“Panza Llena, Corazón Contento”
Revisiting Los Cuates for the gazillionth time
A long time ago in a galaxy far away (1985), a local restaurateur named Frank Barela opened a tiny New Mexican joint in the hidden away corner of a strip mall on Lomas. Big red booths, including two huge family-sized units, the home-style cooking Barela learned after years of working in the food industry and a teevee perpetually tuned to the local news or sports events—made the place an easy alternative to making dinner after work. Placards with dichos handwritten on rough-hewn wood graced the walls and added to the homey appeal.
The food at Los Cuates was authentic Burqueño-style, the servings were huge and the prices were very reasonable. Every Friday and Saturday night, a line stretched out the entrance, past the old-fashioned barbershop next door.
Easily the best this city has to offer, Los Cuates iteration of the traditional New Mexican favorite—the sopaipilla—is large, triangular, never greasy and therefore practically incomparable. It’s almost as good as fry bread in Window Rock, dudes.
Los Cuates also featured a number of photos, paintings and drawings of Barela’s twin children, Marcus and Antoinette. From infancy through college, the likable and archetypically New Mexican twins were at the center of the Los Cuates brand.
This novel focus on family, folk-sayings and fine food was a successful business model; four years after opening, Los Cuates opened a second location across the street. Barela took over Cocina de Carlos, an inconsistent eatery with a muted Spanish colonial vibe, transforming it into another super success.
Barela died in 2002 while hiking in the Sandia Mountains; the twins moved on and a couple of veteran Albuquerque restaurant owners took over the operations, which continued to grow and grow. New locations opened, more sopaipillas got fried up and the unusual and singular red salsa the place is famous for flowed and flowed.
I happen by Los Cuates on Lomas and Monroe—the original location has been closed for years by the way—about once a month. For the purposes of this review I stopped by for dinner twice during the course of a week; that’s not unusual. I started eating there while in college and sometimes visited daily.
In that far away ‘80s-style galaxy where Los Cuates came from, the waitresses knew what the regulars always ordered, the takeout orders came in cardboard boxes wrapped in butcher paper and the logo out front was a drawing of two Hispanic kids riding their pet donkey.
Everything has changed of course, well almost everything. Now the logo of Los Cuates depicts the façade of a colonial mission church. But the food is still consistent in flavor and presentation; delicious and detailed—with history and hot chile.
All visits to Los Cuates begin with a complimentary order of chips and salsa. When I went, the corn chips were fresh and hot, straight outta the fryer but not greasy—very crispy with a hearty aroma and full-on fried corn taste. Though this appetizer is pleasurable on it’s own, the accompanying salsa made this part of the meal a gustatory wave, the first in a series of many cresting epicurean encounters diners may have while eating at Los Cuates.
Made from ancho chiles, the accompaniment is more like a sauce, smooth and semi-sweet, with a subtle heat at heart. If not for the awesomeness that inevitably follows when getting grub at Los Cuates, the salsa here would be veritable scene-stealer.
I dined on chicken enchiladas with red sauce; my guest checked out the Combinacion Antoinette (chile rellenos, cheese enchilada with sour cream, bean tostada, green chile).
The chicken was roasted to perfection, juicy and plentiful with soft and pliant tortillas and a slightly bitter red sauce lovingly covering over the delicious white bird meat. Of course my dinner also included the de rigueur side helpings of refritos and rice. I like these better here than I do at other places; the beans are a thick paste that can be spread on sopaipillas and the rice is soft with a delicate flavor that does not detract from the other spice choices on the plate.
The combination plate my guest ordered was smothered in a creamy green chile sauce that is immediately hot and resoundingly persistent. Her relleno, though heavily battered, was remarkable for its size and ripened-then-roasted green chile taste. There was just enough tasty melted cheese buried within the vegetable to overcome her reservations about all the batter.
Although the addition of sour cream (or ancho chiles for that matter) to the menu may seem non-canonical to aficionados of our local version of soul food, I have to admit sour cream works well in contrast to a very hot green sauce, adding a cooling and therefore contemplative flavor experience to the New Mexican food mix.
Easily the best this city has to offer, Los Cuates iteration of the traditional New Mexican favorite—the sopaipilla—is large, triangular, never greasy and therefore practically incomparable. It’s almost as good as fry bread in Window Rock, dudes. The sopaipillas are practically meals unto themselves. Be careful not to eat too many, because they will keep them coming if the servers see an empty basket upon your table.
Of course all of this—my memories of Los Cuates and my recent experience there—reminded me of the dicho on the wall I read the first time I wandered into that restaurant on Lomas. Next to a funny drawing of a plump cowpoke in a big straw hat were written the words, “panza llena, corazón contento,” a phrase which roughly translates as, “a full stomach equals a happy heart”—a phrase that makes sense no matter what linguistic or geographic variations are invoked by the eater.
4901 Lomas Blvd NE
Hours: Mon-Sun: 11am-9pm