Fill ‘Er Up
A dose of chile at La Salita Restaurant
For anyone who lives in New Mexico for long enough, there comes a point when you realize an essential truth: Green chile is power. It’s like a Super Mario powerup just for New Mexicans, popping up out of the tumble-roaster and skating into your mouth shortly before your forearms start swelling to Popeye proportions. Okay, so the metaphor is mixed, but you get the idea. Green chile is strength. Green chile is life.
That’s part of why I get so excited when I find a good New Mexican restaurant. Here is a place to take a moment to re-energize and face the rest of life bolstered by the green blood of New Mexico itself. Some friends of mine in the near Northeast Heights had been talking up La Salita as their favorite spot for a chile fix for a while, so I decided it was high time I checked it out.
La Salita, which has been a Heights institution for 25 years, is surprisingly easy to miss on its corner of Eubank and San Jacinto. But it’s got quite a following and its lobby is packed most nights. It’s worth the wait.
Once we put in our dues in the waiting room, my family and I were ushered into the cavernous dining area. The space is not so much “decorated” as “filled in,” with a mishmash of posters on the walls and television monitors featuring beer choices and specials. It’s a dimly lit, “grandmother’s living room” kind of feel, which the serving staff bolsters by being close knit and affable, if somewhat prone to sluggishness.
There are some interesting twists to the New Mexican standards here, starting with the salsa. First off, it’s served warm, with a thick texture that almost comes across like a green chile stew. The first bite was a bit of a surprise, but we soon scarfed down the entire bowl and had another on the way. We ordered a side of guacamole and it was perfect, which is to say fresh, creamy and without much in the way of augmentation (just a little garlic, a little salt, maybe a touch of onion powder).
There are some interesting twists to the New Mexican standards here, starting with the salsa. First off, it’s served warm, with a thick texture that almost comes across like a green chile stew.
I consider it a maxim that the real test of any New Mexican restaurant is in how they handle chiles rellenos. It’s a dish that requires some care to do it right and far too many places cut corners with pre-fab battered pods and velveeta-y cheese. Happily, that’s not the case at La Salita. Here you have a choice of breaded or naked, with the breaded option being a particularly spectacular example of the species. The batter is thick and crunchy, and the humongous chile within is meaty with a lovely roasted flavor nicely offset by the oozy cheddar cheese. It offers a mild heat that quickly warms the whole mouth. If you prefer something less glutinous, then the naked rellenos are the way to go. The lack of batter means that the flavor of the pods really stands out on its own.
For my second visit, I tried out one of their weekly specials, in this case the B.O.G. burrito. I don’t know what B.O.G. stands for because I didn’t ask. I was too busy stuffing it in my face, instead. I can tell you what was in it, though: slow-roasted, green chile-infused pork and a layer of swiss cheese. Swiss is an unusual choice for New Mexican, but it added a uniquely smooth richness to the burrito, so no complaints about that. I wanted to try out the red chile this time, but I know better than to forgo green when it’s top of the season. So, I settled for the “Christmas.” Neither color disappointed at all, though the green had more kick and roasted flavor to it, as per the usual.
An odd thing about La Salita is that, unlike most New Mexican restaurants, they default to sending their sopaipillas out for dessert. In fact, the sopaipillas are the only “dessert” on the menu. Nothing wrong with this on the face of it, but after four decades of eating at New Mexican restaurants, I’ve grown accustomed to the double-fisted-comida technique of a fiery forkful of red or green in the right hand and a honey coated sopaipilla in the left. Frankly, I felt a little naked as I waited for the sopas to arrive during the meal. They came out after, which was actually a nice change that allowed me to savor the fried doughy morsels in a way that I don’t typically, but I wish I’d been warned. Oh, and if you have kiddos with you, those sopaipillas will arrive in the shape of (lumpy) animals, which is a homey touch.
Another nice perk for parents is the fact that kids are eligible for a “finger plate,” with tortilla, whole beans, rice and cheddar cheese, all gratis. Given my own children’s indeterminate appetite, the economy of this is not to be scoffed at.
All in all, this is a true neighborhood restaurant that offers a great pit stop for a green chile fix and some spectacular rellenos.
1217 Eubank Blvd NE
Hours: Lunch Tues.-Fri., Dinner Tues.-Sat.