anyone, but you are doing a fine job, sir.

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