Another Home in Barelas
Coffee house provides piquant pastime
By August March
My family moved to Burque near the end of the 1970s and started eating out at restaurants all the time. Not like we hadn’t before, but there just wasn’t that much variety on the edge of the Navajo Nation. I did get a load of mutton stew and fry bread—which I suppose was a decent way to pass one’s youth—but that stuff just didn’t rate compared to the veritable cornucopia we came upon in the Duke City.
But when we felt spoilt for choice, when one more trip to Gasthaus Europa or Smiroll’s meant scandalous repercussions among members of a government family trying to compensate for years of duty-bound privation, my old man would take his Chrysler Cordoba out of the garage and we’d roll around town looking for alternatives to my mother’s strictly continental tastes.
He was an authentic Nuevo Mexicano who came up in a family of musicians that kept parrots and peacocks as pets, tended lush urban gardens and lived lives centered in the kitchen. My old man tended to choose restaurants that featured something called home-cooking—a garden of eatin’ where he could find comfort, familiarity and lots of good food.
After 1979 or thereabouts, he’d generally navigate Central to Fourth Street and we’d end up at the Barelas Coffee House, a destination that—despite her exotic inclinations—made my mother happy too. For them, it was a way to transcend the intervening 20 years, where nothing was settled except our absence from la ciudad. And the food was a balm. Rich, piquant and thick with the aroma of home, it was a place we went frequently—to talk, to eat, to recall an ever-escaping essence—until near the end of their lives.
Afterwards, I didn’t go there, though I’d spy the joint out the corner of my eye when visiting nearby galleries and concert venues. But then 10 years of that sorta thing went under the bridge and one day recently I decided to go back.
I took my wife. We zoomed down Bridge. There was parking right out in front of the coffee house, which was just pure luck because the place was packed and everybody there musta had a car; the lots were full.
Geoffrey, the circulation manager at the Alibi happened to be dropping off the latest issue; he was standing in front of the paper rack out front. “Hello Geoffrey,” I said as we passed by. He tipped his hat and I gave him the peace sign.
Anyway, the service was friendly, with people talking to you like you’re their friend and neighbor. They lay on good-sized cold drinks, and come by and ask you if you’d like a refill before you’ve even thought about it.
All kinds of locals eat there, politicians and journalists and professors, too. The two fellows at the next table were talking about nuclear proliferation and how they were glad the Lobos didn’t make the NCAA because then the undergraduates just show up hung over for a week.
I ordered a plate of enchiladas with red chile, to be made with beef, no onions and an egg on top. My comrade asked for tacos with salsa. I made sure it would be a properly poundage-inducing visit by calling for an extra tortilla, tambien.
If I could step away and write about this kind of food objectively—which I can’t because it has always been a part of my life—I’d say it was simple, hearty and designed to be consumed by people who work hard all day creating and maintaining a world called New Mexico.
It’s a super-regional form of food, puro Burque, though related cuisine may be experienced in Santa or Cruces. It doesn’t exist in Tejas or Califas or Nueva York.
Dried oregano and roasted pork feature predominately in the palate of tastes; the red chile sauce has a tasteful bitterness to it, like winter here. The green chile is like summer then, bright and hot, unrelenting. Whole beans are featured as part of the lunch plates; they’re fresh and refreshing compared to the nearly liquified refritos found at some other New Mexican restaurants.
The choices, from burritos to rellenos to tacos are super tasty; they all seem to be prepared from scratch. Everything on the menu—even the aforementioned tortilla—is creamy, sorta buttery, as lard is an integral part of most recipes used at the Barelas Coffee House.
When we were done eating, I was so happy I forgot to get a receipt and had to go back later in the day to get one. The first thing I noticed when I walked in around closing time was the way the Barelas Coffee House smelled. It smelled just like my grandma Esther’s kitchen. The second was how the staff— Manager Jeri and Owner Mike—greeted me. They met me in front of their kitchen, the center of the Barelas Coffee House, as if I was a family member returning home.
Barelas Coffee House
1502 Fourth Street NW
Vibe: ¡Lo mas chingon!
Hours: Monday-Friday 7:30am-3pm, Saturday 7:30am-2:30pm, Sunday Closed
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