Sometimes, in my darker food writer moments, I wonder if Albuquerque New Mexican restaurants are in on some conspiracy to undermine the reputation of our state’s unique cuisine. It’s not a fair or accurate thought, of course, but when I think of the number of times that I’ve gone to a new cafe and sat down to a plate of soupy enchiladas smothered in bland green chile and gummy yellow cheese, I can’t help but get a little down.So, I wasn’t holding out much hope for Patricia’s Cafe, a tiny dining room smushed between a sleazy tax preparation office and an insurance storefront in a San Mateo strip center. The fact is, speaking purely in terms of probability, the odds were against the place.But the thing about gambling is that sometimes, you luck out. And I’m pleased to report that Patricia’s beats the odds. This is definitely a family-run joint, with grandma Patricia cooking up a storm in the kitchen and granddaughter Sheila pulling waitress duty while simultaneously running the register. As such, there’s an easy, friendly vibe to the place; everyone seems comfortable and accustomed to their appointed roles. Go more than once and the smiles get wider each time you walk in the door.Once you sit down, a bowl of chips and salsa will quickly materialize before you. These aren’t chips from a bag either: The flour tortilla chips are, well, real tortillas. In fact, excess batches of the same homemade tortillas that grace the sides of any other dishes you order are reincarnated for the purpose, making for a more substantial, flavorful and chewy salsa caddy than you might be used to. The salsa itself has a nice little kick to it and tastes fresh, meaning that it will be gone before you know it.Carne adovada, enchiladas, huevos rancheros; all the usual New Mexican suspects are present on the menu, with breakfast and lunch served all day. The chile is authentic New Mexican; red is made from ground whole pods. One of the nice things about the small space that Patricia’s occupies is that one both sees and smells the kitchen immediately. There’s nothing like a giant pot of aromatic carne adovada steaming on the stove to make you feel like you’re sitting at a table in your tia’s house.The food here is good. Especially anything with the red chile—which has both the subtle sweetness and slow burning heat that I adore. In fact, the carne adovada, which comes in burrito ($3.85), breakfast (with eggs and papitas, $8.50) or lunch platter (with beans and papitas, $7.95) form, is Patricia’s perfect meal, with tender morsels of stewed pork melding with its red chile marinade. But if that sounds a little heavy, just put that red chile on anything on the menu (except, maybe, for the spam sandwich, which I haven’t worked up the nerve to try) and drift off into a capsaicin-fueled daydream.I’m less a fan of the green—it’s spicy but not particularly memorable. The green chile chicken enchiladas ($7.95) here are, I’m disappointed to report, of the mushroom soup-augmented variety. But hey, they taste pretty good, and plenty of people swear that’s the true New Mexican way. The sides on all dishes, usually a merely incidental portion of the plate, are deserving of praise in their own right. The aforementioned tortillas are hot and fresh; the papas are perfectly tender slices beneath just the slightest bit of crunch; and the Spanish rice is a subtly flavored, delicious admonition to all the ketchup-laced, overcooked imposters out there.Sopapillas are both flaky and fluffy and invariably arrive steaming, just as God intended. I’ve noticed lately that a number of New Mexican joints around town seem to be sweetening their sopapilla batter, which is a pointless exercise that gives the side a far too candy-like quality once the honey goes on. So, I’m happy to note that Patricia’s keeps their batter simple and just slightly salty enough to contrast nicely with the sweet topping. I hate that I even have to mention this (seriously, what is the world coming to?), but yes, they provide real honey for the table and not some corn syrup-based abomination like some other places around town that shall remain nameless. The sopas also make good vehicles for beef and potato stuffing ($6.95), though, again, I’d recommend that you pay an extra buck and go for the carne adovada version ($7.95).Afterwards, if you somehow have an unfilled corner of your stomach, Patricia’s offers a small cup of natillas ($2.25), that homiest of New Mexican desserts. It’s a warm and milky custard with a touch of cinnamon and balances nicely with a swallow of coffee. It can be easy to get jaded on the New Mexican food in this town—too many places seem to cut corners in their kitchens, and the abundance of options means that a low-profile joint can get lost in the crowd. I’m happy to say, though, that the food at Patricia’s is a cut above the rest (oh, what the heck, I’ll make it two cuts) and good enough to reinspire even the most jaded Burqueño’s passion for our regional cuisine. Don’t let the location fool you; you owe it to yourself to seek it out.
Patricia’s Café884-42603120 San Mateo NEHours: 8am to 3pm, Tuesday through SaturdayClosed Sundays and MondaysPrice range: $2.25 for a bean burrito, $8.50 for carne adovada breakfast plateVibe: Your tia is happy to see you!Vegetarian: Meatless is easy, but vegans might want to skip itExtras: Live musicAlibi recommends: Carne adovada! On everything!