Louder Than Enchiladas
And I know because she said so
The Sony brand stereo is cranking Louder Than Bombs, a compilation album of singles by The Smiths, through the speakers. It reminds me of the early 1990s, of my own food-filled sojourn through the university next door.
When los platos arrive they are steaming hot and appear to have been prepared, cooked and dished up by hand. There is an air of freshness and familiarity at the table as the waiter returns with a basket of circle-shaped sopaipillas and a couple of cervezas frias.
I am headed to El Patio de Albuquerque to review a stalwart of Nuevo Mexicano cuisine. It’s still a popular meeting and eating place for students, staff and faculty at our state’s flagship school, and I wonder aloud to myself how the joint is handling the test of time as the intricately wonky guitar and bass lines of “Girl Afraid” blast through the car and out into the late summer air.
After all, other notoriously popular university area eateries like the Purple Hippo, The Bakery Café, EJ’s Coffee House and even the illustrious Amer-Asian Restaurant (which survived by moving Downtown) have faded fantastically over the years.
In case you are interested, the Purple Hippo advertised wood and corn flavored ice-cream but really served the best brownie sundae this side of heaven; the Bakery Café was filled with homegrown hippies who lovingly labored over the best vegetarian platos ever while EJ’s made super-decent cold-drip coffee and the Amer-Asian has a dim sum cart to die for.
But El Patio is different, I reckon. By embracing a nearly universal (at least as far as this state and its perpetually enchilada-hungry denizens are concerned) culinary aesthetic, providing a comfortably relaxed, even intimate dining experience loaded with cheese-laden accoutrements and classical guitar-playing accompaniments, the restaurant has indeed survived and even thrived.
Pulling onto Harvard and searching for parking can be a Herculean task. While daytime paid parking is at a premium anywhere near UNM, it seems like the 100 block of this city street is particularly difficult to light upon, even after the city parking enforcement crews have departed for the night. But after circling the area like a ravenous buzzard for two or three circuits, I finally find a spot and set down for dinner.
Of course, it being the end of summer and the weather being notably balmy, the eponymous patio is filled with laughing, eating, happy people. They are dining on a selection of food that ranges from piquant rellenos to awesome enchiladas, washing the whole lot of that down with cold Mexican beer with names like Pacifico and Negro Modelo. It’s a grand scene, one that I want to partake in as we amble indoors to find a seat.
Seated in the somewhat small but still inviting inside environment, in front of all the action, is a local guitarist. He’s ripping through the classical and hot-jazz canon and his name is Zoltán. During his time away from the restaurant, he runs a band called Zoltán and the Fortune Tellers. He nods at me; I nod at him, order a beer and when it arrives I raise my glass to him and toss a Lincoln into his tip jar.
Then I order.
“I’ll have the green chile chicken enchiladas,” I tell the waiter. “Further, my dining companion would like to sample the chile rellenos plate,” I say as Zoltán launches into a tune that is vaguely reminiscent of Isaac Albéniz' “Asturias.”
When los platos arrive they are steaming hot and appear to have been prepared, cooked and dished up by hand. There is an air of freshness and familiarity at the table as the waiter returns with a basket of circle-shaped sopaipillas and a couple of cervezas frias. El Patio favors papas fritas over arroz Español and that’s a decided advantage for me and my companion; the potatoes are crispy on the outside and pliant within, complementing both the presentation and the flavor of the orders.
The green chile sauce covering my iteration of stacked, filled and baked corn tortillas is naturally thick and rich, without having corn starch applied to the recipe. Huge chunks of the holy green fruit seem to be strategically disbursed through a mélange of slowly simmered soup stock, bits of tomato, onion, garlic and just a hint of cilantro and cumin.
Meanwhile the whole beans that come with this fantasia of folkloric flavor only add to the hearty heft of this big dinner plate. A slow-cooking process that makes each bite a smooth, nutty delight buoys their smoky essence. The flavor of this accompaniment effectively becomes part of the gustatory foreground in this case, adding a contrarian nuance to the main entrée that results in balance and satisfaction.
My dining partner’s chile rellenos are likewise satisfying, she tells me they are also balanced in presentation, flavor and simply applied, confident comfort. Lightly fried with a notable absence of extra battter to allow the green chile’s fresh heat and succulence to shine through each tasty pod, the chile rellenos at El Patio should serve as an example of how to master the sometimes greasy, often over-cooked form.
In the midst of all this delicious distraction reside the restaurant’s sopaipillas. I must admit that when I first sampled these delicacies 20 years ago, I was perplexed. Round like a piece of Indigenous fry bread and imbued with a sublimely sweet aftertaste, they differ significantly from similar offerings at other Nuevo Mexicano food outlets. For me they were an acquired taste. On this particular evening, they come tasty and newly made, with just a hint of the oil that fried them evident on their steaming surface.
For long time sobremesa, my companion and I sit and listen to the music there in the small main room, studying the hand-painted flowers on the walls and sharing a cup of custardy, slippery and sugary flan. We marvel at the sweet and pacific tenor of the other diners, each ensconced with their gustatory experience at El Patio. As we rise to leave, I plant a grateful Hamilton on the table, and remark, “This was probably the most simply presented yet panza-pleasing place I've been to so far, no?” In a reverie of sorts, she nods in agreement, and says on the way out the door, “I'm afraid you're right.”
142 Harvard Dr SE
Hours: Mon-Sat: 8am-9pm Sun: 11am-9pm