Sunday, February 8, 2009

The Good, the Very Good, and the Ugly…

Let’s go in reverse order.

We were told that there was a New Mexican restaurant just down Central Avenue that was better than Garcia’s Kitchen, as good as Sadie’s, and less expensive than Sadie’s. Since we never object to paying less, a visit to El Charritos was a must. What a mistake.

We should have suspected something was amiss when, upon walking in, we noticed that all of the patrons seemed to be of European origin. Then we noticed the sterile décor. But the parking lot was full (so full that we had to park the monster truck a block away in an Auto Zone parking lot), so we assumed the food was good. Another mistake.

I didn’t see Chili Rellenos on the menu, so I chose the Carne Adovada, which came with a side of rice and beans. Chuck’s choice was the Three Taco Plate, which also came with rice and beans. Both orders came with a mound of lettuce and tomato on the side and sopapillas.

In an earlier blog, I mentioned that one secret to a good Carne Adovada is the quality of the red chili sauce. While my order came with a very generous helping of cheese-covered pork – both small chunks and shreds as I prefer – the red sauce can only be described as harsh. It was not spicy but rather had an unpleasant uncooked taste. I took half of the portion home and, upon further reflection, decided that the best way to dispose of the remains was to throw it away. I don’t know if the rice was converted rather than long grain but it had the “slippery” mouth feel you get with converted rice. While it was well seasoned, I just don’t like converted rice. The beans were OK, but I could have done without the cheese topping.

Now to Chuck’s tacos. Probably the worst tacos ever. The ground meat contained large potato chunks but this was not the problem. The meat tasted like it had been boiled or steamed and had that soft texture that comes from boiled ground beef. (When dogs suffer from digestive upsets, they are fed boiled hamburger.) The only thing that made them edible was a generous application of salsa.

Finally, the sopapillas (left center in the photo above) were ordinary. They were much denser than those we have eaten elsewhere, and they lacked the crust crunch we enjoy. So (and this is generous of me) we rate El Charritos 2.0 Addies. This place will not be on our return list.

Now we turn to the Very Good. We received an E-Mail from a friend of Chuck’s – Sue Smith. Sue had spent time in Albuquerque and said that she had eaten and enjoyed many a meal at Taco Sal. Reading on the Web, we learned that Taco Sal has new ownership. The place has been “cleaned up” (much to the dismay of many of the old timers) and the woman who would greet everyone with a loud “Hello, doll” was no longer there. Still, we wanted to give Taco Sal a try.

Taco Sal is located in an aging strip mall in Northeast Albuquerque. Next to the restaurant is a comic book warehouse; three stores in one direction is the Korean Community Center, and three stores in the other is a guitar shop, whose owner also seems to do car title loans on the side.

My test of a Mexican restaurant is their Chili Rellenos so I ordered the platter of two with rice and beans. Wanting to test both sauces, I requested red chili on one, green on the other. I received an enormous plate of food: two very large chilies stuffed with cheese and battered so expertly that the crust remained crisp to the last mouthful. Truly wonderful chilies. The red chili sauce was good but, to my taste, could have been spicier. The Super Hot green, on the other hand, is probably the best green chili sauce I’ve had. I’ve debated whose are best, Garcia’s or Taco Sal’s. Garcia gets points for fire roasted chilies. Taco Sal gets points for the generous size of the chilies. I guess it is a push.

The beans were OK (did I mention that I’m “beaned out”), and I did not like the rice. I’m not sure why, I just didn’t care for it. Actually, the chilies were so filling that I couldn’t have finished even if I did like the rice.

Chuck has the two enchilada platter with green sauce and a taco on the side. His plate came with beans and fried potatoes (papitas). He enjoyed it. (He’s a man of few words!)

Before our meal, we had the obligatory and “complimentary” basket of tortilla chips with salsa. Lucky for me, Chuck was on the phone when these came, so I was able to eat more than my share. Do I feel guilty? Of course not. And the salsa was excellent with plenty of jalapenos and cilantro.

Both of our meals came with two sopapillas. Chuck eats his for dessert. I used part of one to wipe up the excellent green chili. These were super light and puffy with the crust that crackles and were my favorite of all the sopapillas we’ve eaten. Chuck prefers Garcia’s because they have a light sweetness, and since he doesn’t use the honey, he considers them better as a dessert.

Now I have to say that Taco Sal is running a very close second to Garcia’s as my favorite Mexican/New Mexican restaurant. Based on my meal, I give Taco Sal 4.5 Addies and we have already put this place close to the top on the “must go back” list.

I’m not sure who told us about Duran Central Pharmacy, but we had driven past it numerous times, never realizing that behind the adobe-like exterior was a small but thriving restaurant. Yes, it really is a drug store, but the moment you walk through the front doors, you realize that they are cooking up something more than meds. Behind a half wall is a dining room with a lunch counter that seats about ten, the main dining room with maybe fifteen tables, and a patio seating area (enclosed at this time of the year) with maybe another six to eight tables.

The menu is short, leans toward Mexican foods, and not everything is available every day. Being beaned out, I chose the green chili cheeseburger on a flour tortilla which came with your basic potato chips. Chuck had the enchilada plate with beans. We decided to share both plates so Chuck ordered the enchiladas and asked for half red (for me) and half green (for him).

Duran Central Pharmacy makes their own flour tortillas and you can see them being grilled behind the lunch counter. The cheeseburger had great grill flavor, but at only a third of a pound, didn’t quite fill the flour tortilla in which it was served. That really wasn’t a problem because the green chili sauce with the lettuce and tomato would have made a good sandwich alone.

The blue corn enchiladas were very good and the tortilla had great roasted corn flavor. After the green sauce, the red was disappointing. It just didn’t have enough chili heat. We also ordered two sopapillas and these were first-rate. Hot, light, puffy, and grease free.

Part of the experience was due to our server, Lucita, who you can see is the shy retiring type. Right! She kept taking Chuck’s camera and photographing us while we ate. (Those photos will not appear on this blog.)

Duran Central Pharmacy is not quite as good as Garcia’s or Taco Sal, but a worthy competitor nonetheless, and rates a 4.0 Addies.

This ends our Albuquerque adventure. What did we learn. For two of my favorites – Carne Adovado and Huevos Rancheros – the red sauce is everything and Garcia’s has no competition. For green sauce, Taco Sal was my favorite – remember it’s Super Hot – but Duran Central Pharmacy and Lindy’s are strong challengers. My favorite restaurants are Garcia’s Kitchen with Taco Sal closing fast. But if hunger strikes and I’m near Duran Central Pharmacy, I’ll slow down and have something with their green chili sauce. And if you are in the Albuquerque and want a green chili cheeseburger, a stop at Monte Carlo Steakhouse (we’ve been back since I wrote about it) is mandatory. And for authentic Chinese food, go to Chopstix.

We’re off to Winslow Arizona, and Addie and I may be on vacation. I Googled “restaurants in Winslow, Arizona” and learned the Church’s Chicken is in the Top Six.

And one last good-bye to Jack and Linda, pictured here during their visit to our home on wheels.

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