Wednesday, January 21, 2009

New Mexico's Rail Runner

We arrived in Los Lunas hungry and without a plan. As we are driving down Main Street we spotted a restaurant that is part of a regional chain and were ready to pull in. Then, there on the other side of the street stood Henrietta’s Dining and Coffee. Given that the parking lot was packed – and I mean packed – we figured the good people of Los Lunas must know something. In we went, fortunately just in front of a party of eleven. And the line for tables did not abate much during the entire time of our visit.

There isn’t much to be said – for good or bad – about the décor. Tables were set in three large dining rooms that branched off from the entry area.

The menu contained a combination of traditional diner favorites, sandwiches, burgers, and New Mexico cuisine.

From the first category, Chuck chose the Chicken Fried Steak with mashed potatoes and peas.

My choice was the Plato Mexicano, a mixture of shredded chicken, steak cubes, onions, and jalapeño peppers wrapped in a flour tortilla and topped with either red or green chili sauce or cheese. With this came a side of beans, a side of rice, and two sopapillas.

To me, Chuck’s lunch was mediocre. The Chicken Fried Steak was cracker-crusted--a method that I don’t really enjoy. The white gravy resembled paste in both color and texture. The peas were wrinkled.

My plate had both hits and misses. The rice would have been good if it had not been converted-style rice. The beans were a combination of whole and refried beans. These were good but not memorable. And the steak pieces in the tortilla were on the overly chewy side.

So what were the hits? The plate included a generous and delicious serving of guacamole salad. For my sauce, I chose the green chili, and it was one of the best versions of green chili sauce I’ve eaten. In New Mexico cooking, often the contents of the enchilada, taco, or burrito are not seasoned themselves. Rather, the flavor comes from the accompanying sauce. This spicy, but not mouth-searing, sauce rescued the plate and was even good when eaten with a piece of Chuck’s Chicken Fried Steak.

The real stars of the meal were the sopapillas. Sopapillas are thought to have originated in Albuquerque in the late 1700’s and are almost unknown in Mexico. These are a fried dough made from flour, a levening agent (usually baking powder), and solid fat and are deep fat fried. In a good sopapilla, the dough puffs leaving an air pocket which can be stuffed with a meat mixture or filled with honey for a sweet snack. In fact, most restaurants serving New Mexican food have a squirt bottle of honey on the table. Sopapillas can also substitute for flour tortillas (which themselves substitute for bread) when wiping every morsel of a good chili sauce from the plate. These were some of the best we’ve had in two trips to New Mexico. Light, airy, and with a crispness to the outer crust that produced a soft crunch when bitten into.

As we finished our meals, we agreed that Henrietta’s was a little better than average, although not much. We give it 3.5 Addies on our 5.0 Addie scale.

After lunch, we headed for the historic Los Lunas train station for a couple of photographs. When we arrived at the station, the building we saw did not seem to have been built in 1879--beautiful, yes; historic, impossible.

We had been reading about the Rail Runner, the name of the train that has recently begun service between Albuquerque and Santa Fe (including some towns south of Albuquerque). Ridership has been very high since it has been operating; the price for the round trip between Albuquerque and Santa Fe (60 miles each way) is $8. Wow!

As if on cue, moments after photographing the train station, the Rail Runner rolled into view. The train's name is a play on the name of New Mexico's state bird--the roadrunner.

The cars of the Rail Runner train show a stylistic roadrunner on the locomotive and trailing tailfeathers on the coaches. The door closing tones resemble the signature “Beep-Beep” of the Road Runner cartoon character.

But back to the search for the old train station. An answer from an official-looking gentleman at the station--"They moved it down the street. It's next to a ball field. You'll see it"--sent us on our way.

We found it, but the building seemed to have been neglected. Like an aging movie star, it seemed to beg to be photographed from its good side--not the weathered side that was badly in need of paint or the "remuddled" side with some bare wood steps and platform to two entrances.

Interestingly, it is this view that is shown on the logo for the Los Lunas station on the Rail Runner's route. It was nice to see the former star of the Atchison, Topeka, and Santa Fe line get some respect.

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