Restaurant Review: Copper Canyon Cafe

How We Find Joy In Simplifying

Dan Pennington
6 min read
apple pie
Tell me your mouth didn’t instantly water looking at this. (Eric Williams Photography)
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Over a cup of coffee, I chatted with a friend about what their 2020 goals are. “Simplicity,” they told me. “It’s my turn to relax this year.” It’s not something we often think about when we hit January. After finishing the insane sprint of Thanksgiving to New Year’s Eve, we’re often left breathless, exhausted and very behind on the regularities of life that we put to the side in favor of festivities. In many ways, the local food scene here can be viewed the same way. We’re always on the hunt for the next greatest thing, the food that redefines the pinnacle of taste and creativity. It’s enough to cause one to take a moment to collect themselves and rethink what it is about food that we truly love and hunt for. Is by the books a bad thing? Is an earnest love for all the things that laid the path for these elaborate dishes something to be scoffed at, or should we take a minute to enjoy the OG’s of dining? My search for answers took me to Copper Canyon Cafe.

Many of you might never have heard of Copper Canyon Cafe, which is why it’ll come as a shock that it’s been around for roughly 20 years. Located in Southeast Albuquerque, it resides in a place that many of us don’t visit or travel through as often as we should. Their goal has been to always offer up the best of traditional American cuisine, without adding unnecessary frills or twists to it. The age-old motto of “If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” certainly applies, allowing the old-school favorites to just exist as they were created, made with love, simple ingredients and a welcoming atmosphere.

The first thing you’ll notice about the menu is that breakfast is served all day. This is the best news, because one of the biggest complaints I have about breakfast is the weird taboo that some people have about enjoying it past 11am. I say “Nay! Eggs and bacon are meant for all hours of the day, from the break of dawn to the darkest of evenings!” For example, we look to the Polish Sausage and Eggs ($8.29), which is straight-up what the name says. Two eggs and sausage are accompanied by hash browns and either toast or pancakes. The plate hits the table and you feel as if you’re in Edward Hopper’s
Nighthawks, with its straightforward presentation and simplicity lending an air of ’50s diner status to your meal. You don’t have to overthink it, there’s not such a complex palette of flavors at work that your mind is required to process. It’s just good in the way it should be, direct and upfront.

Conversely, there’s the Huevos Rancheros ($8.79), Gordon Ramsay’s favorite dish to pronounce horrifically. Two large eggs, any style, on a flour tortilla smothered with your choice of homemade red or green chile (I went Christmas) and melted cheddar cheese. Add on a side of beans, hash browns or papitas with a spare flour tortilla for good measure, and you’ve got a New Mexican classic that never fails to satisfy. It’s earnestly a dish that will always work, and while many restaurants have tried their hand at changing it with new and different takes, none of them ever seem to work quite as well for feeding the soul as the original. It’s a big sloppy mess of flavors that strikes the secret chord that will please the Lord and leave you humming “Hallelujah!” Copper Canyon gives the dish the respect it deserves and trusts that with quality ingredients, it’ll be the stand-out hit that it needs to be to stay a local favorite.

Speaking of local favorites, it’s worth mentioning that I saw something here I don’t see often: The hardcore regulars. If you’ve ever worked at a restaurant long enough, you get to know the folks who come in on a consistent enough basis that they don’t even order anymore. Their foot steps through the door and the ticket is already being sent to the back, even if that order is a plate of bacon and a well whiskey-soda. I could tell everyone who came was a regular because they were greeted by first name, and some even questioned why they were 10 minutes late that day. Regulars rarely stand out, but here, the restaurant came alive as they showed up. The gears of the machine began to churn as each new person walked in, with the conversations between guests and staff alike bubbling up and bringing the room to a comfortable buzz of morning joy.

I ended on the homemade pie, a slice of apple as big as my hand. I earnestly struggle to remember the last time I ate apple pie that wasn’t storebought or from a can, and honestly, I was surprised at the difference in quality. It had a solid crust that held together on serving, but gave way at the press of the fork. The apples had enough of a crisp snap to them when bit down on that you could tell they hadn’t been sitting in liquid for an incredibly long time, yet were still soft enough to nearly melt in your mouth.

It all ties back to the simplicity of life. We push ourselves to always be reaching the next big goal. If it’s work related, life achievement-tangential or some personal standard for where we feel we should be, we overlook the most important thing of all: Ourselves. Why can’t our goal for the coming year be finding time to reflect and observe the work we have already done to get where we are? We’ve earned our simplicity, our peace of mind. Copper Canyon has done the same, finding the balance in its menu to stay relevant in an ever-shifting food scene while maintaining damn fine meals.
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