Alibi V.25 No.20 • May 19-25, 2016 

Restaurant Review

Cervantes, Swords and Tequila

There might be enchiladas

The famed Cervantes fireplace
The famed Cervantes fireplace
Eric Williams Photography
Cervantes is a Nuevo Mexicano restaurant and lounge that has been open since the mid-70s. Cervantes is on the southeast edge of Albuquerque, near the Air Force base, away from most of the action in town. The restaurant’s name has nothing to do with the lofty Spanish author who penned Don Quixote; Cervantes was one of the last names of the original partners (remarried now) who opened the restaurant in 1973.

Cervantes the writer sent his main character into battle, sometimes against windmills, always in the name of righteousness. More generally, he pitted the innocent man of la Mancha against the cruel, knowing world, real and imagined. But no matter how wicked things became or un-became, whether facing giants or his own fragile humanity, the hero maintained his grace and wit.

Urban legend has it that the person in an old oil painting hanging above the fireplace mantel in the restaurant is the author. The staff say nobody knows who the man is; the painting was left behind 40 years ago when the previous tenant, an Italian dinner club, moved out.

My old man used to take me to Cervantes for a drink once in awhile; we would always eat in the lounge. One time, he picked me up at the Sunport after I had been in Old Blighty for a while. Cervantes was the first place I ate when I got back to the states. I almost cried at how damn good and familiar it all was. Serio.

The enchilada plate
The enchilada plate
Eric Williams Photography
That was back in the ‘90s. I am sure I took my wife to Cervantes on a Halloween date back in the aughts. It was one of the places where our romance blossomed. The place is famous for its late October incarnation as a costumed, joyously haunted eatery, by the way.

As I started to write this, after my early Sunday lunch at Cervantes, Alibi Circulation Director Geoffrey Plant called me on the telephone. He told me that Cervantes was one of his favorite places to hold court. That’s important because it confirms that Cervantes is OG local and also because it means that Geoffrey—who suffered a grievous injury in April—is well on his way to resuming a healthy, enchilada-filled life.

He says Cervantes reminds him of that song, “Swords and Tequila” by Riot, which is a pretty damn good description coming from a guy who has just been through hell and back.

Anyway, Cervantes is divided into two sections. There is a moody, velvet and faux-colonial Spanish armory décor bar, à la El Paso, on one side of the joint. It has plush booths; low lighting from wagon-wheel shaped chandeliers and hurricane lamps on each table create a lounge-y, louche sorta ambience. I have it on the highest authority from Geoffrey that the margaritas in this place are some of the best-mixed and brain-thumping in town.

The main dining room is rich with ‘70s gothic allure—wrought iron railings, large mirrors, electric candles, hanging plants and a fireplace surrounded by autumnal tones and romantic seating options. The small, orange loveseats adjacent to the fireplace are totally damn novel in Burque as far as I know. I even spread out alone on one for my visit on Sunday morning and thought, That’s pretty good and comfortable for a big guy.

The menu is available in both areas and comes from the same kitchen. Cervantes uses Mozzarella cheese on their creations and there is no lard in any of their recipes. I was told by my friendly server, Tiffany, that such makes for a lighter, more pleasant dining experience.

On Friday I made my first review visit, in the company of my dear wife. Both parts of the place were packed with people. Amazingly, the wait staff, bartenders and hosts maintained a friendly and efficient team spirit that made waiting and watching breezy if not beatific. We both ordered variations on an enchilada theme. Notably, the red chile is the hot ticket here—at first alarmingly so. Deeply aromatic with a satisfyingly lingering aftertaste, Cervantes’ red sauce bypasses bitterness and rewards with heat.

Chicken tacos
Chicken tacos
Eric Williams Photography

Having given up on grading Spanish rice from barely to mostly adequate, we both ordered potatoes with our meals, instead. Though certainly a far less tangy choice, the option of home-fries or hash browns as a side dish is one I am indulging with more frequency. I admit that’s because I’ve been disappointed in the whole idea of “Spanish rice” as a decent side dish and I don’t like to leave behind uneaten portions. It’s unbecoming for someone of my girth. In this case, the potatoes added a filling texture to the meal, lightly seasoned and gently grilled.

Later on I sampled the carne adovada; it’s not overseasoned or oversauced and is lean, of piquant and meaty character. The corn tortillas are similarly solid in their basic presentation, tender to the tongue with a delicate taste that is not buried in the cooking process. Because the refried beans don’t have lard added in, they have a nutty texture buoyed by their own flavorful smokiness. The food at Cervantes comes out to the tables piping hot, on big ceramic plates that have been in the oven; even at the restaurant’s busiest time of day, the sopaipillas were fresh too.

Live music adds to the plucky piquancy that is—in essence—the Cervantes experience. The main dining room featured a performance by Jose Salazar, who rendered the classical guitar canon brightly on a Sunday morning; Chris Raven and Jeff Thompson stomped out classic rock tunes in the lounge on the weekend evening when I visited.

I went to Cervantes twice this weekend and I gotta agree with the lighter and pleasant part. And even if the joint has absolutely nothing to do with Miguel de Cervantes and his errant creation, that’s okay; it makes a great story. Especially the “Swords and Tequila” part, aspects of the Cervantes experience that are always memorable. And of course, Mr. Plant is correct: Due to its out-of-the-way location, one-of-a-kind atmosphere and choice menu, Cervantes is indeed a hidden pearl in the oyster of Albuquerque.

Riot: Swords and Tequila

View in Alibi Chowtown Chowtown


5801 Gibson Blvd SE
(505) 262-2253
http://www.cervantessalsa.com/

Hours: Restaurant: Mon-Sat: 11am-10pm Sun: 11am-9:30pm Lounge: Mon-Sat: 11am-11pm Sun: 11am-10pm