Finding Fractious Familiar
La Familar flummoxes foodie
As I’ve traveled through this town’s taco totality, I’d more often than not given myself over to the idea that it’s nearly impossible to do la comida Nuevo Mexicana wrong—producing a chile-soaked rain storm in such a way that it is not drenching seemed impossible me.
After all, I grew up riding in mis padres’ Chrysler Cordoba between Baca’s in Nob Hill and Pancho’s Mexican Buffet on Wyoming. The two long-gone local eateries represented polar ends of a spectrum that can be described using pithy phrases. Those descriptors ranged from “Orale, that’s awesome and I’ll be back manaña” (Baca’s) to “Man, that place is, like, totally fregando, except for the endless baskets of sopapaillas which absolutely rock” (Pancho’s). In other words, there was always a way to justify my continued presence at the best joints while tolerating my return to their lesser counterparts—even if agitation ensued.
But as I got older that changed. My patience waned. Just because this or that place had a killer combination plate or was a restaurant my father fancied didn’t do it for me anymore. I mean, if my formerly forgiving sentimientos were in fact la neta, then why didn’t I just eat my tortillas and beans out of a goddamned can?
I revisited these ideas as I wrote monthly about New Mexican restaurants but the concept of quality finally came into focus when I visited La Familiar Restaurant late last week.
In the before time, La Familiar was a big deal. Situated on Fourth Street between the new freeway and Downtown was a comfortable, home-like environment that beckoned with authentic New Mexican charm.
Back when local crooner Michael Rey and his wife Luz ran the place, notable New Mexico Food writer Gil Garduño wrote about the eatery in sentimental yet solidly affirmative tones, telling his readers at NM Gastronome that La Familiar, though nondescript on the outside, offered a “wondrous red chile” that would make “grown men swoon.”
These days are different, and although La Familiar can still make one swoon, it may not be for reasons that are so dear to an eater’s heart.
As I drove by La Familiar, I almost missed it, had to make a u-turn and cussed at the on-coming traffic as I did so. The building it’s housed in has passed through the “nondescript” phase Garduño obviously admired and now appears worn. Handmade signs advising potential customers of the rich quality of menudo and caldo within—that the NM Gastronome photographed four years ago—were still in place, untouched by the new owners, but definitely touched by time.
I was the only customer that afternoon. Four women, workers, sat at a table discussing El Chapo. There were old copies of the New York Times Lifestyle Magazine scattered on a couple of tables. I took a copy of the issue about Natalie Portman and her fabulous sweaters and socks and had a seat in the back.
Eventually, the waitress arrived with a menu, while my eyes darted back and forth between the besocked and woolen pictures of Portman and the walls of the restaurant. In case you want to know, the walls had murals painted on them. Some time in the past, someone had laid out gloriously mythic depictions of Mayan and Toltec culture on those walls. Though once obviously bright, they now seemed faded.
I ordered the combination plate ($10.99) with an iced tea ($1.99) and a side of sopaipillas ($1.25). Chips and salsa never made their customary appearance at my table. I believe this is because the server forgot to offer them; she was busy going on and on to the cooks about the suave features and character of El Chapo—standing at the doorway to the kitchen talking and laughing—while my plate was fashioned in the back.
Twenty minutes later my combination plate arrived, but something was wrong. My server looked at me cross-eyed and retreated nervously as my late lonche was served. It looked good enough to eat though, so I dug in.
Immediately, I noticed a spongy texture to the enchilada. Unencumbering it from the sweet, almost sugary red chile that covered it, I unwrapped the corn tortilla to find that it was filled with some sort of organ meat, or what amounted to the stuff that’s left over on a bird when everyone else has had their way with it. Profoundly irritated, I set it aside and moved on to the chile relleno. The chile pod was flat and dark, lightly coated in flour. It was overcooked or came from a can. It definitely hadn’t been a fresh fruit for a few weeks. Like the enchilada, it was also covered over in an overly sweet red sauce.
Ironically, the beans and rice were very decent and delicious, well-cooked and pleasantly presented. Also, the sopaipillas were substantive: large and crispy, their freshness made me recall my penchant for forgiveness in the case of once grand New Mexican restaurants like Pancho’s. I ate that part of the meal with gusto and left the remainder.
The next afternoon the waitress who served me before greeted me with a smile. The whole place seemed cleaner and brighter than before; not restored to its former glory mind you, but definitely back on the track that would take the place there. Natalie Portman was on the counter where I left her, modeling winter fashions in the middle of Burque’s warm, clothes-shedding spring.
This time there was dark meat in the enchilada. It was a higher quality stuffing for sure, a huge improvement over what I had previously experienced. The relleno was still compressed, but more care had been put into stuffing it with a healthy amount of tasty yellow cheese. A taco served on the side was small but rewarding to eat when combined with the piquant green sauce that accompanied it. The beans were still awesome, cheesy and soft; the nutty, tomato-laced rice added a dry and peppery flair to the meal. Of course, the sopaipillas made the amelioration complete.
Taking my leave of La Familiar, I lamented the uncertainty of epicurean life, realizing that nothing is forever, it all passes. While that fact may be a restaurant’s undoing, it can also lead to reflection and improvement.
1611 Fourth Street NW